2010-2011 NHL season preview: Minnesota Wild

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mikkokoivu2.jpgLast season: (38-36-8, 84 points, 4th in Northwest Division, 13th in Western Conference) The Wild were anything but that last season and while the record is deceptively above .500, the Wild were a mixed-up jumble last season. Playing their first season without Jacques Lemaire at the helm had it’s ups and downs while learning a new system. In the end, the team just wasn’t very good and injuries didn’t help matters much.

Head coach: Todd Richards enters his second season as head coach and he had an uphill climb to begin with. Teaching a new system to a roster full of players that had essentially only known one way of playing under Lemaire takes time to get it working. The Wild were brutal for the first two months last season before things started to get through to them and work. Another slow start this season could be damning of Richards’ ability to prepare a team. Not that the Wild are set up with a killer roster to win lots of games, but the point will be made nonetheless. The preseason hasn’t instilled any hope for the upcoming season, that’s for sure.

Key departures: F Derek Boogaard, D John Scott, F Andrew Ebbett. Boogaard’s intimidating presence and cult-hero status will be missed a bit, but they’ll be OK without him. Scott’s presence on the blue line was physically large but his poor decision making will be a welcome subtraction in St. Paul.

Key arrivals: F Matt Cullen, F John Madden, F Brad Staubitz, F Eric Nystrom. Cullen is an underrated second-line center with good faceoff skills. Madden brings his veteran experience and penalty-killing abilities into town so Mikko Koivu doesn’t need to do absolutely everything for the team. Staubitz is a small-time semi-replacement for Boogaard’s punchy presence while Nystrom is a potential agitator. So these additions aren’t flashy nor are they overly offensively inclined. It’s not as if the Wild were going to go after Ilya Kovalchuk anyhow.

Under pressure: Fans in Minnesota aren’t happy. Unfortunately for them, the people that can still be blamed for the mess the team is in aren’t working there anymore (former GM Doug Risebrough and Lemaire) so there’s no one immediately available to put pressure on. With a brand new large contract extension and a team captaincy, however, Mikko Koivu is the man who will bear the brunt of fan angst. He’s being paid the most and he’s the team’s first-line center. Taking the heat and feeling the pressure are all part of the job description. If he can get the Wild together and make a run at the playoffs, however, he might end up being more famous in Minnesota than Neal Broten.

niklasbackstrom2.jpgProtecting the house: Niklas Backstrom is the man in goal. Flat out, he’s all they’ve got in Minnesota now that Josh Harding is likely out for the year with a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee. AHL stud Anton Khudobin figures to be the backup for the time being but there’s talk of Jose Theodore possibly being brought in to help push Backstrom and give him quality relief. Backstrom is a great goalie, but the transition from being a full-time trap team to a hybrid one seemed to effect his play a bit last year. Perhaps all he needed was his defense to find their comfort zone in the new system.

Defensively, Brent Burns is the top man. He’s solid both moving the puck and playing defense and is the clear leader there. Marek Zidlicky isn’t too bad in this respect either and Cam Barker is a sneaky high-quality guy as well. Greg Zanon provides stellar defense-only work and Nick Schultz does well here too. Clayton Stoner figures to be the sixth defenseman out of camp, but after that things get thin fast. Former St. Lawrence Saint Drew Bagnall could be the first guy out of the AHL in Houston should anyone get hurt. Bagnall has yet to play in an NHL game. The Wild can’t afford to have injuries on defense all season which makes things a bit more daunting than they need to be.

Top line we’d like to see: Guillaume Latendresse-Koivu-Martin Havlat. Latendresse and Havlat worked well last season on a line with Kyle Brodziak at center, so you’d have to think having those two play with the team’s best player would work out even better. Only thing gumming up the works on this possibility is the chemistry that Koivu has with Andrew Brunette. With Pierre-Marc Bouchard set to come back this season, perhaps our dream line can happen as the Wild would have more offensive balance with a potential second line of Brunette-Cullen-Bouchard.

Oh captain, my captain: Koivu is the man now. After years of rotating captaincy, Koivu is the full-time guy and for good reason. He’s come up through their system and he’s got a nice, long contract extension. He’s also a pretty damn good two-way forward as well. If more Wild players followed his example, they might be able to evolve past seemingly permanent mediocrity.

bradstaubitz.jpgStreet fighting man: With the Boogaard now doing his thing in New York with the Rangers and John Scott doing his thing in Chicago, the job for team enforcer is wide open. The leading candidate to fill that role is Brad Staubitz, who  led the Sharks in fighting majors last year with 12 and if he lands in the lineup he will be finding someone to spar with. For all the attention checking forward Cal Clutterbuck gets, he’s not much of a fighter since most of the scraps he ends up in happen because someone’s gotten wrongly upset with a body check he’s delivered. People should lighten up a bit.

Best-case scenario: Latendresse shows that his huge goal-scoring party last year was not a fluke and becomes the Wild’s preeminent power forward punching home 30+ goals. Havlat comes out of his shell a bit more and with Koivu develops one hell of a top scoring line. Bouchard plays, plays often, and plays well while staying healthy showing that he’s the team’s missing piece offensively. Without having a real checking line, the Wild roll four lines of consistent, aggressive play making every game 60 minutes of hell for opponents. They get great play from Backstrom in goal and no injuries to the defense and the Wild make the playoffs. There’s almost one too many qualifiers there just for best-case scenario purposes.

Worst-case scenario: Latendresse reverts back into the moody, inconsistent player he was in Montreal while Koivu and Havlat’s output suffers for it. Bouchard struggles in coming back from post-concussion syndrome and the lack of offensive talent all around on the team makes it impossible for the team to win consistently. Lack of defensive depth becomes a major issue and leads to poor play from Backstrom, thus sinking the Wild to the bottom of the Western Conference.

Keeping it real: The Wild aren’t very likely to be a good team this year. Lots of things have to absolutely go right for them to make the playoffs and just a handful of things have to either go wrong or not happen at all for them to be a miserable team. The talent level is thin and the depth in the minors is worse. The lack of work Risebrough did is criminal because the Wild can’t afford to lose anyone to injury and they can’t afford to add anyone via free agency thanks to lots of really bad, really expensive contracts.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Wild are a definitive 1. They’re no threat to win the Cup. They’re no threat to even win their division. Barring a miracle of smaller proportions, they’re destined to not make the playoffs either.

Ducks’ Perry being evaluated at hospital for lower body injury

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The injury woes for the Anaheim Ducks continued on Monday night.

On the same night they got Ryan Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg back in the lineup, they lost forward Corey Perry to some sort of a lower body injury.

Perry exited the game after playing just 3:49 in the first period.

After the game Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said that Perry is being evaluated at a local hospital for the injury and that there was no other update at this time.

According to Ducks beat writer Eric Stephens of the OC Register Perry did not suffer a skate cut.

In 31 games this season Perry has scored six goals to go with 16 assists for the Ducks. The Ducks have been absolutely crushed by injuries this season, a development that has no doubt played a major role in their slow start.

The Ducks were 3-2 winners on Monday against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Buzzer: Bernier shines for Avs, Rangers waste Pavelec’s great night

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Player Of The Night: Jonathan Bernier, Colorado Avalanche

After losing six out of their past seven games the Colorado Avalanche finally got back into the win column on Saturday night by crushing the Florida Panthers. They followed up that performance by marching into Pittsburgh and stealing two points from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 2-1 win that was highlighted by a stellar showing from starting goaltender Jonathan Bernier.

Bernier was the Avalanche’s best player on Monday night, turning aside 39 of the 40 shots he faced.

It was not until the final 11 seconds, when the Avalanche were already holding a two-goal lead, that he finally surrendered a goal.

It was probably Bernier’s best performance of the season and just the fifth time in 12 starts that he managed a save percentage higher than .900 in a game.

Wasted Effort Of The Night: The New York Rangers

Maybe “wasted” is too strong of a word considering the Rangers did get a point out of the night in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Dallas Stars, but let’s be honest be here. They did not even deserve that.

The Rangers were thoroughly dominated by the Stars and only managed to get the game to overtime thanks to a stellar performance from goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.

Pavelec stopped 44 of the 45 shots he faced and almost single handedly got the Rangers to overtime.

After the game Rangers coach Alain Vigneault had this to say about the game: “There are two positives, Pavs played unreal and because of his performance we were able to get a point. Other than that….we weren’t good.”

That was it.

Ducks Get Some Help Back In The Lineup

The Anaheim Ducks got some much needed help back in their lineup on Monday night when Ryan Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg both returned to the lineup.

Silfverberg made an immediate impact after missing the past five games. He scored his sixth goal of the season in the Ducks’ 3-2 win.

Getzlaf did not factor into the scoring, but having him back in the lineup was still a huge lift for the Ducks. He played 20 minutes in the win.

Highlight Of The Night

The Winnipeg Jets have an outstanding offense. It was on display here with some nifty tic-tac-toe passing to take the lead against the Vancouver Canucks.

Factoid Of The Night

Brock Boeser scored another goal for the Canucks in their loss to the Winnipeg Jets. He is having a tremendous rookie season.

Scores

New York Islanders 3, Washington Capitals 1

Dallas Stars 2, New York Rangers 1

Colorado Avalanche 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

Florida Panthers 2, Detroit Red Wings 1

Winnipeg Jets 5, Vancouver Canucks 1

Anaheim Ducks 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Panthers and Red Wings had a fight night (Videos)

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The Florida Panthers and Detroit Red Wings seemed to be in a fighting mood on Monday night, dropping the gloves three times in the first two periods of their game in the Motor City.

Things started early in the first period when Red Wings tough-guy Luke Witkowski, playing in his first game back since serving a 10-game suspension, dropped the gloves with Michael Haley of the Panthers.

Have a look…

The two would square off once again in the second period.

Not long after the Witkowski-Haley rematch, Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad and Red Wings forward Luke Glendenning took part in a rather vicious fight that left Glendenning bloodied on his way to the penalty box.

Given Ekblad’s history of concussions the Panthers can’t exactly be thrilled to see him taking part in a fight like that.

Ekblad is not much of a fighter, with Monday’s fight being just the third of his NHL career. It is, oddly enough, his second fight of the season with the first one also coming against the Red Wings.

Back in October he fought Justin Abdelkader.

Big centers back: Getzlaf in for Ducks, Panthers regain Barkov

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The Anaheim Ducks would probably qualify as unlucky so far in 2017-18 even beyond an extremely unfortunate bounce of a puck fracturing Ryan Getzlaf‘s cheekbone.

That loss was especially severe with Ryan Kesler already recovering, as Getzlaf missed 19 games, last appearing in a contest on that painful night of Oct. 29. The Ducks get quite the treat, then, as both Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg are slated to return as they host the Carolina Hurricanes.

Check out how much better everything fits together with the returns of Getzlaf and Silfverberg, not to mention the recent addition of Adam Henrique (line combos via the Ducks website):

Rakell-Getzlaf-Perry
Cogliano-Henrique-Silfverberg
Blandisi-Vermette-Kase
Wagner-Grant-Shaw

The Ducks are still without Kesler, and Patrick Eaves is fighting a serious physical battle that puts hockey on the backburner, so there’s still some mystery to how the Ducks might look if they can get anywhere near full-strength this season.

As is, they look a whole lot better going into Monday’s game, something the Florida Panthers could relate to.

While Anaheim’s dealt with bad luck, you could chalk up Florida’s troubles to a mix of unforced errors (jettisoning depth, particularly to Vegas) and tough breaks of their own (Roberto Luongo‘s injury issues). Either way, management will look infinitely smarter when Aleksander Barkov is in the lineup than when he’s not, so the Panthers must be happy to welcome him back tonight.

Interestingly, Left Wing Lock lists Barkov along with Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, rather than Denis Malgin taking Bjugstad’s spot (Malgin received looks, at least, once Evgenii Dadonov suffered an injury).

That would be quite the top-heavy approach for Florida, even if Malgin can mesh well with Vincent Trocheck.

While the Panthers have floundered at times, the Ducks seemed like they were finally starting to crater under the pressure of all those injury losses, as Anaheim only boasts two wins (2-4-4) in its last 10 games.

It’s true that the return of Barkov and Getzlaf would be important in just about any context for their teams, but each team likely feels especially relieved on Monday, as they can use all the help they can get.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.