Monday, September 19, 2011

Minnesota Wild: Why They Will Be Better

There has been a lot of talk this summer about the Minnesota Wild. I was in the Cities to take in one of their two prospect camp scrimmages in July, and was surprised by the size and liveliness of the crowd. Seemed the Wild were surprised, too, as they were opening up additional seating sections as the people filed in.

Listen, I know it was a prospect camp scrimmage, but I (and others in attendance) took it as a sign the team was regaining some footing with its fanbase, a group that had grown largely frustrated and started staying home in before-unseen numbers as the team floundered to a third straight non-playoff finish.

Now, of course, the Wild have to prove some things on the ice. Another non-playoff year will leave the fans disenchanted and many seats likely empty come March and April. It's up to this team to make sure that doesn't happen.

Tuesday, I'll talk about the reasons you shouldn't believe in the Wild. But I am here now to present reasons why you should think this team will get better and be in the playoff hunt next spring.

Offense looking up. When Todd Richards was hired, there was all this talk of a new look for the team on the ice. They were going to play up-tempo, and Richards was going to turn his defensemen loose. It never really happened as advertised. It took players some time to grasp the system, and there were some really bad performances as the learning continued into Richards' first season.

While the team got better, it never turned around to the point of being acceptable, and it wasn't enough improvement to justify keeping Richards around.

Now, the Wild appear to be singing the same song with 37-year-old Mike Yeo taking over. However, it feels different. Part of that is because of two moves general manager Chuck Fletcher made during the offseason, plucking forwards Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley from San Jose in separate trades for defenseman Brent Burns and forward Martin Havlat.

Given Havlat's clear unhappiness in Minnesota, his pricetag and contract length, and the offensive prowess of Heatley, along with the young players Minnesota got with Setoguchi for Burns, the deals were no-brainers. They also turned Minnesota from a rebuilding team into an intriguing team.

Put your money on Heatley and Setoguchi starting the season on the same line, barring things changing in training camp. Right now, the Wild appear to be going with Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse as the wings for second-line center Matt Cullen, leaving captain Mikko Koivu in between the former Sharks on the top line.

Not sure this will work, but it's probably the best option going in. We'll see if shoot-first Heatley and shoot-first Setoguchi can get enough shots without getting on each other's nerves.

Either way, I expect this team will improve offensively. Guys like Darroll Powe, Cal Clutterbuck, and Kyle Brodziak aren't exactly bad players. Their ability to score and defend will be key in taking some heat off the top six.

Coaching. Yeo is not Todd Richards. In fact, he seems to have already had more of an impact than Richards had in two years, and Yeo hasn't coached a game yet. Where Yeo impressed everyone with how he managed his bench as a coach in Houston, Richards never really figured that part of the game out. He never seemed to connect with the players, and his messages often went either totally unheard or only temporarily heard.

Yeo has a confidence about him. He carries himself like a natural leader. He's the kind of guy who inspires excitement, because he seems to really "get it" when it comes to the game and how to coach it at a high level.

Of course, he hasn't coached a game yet. So maybe this is all wrong.

On the surface, Yeo will have this team playing hard and working hard at all times. It's something Richards could never say, and it's likely the reason Yeo is coaching here and not in Florida or somewhere else in the NHL.

These are the two biggest reasons to expect improvement out of the Wild. It's not rocket science, but it's a start. More than anything, it's reason to be optimistic about a team that hasn't done much of note in a long time.

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