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Wild not pleased with season's progress

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ST. PAUL (AP) -- The first year for Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher and head coach Todd Richards was a disappointment, and it began right away.

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The 3-9 start by the Wild, which became the first NHL team in 13 years to lose eight straight road games in regulation to start a season, was too much to recover from.

They played relatively well during the 50-game stretch that came next, but the final 20 games were marked by more inconsistency and an inability to transfer momentum from inspired performances at home to important matchups away from Xcel Energy Center.

Missing the playoffs for a second straight spring masks the pride of a 25-12-4 home record.

"It's not a good feeling. We've known for a while. That's the tough part," said goalie Niklas Backstrom, whose statistics slipped noticeably while fighting injuries and watching the Wild transition to a new style in front of him.

The Wild were 22nd out of 30 teams in the NHL in scoring, despite switching to a faster pace under Richards and getting a career-high 22 goals from captain Mikko Koivu and 25 goals in 55 games from Guillaume Latendresse after he was acquired in a trade.

The increased aggression Richards wanted the Wild to play with yielded 219 goals, exactly the same amount as last season under the defensive-minded Jacques Lemaire.

Injuries sure were a burden: The total of games missed by injured players was 342, a team record. Eighty-one of those were registered by center Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who wasn't able to recover from a concussion.

As a result, Fletcher will lead an investigation into the team's travel schedules, practice routines, time management and offseason workout programs while trying to keep the players in better condition for next season.

"We're looking at every avenue we can look at to minimize some of the wear and tear," Fletcher said. "But it's a contact sport, and we're only going to be able to control so much."

The Wild have a handful of unrestricted free agents, but no contract issues as pressing as last summer when Marian Gaborik's deal expired, allowing him to sign with the New York Rangers. Gaborik's essential replacement, Martin Havlat, played well in spurts but provided only 18 goals and will be pushed to produce more next season.

"There'll be some changes, but we'll have anywhere from 15 to 18 returning players," Fletcher said. "We have a core of quality players here that we feel are part of the solution and not part of the problem, but clearly there are some areas we'd like to upgrade in the short term. We have to find a way to improve our offensive production as well as improving our physical play on the blue line."

Backstrom spent last summer rehabilitating following hip surgery, so he should be in better shape to rediscover his All-Star form of the year before. The Wild, too, are confident that stronger comfort between coaches and players next fall can yield quicker success and keep them from starting in such a deep hole.

"We got what we earned," Fletcher said. "At times this year we were a good hockey team, but we weren't able to sustain that."

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