Reasons for Optimism in St. Paul

If you missed it, the Minnesota Wild opened up their season with a 4-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at home last night. Yours truly was in the stands, and the Wild looked faster, better, and more determined in almost every facet of the game. Granted, Columbus was on the second night of a back-to-back, and early in the season, I’m sure some legs felt like jelly in their locker room. But, this was a signal. No longer will the Wild attempt to portray Anti Miettinen and Andrew Brunette as first line players. An article about Minnesota sports that isn’t negative? Seems like it’s been awhile… 

The much talked about first line of Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, and Devin Setoguchi certainly did not disappoint, tallying 2 goals, 12 shots, and an array of scoring chances. These guys can play together, and they can play versus almost any line, as Mike Yeo demonstrated by putting them out there against the Rick Nash-led top line of Columbus whenever he got the chance. This is the absolute biggest reason why Mikko Koivu will earn every penny of his $7M+ contract. Koivu is arguably a Selke trophy caliber defensive forward, and his prowess, effort, and awareness in the defensive zone should allow Mike Yeo to continue to match his top line versus other top lines, knowing that Koivu (and a bunch of defensemen who aren’t exactly known for their offense) can handle playing against such talented forwards. Very often, those talented forwards are not as good on defense, and many, many offensive chances for the Wild should occur as a result, as we saw last night.

The other huge bright spot was the play of Marco Scandella. The 21 year old who was a second round pick by the Wild in 2008 (Thanks for giving him to us on your way out, Risebrough/Thompson) looked like a top pairing guy last night, scoring a very nice goal on the power play and consistently moving the puck up the ice as fast as possible. He did have a few hiccups as far as positioning goes, but with experience, he should get a lot better. He has shown that he has almost every tool in the box that a defender needs. He was one of the fastest players on the ice last night, and his skating was a lot better than I had read about, as this was the first time I’d seen him in person.

One of the biggest questions for the Wild this year will be the secondary scoring behind the top line. Guillaume Latendresse looked in decent shape last night, but he was going for the fancy play nearly every shift and I am sure that is something that will be addressed. He is a long ways away from being the player he was two years ago, but I’m hopeful that he can get there at some point, especially playing with such a playmaker in Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Bouchard looked very good last night, but as usual, very timid when it comes to contact. Latendresse HAS to stay healthy and HAS to throw the body around a ton on that line because between Matt Cullen and Bouchard, that’s two pretty small guys and a big line of power forwards could absolutely wreck those guys. Latendresse is just such a huge key for the Wild. He has 30 goal talent, and his physical play can be the difference between the second line being marginally effective or a huge asset.

Niklas Backstrom is at a crossroads in his career. He’s earned his big contract, but hasn’t exactly performed up to standards, battling many nuisance injuries and inconsistent play. All of that perception can change if he performs like he did last night and can avoid the injury bug. He made every routine save, only giving up two rebound goals. The Finnish keeper also made some highlight reel saves, a very good sign considering how average his movement has seemed at times.

Cal Clutterbuck looked awful last night. He was totally off his game, missing on a few huge hits and missing high on multiple shots. I’ve never seen a guy go for top cheddar as much as Clutterbuck does. If anyone can find me a youtube clip of Clutterbuck scoring a goal without trying to go top shelf, I’d love to see it. The fourth line looked largely inferior as well.

The Wild are not an elite team as of yet, but if the pieces come together and they stay reasonably healthy, I see no reason why they can’t finish second in the Northwest and nail down a playoff spot this year.

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