Wild 2008 training camp preview

By Alessandro Seren Rosso

The Wild will open training camp on Sept. 20th at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. They will open training camp there this season as a result of the Xcel Energy Center hosting the Republican National Convention, Sept. 1-4, and the move out from the arena following the event. A total of 39 players — four goalkeepers, 13 defenders and 22 forwards — will attend the camp, but the first preseason match is scheduled for Thursday Sept. 18th, against the Detroit Red Wings.

The complete preseason schedule is the following:

Sept. 24 – Buffalo Sabres at the Ralph Engelstad Arena   
Sept. 26 – St. Louis Blues at the Xcel Energy Center
Sept. 28 – St. Louis Blues at the Scottrade Center
Sept. 30 – Chicago Blackhawks at the Xcel Energy Center
Oct. 1 – Buffalo Sabres     Xcel Energy Center    
Oct. 3 – Columbus Blue Jackets     Nationwide Arena    
Oct. 4 – Montreal Canadiens     Bell Centre    

The preseason matches will be a good benchmark to see how the young players perform, where the newcomers can fit in the new lineup, and who can be the first player called up after an injury.

Goaltenders

Thirty-year-old Nicklas Backstrom is expected to be the team’s starter after the solid 2007-08 campaign, while Josh Harding is likely to retain his backup role. Nolan Schaefer, in his sixth AHL season and Barry Brust, in his fourth, will be the goaltending tandem for AHL affiliate Houston Aeros and probably will share some time with Russian/Kazakh goaltender Anton Khudobin who looked very good last year with the Texas Wildcatters of the ECHL, winning the award for the Best Goalkeeper of the league. He also got some good AHL experience, playing in 12 Aeros games and thus the Wild might be interested in seeing how he develops at the higher level of the American Hockey League.

Defenders

The acquisitions of the offensive defenseman Marek Zidlicky, via trade with Nashville, and Marc-Andre Bergeron, traded from the Anaheim Ducks, lock two of the six NHL spots in the Wild’s defensive corps, who will feature also Kim Johnsson, Nick Shultz and Martin Skoula. The sixth spot is likely to be shared between Brent Burns and Kurtis Foster, though Foster will not return from last year’s leg injury for several more weeks. Injury-plagued Clayton Stoner will try to finally break the NHL roster, and the same will be done by Tomas Mojzis, a Czech offensive defenseman just signed from Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL who never had a real chance in the world’s top league. 2008 draftees Tyler Cuma and Marco Scandella will play in the Traverse City Tournament and then will go back to their junior teams, the Ottawa 67s of the OHL and Val d’Or Foreurs of the QMJHL, respectively. After completing his junior career, big Justin Falk, a 2007 fourth rounder, will have his chance in Traverse City and then will have a spot with the Aeros. He hasn’t been invited to the main camp.

Forwards

After the loss of Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra, coach Jacques Lemaire and his staff will need to shuffle the lines. Free agency saw the return of Andrew Brunette from the Colorado Avalanche and the acquisitions of Owen Nolan from Calgary and Antti Miettinen from Dallas. Jesse Schultz, cousin of the defender Nick Schultz, has been brought in for AHL depth, while Krys Kolanos might have better chances after his good 2007-08 season with the Quad City Flames of the AHL.

Other regular spots will be held onto by veterans Marian Gaborik, Stephane Veilleux, Eric Belanger, Mikko Koivu, James Sheppard, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Craig Weller. This season will be the key one for Benoit Pouliot. Considered a top prospect in his draft year, Pouliot hasn’t lived up to the expectations as his AHL career so far hasn’t been stellar. In the NHL, he played a total of 14 games, collecting only three points. The gifted forward might have been overlooked as a junior, but he has all the tools to become a good top-six player, but he has to show it this year.

Agitator Cal Clutterbuck will start the season in Houston, being a top candidate for an call-up as he can fit well in the checking lines of the team. Another couple of promising forwards call-up bound are the Czech Petr Kalos and Ryan Hamilton, two scoring line type of players who can break in the NHL lineup if they manage to keep their development going. The same could be said for Danny Irmen, but he’s already 23. He could have the tools to succeed in maintaining an NHL roster spot, but it’s more likely that the Wild will give opportunities to younger players. Morten Madsen and Cody Almond haven’t been invited to the camp at this time.