HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns

October 16, 2006

Wild could win the Northwest Division

By Jesse Menden

Minnesota Wild fans: prepare for an exciting season.

After suffering through five seasons of trapping, defensive defensemen, dump-and-chase offense, rotating captains, rookie debuts, over-acheiving, juggling lines, and two number-one goalies, the citizens of Minnesota will finally see a real NHL team.

The Wild have replaced relative no-name players like Marc Chouinard, Alex Henry, Randy Robitaille (not Luc), Kyle Wanvig, and Andrei Zyuzin, with players that are actually recognized by most hockey fans.

The Wild’s spending spree brought in exciting players such as Pavol Demitra, Keith Carney, Kim Johnsson, Minnesota-native Mark Parrish, and Branko Radivojevic. Each one of them has already made an impact on this year’s team.

With these new additions, the Wild are a very deep team and will compete for the Northwest Division title.

They instantly have become a team to be feared on the offensive end. It is the first time in Minnesota’s brief existence that fans can use the words Wild and offense in the same sentence.

Pairing Demitra with Marian Gaborik will give the Wild one of the most feared tandems in all of hockey. Parrish gives the Wild something they have never had, a skater who can wreak havoc in front of the net. Against Nashville, he scored a goal that he deflected past the goalie, and he screened the net minder on another goal.

Carney and Johnsson give the Wild defenders who can actually move the puck and will be an asset on the powerplay.

Just how much better is the Wild’s offense? In their second game of the season, against the defensive-challenged Nashville Predators, the powerplay unit scored a team-record five goals, thanks to some of their new players. Don’t leave your couch to grab a beverage during a Wild powerplay this year, it will be one of the best in the league.

This team will be able to outscore opponents, but this team will need to play defense, too, if it wants to make the playoffs, and Jacques Lemaire will make sure of that.

Carney and Johnsson are good defensemen, but the unit as a whole, still needs to come together. One thing this team does miss is a Willie Mitchell-type defenseman.

He just played defense, and scoring goals was the last thing on his mind.

There is one potential problem for the team, however. For the first time in recent memory, the Wild have just one, number-one caliber goalie, and this is a little worrisome. The only thing that can prevent the Wild from making the playoffs is their goaltending.

Manny Fernandez has put up very good numbers, but he can also be a bit of a head-case at times. The Wild did make the right decision by trading Dwayne Roloson away instead of Fernandez because of their different upsides, but will he be able to keep his confidence for the whole season?

Through the first two weeks, this team already looks like a Cup contender.

With a powerful offense and good goaltending, the Wild have shown they can win any style of game. In the first three games, they won a 6-5 game against Nashville that makes Lemaire shudder, and a 2-1 defensive battle that ended in a shootout win over Vancouver, making the Wild a very scary team to play.

In the past, if they gave up four, or even three goals, there was little chance they would win. But the times have changed in the State of Hockey.

The Wild will have a good chance to win the Northwest Division. It is one of the toughest divisions in hockey, but it is less intimidating than it was last year and years past.

The Colorado Avalanche lost key players in Rob Blake, Dan Hinote, and Alex Tanguay, and return an aging goalie in Jose Theodore. It would take a lot of luck for this team to continue its streak of 11 consecutive years in the playoffs.

The Edmonton Oilers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals last year as an eight seed and they will probably make it to the postseason again. Roloson returns as their starting goalie, but how long can the 36-year-old carry them, considering he was a backup for most of his career? The Oilers also lost a key defenseman in Chris Pronger, so they will quickly find out if Roloson can do the job.

Vancouver cleaned house during the offseason and has a new head coach. Among the new players the Canucks added is goaltender Roberto Luongo. Even with his talent, they will fall short in this year of transition.

The Calgary Flames are the team to beat in the Northwest, on paper. They did not make a whole lot of major moves over the summer, but did not need to after winning the division. They have arguably the best goalkeeper in Miikka Kiprusoff, and could repeat as the Northwest Division champs.

But the Wild will give the Flames a challenge for the division title, especially if they get good goaltending from Fernandez. Look for the Wild, at the very least, to make the playoffs.