Wild-card pick again?

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:44 AM ET

Year after year, the Minnesota Wild are hit with the same criticisms.

Can't score enough goals. Don't have the depth to be a top team.

Yet, year in and year out, the Wild end up in the hunt or a Northwest Division title.

Hey, last year's banner was won by the team from the State of Hockey.

Some things never do change, though, and once again, the Wild detractors are out, with many prognosticators expecting the club to miss the playoffs.

Seems nobody wants to give the Wild any credit or see the team as a threat.

"I think it's always been that way," shrugged left winger Andrew Brunette, who's returned to the Wild for his second stint. "I don't know if last year anybody had them pegged to be a division champion, probably more thinking they'd be a bubble team."

Brunette, who skated in Minnesota for three seasons (2001-02 through 2003-04), spent a trio of years with the Colorado Avalanche and returned via free agency this summer, can understand the doomsayers.

Gone are a couple of key proven forwards in Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston, along with goal-scorer Mark Parrish.

The only name replacements are Brunette and Owen Nolan, neither of whom are known for their speed and have many, many clicks on their odometers. Other new faces include defencemen Marc-Andre Bergeron and Marek Zidlicky and forwards Antti Miettinen and Craig Weller.

All told, the Wild are sporting several fresh faces compared to the team that won the Northwest crown but was bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

"It's surprising how many new players there are," Brunette said. "We all know Rolie and Demitra are gone, but you kinda forget all the other changes made. Some are late additions -- I don't know if you can really count Chris Simon, and (Aaron) Voros was up and down, but there are nine changes on the roster.

"When somebody told me that, I was surprised. I'd never even thought that."

Throw in the competitiveness of the Western Conference, with teams like the Phoenix Coyotes, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Edmonton Oilers all appearing to be on the rise, and the Wild may very well be staring at a rough patch.

"The west is so tough, the division is so tough, and anything can happen, as we've seen the last three years," Brunette said. "It's nice we won't have to play each other eight times like we had to the last few years."

But change can be good. Zidlicky, acquired from the Nashville Predators for a second-round pick and a prospect, is an excellent puck-moving defenceman who will help the club's transition game.

Plus, the Wild have been developing young players for a few years and believe it's now their turn to take on larger roles.

"They're going to give more opportunity for guys like (James) Sheppard and (Benoit) Pouliot to handle that responsibility and step it up," Brunette said. "(Pierre-Marc) Bouchard is a guy who's been asked to asked to carry more of a role in years past, and I think he's up for it. (Brent) Burns is somebody I think is going to be a heck of a player for a long, long time, and Mikko Koivu is one of the more underrated players in the league. He's as good as you can get at both ends of the ice."

Oh, yeah, plus the Wild still have Marian Gaborik, one of the most dangerous goal scorers in the game. At least for now.

Gaborik is due to become an unrestricted free agent and should he go on the trading block, the lightning-fast sniper would be as highly sought after as any NHLer.

Brunette sees the potential for a distraction but doesn't believe it will be a problem among the team.

"I think that's a little far away. Contract stuff, it'll work itself out," Brunette said. "He's been through it before, and it's in the distant future."

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NOTABLE ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES

FRESH FACES

D Marc-Andre Bergeron

D Marek Zidlicky

LW Andrew Brunette

RW Owen Nolan

SKATING ELSEWHERE

C Pavol Demitra

RW Brian Rolston

RW Branko Radevojevic

RW Mark Parrish


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