After letdown last season, Wild aim to revive buzz
By Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writer
ST. PAUL — That buzz created by signing two big stars turned out to be a false start for the Minnesota Wild.
First there was the lockout. Then they sputtered through a shortened season, barely made the playoffs and were bounced out quickly by the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Well, here’s their chance to try again. Coach Mike Yeo kept his job, and the Wild made more moves toward completing the cast around centerpieces Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
“There were just some areas I thought that last year we needed to get a little better in at some positions,” Parise said.
Five players among the top 13 scorers were let go: Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Tom Gilbert and Cal Clutterbuck. Veteran Matt Cooke was added for toughness on the third line. Keith Ballard was signed for depth on defense. The acquisition of Nino Niederreiter fetched the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft. Goalie Niklas Backstrom and defenseman Jared Spurgeon were brought back on new contracts.
Jason Pominville didn’t arrive until April, in a trade with Buffalo. Then he missed time with a concussion. Dany Heatley was out for longer, with a shoulder injury suffered the day of the Pominville deal.
They’ll be asked to play key roles, particularly on a power play that could use a boost. Pominville, who averaged more than 26 goals and nearly 41 assists per season over a six-year span with the Sabres from 2006-12, will probably play on the first line with Parise and Mikko Koivu. Heatley is headed for the second line.
For the Wild to win a playoff series, or more, for the first time since 2003, they’ll need significant contributions from both of them.
Here are five more things to know about the Wild, who open the season vs. Los Angeles Oct. 3:
Progress with Pominville
The Wild sent two prospects (left wing Johan Larsson and goalie Matt Hackett) and two draft picks (a first-rounder in 2013 and a second-rounder in 2014) to the Sabres for the 30-year-old Pominville and a fourth-round draft pick in 2014. All indications from the Wild and from the Quebec native are that a contract extension is in the works, before he can become a free agent.
“I think everyone is aware that there have been talks,” Pominville said, “and hopefully we can get it going in the right direction.”
Where they wanted to be
Instead of three trips apiece to Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver and two to all three California teams, road games west of the Central time zone will be reduced for the Wild from roughly half to a third (14 of 41). Their placement in the new Central Division has heightened fan interest, too.
Chicago and St. Louis were old Norris Division rivals of the North Stars. Dallas, of course, is the current version of Minnesota’s former team. Colorado came with the Wild from the Northwest Division. Winnipeg, just across the Canadian border, always lures thousands of fans to Minnesota. Nashville is also in the seven-team group.
Plus, the Wild will play each of the 16 Eastern Conference teams twice, home and road. Since they joined the NHL 13 years ago, the Wild have only hosted a handful of Eastern teams per season.
The Wild are in win-now mode, but they have four players 21 or younger in the mix for their second and third forward lines: Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund. Niederreiter was acquired from the New York Islanders.
The Wild are counting on Josh Harding to be Backstrom’s backup again. After missing nearly three months to adjust to medication for multiple sclerosis, Harding was thrust into playoff action when Backstrom was injured in warmups. He held up well.
“I would love to pretend that we didn’t have any concerns or questions about that,” Yeo said. “We know Josh’s character, and we were confident that he was going to be a guy that would battle through it.”
Back to normal
The last training camp was a six-day whirlwind after the lockout was settled, but this time there’s more of an opportunity to make tweaks to the system.
The emphasis is on longer puck possession, faster rushes out of the defensive zone and, ideally, becoming more of an offensive force with a roster featuring more skilled forwards than the team of grinders Yeo inherited two years ago. The Wild averaged only 2.46 goals per game last season, 22nd in the league and third-worst among the 16 playoff teams.