New era begins in Minny

STEVE MACFARLANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:59 AM ET

Winning 40 or more games for a third straight season wasn't enough for head coach Jacques Lemaire to keep his title of the only head coach in Minnesota Wild history. The trap-master called it quits after eight years, and a new era is set to begin under former San Jose Sharks assistant Todd Richards.

Although he's a former NHL defenceman, Richards runs his teams with the philosophy a good defence is a better offence -- the opposite style the Wild has experienced under Lemaire, who landed on his feet in New Jersey where his stifling system will be welcomed back.

Injury-prone star Martin Havlat replaces equally wound-attracting sniper Marian Gaborik, and the Wild signed Petr Sykora after a brief tryout in camp to bolster its offensive personnel, but things look very much the same in Minny. It will be interesting to see how the players react to a new system and new philosophy and whether that can take them into the playoffs and beyond.

Sun Media asked a Western Conference scout to help break down the Wild for this season.

FORWARDS

You know something is wrong when your leading goal-scorer is getting close to 40 and might also be your toughest guy. Owen Nolan still has skill, but they need some of the young players with potential to step up or Todd Richards' first year might be a bust.

Richards is a big change from Lemaire. They'll open up on offence and hope Martin Havlat can stay healthy and motivated and be the 30- or 40-goal guy they always hoped Marian Gaborik would be consistently.

Mikko Koivu should benefit from the new philosophy, and the fact either Havlat or Petr Sykora -- maybe both -- will be on his wing at all times.

With Pierre-Marc Bouchard and high hopes for another centre, James Sheppard, in the mix for the top six, there is a real possibility for five or six 20-goal scorers if everything goes to plan.

That's not including defenceman Brent Burns, who is really underrated. If he can keep his head clear after last year's injury issues should go back to the impact player he was two years ago. I liked Anti Miettinen in Dallas, and under Lemaire last year, but he might struggle to produce the same kind of numbers this year. He's what you'd consider a sleeper, but I'd take him as a two-way, third-liner any day.

Cal Clutterbuck is another character guy who gets the idea of hard work taking you places in this league. He might not score in bunches, but he hits that way and annoys the heck out of the other team.

DEFENCE

Here's where things get sticky for the Wild. Burns is a solid kid. Two-way force. Marek Zidlicky is the only other proven guy in my opinion. Nick Schultz is OK. Kim Johnsson is past his prime.

Compare this group to the others in the Northwest and you'll see how big the difference is between this team and what most everybody expects to be the elite ones.

Would you rather have Jay Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr or Burns, Zidlicky and Johnsson? Edmonton's got Visnovsky, Souray and Staios. Even Colorado improved, adding Kyle Quincey.

You get the feeling they're either going to have to score a ton or lean heavily on the goaltending if they have a chance at the playoffs. GOAL

Was Niklas Backstrom's past success because of the system he played under or the fact he's a really good goaltender? Guess we'll find out soon enough, because you can't hide when your defence is as questionable as the one in front of him. Lemaire had his forwards coming back and clogging up the neutral zone. Richards will be much more aggressive, but that could also mean more time with the puck, which would definitely help Backstrom's chances of repeating the same sort of statistics. He'll have to stay healthy, because Josh Harding only won three games last year.

COACHING, MANAGEMENT

We'll see what Richards can do to change the Wild's reputation of boring hockey. He was hand-picked by new general manager Chuck Fletcher thanks to their ties in the AHL, and their fates will be linked over time.

You have to believe they have long leashes, though, as they try to put their own stamp on a team that's known nothing but Lemaire.

INTANGIBLES

I wonder about a lack of leadership. There are plenty of veterans, but none that stand out as real dynamic voices -- and you need people that will not only lead by example on the ice but also in the room.

steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Fantasy pool hero: Martin Havlat

Unsung hero: Mikko Koivu

Tough guy: Derek Boogaard

Sleeper: Antti Miettinen

Rookie to watch: Tyler Cuma

On the decline: Owen Nolan


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