For well-traveled center Cliff Ronning, who was acquired by the
Wild in a draft-day trade with the Kings, the appeal of playing
in the Twin Cities was apparent early this preseason. "There are
18,000 people for exhibition games--the place is always sold-out,"
Ronning says of the Xcel Energy Center. "Everybody in the state
must own a pair of ice skates."
The love-fest between the hockey-mad populace and its slowly
improving third-year expansion team--the Wild sold out all of its
home games in its first two seasons--will continue. So too will
the Wild's program of gradually assembling the pieces of a
long-term contender, which means a postseason berth isn't in the
cards in 2002-03. "I've never been the type of coach to say
before the season that we've got to make the playoffs," says
Jacques Lemaire, who has a 51-74-25-14 record with the Wild. "We
have to play well, we have to improve, and at a certain time
we'll feel we have a team to make the playoffs."
In the interim, adding veterans like the 37-year-old Ronning (19
goals, 35 assists) provides strength down the middle and improves
the team's offense--the Wild's 2.38 goals per game ranked 25th in
the league. However, the focal point of the present and future is
20-year-old right wing Marian Gaborik, an explosive scorer and
skilled stickhandler who had a team-high 30 goals plus 37 assists
last season. "He has the potential to hit the 40- to 50-goal
mark," Ronning says. "He has the breakaway speed of Pavel Bure
and the knack for making the best play, like Alexander Mogilny."
Gaborik will likely skate alongside center Sergei Zholtok, while
Ronning and left wing Andrew Brunette (21 goals, team-high 48
assists) should give the Wild a second scoring line.
Minnesota also anticipates a bounce-back year from goalie Manny
Fernandez, 28, who regressed in 2001-02 (3.05 goals-against
average, .892 save percentage) after a strong effort in the
Wild's inaugural year (2.24, .920). "Manny would admit his play
was not consistent," says assistant G.M. Tom Thompson, "but he's
a sound goalie, and the results will be there."
For now, however, Minnesota isn't results-obsessed. All it wants
is steady progress, a modest goal that appears to be in
COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE KLUCKHOHN Marian Gaborik
The Wild was one of three clubs (the Wings and 'Canes were the
others) with at least three players--Andrew Brunette, Marian
Gaborik, Sergei Zholtok--who scored 10 or more PP goals each.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
OFFENSE 23 Limited skill up front after Gaborik and
DEFENSE 25 Obstruction crackdown will expose
GOALTENDING 23 Inconsistent Fernandez is prone to
allowing soft goals
SPECIAL TEAMS 27 Near the bottom in PP and PK success
MANAGEMENT 22 G.M. Risebrough still building team;
needs more talent