What Walz, who has been with the Wild since they began in 2000, excitedly found was a flurry of new teammates added at a very high price.
And as the payroll was raised, so were the expectations. Merely bothering opponents with tough defence and drawing praise for a sparkling arena and loyal fans won’t cut it anymore.
Minnesota, entering its sixth season, must make the playoffs. Pavol Demitra, Mark Parrish, Keith Carney and Kim Johnsson weren’t brought in to sell tickets, because the Wild already do that well enough.
“We’re not fooling anybody in here,” said Walz, a 36-year-old centre who is one of only three players who have been on the Minnesota roster since the inaugural regular-season opener. “We know that with the changes that management has made, it’s a different feeling in this room. There’s no question about it.”
Walz is one candidate to centre a dangerous first line with Demitra, who came in a draft-day trade with Los Angeles, and speedy Marian Gaborik, the Wild’s first draft pick who signed a US$19-million, three-year contract in July, on the wings.
Special teams standout Brian Rolston, centre Todd White and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, another group with plenty of offensive promise, probably will make up the second line. Parrish, an eight-year veteran who grew up in the Twin Cities area, is a noted net-crasher who likely will anchor the third unit.
Scoring punch, especially in the third period, has been a major problem for this team throughout the years, and it appears that hole has been mostly filled with the newcomers. It would be silly to suggest, however, that Minnesota suddenly will become a wide-open, freestyling bunch of skaters.
Coach Jacques Lemaire is still in charge here, and players won’t be on the ice for him unless they pay attention to what’s happening on both ends.
“I don’t think anything’s going to change with our team,” Rolston said. “I think for everybody it’s going to be an easy transition.”
Lemaire’s defence-first philosophy and trapping scheme became well-known when he was the coach in New Jersey from 1993-98, and the Wild have perpetuated his reputation – to the point of being criticized occasionally for playing too conservatively.
When a team has the talent to make it work, the system can be very successful – as evidenced by Lemaire’s success with the Devils.
“When they scored their first goal, it was kind of like the game was over,” Demitra said, recalling several past matchups as the frustrated foe. “It was so boring.”
Lemaire, who is entering the final year of his contract, has had trouble maintaining consistency on most of his teams in Minnesota – largely because of youth.
He won’t have to worry about that this season, because the dressing room is suddenly filled with savvy, reputable 30-somethings such as Rolston, Demitra, White, Carney, Johnsson and goalie Manny Fernandez, who shared the job since the Wild’s inception but now has the net all to himself.
“It’s very exciting. There’s no doubt. We’ll have more experience this year. We have better players. Now it’s a matter of getting them to play the way we want, for the team first,” Lemaire said. “I feel it’s going to be a great season for that.”
Minnesota hasn’t just been a close-to-the-vest club on the ice. Off it, the Wild carefully developed their core almost solely from the draft – rarely splurging with free-agent signings until the flurry this summer and drawing criticism locally for not rewarding an avid fan base with a better product.
But after the lockout ended in 2005, president and general manager Doug Risebrough pledged that the timing would be right to spend after playing a full year under the new collective bargaining agreement.
He followed through on the promise.
“I think the most important thing is to see the team as better and not different,” Risebrough said. “We’re better by the acquisitions, we’re better by our development, but we’re not different.”
Johnsson, promising 24-year-old Kurtis Foster and import Petteri Nummelin will have to prove Minnesota does indeed have defenceman who can score, and Fernandez must show his worth over an entire season. Plus, the ultra-talented Gaborik, who has meshed quickly with fellow Slovakia native Demitra, has to stay healthy and satisfy Lemaire’s desire for him to remember the defensive part of his responsibility.
Oh, and the Wild still are stuck in the stacked Western Conference, and finishing in the top eight is no easy task. Still, it’s clear that missing the playoffs this time would be a major disappointment.
“We want to win the Stanley Cup. That’s what we play the game for,” Rolston said.