Last Friday, four Minnesota Wild players sat at a press conference podium and discussed the upcoming season with assembled media. Three of those players are brand new to the Wild. One was a familiar face, who has played here for five years, and will for the next eight.
That player is Mikko Koivu, and after a year in which he was named the first permanent captain in franchise history and was later rewarded with the longest contract in Wild history, there is no question who this team will be built around.
The key word there is "around." In hockey, one guy can't do it alone. One great player with a weak supporting cast is the equivalent of one piece of juicy steak in a bowl of dry dog food.
A hockey team needs depth. It needs to the right pieces to mesh with that cornerstone player, and everybody needs to contribute..
The three players sitting with Koivu at that podium - Matt Cullen, John Madden and Eric Nystrom - were brought in this past offseason to do just that.
Suddenly, a lineup that was depleted at center is well stocked in that area. A group of forwards that struggled to support its defense in a new system a year ago, now has three superbly defensive centers. And a lineup that missed the franchise's third leading all-time scorer for 81 of 82 games, may just get an offensive infusion in the form of Pierre-Marc Bouchard.
Head Coach Todd Richards, who seemed to spend the majority of last year trying to figure out ways to plug in holes, now has the chance to play with his forwards in training camp as if they were G.I. Joe figurines. He can try all varieties of combinations, but eventually he'll want to settle on four lines that he can send out in all situations. Here's a preview of how those might look...
- Last year started with Mikko Koivu
centering Martin Havlat and Andrew Brunette. It didn't have the expected results as Havlat and Koivu couldn't seem to mesh on the ice. Antti Miettinen took Havlat's spot, and the trio blossomed, despite being checked by the top defensive lines of opponents.
The question is, does Richards continue with that familiarity? Miettinen scored 20 goals last year, a career-high. Richards might be tempted to move down to more of a depth role while giving a more offensive player like Guillaume Latendresse
a chance to benefit from the playmaking of Brunette and Koivu. The key will be Bouchard's health, and if he can go, he likely gets a slot on the top line.
At this point, the guess is Miettinen stays put until Bouchard shows he's completely shaken off his concussion symptoms. Mittens provides a big shot, and he's got enough speed to help out defensively.
- This is where it gets fun. Last year, Havlat thrived here when Latendresse arrived and the two developed an immediate chemistry. Their center changed throughout the year with Eric Belanger, Kyle Brodziak
or Andrew Ebbett splitting duties most of the time.
This year, Matt Cullen
is most certainly dropped into that number two center role, and suddenly that line looks extremely dangerous. The question will be defense, but Cullen is an outstanding defensive center, who can play a little more cautiously while letting Marty and Gui push things offensively.
- A season ago, there were more moving parts here than there are at the Light Rail station outside Target Field after a Twins game. Owen Nolan was a fixture on this line, and he was usually playing alongside Belanger, Cal Clutterbuck
and Chuck Kobasew when healthy.
Here's the problem with keeping Miettinen on the top line. Is Bouchard a third line player? Not really, but if Miettinen is thriving on the top line in training camp, Richards might not want to break things up. Plus, Bouchard could make anyone an offensive threat.
If he's playing alongside John Madden (still one of the best defensive centers in the game), and say Kobasew or Clutterbuck, he's got some guys with him that can and should increase their production from a year ago.
If Bouchard is indeed on this line, look for him to be paired up with Madden and Kobasew. Chuck is coming off a tough year, but he is one of the grittiest, hardest workers on the team. If he's on a line with Bouchard, 20 goals should be easy from him, considering he's reached that mark three times in his career.
- This is usually where we found Derek Boogaard, James Sheppard and Robbie Earl or another recent call up.
Brodziak, who played as high as the second line last year, most likely moves down to the "fourth" line, which will more likely be known as the "wrecking" crew if Richards feels like putting his checkers together.
If Brodziak is flanked by his good friend Clutter and Nystrom, there's not going to be a defenseman in the League that's comfortable going along the boards for the puck.
If Brad Staubitz needs to fill in here, no problem. He'll bring the element of toughness if the situation calls for it.
No, Staubitz is not going to be the next Boogaard. He is a guy who can tangle with anyone as opposed to Boogey, who respected the code and only fought other heavyweights. Staubitz is the guy who will jump in when guys the likes of Jordin Tootoo, Dan Carcillo and Ryan Kesler are taking liberties with our goaltenders and skilled players.
The Factors - If Staubitz is the extra forward, that means Casey Wellman, Robbie Earl, Colton Gillies and Cody Almond
likely start the year in Houston. Earl proved last season that he can easily fit into an NHL lineup and contribute, and should be one of the first callups. Wellman played the final 12 games of the year and showed he's knocking on the door for a full-time roster spot.
Most likely, Wellman centers the top line in Houston to start the year with Earl and someone like Jarod Palmer
on his wing.