Season of futility for Wild

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Wild emerged from the NHL lockout with a commitment to develop and scrutinize their young players. After jettisoning several popular, reliable veterans who they felt didn't fit into their plan, results were mixed. Minneso...

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Wild emerged from the NHL lockout with a commitment to develop and scrutinize their young players.

After jettisoning several popular, reliable veterans who they felt didn't fit into their plan, results were mixed. Minnesota missed the playoffs for the fourth time in the franchise's five seasons, further stressing the importance of this summer.

"I want to make the playoffs next year. There's no doubt. That's going to be our goal," coach Jacques Lemaire said Monday, two days after the Wild finished the regular season 38-36-8. Their 84 standings points were the second-most in club history, but only good enough for 11th place in the Western Conference.

The new salary-cap and free-agency guidelines, general manager Doug Risebrough said, made it more sensible for Minnesota to spend conservatively before this season and be more aggressive after it.

Though developing from within will still be a part of the Wild's plan, Risebrough made clear Monday that outside help is needed to bolster the roster .


"The timing is right for us, and the timing is that we're going to have to continue to invest in our players," said Risebrough, who confirmed a "more significant" but unspecified increase in the payroll.

There are only eight players under contract for the 2006-07 season, opening the possibility for plenty of turnover. The blue line needs a lot of enhancement, and Lemaire has stressed the necessity of players other than Brian Rolston, Marian Gaborik, Todd White, Wes Walz and Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

"There's no doubt that more goals would be the first priority, and I think that we do have some guys that can score on our team and get more goals," said Lemaire, whose contract has an option for next season that the organization plans to exercise. "We need a little more from the other guys. That's how it works. When you look at the teams that are in the playoffs, the teams that are very successful - they do get goals from their fourth line, they do get goals from their third set of defensemen."

The Wild started the season on a scoring kick, enjoying the benefits of new rules facilitating a free-flowing game. But that dried up a bit in November and the first part of December, and suddenly they found themselves playing sloppily on the other end after ignoring defense for several weeks.

"To get a good balance, you need to play both ends of the ice as well as you can, and we were really, really bad in that second month in our end," Lemaire said.

Getting Gaborik, the team's first draft pick, to play both ways has long been a challenge for Lemaire, and player and coach have had several discussions this season about Gaborik's progress and use.

The 24-year-old, who scored a career-best 38 goals despite missing 17 of the season's first 20 games to midsection injuries, has improved his defense over the years and is now used frequently on the penalty kill. But he still believes he should be playing more than the 18-plus minutes of ice time he averaged.

"I need Gaborik to be at his best, and when he plays 18, 19, he's at his best," Lemaire said, defending his decisions. "We've seen it on the power play. He goes out there for 1 minute - he works hard, he does a lot of good things. And when he's out there for 1:20, he starts to slow down and wait for pucks. This is what we don't want to have."


Still, Lemaire has allowed Gaborik more freedom than in the past, and he knows that the Slovakian right wing is among the game's most skilled.

"I know that teams are looking for players like this," Lemaire said. "It's great to have a guy that has the power to score goals, and we feel that in the future he will be one of our top guys."

Gaborik is a restricted free agent, but if the Wild don't work out a long-term deal this summer they face a greater risk of losing him a year later without compensation when he's eligible to become an unrestricted free agent.

A stellar season by Manny Fernandez, who was signed to a contract extension last month, cleared up the goaltending situation and prompted the trade of Dwayne Roloson. But things are much murkier at the skating positions, including on the wing where much of Minnesota's progress will hinge on Gaborik's future.

"I think it plays itself out," Risebrough said.

The Wild lost 29 games, either in regulation, overtime or shootout, when they were tied or leading after two periods. That suggests they're close to becoming a playoff-level team again, but also that a fan base that has overwhelmingly supported the franchise through a lot of losing surely won't have much patience for the status quo.

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