It's going to be a lot easier for the Minnesota Wild players to skate this season without shackles. Whether or not that amounts to more victories remains to be seen.
After Jacques Lemaire resigned as coach and the team elected not to retain the services of general manager Doug Risebrough, a new era is about to dawn on the seven-year-old franchise. Instead of the defensive style of play implemented under the old regime, new coach Todd Richards and new general manager Doug Fletcher has made it known that the team wants to open things up offensively. That thought process may be because it increases the chance of re-signing high-flying Marian Gaborik, the team's top player, who has been disgruntled for years playing under the old system. And it might be because the team figures increasing the goal scoring will be more exciting for fans and increase attendance.
"I'm nervous, excited and curious," said left wing Colton Gillies, by telephone on Tuesday. "We don't know too much about the coach or GM. But we have a lot of speed on the team and (playing a more offensive style) should be good for us and the fans, too. We seem headed in the right direction where we should produce a lot more goals and control the puck more."
Gillies, Cal Clutterbuck and radio analyst Tom Reid were part of the Wild Road Tour that made a stop in Montevideo on Wednesday to greet fans and talk about the upcoming season.
That group stopped in Waseca and Mankato on Monday, Fairmont and New Ulm on Tuesday and Montevideo and Marshall on Wednesday. Several players, media personalities and celebrities will take part in a Wild Summner Bash at Rice Park today.
"It's been a lot of fun going out to meet the fans," said Gillies. "The support has been awesome."
Gillies, 20, is one of the young players expected to benefit from the wide-open style of play. He had two goals and five assists last season in 45 games in his first season with the team. He was drafted as the 16th overall pick in 2007 by the Wild, which traded up to take him.
After the season ended on April 11, Gillies took two weeks to drive back home to Vancouver, British Columbia, visiting family and friends. He is back in the Twin Cities working out with the strength and conditioning coach.
"I need the get bigger and stronger," said Gillies, who is 6-foot-4 and 189 pounds. "I need to grow into my 'man-body', so they tell me. I'm working hard and looking forward to next season. The year of experience really helped me with my confidence."
The Wild went 40-33-9 last season and just missed making the playoffs. Because of limited talent as far as top-notch goal scorers, Lemaire employed a defensive style of hockey in which he demanded his forwards to think defense first.
Young players like Gillies, Clutterbuck, James Sheppard and Benoit Pouliot might flourish if the offense is opened up.
"I think we're going to have fun and show people what we can really do," said Gillies. "We understood why we had to play that way before, but now we're ready to go all out and it really should be exciting for the fans."
The team is negotiating to retain Gaborik, but it's unlikely he will return unless they offer him a huge contract and bring in more goal scorers. If Gaborik, a free agent, signs with another team, Fletcher may be forced to acquire a proven goal scorer or two. Rumors have been floating out there that backup goaltender Josh Harding would be part of a trade package, possibly along with Gillies, Sheppard or Clutterbuck.
"We don't let the rumors bother us," said Gillies. "There are always rumors out there. You just don't think about it."
But it's hard for them not to think about the upcoming season without shackles on.