Many expected that teams like the Minnesota Wild that were built on defense would suffer as a result of the NHL’s new rules. That hasn’t been the case though as Minnesota opened the season with an extremely hot start. The hot start has cooled considerably as the Wild have lost some of their top players to injuries and now boast a 8-7-2 record.
“It’s too bad now that we’re missing three of our top scorers, but I feel the rules that they’re enforcing are good for us because we’re a small team with good skaters,” said Wild Head Coach Jacques Lemaire.
The injury-laden team was recently bolstered when center Mikko Koivu, younger brother to Montreal Canadiens star Saku, returned from a knee injury. The 22-year-old spent last season in the AHL with the Houston Aeros where in his first professional season he ranked second on the team in goals (20) and third in assists (28) in 67 games. He represented the Aeros in the AHL’s All Star game where he scored a goal and an assist.
Koivu was expected to make the opening day roster before he was injured and he’s proved he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL. In his first game back, he forced a turnover and rushed in on hot, young Sharks goaltender Nolan Schaefer with Wild teammate Alexander Daigle at his side. He was denied in that attempt but wouldn’t be against Anaheim the very next night. He helped the Wild finish off the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim by scoring his first NHL goal and later in the night scored again in the shootout to help lead the Wild to a victory and earn an extra point.
“Of course it’s huge to get the first goal in the league and shootouts are always tough, but this time we won and that’s always good to have the extra point,” said Koivu.
And although the 6’2 205-pound center is already scoring goals, he is still adjusting to the NHL after being sidelined for the first 14 games of the season.
“I had five weeks out so it’s always different in practice than it is in the games. It’s quicker but once I got comfortable and got a feel for the puck, it got easier. Of course the first shift especially after you get injured is always hard but I just have to be patient to get my game going and feel comfortable,” said Koivu.
Wild Head Coach Jacques Lemaire can already see improvements in Koivu’s play after just two games.
“He played better. Not because he scored, I just felt that he was more solid. It was harder to play against him.”
The entire Wild team has been hard to play against and not just because of their goal scoring. They are one of a shrinking number of teams that still employ a fighter. The league’s decision to focus on skill and scoring has meant the virtual extinction of the enforcer’s role. In fact, some of the most frequent fighters of the 2003-04 season (Mike Johnson, and Garrett Burnett) are no longer in the league.
However, Minnesota left wing Derek Boogaard is beating the odds. The 23-year-old has managed to earn and keep his roster spot even when 14-year veteran Andrei Nazarov could not. This may be surprising considering that Boogaard is playing in his first NHL season and has spent the past two seasons in the AHL where he has earned over 200 penalty minutes each year.
“He’s here because first of all he can skate and he plays decent. He’s getting better and we needed a tougher player because some teams abuse our small players. So if they want to abuse them then they will have to answer to this guy,” said Lemaire.
While Lemaire can still see a necessity for the fighter on an NHL team, he, like other NHL coaches, wanted more than just a one dimensional player.
“At the end of last year when I was down in Houston, [the coaches] said ‘you know, you’ve got to be able to play now because they think that the rules are going to change and the game’s going to be a lot quicker. So I had to prepare myself in the summer and lose a couple of pounds so I could keep up with the pace,” said Boogaard.
The extra work this summer has paid off as the 6’7 left wing has earned himself a regular spot on the team’s fourth line.
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