Wild playing catch up for opener
ST. PAUL (AP) -- New head coach Todd Richards wants the Minnesota Wild to play faster. The transition has started slowly.
Numerous injuries and illnesses to important players during training camp -- call it retraining camp -- hindered progress with the souped-up style. It was going to take some time, anyway.
"These guys have habits. It's ingrained in them, whether it's neutral-zone transition or power-play breakout or in-zone sets," Richards said, referring to the Wild's previous philosophy toward offense. "Especially when you get tired in a game, because your mind is the first thing to go and you resort back to your habits and your old ways."
Under general manager Doug Risebrough and head coach Jacques Lemaire, the Wild were a pesky, patient, defense-first team that tried to force opponents into mistakes by clogging the passing lanes and trapping in the middle of the ice. For an expansion franchise, success came quickly in the third season with a trip to the Western Conference finals.
Good goaltending has been an annual trait, but in recent years uneven production and a lack of depth on the front lines kept Minnesota from getting past the middle of the pack. The Wild missed the playoffs last year, Lemaire resigned and joined New Jersey, and Risebrough was fired.
Now there's a new look. Similar to defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh, where general manager Chuck Fletcher came from, the Wild will be more aggressive on the forecheck and send defensemen into the attack rather than hanging back.
The blue line is still a priority, Richards and Fletcher insist, but there will be a lot more action in the opposing zone.
The challenge for Richards is his ability to implement these principles in a lasting way. The season starts Saturday in Columbus.
"Each day I feel like we're progressing a little bit, but for us to expect it's going to happen overnight is kind of unrealistic," said Andrew Brunette.
whose recovery from right knee surgery kept him from fully participating in the first part of camp.
Here's another difference: Richards will stick to the same lines. Lemaire frequently mixed them up, but unless a player needs to be disciplined or is hurt during a game, Richards wants consistency.
Brunette, Mikko Koivu and Martin Havlat are the front-runners for the first line. Petr Sykora will be asked to help provide scoring punch on the second group. The Wild are counting on former first-round draft picks Pierre-Marc Bouchard and James Sheppard to become reliable centers, a weakness in recent years. They appear deeper on their blue line, with Brent Burns recovered from a concussion that ruined his last season.
For All-Star Niklas Backstrom, the responsibility is the same. He's not worried about facing a flurry of shots, either.
"You can't play like the Oilers played in the '80s," Backstrom said, adding: "Every team, it's basically the same system. It's just small details that everyone is playing differently."
As the front office and coaching staff were being turned over, team owner Craig Leipold was clear about his preference to play a more entertaining style -- and how that correlates to keeping the customers happy.
The Wild have declared every game they've played at Xcel Energy Center since the arena opened in 2000 a sellout, but that eight-season streak could end this year.
They're expecting a full house for the home opener Tuesday night against Anaheim, but seats are still available. That hasn't been the case in the past. Almost 90 percent of season tickets were renewed, but that's a bit down from the usual rate.
"It's never been the goal to extend this sellout streak, but rather to provide a total entertainment experience for our fans," vice president for communications and broadcasting Bill Robertson said. He added: "Someday this current sellout streak will be broken, and we will then start up with hopefully a new streak. It again goes to the great hockey market we live and work in, and the passionate Wild fan base."
They're banking on this faster pace to help refuel that passion.