Wild defense aims to click without flash

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 1, 2011 - 12:03 AM

Absent Brent Burns and his end-to-end play, the mission for the Wild will be to move the puck out of the zone efficiently.

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Wild defenseman Greg Zanon (left)

Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press

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Flip through the national publications and listen to the pundits. If there's one thing they predict to be the demise of the Wild, it's the unheralded blue line.

Hey, it's easy to understand why.

Trade a Brent Burns, and a franchise could spend the next 10 years looking for that type of thoroughbred from the back end.

Burns, who now plays in San Jose, could log big minutes, lug the puck up ice, jump up in the play, wrist home beauties and use that big frame and reach to foil defensive chances.

Sure, there was the occasional brain cramp, but the new version of the Wild lacks that one back-end stud with all of Burns' tools in a single toolbox. Darryl Sydor, the Wild's first-year assistant coach and an 18-year veteran of NHL blue lines, isn't going to attempt to pretend the Wild does.

"That's why our whole motto is 'Defense by committee,' " Sydor said. "You don't maybe have your one horse, your one Brent Burns, but I don't think that's a problem. I think everyone is working as a group, and if we can incorporate defense by committee, our motto of 70/30 [percent] of keeping the puck in the offensive zone will be a success."

Last season, Burns ranked 12th in the league in average ice time (25 minutes, 2 seconds a game) and led the league in shifts per game (31.9). He scored a career-high 17 goals and 46 points, earning his first All-Star Game appearance.

The Wild still has an elite offensive defenseman in Marek Zidlicky, who's scored 42 of his 60 career goals on the power play. But he's 34 and missed 36 games last year. Offensively, Nick Schultz's 20 points is the most by any other Wild defenseman in a season.

The Wild also lacks NHL experience. Zidlicky has played 507 career games, while Schultz is the Wild's all-time leader with 681 games. After rugged, shot-blocking Greg Zanon's 393, there's currently injured but steady Mike Lundin (224), seven-year pro Clayton Stoner (65), Jared Spurgeon (53) and Marco Scandella (20). Justin Falk and Nate Prosser are also knocking hard on the door.

"With Burnzie being gone, we have to do a better job collectively as a group incorporating those minutes," Schultz said. "But we have good depth. You're not going to replace the dynamic element that Burnzie had, so it's just going to be understanding the system and playing it the right way."

Schultz said he believes the style the Wild plays doesn't make having a thoroughbred necessary.

"We don't need a guy rushing it up ice every shift," Schultz said. "The way we play is very similar to how [former Wild coach Jacques Lemaire] played in our own zone. The less time you play in your end, the better. [Coach Mike Yeo] wants transition, D-to-D passes, moving the puck, getting it up, getting it behind their D and going to work in their end.

"It's just quick transition, quick passes, getting it up the wall. We have the guys capable of doing the job under this system and making it effective."

Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher, who acquired the equivalent of three first-round picks for Burns, calls the Wild's blue line a "very solid defensive core."

"I think our depth is outstanding," he said. "It's the best it's been since I've been here. We're nine to 10 defensemen deep easily, and they're guys that can all play and play a lot of games for us."

Fletcher is excited about the strides taken by roster contenders Falk and Prosser, hopes Spurgeon and Stoner can take on bigger roles and believes Scandella, 21, a 2008 second-round pick, can step in and be a top-four defenseman now.

"His play this camp speaks for itself," Fletcher said.

Schultz, taken way back in 2000 at the Wild's first draft, looks forward to the challenge.

"We want to prove ourselves every night that we can get the job done. Hopefully it does motivate us. As defensemen, you want to make sure you're not the one that's bringing your team down."

  • EXHIBITION EDMONTON 4, WILD 3 (SO) • Season opener: 7 p.m. Oct. 8 vs. Columbus • Xcel Energy Center

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