In one of last season's more memorable exchanges, Penguins center
Mario Lemieux ripped Wild coach Jacques Lemaire last February
after a game in which Minnesota's neutral-zone trap had
suffocated Lemieux. "That's not what we're trying to sell to the
fans," Lemieux said, complaining about the Wild's overly
defensive style. Responded the 55-year-old Lemaire, a former
All-Star center for the Canadiens, "If we're not allowed to
check, I'm going to make a comeback. I [can] play in this league
if nobody touches me."
Lemaire had little choice but to employ that system because his
expansion team was virtually devoid of skilled players. Nobody in
Minnesota was displeased. The team sold out every home game, and
the players never beefed. "A lot of guys said it was the most fun
year they'd ever had," says G.M. Doug Risebrough. "That is a big
component in this business."
The notion that camaraderie can help breed success might sound
hokey, but what else besides Lemaire's system can explain how a
squad that didn't have a 20-goal scorer could earn 68 points in
the standings in its first season? The Wild's leading scorer,
with 36 points, was highly touted rookie wing Marian Gaborik, an
18-year-old who had 18 goals and 18 assists. He'll get some help
this year from left wing Andrew Brunette, a free-agent signee who
proved he could put up good numbers for a bad team (15 goals and
44 assists for the Thrashers last season).
Defensively the Wild is solid. Late last season Risebrough even
traded a pair of veteran backliners and free-agents-to-be, Sean
O'Donnell and Curtis Leschyschyn, providing the opportunity for a
pair of promising blueliners, Filip Kuba and Willie Mitchell, to
gain experience. On those occasions when the neutral-zone trap
was broken, Lemaire's nephew goalie Manny Fernandez came to the
rescue. Fernandez had a .920 save percentage (tied for sixth in
the league) and 2.24 goals-against average in his first season as
a No. 1 netminder.
In August, Fernandez took the Wild to arbitration and was awarded
a team-high $3 million deal over two seasons. With Minnesota
again expected to have difficulty scoring, any possibility the
Wild has to improve on last year's 25 victories will depend on
whether Fernandez earns that money.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Manny Fernandez, Wild
In 2000-01 the Wild was shut out a league-high 14 times and
finished last in the NHL in scoring, with 2.05 goals per game.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 28 Lacking snipers, Wild won't win high-scoring
DEFENSE 14 No-name group excellent at sticking to game
GOALTENDING 18 Can Fernandez carry Minnesota for 60 games?
SPECIAL TEAMS 29 PP poor; PK reliable because of good coaching
MANAGEMENT 20 With Lemaire behind bench, Wild works hard