Another Offseason of Change for the Wild

We’re inching closer and closer to the start of the hockey year, for the second time in three years, the Wild are in a major rebuilding mode.

Mike Yeo takes over the head coaching duties from ousted Todd Richards. Yeo wasn’t exactly the sexy choice for GM Chuck Fletcher; he apparently had Craig McTavish and Ken Hitchcock on his list. It’s a gutsy move brining in a first-time coach for a second time, especially when the first one didn’t work out so great. But one thing is for sure…Mike Yeo is a completely different coach from Todd Richards. Yeo preaches structure and puck control; I’m still not sure what Richards stood for. Yeo is fiery and gets after his players; Richards always had that I don’t know what to do look. And while Yeo sure seems to know his stuff it will be interesting to see if his age (he’s 37) plays into his ability to get his players to buy in. I’m optimistic…I think he’s smart and players will get that, and eventually the Wild will become a tough team to play against.

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And then there’s the players. Oh my goodness were things shaken up this offseason. Gone is the uber popular but sometimes enigmatic D Brent Burns, the unhappy F Martin Havlat (and his agent), the potential never-realized F James Sheppard, the terrible D Cam Barker, the grandpa F Owen Nolan, and the revitalized G Jose Theodore. But coming in is potential for something of which the Wild are in desperate need – scoring. F Dany Heatley and F Devin Setoguchi should provide a good portion of that scoring, another important thing it does is gives the Wild two scoring lines. Opposing defenses will need to focus on a Koivu – Heatley – Setoguchi line, which should open up opportunities for a Cullen – Latendresse – Bouchard line. So if they score more goals, then the key is how they make up for the hole Burns leaves on the blueline. They’ll need one of the young kids to step up consistently and surprise us. If that happens, we’ll be ok.

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The Wild are again a playoff bubble team this season. It’s generally a bad place to be, because you go into a stretch run trying to make the playoffs, but if you don’t make it, you’re not getting a good draft pick. But there’s a buzz for this squad again, and I’m cool with that. Playoff hockey is the most exciting time of all sports, so whatever it takes to get there in April baby.

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Time for Renewal

It’s been a long couple weeks since the Wild have played at Xcel Energy Center. A long west coast road trip resulted in a no wins and 5 losses, giving the Wild a depressing record of 1-6. It sucks being a fan of that team. I’m not going to rehash that 0-5 trip – that’s been done at nauseum. Let’s look at why things will turn around soon for our favorite hockey team.

Back Home
Gotta start somewhere, and the X is the last (only) place they won a game. It’s only for one game and they’re back out to St. Louis, but then they come back here Saturday. The long road trip is over and at least they get some familiarity with their surroundings. Should impart a better state of mind.

Third Jersey Debut
The Wild will wear their new green third jersey for the first time tonight. Some teams rack up wins in their alternate jerseys and this is obviously purely coincidence, but if it makes the day feel like a special occasion and amps the team up a bit more I’ll bite.

More Work on the System
Veteran Wild F Andrew Brunette was on KFAN with Lavelle E. Neil this morning, and they talked a bit about learning the new system. Bruno is always pretty candid in media interviews and he sounded sincere in speaking to the difficulty in going to a new system that is pretty much the exact opposite of what most of the team is used to playing. He said it in a way that makes me believe it’s more than just an excuse, that there truly are growing pains of learning Todd Richards’ system. He said he feels like each day they get a bit better, and if it’s working well they will be a hard forechecking team. It’s gotta click eventually.

Healing
Another factor Bruno touched on was injuries. Not so much that the injuries have resulted in the losses, but that they’ve contributed to the learning curve on the new system. A good portion of the team (including Bruno and Koivu) missed most of the preseason with injuries, and now you have Havlat and Sykora missing games. Havlat may play tonight and Sykora sounds close, and out of nowhere Cal Clutterbuck skated with the team today, so things are looking up.

On a downside to the injury thing, Pierre Marc Bouchard was placed on extended injury reserve or some goofy thing. He has concussion symptoms that won’t go away. Some people have speculated that his career could be in question. That would be sad – PMB is a good kid.

Chuck Kobasew
Wild GM Chuck Fletcher made a deal with Boston for Chuck Kobasew, a tough winger. He might not be the key to making this team competitive, but he has scored 20+ goals the last two seasons, and the Wild need goal scorers. Fletch gave up a good prospect, but you gotta give up something to get something. Would Doug Reisbrough have made that trade?

The Official Face of the Franchise
Finally, the Wild have a permanent captain. They gave F Mikko Koivu the C for good, even though it has been unofficially his team for the last year or so. Mikko was the fan choice. Richards said he exibits all the characteristics of a good leader. During the presser announcing the move he spoke to the media in a way I haven’t ever really heard him speak. You could hear the responsibility in his tone. He said the important thing was that “the older guys” supported him in that role and that he wouldn’t change how he plays or how he acts in the clubhouse, but I envision him taking the role and running with it. Some people step up more when others give you more responsibility and I think Mikko, typically thought of as a quiet leader, will excell in this spot.

It’s going to get better folks.

Mediocre to…Something Else Step 2 – Hire a Coach and Answer Questions about the Checked out Prima Dona

Actually Chuck Fletcher’s first task as new Wild GM turned out to be the 2009 Entry Draft, but during this time he was also inundated with questions about Marian Gaborik. People seemed to think that with Reisbrough gone and the possibility of a more offensive style, Gabby would be more interested in re-signing with the Wild. Fletcher answered each time that he would be in touch with Gaborik, that he is a very talented player that anyone would want on their team. But it never felt like there was anymore possibility now than there was last season during #10’s long injury break.

At the same time Fletcher was also looking for his coach. This search turned out to be very similar to the GM process…there were a few big names interested in the job (Pat Quinn again, Peter Laviolette), others from within the Wild organization (Mike Ramsay, Kevin Constantine), and a few others, including a current assistant in San Jose with ties to Minnesota and to Chuck Fletcher (Todd Richards). I was interested in Laviolette. He won the Stanley Cup with Carolina a few years ago and has an offensive mind. Seemed to be a good fit. Again, there was media speculation that it would likely be Todd Richards, and that is ultimately who Fletcher hired.

Richards shares Fletcher’s vision of “up tempo” hockey, giving the talented D-men the green light to join the rush regularly. He comes in with a player’s coach reputation, so we will see how it translates to on-the-ice performance. The Minnesota Boy Comes Home bit is a nice story, so you want to root for the guy. It will likely take a couple years, but I have hopes for entertaining hockey. The big question…do the Wild have the players to win with the new style? It seems our old coach new New Jersey Devils coach Jacques Lemaire does not think so.

The Wild also have a new assistant coach in Dave Barr, who joins Mike Ramsey behind the bench. Mario Tremblay will not be back with the team as he and the new regime “mutually” decided to part ways. Assistant GM Tom Lynn also was let go. This is truly a new beginning for Wild hockey.

Coming next: Step 3 – Replace the Checked-Out Prima Dona