Four things to watch about the Wild

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 6, 2011 - 11:16 PM

For the first time in franchise history, the Wild has a top line to get excited about.

The consensus is the Wild will once again be a playoff spectator come April. Mike Yeo doesn't care.

The Wild coach has been around long enough to know that every October, it's the job of a bunch of dartboard-throwing media types to choose 1 through 30.

"People have to form opinions and make predictions right now," Yeo said. "But the real story is what happens at the end of the year, and as far as I'm concerned, we're the ones that get to write that story."

The Wild appears, on paper, better than the team that missed the playoffs the past three years. On the ice, the Wild could conceivably be better ... and still miss the playoffs.

That's life in the Western Conference. Last year, the sixth-place team in the East would have missed the playoffs in the West and the 10th-place team in the West would have made the playoffs in the East.

Still, it's easy to understand why pundits are skeptical.

The Wild has a rookie coach, traded for a maligned sniper coming off his worst full season, has a worrisome blue line absent the pizzazz of Brent Burns, an aging goaltender and no Mikael Granlund, a rising star still lighting it up in an HIFK sweater rather than a Wild jersey.

If the Wild's going to prove its naysayers wrong, here are some things to watch:

1 THE TOP LINE

For the first time in franchise history, the Wild has a top line to get excited about. Every time the Devin Setoguchi-Mikko Koivu-Dany Heatley line (dubbed by some fans as the "Two Sharks and One Finn" Line) hopped the boards in the preseason, there was an anticipation in the air that something good could happen (OK, minus that one shift against St. Louis when they spent two minutes in their own zone). The line combined for seven goals and 12 assists in four games, and Koivu, in the first year of his monster deal, looks like he's got the ability to become the offensive force a $6.75 million price tag commands. Koivu should shatter his 71-point career high, although, let's be honest: Antti Miettinen probably cost Koivu 10 assists (conservatively) a year by missing the net.

2 QUALITY SECOND LINE

Much was made in training camp about the Wild's first line, but one giant key will be how effective the second line of Guillaume Latendresse, Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard will be. When the Wild won the Northwest Division in 2008, it was largely because of two prolific lines highlighted by Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra on the top line and Brian Rolston and Bouchard on the second. The Wild needs Latendresse to rediscover that 37-goal, power-forward-like pace he was on in 2009-10. The Wild needs a resurgence of Cullen, and it needs Bouchard to be the Bouchard of old. The potential playmaker extraordinaire was ordinary in that department in the preseason, being held to no assists in five games.

3 BLUE LINE

This is the area that should command the most attention. Maybe it was just typical preseason slumbers by veterans or maybe it was just because the youngsters that were in Houston know Yeo's system to a T, but Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon and Justin Falk outperformed vets Greg Zanon, Marek Zidlicky and Nick Schultz in camp. Clayton Stoner also had a strong camp. But without the minute-munching Burns, the Wild will need Scandella and Spurgeon to log big minutes, transition the puck up ice and create offense. Zidlicky gave Wild fans glimpses of "Good Zidlicky" (offense) and "Bad Zidlicky" (brain cramps) all preseason, while Zanon was clearly hurt and Schultz rusty from a return from postconcussion syndrome. The Wild is boasting the blue-line-by-committee mantra right now, but the lack of a true No. 1 or 2 is disturbing.

 

4 GOALTENDING

If it's true that goaltending is the great equalizer, the Wild will need Niklas Backstrom to get back to his 2008-09 Vezina-candidate form. Now 33, Backstrom has started to break down the past few years with shoulder and hip problems. Last year, he resurrected himself early from a subpar 2009-10 season before giving up 18 goals in three starts in late November. Backstrom did revive his game before the wheels fell off for him and the team late. Backstrom's good when he's pushed, so it's incumbent on Josh Harding to give a nudge from behind. Backstrom does have the ability to get into stretches where he can carry the Wild. Of course, if you know Backstrom, just pray those stretches don't include shootouts.

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