Fresh Start for the Wild


Written on 11/18/2009 by Jim Cerny

A quarter of the way through their "fresh start" of a season---as newly-minted captain Mikko Koivu (photo left) calls it---the Minnesota Wild are still trying to find their identity, while at the same time attempting to remain out of the basement in the Western Conference.

Within a matter of months this past spring, the Wild lost the three pillars of their organization, signaling a major change in the course the franchise would take in the following years.

Doug Risebrough, who was GM of the Wild even before there was a team on the ice, was the first to go.

He was followed by Jacques Lemaire, the only head coach in franchise history.

And then Marian Gaborik---the Wild's first-ever draft pick and the organization's all-time leading scorer---was allowed to slip away as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

The three long-time faces of the organization, all gone within a matter of months.

"A fresh start is the right way to describe it," Koivu told me a couple of weeks ago. "There are a lot of new things on and off the ice. Now we are trying to build it all again. But it is strange not to see those guys around here anymore."

Strange indeed. Over the past nine years no three people were more visable representatives of the Wild than Risebrough, Lemaire, or Gaborik. It is one thing to lose one or two of those men. But all three? Almost unheard of. But that is the path ownership chose months ago.

"It's tough to not be around those guys who have always been here," stated Koivu, who has a team-best 18 points in 20 games this year. "You get used to a certain way, and certain people. But it is part of the game, and it's something that every team goes through. It's fresh, and a whole lot different."

What Koivu didn't say---and wouldn't answer---was whether fresh and different equal better. So far the Wild---under new coach Todd Richards and GM Chuck Fltecher---are tied for 13th place in the west with 16 points. They are 7-11-2 and have allowed the fifth most goals in the conference (63), something unheard of when the defensive-minded Lemaire was the coach.

And while Gaborik thrives in New York with the Rangers---his 15 goals are tied for the league lead, while his 27 points are second most---his replacement in Minnesota, free agent pick up Martin Havlat---has struggled mightily with just two goals and eight points in 18 games.

It was Gaborik that most Wild observers believed would have been the first to leave the State of Hockey. A world-class talent---albeit one limited by injury for much of his career---Gaborik had been through several contract battles and stalemates with the Wild. And he was no fan of Lemaire's stifling system either.

It was not a huge surprise that Minnesota let Gaborik walk without even a token contract offer.

Well, at least it was not a big surprise to most observers. Long-time Wild forward Andrew Brunette told me that he thought up until the final days that his good friend was going to return to Minnesota.

"I thought something would get done the whole time," said Brunette, a 22-goal scorer a year ago who has seven so far this season. "I called him the night before free agency started and he said 'I'm going to go', which was a little disappointing. I know how it was with the old regime and (Gaborik) with the contracts, but I really thought with the change (in management), and with how well he played at the end of last year, that he would stay."

Brunette added, "I mean, you move on. It's part of the business. But maybe I am partial. I just know how good he is. I really thought something would get done."

Though the results aren't there just yet---and it must be difficult for the Wild faithful to see Gaborik's success on Broadway and Lemaire's so-far triumphant return to New Jersey---the Wild organization did the right thing. Nine years is a long-time for the same voice as head coach. And Brunette feels maybe Gaborik needed the change as much as the organization did.

"As hard as it is for me to say this, for his career and for him, he might have been a little stagnant here at times, he might have needed a change," stated Brunette.

Speaking of change, the new regime in Minnesota is going to have to change the recent trend of draft-day failures from that of the old guard. After selecting Gaborik, Koivu, center Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and defenseman Brent Burns with their first picks from 2000-2003, the Wild have not chosen one stud in the first round since. And forget studs. Right now the word is "duds", as in 2005 first rounder Benoit Pouliot (2-2-4 in 14 games, five goals a year ago) and 2006 first-round selection James Sheppard (0-1-1 in 18 games, five goals last season).

And other than the rugged Cal Clutterbuck in 2006, the Wild have not drafted a regular contributor in the later rounds since early in franchise history.

Add to the mix the disappointing play of veterans Petr Sykora (2-1-3 in 10 games) and Havlat, and, well, you can understand the problems that face Fletcher and Richards.

"It will get better," predicted Koivu.

The question, though, is when?

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