Minnesota has a new coach and a new system but hasn't had a full roster of healthy players to implement it.
Despite all the platitudes about patience being a virtue, it's one of the most vexing powers to master, particularly in the realm of pro sports. Coaches and players often talk about how much they need it, only to have their Type A personalities crush any hope of actually practicing it.
The Wild will continue wrestling with the concept this week, as it counts down the final four days of dress rehearsals before the regular-season curtain rises Saturday in Columbus. The team anticipated a steep learning curve during training camp, what with a new, up-tempo style of play, a rookie coach and a sprinkling of roster changes. A spate of injuries to key players ensured it would take even more time to get everything in place.
Tonight in Philadelphia, coach Todd Richards and his players get their last chance to check their progress without points on the line. But the need for patience in an innately impatient profession will remain. The trick for Richards and company will be to indulge it as much as they can, without losing ground early in what promises to be another tooth-and-nail Western Conference playoff chase.
"As a coach, you do think about being patient and trying to get the players to understand,'' Richards said after Monday's practice. "It's a growing process, and it's been delayed due to the injuries. But there has to be a lot of urgency and desperation coming into games, especially at the start of the season, when you look at how many games we play and how many are on the road.
"[Tonight's game] will be our best measuring stick to date. I have to go into it open-minded, knowing mistakes are going to happen. I hope we have steps in the right direction, and that's something we have to continue throughout the year."
A two-week break for the Winter Olympics in February means the schedule is compressed this year. The Wild play 14 games in the season's first month, compared with nine last season. Nine of those are on the road, giving the team five more away games than they had last October, and 10 are against teams that made the playoffs last year.
If the Wild is to return to the playoffs after missing out last season, it cannot afford to get out of the gate slowly. Still, it's impossible to predict just how soon this promising roster can get Richards' system into its bones -- and rid itself of the defense-first style that had become as natural as breathing. Center Mikko Koivu and left winger Andrew Brunette haven't played a game yet because of injuries, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, James Sheppard, Benoit Pouliot and Shane Hnidy also have missed valuable ice time.
When they haven't skated, the coaches have been teaching them the fine points of a more aggressive, attacking offense by diagramming plays on a board and showing them video. But such a philosophical shift requires repetition in the crucible of competition in order to lock it in. Richards hopes his players' experience and savvy can help them get up to speed quickly, particularly with the major changes on special teams.
The players, Brunette said, are mindful of how little time they have to adapt. "It's on us to change our ways," he said. "Every day, we're progressing. But we all know when you look at our schedule, it's a tough start.
"The Western Conference will be as tight as it is every year. If you have a bad start or a stretch where you don't get points, you're behind the 8-ball. We know the importance of that."
It's likely the Wild players will walk an emotional tightrope early in the season, striving to grant themselves the patience to evolve without dulling that critical sense of urgency. On the one hand, Richards noted that General Manager Chuck Fletcher understands it will take time for the Wild to find its new groove. On the other, Brunette acknowledged that patience isn't a popular concept among his hyper-competitive peers.
It doesn't sit well with fans, either, but it's the prudent course at this point. Owner Craig Leipold's overhaul of the franchise could reshape the Wild into the team this market deserves. If that finally happens, it will be worth a little extra wait.
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org