Wild have a bright future

DEREK VAN DIEST, Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:12 PM ET

There were high hopes for the Minnesota Wild heading into the season.

A new regime brought a new sense of optimism to a franchise that had made the playoffs just three times since their inception in 2000, and had earned a reputation for playing slow, boring, defensive hockey.

And although the Wild will again miss the post-season party, the foundations laid down by rookie general manager Chuck Fletcher and first-year head coach Todd Richards has the team looking towards a bright offensively-driven future.

“Having spent the whole season here and seen some of these players, you are excited going forward,” Richards said. “We have the likes of Mikko Koivu, Niklas Backstrom, Martin Havlat, Guillaume Latendresse and Andrew Brunette. The guys that we’ve signed and the guys that we know are going to be here, we’re excited about.

“But still, I haven’t had time to get really serious thinking about that. We have three games left, and as a coach, you’re trying to prepare your players so they can perform at their best. That’s where the focus is right now. When the season is over, we’ll have more time to reflect back and start planning on the future.”

Heading into Monday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers, the Wild were fourth in the Northwest Division standings, 10 points back of the final playoff spot with three games left on their schedule.

They stumbled out of the gate, getting off to a 1-6 start this season and were never able to recover, despite playing some solid hockey through November and into December.

Fletcher and Richards put a bigger emphasis on offence and attempted to put a more entertaining team on the ice. Bringing in offensive talent helped in that regard.

One of the Wild’s bright spots this season was the play of Latendresse, who found his scoring touch after coming over in a trade from the Montreal Canadiens for former first-rounder Benoit Pouliot.

Latendresse went into Monday’s game with a career-high 27 goals. The most he’d ever scored in three years with the Canadiens was 16.

“He came in and showed that he can finish,” said Richards. “But the other thing was his physical play. He’s a bit banged up and is playing through a few nagging injuries, so he’s not 100% and we haven’t seen his complete game here in a little while. But it’s been a rather good trade for us.

“Sometimes a guy needs a change of scenery, whether it’s because of his play or maybe he’s been slotted into a spot that he just can’t get out of. When you get a fresh start, you have fresh eyes looking at you and as a player. No. 1 you want to prove to your new teammates and your new organization that there are things that you can do. But you’re also proving to your old organization that perhaps they made a mistake.”

While Latendresse has flourished in Minnesota, former first-round pick James Sheppard continues to struggle. The ninth overall pick in 2006 NHL Entry Draft had just two goals and four assists in 62 games heading into Wednesday’s contest.

Now in his third year, the Wild were looking for more production out of the Halifax native.

“When you come into the season, you have certain expectations,” Richards said. “We’ve seen it in spurts where we start to see his game, but we haven’t been able to get that consistency.

“But we have to stay patient with him. He’s a young kid and as a coach, that’s your job to help him along.”

derek.vandiest@sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos