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New style means aggressive play

by Dave McMahon / Minnesota Wild

Hockey fans in search of a harried, frenzied, defenseless pace to the game can stay far away from the Xcel Energy Center in 2009-10.

Those who want to see an aggressive brand of hockey that the Minnesota Wild will debut this season, however, should make a point to find a seat inside the X. The home-ice unveiling is Tuesday, Oct. 6 vs. Anaheim.

Wild fans might not be accustomed to seeing multiple forwards in on the forecheck, or defensemen forcing the play in the offensive zone. Those previously taboo tactics are now part of the system for first-year Wild head coach Todd Richards. And Richards knows both the Wild and their fans will have a bit of feeling-out process to start the season.

“It’s just a more aggressive style,” Richards said. “We want to be a team that’s dictating the pace. We want to initiate instead of playing a reactive game. We want to be proactive. To me, that’s it. If we’re dictating, if we’re doing all those things, it is going to be an uptempo game.”

Now that is a breath of fresh air to State of Hockey diehards. But players who have spent past seasons with the Wild won’t exactly be able to make an overnight adjustment to their newfound freedom.

“Right now, it’s kind of breaking down the players because of the way they played over the past years here,” Richards said. “Some of them have played here for a long time, and they’ve played a more passive style.”

For a player like defenseman Nick Schultz, it’s a welcome change.

“It’s fun [playing a more aggressive style],” Schultz said. “You get to handle the puck and make some plays when you’re an option coming in. Obviously you don’t want to take away from playing in your own end, but you want to try to create a little more offensive if you can.”

So, yes, Wild fans, your favorite defenseman will at times jump into the play. Pinching in is part of Richards’ new aggressive approach.

“Yeah, it’s an option,” Richards said. “It has to be a read on their part. We want them to make decisions, and we want to give them the freedom to make their own decisions, but we don’t want to have to jump in as coaches, if they’re making all the wrong decisions, to tell them, ‘Hold on, you guys can’t do this.’

“Part of the game is making mistakes, part of the game is making your reads and making decisions based on your reads. That’s the one thing that we have to do with our players, teach them when it’s right time to go, and maybe when it’s not the right time.”

Shultz says he’s looking forward to playing such an aggressive style.

“It’s more skating, getting up and back — up and down the ice,” he said. “In the past you kind of got to the blue line and supported. Maybe joining the play wasn’t as much of an option as it is now.”

While defensemen will see themselves becoming more involved, Richards is confident his system won’t mean leaving Wild goaltenders to fend for themselves.

“[Defensively], I don’t want to give anything up,” Richards said. “I think there’s a way you can play that way. Mistakes are going to happen. There are going to be breakdowns. A prime example of this was our last exhibition game in Philadelphia. It was a track meet. It was just up and down the ice, trading chance for chance, and I don’t want to do that. I want to be a disciplined enough team where we can create on the offensive side, but we aren’t giving up anything on the defensive side."

“This system isn’t set up to just leave [our goaltenders] out there by themselves and say ‘You guys make all the saves. We’re going to go the other way.’”

In order to force the issue while they control the puck on the breakout, tape-to-tape passes are imperative to the system’s success.

“We feel we can create out of our breakout,” Richards said. “We can create offensive opportunities coming out of our own zone. It’s being able to execute. We want to play fast, and in order to play fast, you have to be able to make passes. If we put passes in skates or behind guys, it’s going to slow us down. But we need our defensemen to be part of the equation there. When we’re breaking pucks out, probably the guy that’s most important is our net-front defenseman. If one guy’s playing in the corner and he passes up to our wing, we need our net front D to be ready to activate and jump up the ice.”

Such a refreshed approach to the game also carries over to the power-play.

“What we’d like to achieve is come up the ice with speed and carry it into the zone without having to give up possession of the puck,” Richards said, “but once we get into the zone, we’d love to be a shooting power play. That’s what we want to do."

“When you look at all the successful teams right now that have good power plays, they’re shooting the puck. You do see the tic-tac-toe plays, but usually that’s set up because they’re shooting the puck and they have somebody at the net. First and foremost, we want to be a team that can get it up top to our defensemen, get to the middle, shoot and get traffic at the net, and then we’d like to work from there.”

The days of pulling in the reigns on the forecheck are also about to be rearview window material. In fact, the new aggressive style of play provides an important role to all three forwards on the forecheck.

“I categorize them as F1, F2 and F3,” Richards said. “If I’m the first one in the offensive zone, I’m hunting the puck and I’m going to get it. It doesn’t matter of if you’re a wing or a center — that’s your job. F2, the second guy in the zone, has a responsibility, and so does the third.”

How easy has it been for players to unravel the new system?

“We’re looking pretty good, I think,” center Mikko Koivu said. “Games are the best way to click with linemates and the whole team. It will take time, but I think we’re in good shape. [The new style of play] is different. We want to get to a spot where we don’t have to think about it, and have it come naturally. Hopefully it’s something good for the fans as well.”

Wild fans ready to see a little something new on the Xcel Energy Center ice are likely in for a treat.

“I think it’s always a good spot to watch hockey,” left wing Andrew Brunette said. “I think some of the fans, I don’t know, probably got tired of the same way. This is a different style, so maybe they’ll appreciate it a little more.”

Story courtesy of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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