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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The message from the Minnesota Wild since Jacques Lemaire left with his trapping, conservative style has been this: They want to be a more exciting team that is equally difficult to play against.
Neither of those goals were met during the last two seasons while Todd Richards was the coach. Now Mike Yeo has taken over, and there’s a cake-and-eat-it-too mentality in the front office: They’re trying to build a championship contender but also become an immediately more competitive team.
After missing the playoffs for a third straight year, the Wild fired Richards, two seasons after the resignation of Lemaire, the franchise’s first coach. Yeo represents the reset button for general manager Chuck Fletcher, who made the obvious but blunt observation last spring that this was a losing team without a top prospect.
“There’s no way we could compete with the top teams in this league with the talent pool we had at the end of last year,” Fletcher said. “We feel we’ve added a lot of young pieces. Some of those pieces will play this year and some will play over the next two to three seasons. That was the main mandate going into the season.”
Fletcher has made a series of trades to restock the system, but he also made some moves with instant rewards in mind. Dany Heatley, who has two 50-goal seasons on his resume, was acquired from San Jose. In a separate deal, his friend and speedy new linemate Devin Setoguchi was fetched from the Sharks.
They’ll play next to center Mikko Koivu, the gritty captain the Wild have built their foundation on. After ranking 26th in the NHL last season in goals, with an average of only 2.48 per game, Minnesota’s revamped attack will start and end with these guys.
“If we get enough chances, we’re going to score goals,” Heatley said.
As for the high expectations?
“It’s nothing new. That’s your job, and people are going to expect that. I’m excited about it,” Heatley said.
He’s just as giddy to have his buddy Setoguchi here with him.
“I don’t think there’s a sense we’re the savior or anything,” said Setoguchi, who scored 73 goals for San Jose over the last three seasons. “We’re going to bring what we can do and play how we can play. That’s all we can control.”
Spoken precisely how the coach would want it.
“I’m not a guy that focuses on results. I’m not going to ask Dany Heatley to score 40 goals or 50 goals,” Yeo said. “To me, it’s all about going out and doing the right things day in and day out, being a good leader, being a good teammate. If you do those things the goals will come, the results will come.”
Behind them will be another line with scoring potential. Matt Cullen will center now-concussion-symptom-free Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse, who is coming off an injury-wrecked season that began with him showing up to training camp out of shape. Latendresse had 25 goals in 55 games for the Wild the season before.
All-Star Brent Burns, who was traded for Setoguchi, must be replaced on defense. Marek Zidlicky, Mike Lundin, Greg Zanon and Nick Schultz will be asked to log the most minutes and protect goalie Niklas Backstrom. The blue line is arguably the biggest question mark surrounding this team.
Darroll Powe, a free agent signing formerly of the Philadelphia Flyers, is on the checking line with Kyle Brodziak and so is the league’s hits leader three seasons running, Cal Clutterbuck.
Former first-round draft pick like Colton Gillies, who played for Yeo in the AHL last season with the Houston Aeros, appears to be on the verge of finally sticking with the Wild and is one of the sleeper candidates to contribute.
They’ve all been busy this month picking up the “north mentality” that Yeo wants the Wild to play with, an aggressively forechecking front line with defensemen who are quick to move the puck up the ice.
“We want to play a real structured game, but a very aggressive game. I always want the other team to feel like they’re under pressure, while at the same time feeling they have no options with the puck,” Yeo said. “If we’re doing the job well, whatever zone we’re in we should be putting them under pressure, and hopefully arriving there with a bad temper and putting them through the glass, if you want to put it that way.”
Fletcher praised Yeo’s energy, presence and communication skills when describing the buzz he’s helped create around the organization. There’s always optimism this time of year, though, so there’s no point in trying to use Yeo’s demeanor as a barometer of where the Wild might finish in the standings.
“Everyone wants to talk about the end of the season and results and where we’re going to be and what we have to do. If we lose sight of the process, we’re done,” Fletcher said. “The last two years, to me, we’ve fallen apart at the end because we weren’t a strong enough team. All our focus has to be on becoming a good team and getting our players to buy into how we want to play.”
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