Wild: Skoula is Lemaire's secret weapon

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2007 - 4:44 AM

Criticized and misunderstood by fans, defenseman Martin Skoula is a favorite of Wild coach Jacques Lemaire and a big reason the team is 5-0.

EL SEGUNDO, CALIF. — Take a meander inside the numerous Wild message boards and blogs out there, and you'd think George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" should have an eighth entry --"Skoula."

Few players are more reviled by Wild fans than Martin Skoula, the defenseman who, yes, has committed some glaring brain cramps during his short history in Minnesota.

Yet, conversely, few players are more applauded on a daily basis by coach Jacques Lemaire than Skoula, who averages more than 20 minutes a night and is an enormous reason why the Wild gave up the fewest goals in the NHL last season and has yielded only four goals in five games this season and remain the NHL's only undefeated team (5-0) heading into tonight's game against the Los Angeles Kings.

"If you point to the team being good defensively, I can almost count that a big component of that is Skoula," Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough said.

His size is a key

At 6-3 and 226 pounds, Skoula, 27, is a gigantic presence on the ice even though he might not be the most physical. His size and mobility make it difficult for opponents to get to the net or away from the wall.

"To get the puck off him, he's the guy that's going to step in front, protect the puck and give it to one of our guys," Lemaire said. "And maybe that time [the opponent is] on the forecheck, and he cuts it out: 'That's it. Your forecheck is done. The puck is going out.' It's like he goes, 'There won't be any forecheck. I'm taking charge here.' It's like he controls the game.

"I just like his game. I like his style. I like his potential."

Again, we're talking about Martin Skoula here.

Lemaire simply loves him, as displayed by Skoula's ice time in critical situations. Late in tight games, one constant will be Skoula ... on the ice ... every other shift.

Lemaire has complete faith in him, which is why Lemaire asked Risebrough three times at June's NHL draft, "What's going on with Skoula?"He's the only guy he cared about," said Risebrough, who then got on the horn and re-signed the veteran to a two-year contract.

Lemaire said he feels it's difficult to counter size in a league where space is at a premium.

"Jacques gave me the best analogy about what size does," Risebrough said. "He said, 'Doug, when somebody big stands besides you, do you feel comfortable? No. When somebody small stands besides you, does it bother you? No.'

"What he's saying is put big defensemen on the ice, [forwards] don't do things normally even if that defenseman doesn't play big. He just looks bigger, it looks more ominous to get around him. And Skoula's a classic example of that. He's got size and because of his mobility, he can get closer to people."

In seven seasons, Skoula is a plus-43, averaging nearly 21 minutes a night. He's missed only five games because of injury and has never played fewer than 78 games.

His role changed with Wild

Earlier in his career, Skoula was considered an offensive defenseman, chipping in a career-best 10 goals and 31 points in 2001-02. Skoula, who hasn't scored since March 12, 2006, thought he'd have the same role in Minnesota, but Lemaire quickly put the kibosh on that.

"It's not controlling. It's guidance," Lemaire said, grinning. "I was asking him to play a certain way, and I felt that way he'd turn out to be a pretty good defensemen. Safe, don't gamble."

Skoula says it wasn't a "difficult" transition but a "different one."I've played offensively all my life, but in today's hockey, you can't just have somebody skating around, cheating or looking for offense all the time," Skoula said. "In today's hockey, it's defense and battles."

Last December, Skoula was often at the center of everything bad for the Wild. In four games, he made mistakes -- turnovers, poor pinches, incorrect reads -- that directly led to losses.

But Lemaire stuck with him, and Skoula recovered. In January, when the Wild turned its season around, Skoula was outstanding, in particular during a four-game stretch in which Kim Johnsson was injured. Skoula topped 28 minutes a night and was a plus-8.

"Every hockey player, it's never 82 games of good games or outstanding games," Skoula said. "If you have a tough time for two weeks, a month or two months, you just have to keep going. Somehow you have to get out of it and just keep working and just keep playing.

"That was a tough time for me. But it's only up to the person how fast it takes him to get out of it. And the more I play, I feel more comfortable and more confident."

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