Wild: Tweak here, tweak there

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2007 - 12:58 AM

The Wild stayed relatively quiet during the offseason, a tribute to a team that won a franchise-record 48 games in 2006-07 and showed the potential for further growth.

Doug Risebrough recalls the moment he realized the Wild was in trouble against the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of last spring’s NHL playoffs. It was the moment coach Jacques Lemaire returned from the first practice after Game 1.

“Not our practice, but watching Anaheim practice,” the Wild general manager said. “They beat us [2-1] in Game 1 and Jacques watched their practice. He came to me and said, 'Did you see how hard they worked? … Did you see how hard [Scott] Niedermayer worked? Did you see how hard [Chris] Pronger worked?’ He said, 'They’re motivated.’”

Risebrough says the reason was simple. The eventual Stanley Cup champion Ducks, after going to the conference finals in 2006, knew exactly what they had to lose if they didn’t amp up their play in games and practices.

The Wild, Risebrough believes, did not. Which is why Risebrough, one summer after dishing out cash as if he were holding a winning Powerball ticket, signed bargain free agents Eric Belanger and Sean Hill.

The way Risebrough figures, the Wild made a 20-point jump in the standings last season for a franchise-best 48 victories and 104 points. It surrendered the fewest goals in the NHL and came within one point of winning its first division crown.

It accomplished all this despite Marian Gaborik missing 34 games, a slew of other injuries, an 11-game road losing streak and goalie Manny Fernandez missing the final three months.

So Risebrough didn’t want to overreact to the Wild’s quick playoff exit. Instead, he’s banking on Gaborik to stay healthy for the first time since 2002-03, for Niklas Backstrom to be comfortable as the sole No. 1 goalie, and for youngsters Mikko Koivu, Brent Burns and Pierre-Marc Bouchard to take another step forward.

Still, with training camp beginning today with physicals and Friday with on-ice sessions, there are burning questions. As always, hockey writer Michael Russo is here to answer them:

1 Q So Gaborik says he's confident his groin troubles are a thing of the past. If healthy, what's Gaborik's ceiling?

A High. Nobody in the NHL has a second gear as fast as Gaborik, and when it comes to his wrist shot, few are better. Health is the only thing keeping Gaborik from contending for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's leading goal-scorer. In the past two seasons, only Ottawa's Dany Heatley (.610) has averaged more goals per game than Gaborik (.602). If sidekick Pavol Demitra is also healthy, Gaborik could be on the verge of his first 50-goal season.

2 Q We know Demitra and Gaborik are bookends on the top line. Which lucky center gets to skate between them?

A Hello!? Have you seen Jacques Lemaire coach? Let's put it this way: When the Wild opens with Chicago on Oct. 4, Belanger, whom Risebrough envisions playing between the electrifying Slovaks, could be their center. And on Shift No. 2, Koivu could be. By the second period, Wes Walz could be. Heck, by the third, Risebrough, himself, could be summoned from the press box. But the most logical player does seem to be Belanger. He's fast, he's accountable, he's smart, he's got good enough hands, and it allows Koivu to skate with Brian Rolston and Bouchard, which could be a tremendous line.

3 Q The Wild stayed mostly status quo with last year's blue line. Are the Wild's defensemen good enough?

A No doubt the Wild has a quality regular-season blue line. The question is whether it's a quality postseason blue line. It might be if Burns, 22, can build on his monster second half and if Hill can bring the ruggedness (third in the NHL in hits, sixth in blocked shots in 2006-07) he showed with the Islanders after he serves his 19-game suspension (for testing positive for steroids).

4 Q With 22 players on one-way contracts, does that mean only one player has a chance to crack the 23-man roster?

A On most teams, the answer would be yes, but Risebrough has proven he's willing to pay players NHL salaries in the minors if they don't warrant roster spots (Scott Ferguson, Andrei Nazarov and Mattias Weinhandl the past two seasons). Still, space is limited. Up front, 19-year-old center James Sheppard is a leading contender for a spot, but if Dominic Moore, who didn't get much of a chance after being traded to Minnesota in February, proves himself, that could affect Sheppard.

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