ST. PAUL, Minn. – A new coach and new offensive weapons have helped create a new sense of optimism for the Minnesota Wild.
All were necessary after the team missed the playoffs last season for the third straight spring.
“There’s no way we could compete with the top teams in this league with the talent pool we had at the end of last year,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said.
Minnesota’s most pressing need on the ice was finding a sniper, something the team has lacked since the 2007-08 season, Brian Rolston’s last with the Wild and Marian Gaborik’s last healthy season in Minnesota. The Wild scored the fifth-fewest goals in the league last season (203), a number that should improve with the acquisitions of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in separate trades with San Jose.
“I don’t think there’s a sense we’re the saviour or anything,” Setoguchi said. “We’re going to bring what we can do and play how we play. That’s all we can control.”
On Saturday’s first day of camp, Heatley and Setoguchi were paired with Mikko Koivu, who led Minnesota with 45 assists last season, on Minnesota’s top line.
“We’ve been skating the previous week, and we’re starting to get reads on each other,” Heatley said. “We’re also learning a new forecheck and how we can use our chemistry within that system.”
The 30-year-old Heatley is a two-time 50-goal scorer, but scored just 26 goals last season, tying the lowest total of his career for a full season. Only the player traded for Heatley—the disappointing Martin Havlat—topped the 20-goal mark last season for Minnesota. The 24-year-old Setoguchi has scored 84 goals the past three seasons combined, including 22 in 2010-11.
“It’s not just about Heatley and Setoguchi; it’s about getting a healthy (Guillaume) Latendresse back, and getting a full season from a very energetic, excited and healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard,” Fletcher said.
Bouchard, out 104 games the last two seasons with post-concussion symptoms, missed Saturday’s practice with a tweaked hamstring.
But before Fletcher could work on new talent, he needed a new bench boss.
After firing Todd Richards after two unsuccessful seasons, Fletcher passed on veteran coaches Craig MacTavish and Ken Hitchcock, opting instead for Mike Yeo, who led Minnesota’s AHL affiliate in Houston to the Calder Cup finals in his lone season in Texas.
“He’s already energized the players and staff with the conversations he’s had with them all summer. There’s a real presence to him,” Fletcher said. “He’s a very fair guy, a very good communicator, yet he’s demanding. If you don’t play the way he wants you to play you won’t play.”
Although Heatley and Setoguchi are the headliners when it comes to off-season acquisitions, Darroll Powe might be just as valuable. Likely a third-line wing to be paired with Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck, Powe led Philadelphia with 196 hits last season, while setting career-highs in assists (10) and points (17).
“He and Clutterbuck, in theory, form two-thirds of a very nasty line to play against,” Fletcher said. Clutterbuck has led the league in hits each of the past three seasons.
To get Setoguchi, the Wild traded away their most offensive defenceman, Brent Burns, leaving opportunity for youngsters such as Nate Prosser, Jared Spurgeon and Justin Falk to step up. Each played some NHL games last season. Minnesota also signed four-year veteran Mike Lundin, a defensive defenceman who grew up about 15 miles from the Xcel Energy Center.
“We might not have the huge names that some other teams do, but we have some guys that we are certain can get the job done,” Yeo said.
Niklas Backstrom heads into camp as the top goalie, with Josh Harding back as the No. 2 netminder. Harding missed all of last season after blowing out his knee in a preseason game.
“I’m still working out some kinks, but I thought the first day went pretty well,” Harding said.