With the Wild's season coming to a close, coach Jacques Lemaire said one benefit from all the injuries the team suffered was that a lot of young players got a chance to gain some experience that they wouldn't have had otherwise.

At the same time, when Lemaire was talking about these young players being better next year, it gave me the impression that the only coach the Wild ever has had will be back next season. When asked about his future, he said the one thing he knew was certain was, "I know I won't be fired."

In giving his reasoning for not announcing his plans for the future until after the completion of the season, Lemaire said if he declared a decision during the season, it would have an effect on his players.

"That's why what usually every coach does, they wait, if they are not fired before ... they wait till the end and they sit down with the GM and they talk about different stuff, and the decision comes on."

Lemaire said it was obvious the team missed star forward Marian Gaborik, who only just recently returned following surgery to repair a torn hip labrum. Gaborik has played only 12 games this season.

"That's the thing, on the power-play, 5-on-5, we know Gaborik doesn't have to play 15 good shifts in a game to get a goal," Lemaire said. "He has to play one. He can change a game, he is a dynamic player, he can do a lot of things on the ice. When he works, we saw the outcome since he is back.

"There is only one game that I wasn't happy of his performance, it was in Calgary, he didn't get any shots, he didn't work as well as he did in the other game. All the other games he plays, he is our key man, he is getting six or seven shots a game and getting scoring chances and getting goals and getting assists. He is important, no doubt."

With the Wild's chances of making the playoffs not looking very good, and with Gaborik up for free agency after the season, these last five games of the regular season might be the last of Gaborik's long career with the Wild.

"I think Gaby will be the guy that decides where he is going next year," Lemaire said. "... He took that decision not to sign [the Wild's contract offers] and now he has to prove, again, that he can play in a way and play healthy, and has to prove that to 29 teams. If Gaby takes the decision not to come back, then you will have to [replace] a key player. A player that will come to play every night and change a game, a dynamic player."

Fortunate in goal

Lemaire had praise for goalie Niklas Backstrom, who emerged into an All-Star this season after joining the Wild as a backup in 2006. The Wild rewarded him with a four-year, $24 million contract last month to keep him from becoming a free agent.

"We are quite fortunate to have Backstrom, I understand that he had a few so-so games during the season, but what he did for our team is the reason that Doug [Risebrough, Wild GM] signed him, he has been giving a chance for this team to win," Lemaire said. "He is solid in the net. He is not a guy like [Vancouver's Roberto] Luongo that's going to make you know he's going to be on his back, kick his leg up. He is not that kind of goalie, but he is a guy you can count on because he plays a systematic game and a positional game and he has success with it."

The coach also singled out two other Wild players who had outstanding years.

"Mikko [Koivu] has been really the backbone of our team; he has been solid playing against top players, killing penalties, playing the power play, all that, 21,22, some nights 23 minutes, just playing with his heart," Lemaire said. "[Kim] Johnsson, I don't know where his legs come from, but ... every night he comes and skates and he gets the puck, and everyone that plays with him, he makes them look good."

Asked to describe this season, Lemaire replied: "It's always fun. I thought last year was really a tough year for coaching, because I felt that we had a lot offensively and we didn't show what we had and we were on the bubble not to make the playoffs and all that. Players started to play and we climbed our division, but that was tough. This year, it wasn't the same ... it was easier in a way, it was a matter of accepting the players that you have, having the right expectations.

"If we make the playoffs, it is going to be probably one of the biggest seasons we had. It's funny to say that, but with the lack of scoring, we're still in it and if we ever make it with this [team], it will be a hell of a season."

Well, tonight the Wild faces Calgary, a team that has dominated the series, winning nine out of the past 10 meetings. If the Wild doesn't win, the season will be over, and the speculation will begin as to whether or not Lemaire will be back.

I think it is a cinch he will come back -- if Risebrough signs Gaborik, or a player of Gaborik's caliber.


Rest assured the Bears will become the favorite to win the NFC North now that they were able to acquire Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. The Vikings never would have paid the price of two first-round picks, a third-rounder and a quarterback they don't need now, which in the Bears' case is Kyle Orton.

Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi said he believes the Big Ten did well in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, with Michigan State in the Final Four and Illinois and Ohio State the only teams eliminated by a lower seed. ... Had Tubby Smith left, there is no doubt Flip Saunders would have been appointed Smith's successor very quickly.

All but $4.5 million of the $86 million the school was required to raise for the construction of TCF Stadium has been raised. Of the 37 suites, 32 have been sold. There is a waiting list of 3,500 for season tickets. In addition, $40 million in academic scholarships was raised through the stadium process. ... Two key Gophers football players not taking part in spring practice are Hayo Carpenter, the great receiver who hasn't graduated from College of the Canyons and will be here in August, and safety Tramaine Brock, who is trying to get academically eligible by attending junior college.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre shook his head, laughed and said, "Don't even ask," when the Los Angeles Times asked him if infielders Doug Mientkiewicz and Juan Castro would make their roster. Both former Twins had two-run homers in Los Angeles' 10-8 victory over San Francisco on Wednesday in Scottsdale, Ariz. Mientkiewicz's homer was his third of the spring, to go along with 13 RBI. Castro was hitting .415 after going 2-for-5. Another ex-Twin trying to make the Dodgers is Eric Milton, but the lefthander gave up eight runs and seven hits in 2 1/3 innings vs. the Giants to raise his ERA to 10.07, and he has agreed to go to Class AAA Albuquerque.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on his Podcast once a week at www.startribune.com/sidcast. shartman@startribune.com