No one's Wild about Minny

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

The Minnesota Wild franchise is the Rodney Dangerfield of the National Hockey League.

It gets no respect.

Despite falling one game short of a division title last year, the Wild is rarely mentioned among the contenders. Winger Brian Rolston can't figure out why.

"I don't know. That's a good question. Especially not having Gaborik for half the season (last year)," said Rolston, alluding to the team's franchise-record totals of 48 wins and 104 points despite missing star Marian Gaborik for 34 games.

"We have three, four solid lines. Our goaltending, obviously (Niklas) Backstrom played tremendous for us down the stretch and into the playoffs. We feel we have a solid team and it's OK if you're not predicted to win. That's fine with us."

Contributing to the oversight may be the quality of opponents in the Northwest Division. Minnesota -- which made few changes in the off-season, adding defenceman Sean Hill and centre Eric Belanger, while saying goodbye to Todd White -- simply gets lost in the shuffle among the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche. Even the Edmonton Oilers get more attention, although not always for the right reasons.

"Let's face it, our division is one of the toughest in hockey, in my opinion -- maybe it's biased," said Rolston. "It's so funny. I remember back when I was playing in the East, everybody would be like, 'You've got to get out West, it's run-and-gun hockey.'

"I think our division is one of the toughest to play in and score goals in."

A less division-heavy schedule is appealing for more than just travel reasons in this section of the Western Conference, where defence rules with an iron fist.

The Jacques Lemaire-coached Wild like to shut down opposition attacks with stifling play in their own zone.

"It's difficult to play in those places, and I hope all those teams think the same thing about us," said Rolston.

"We're a trapping team and we're more defensive-minded than we are offensive. It's tough for those teams to score against us as well."

Timely offence, however, is one of the Wild's strengths.

Lemaire gives his wingers freedom to roam, and it's not unusual to see Gaborik, when healthy, breaking in alone on the opposition goaltender more than once per game.

"He lets his wingers go," said Rolston of his coach. "With Gabby and Demitra and those guys, they have to have that kind of room.

"We feel confident about the guys putting the puck in the net. Obviously, in the playoffs that didn't happen for us, but I don't think it happened for anybody that played against Anaheim."

The Wild fell in five games against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Ducks last spring, but their young stars on the rise such as Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard learned what it takes to battle a top team in the playoffs.

Veteran hitter Hill and the strong two-way play of Belanger will help, too.

"The additions we made were good, but I think that the organization feels that our young guys will step up even moreso than they did last year," said Rolston. "And I think they will, too."

Only a handful of Minnesota's forwards are signed through 2008-09, and a quartet of their blueliners are set to become unrestricted free agents in July.


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