As much as Bruce Boudreau would like to coach a well-oiled machine, it could take some time for players to fully adjust in the new Wild system.
Even the coaching staff needs to understand that, Boudreau said, after he “forced” Scott Stevens, John Anderson and Darby Hendrickson to take off last Thursday.
“We get into the office at 6:30 a.m., and 7 o’clock at night Scott phones me and asks about something,” Boudreau said. “I said, ‘Go home.’ I sort of made them go fishing … they need a break, too.
“They said, ‘We want to be perfect.’ But we’re not going to be perfect tomorrow. You’re not going zero to 60. Hopefully by Christmas we’re in total sync.”
You’ve heard this before: The Wild hopes to take another step. Even General Manager Chuck Fletcher called last season’s campaign — that, yes, did result in a fourth consecutive playoff berth — a “total disappointment.”
The Wild amassed only 87 points, Fletcher fired coach Mike Yeo, and said every day he wondered, “How do we win a game today?”
Boudreau behind the bench and a re-energized Eric Staal centering the top line could provide a jolt in a challenging Central Division. There are a lot of things Fletcher says he likes about Staal, but the biggest is his desire to shoot.
“One of our biggest weaknesses last year, we have a lot of guys that would rather make one more play than shoot,” Fletcher said. “Our shot attempts dropped significantly last year and shots on goal dropped last year and, as a result, our goals for dropped last year.
“A guy like Eric, who’s very willing to shoot the puck and has a history of shooting the puck a lot and is willing to take the puck to the hard areas, can possess the puck down low and win battles down low, can be contagious.”
Five other things that must occur for the Wild to take that step:
The 24-year-olds must elevate
Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker must take a next step on the ice and feel comfortable piping up in the locker room.
They all were drafted six years ago, and for the Wild to improve, it can’t rely only on veterans.
Coyle is on the first line, Granlund the second, Niederreiter the third and Zucker the fourth. Boudreau wants Zucker to bite off more ice time, but he also feels Zucker’s speed and scoring ability could help the team roll four lines.
Coyle is coming off a career-high 21 goals but didn’t score in his final 18 games. Granlund’s points per game dipped to .53. Niederreiter hit 20 goals for the second year in a row, but four fewer than the season before despite more ice time. And Zucker disappointed with only 13 goals.
Be better at killing penalties
The Wild plummeted from being the best penalty-killing team in the NHL to the fourth worst.
The ugly numbers were reflected in Devan Dubnyk’s shorthanded penalty kill save percentage. Of the goalies who played more than 50 games, he ranked 18th (.843). That’s usually an indicator of high-quality chances — at least that’s what Boudreau and Fletcher think.
Stevens was one of the best penalty killers in the NHL and learned in New Jersey under Jacques Lemaire. He has made a couple of strategic changes, starting with the Wild being less passive and allowing Dubnyk to see shots. But new personnel — like Staal, Zach Parise full-time and Jason Pominville — will be on the kill.
Zach Parise has to stay healthy
The Wild’s energizer scoffs when his age is brought up, but Parise is now 32 years old and has missed 32 regular-season games because of injuries the past three seasons. He missed the April playoffs because of a herniated disk.
Parise says he’s completely healthy coming into this season and is no more susceptible to a recurrence of the injury than anybody else.
Still, it’s a long season. Boudreau wants him to take more days off, something Parise typically doesn’t like to do.
The Wild needs Parise to not only stay in the lineup, but be an effective scorer to make that appetizing first line with Staal and Coyle be productive.
Play bigger than its size
Boudreau likes a physical, aggressive brand of hockey; can the coach get the Wild to feel comfortable playing his style, or will he have to adjust to his roster?
Boudreau has said he never has coached a faster team, but he also never has coached a smaller one. So he’s trying to find that happy medium where he can convince the Wild that you don’t need to be built like a freight train to run into people. Every practice is about battling.
He wants an in-your-face team, but it’s not like Granlund, Jared Spurgeon, Parise, Zucker, Erik Haula, Pominville, Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba and others are going to wake up one day and be 6-4 and 225 pounds.
Avoid those midseason swoons
The Wild looked to be having a drama-free year a season ago with the most successful first half in franchise history (52 points). Then it dropped 13 of 14 games to cost Yeo his job. It was the third year in a row the Wild fell into a midseason swoon and the third year in a row it impressively climbed out of it to reach the postseason.
Boudreau said he has short-term goals, so if “you lose three games in one week, you’re not sitting there on the Monday morning of the next week, saying we’ve got to win nine out of our next 10 to be good.
“Win the week, win two out of three. If you’ve got short-term goals, it’s like golf to me. You can have a bad front nine, but you can turn your whole round around with a good back nine.”