State of the Wild? Turnaround needed to keep packing 'em in

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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They call Minnesota the "State of Hockey," which makes for a nice tag line, and probably an accurate one when you consider the region's nation-best participation at all levels of the sports. So really it was a no-brainer for the NHL to give the area a new franchise after the original one left for Dallas a few years earlier.

That was 2000. Since then, Minnesota has become one of the most valuable franchises in the NHL, benefiting nicely from the inherent advantage of being in a geographically desirable location with an accessible new state-of-the-art arena. It hasn't translated into any real progress on the ice -- only three playoff appearances and two series victories -- but the organization hasn't been hurt business wise in large part because of a fan base willing to accept some growing pains.

Until now it seems.

Minnesota's success greatly depends on the play of G Niklas Backstrom. (Getty Images)  
Minnesota's success greatly depends on the play of G Niklas Backstrom. (Getty Images)  
The Wild has sold out every game it has played at Xcel Energy Center but could see that streak broken when it plays host to Edmonton in the home opener Thursday. Minnesota was about 3,000 short of capacity for the final game of its preseason and, after a couple of losses in Finland last week to open the regular schedule, has forced to advertise heavily the availability of tickets for the Oilers game.

"That's understandable, but you have to remember we sold out 409 games in a row and we should be over 18,000 [Thursday]," general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "We sell more tickets than most teams in the league. A lot of them would love to be our position because everyone knows our fan base is one of the best in the league, but it's a tough economy out there."

Of course some people might be more inclined to part with their dollars if the Wild had a nice little run to start things off in North America. That would help erase the dismal memory of last season and is so critical in a league where points lost early tend to haunt teams when playoff races end.

"Every team wants to have a good start because probably only a few can have a bad one and still be fine," Fletcher said. "There's not a lot of separation between teams, so if you get negative momentum, it's tough to swing it around."

Minnesota learned that lesson a year ago in the first stage of a major transition, with a new general manager, a new coach and no franchise player for the first time since joining the league. The fit wasn't easy, and the Wild got off to a 3-9 start, getting buried by the time the first month was over. They finished 13th in the West with a lineup that ended in the bottom 10 in both offense and defense.

"We all know there's a lot of work to do," said center Matt Cullen

More on the Wild

Maybe too much to imagine things being much be better this season, which fan apathy seems to suggest, on the surface at least. Minnesota's lineup has some quality and relatively young talent with forward Mikko Koivu, defenseman Brett Burns and goalie Niklas Backstrom, and Fletcher has tweaked things since taking over, signing six free agents including veterans Cullen and John Madden this past summer. But with an 0-4-2 record in the preseason, and then two losses to Carolina in Helsinki, Minnesota still comes home amid more doubt than optimism.

Throw in the pressure of an owner who has said he expects a playoff appearance, and the mindset of a general manager who is trying to stay competitive while focusing more on the future, and you have a recipe for a long season.

Fletcher insists his team can contend for a playoff spot, arguing the Wild has made bigger strides than most people realize in the past year. Among them has been a revamping of the scouting and development departments, an influx of young players and draft picks into the system and, most important, a training camp Fletcher described as being more of a refresher than a crash course on how the team was going to play.

"I think we're much better position now than we were at this time last season," Fletcher said. "Our camp was much better because it was about continuity and chemistry, and we're a much closer team because by going to Finland, we were able to bond in a way we didn't last year.

"To me, we're more organized and more cohesive now, and that's what you want. But at the end of the day, you have to win games."

A young Wild fan adjusts a paper helmet prior to the season opener. (Getty Images)  
A young Wild fan adjusts a paper helmet prior to the season opener. (Getty Images)  
Quickly, too. And no one knows that better than Todd Richards, whose name often tops lists predicting which coach will be fired first. In his second year, he has been philosophical about his situation, recognizing that the team has had a tough time adapting to a system that is much more wide-open than predecessor Jacques Lemaire's.

Richards also knows his record leaves him with little leeway for another slow start, especially since eight of Minnesota's next 10 games will be at home, and the Wild's recent hiring of former Penguins coach Michel Therrien as a pro scout creates the potential for a quick and neat transition.

"That's the reality for everyone in pro sports," Richards said. "There's nothing you can do about that except control what you can control. For me, that's the guys in the locker room."

Still, Richards did say he was encouraged by what he saw from the Wild in the two Helsinki games against Carolina. That was particularly the case in the second, which ended in a shootout loss. Minnesota tightened up defensively and controlled play enough to have won if not for the heroics of Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward. A couple of more efforts like that, and the Wild might have the SRO signs back up

"If we're playing the way we all believe we can play, we'll start to win games," Richards said. "And winning games will take care of filling up the seats."

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