We got some good news and some completely unsurprising news yesterday. The good news is that Kirk Maltby signed a two-way contract, which will see him paid $525K if he stays with the Wings of $105K if he ends up in Grand Rapids. Being a two-way contract, he will be able to be sent down to the AHL without having to clear waivers. I dig this signing, and not just because Malts is one of the few remaining throwbacks to the first Cup team in 1997. The chances of him making the Wings as a full time player are between "slim" and "no chance", which is a bummer. But, he will be able to go down to Grand Rapids and teach the young guys down there what it takes to be a successful NHLer. Plus, once the playoffs roll around, the Wings can call him up to play if necessary, or just be a positive locker room presence. Either way, it looks like Malts is going to end his career as a Wing, which means that all is right with the world.
In the "unsurprising" move, Derek Meech cleared waivers, cleleared waivers, meaning that if he does not earn a spot on the team after training camp, he'll likely be sent down to Grand Rapids without having to clear waivers again. This was "unsurprising" because the Wings have their top-7 defensemen set, which is his natural position, and there's already too many forwards, so there's just nowhere for him to play. I can't say that I'll miss Meech, because his contributions to the team over the years have been extremely minimal.
We continue our look at the Northwest Division with a team that flies under the radar for a lot of us (at least me, anyway). I don't watch this team often, so I'm going strictly off of my impressions of the roster. Without further ado, let's check out the opponents for the first H2H game.
Arrivals: Matt Cullen; John Madden; Eric Nystrom
Departures: Derek Boogaard
The Wild have really flown under the radar for the past few years. According to NHL.com's 30 in 30 preview, the Wild have missed the playoffs 3 out of the last 5 years, and didn't do much in either of their 2 appearances since the lockout. The Wild have been known as a defensive team for many years due to Jacques Lemaire being their head coach, but last year saw a change in philosophy as they tried to inject some offense. The Wild have been one of those "you know they're in the NHL but don't really know anything about them" teams for me.
Offense: Like a lot of these middle-of-the-road teams, the Wild don't boast a true offensive "superstar". They have a few good players, led by their new captain, Mikko Koivu, a bigger version of his brother. Koivu has decent skills, but isn't an offensive dynamo just yet. He will be expected to lead the team both in the dressing room and on the ice. A quick check of their roster tells me that their best offensive player is probably Martin Havlat, but he had a really disappointing season last year and will be looking to bounce back. The Wild got great contributions from Guillaume Latendresse after his trade from the Canadiens, and he will be expected to keep up close to that production over the course of the entire season. The Wild are also hoping that Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom will be able to step in the lineup and produce some offense, especially Cullen who is expected to center the second line between Havlat and Latendresse. The Wild are also hoping for some decent contributions from Andrew Burnette, who kicked in 61 points last year and was a thorn in the Red Wings' side. One player to keep an eye on is Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who only played 1 game last year due to a concussion but should kick in some depth scoring. The big blow to their offensive hopes was the loss of Derek Boogaard, but hopefully someone can step up and fill the void in the offense that his departure left. The Wild are not particularly big up front, and will be relying more on skill and speed than at any other time in their history to date. They also don't get a lot of offense from their blueline, with their biggest threat being Marek Zidlicky, who quarterbacks their power play. The Wild finished 22nd in the NHL last year in team offense, and that number will have to get higher if they want to compete in the Western Conference. One area that doesn't need a lot of work is their power play, which finished 10th in the NHL, a tenth of a point behind the Wings at 19.1%. Any time you can be top 10 in one area of special teams, you're doing well.
Defense: Even though there has been a change in coaching, the Wild still boast a strong defensive unit that doesn't have a real "stalwart", but is solid 1 through 6. The defense is led by Zidlicky and Greg Zanon, a former Predator who most Red Wing fans know as the idiot that yelled "five hole!" at Hasek during the Wings-Preds series in 2008 (by the way, how did that series turn out for you, Zanon? Dick). As much as I dislike him, he's a good defensive defensman who tends to be a smart player. Their second pairing consists of Cam Barker, who never lived up to his potential in Chicago, and Brent Burns, who always makes me thing of that Seinfeld episode where they talk about Alec Burns. Again, a solid if unspectacular pairing. The third pairing has Nick Schultz, a guy who likes to throw his body around, and Clayton Stoner (insert your own joke here). Up front, the Wild signed John Madden, a guy who has been one of the better two-way centers in the last 10 years, and who will contribute defensively. The Wild are not a particularly big team, but do have one of the NHL's big hitters in Cal Clutterbuck, another guy with a great name. The Wild finished 21st in the NHL last year in team defense, a position that is not normal for them. They finished 14th in penalty killing, a decent place but not great. The Wild will definitely be looking to get back to "old-time Wild hockey" next year.
Goaltending: The Wild boast one of the better 1-2 punches in net in the NHL with Nicklas Backstrom (the goalie) and Josh Harding. Backstrom is another of the Finnish goalies that have taken the NHL by storm, and he has consistently put up decent numbers. Last year saw his GAA go up and his save percentage go down, but both stats were good. However, for a team that struggles to score, the goalies need to be better than other teams, and last year both Harding and Backstrom struggled at times. In fact, both of them had their worst year statistically last season, which greatly contributed to the Wild's plunge down the defensive ranks. Both Backstrom and Harding have the potential to be strong contributors, and the Wild will be hoping that last year was a fluke for both of them. If they can get back to where they normally are, the Wild will be vastly improved.
Coaching: After years of boring the shit out of the entire NHL, Jacques Lemaire left the Wild before last season and made way for Todd Richards. Richards came in and attempted to remove the shackles from the team, and it's obvious they were less successful defensively, but there was no real improvement offensively, either. However, everything I've read about him suggests that he is interested in making the team better on offense while maintaining discipline on defense. I think now that he's had an infusion of talent into the team, we'll really see what he is capable of. He has enjoyed success at both the AHL and NHL level, getting the W-B/Scranton Penguins to the AHL Finals in 2008 (where they lost to the local Chicago Wolves), and as an assistant coach for the Sharks when they won the President's Trophy in 2009. He seems to be a good young coach and they are expecting him to lead them up the standings.
Player to Watch: It's really hard to say since I don't know the team that well. But the little bit that I have seen and read about tells me that Mikko Koivu is one of the real underrated stars in the league, and this could be a breakout season for him. His offense has steadily gotten better the past 3 years, and at 27, he's entering his prime. I know from the little I have seen of him that he is a big body with good hands, and he uses his size to his advantage to get to areas where he can score. He also seems to be developing a defensive side to his game, and as the first official permanent captain of the Wild, he's going to be looked to as their leader. This could be a real breakout year for him, and we could be talking about him as one of the better players in the NHL by the time this season is over.
Player With Something to Prove: Martin Havlat was brought in last year to be boost an offense, but he really fared poorly, only going for 54 points a year after getting 77 with the Blackhawks. He said some pretty harsh things about the Hawks organization when he left (who can blame him), but if you're going to badmouth your former employer, it's probably a good idea that you, you know, produce. On the upshot, he did manage to stay healthy for the second straight year, but if the Wild want to do anything this year, he needs to be their primary goal scorer and pick up where he left off after he came over from the Hawks.
Why They Can Win the Division: They don't have a ton of offense, but those goalies (especially Backstrom) are enough to keep the Wild in games this year. If their new arrivals can kick in some scoring and the defense plays up to their potential, the Wild could be competitive in a fairly weak division.
Why They Won't Win the Division: Even if the goalies improve and the defense plays the way they can, there's just not a ton of scoring there, and with teams like Colorado getting a year older and more experienced and Vancouver still appearing to be the class of the division, it will probably be tough sledding once again for the Wild.
My Prediction: The Wild still don't have the horses to make them a playoff team in the Western Conference. I think Mikko Koivu is going to have a big year (and I might just draft him in my fantasy hockey league), but outside of that, I don't think the Wild are going to be able to score with the top teams in the conference. I think Backstrom will bounce back and have a good year, and I think their defense is going to be good. Overall, however, I just don't see the Wild being able to compete over the course of the entire season, and they are going to finish in the bottom half of the conference again.