With rookie phenoms Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby posting ridiculous point totals this year, the performances of other first-year players generally paled in comparison. The Wild did, however, receive notable contributions from their rookies and, while their statistics will not draw superlative accolades from around the league, the true future of the team has started to become the present.
A player who was a major part of that transition, and who was finally able to showcase his talent for the Wild faithful this season, was first-year center Mikko Koivu. After spending three of the past four seasons in Finland, Koivu debuted this season by spending a majority of his ice time centering a line comprised of fellow rookie Derek Boogaard and hardnosed winger Kyle Wanvig. It was an energy line that, toward the end of the year, provided much in the way of forechecking and keeping opponents pinned in their own zone but lacked the offensive cohesiveness to provide true scoring opportunities.
Although Koivu only accumulated six goals and 15 helpers this year, he gained enough of coach Jacques Lemaire’s trust in his one-on-one scoring prowess that Lemaire elected to have Koivu participate in shootouts. In the high-pressure situations, the rookie center often displayed his proficiency at puckhandling by quickly transferring from his forehand to a backhanded wrister that fooled opposing goaltenders and lit the lamp a club-leading four times in six opportunities. At only 23, Koivu has more than enough time to develop his game, most notably his faceoff percentage which topped out at 47.4 percent this season, and blossom into a consistent point-producing center, especially if he finds himself on a line with wingers who can provide improved offensive support.
Boogaard, who was never expected to have as much of an influence as Koivu on the scoresheet when he joined the team, made a different kind of impact on the ice this year. Taking only 15 shots throughout the course of 65 games, Boogaard filled the role of enforcer quite nicely by garnering a substantially club-leading 158 PIMs this season, never wavering to fling the gloves to the ice to protect a teammate. Although Boogaard’s eagerness to scrap with opposing players came as no surprise, his skating proficiency proved to be an unexpected bonus, a must with teams’ heightened importance on speed that has become so prevalent in today’s NHL.
Another player whose productive output on the team surprised even the Wild’s front office was Kurtis Foster. A defenseman who was called up as an emergency fill-in early in the season, Foster created such a positive impression on the coaching staff with his seemingly endless endurance and willingness to fire the biscuit from the point that he became a mainstay on the blue line. Leading all Wild defensemen with 10 goals and 28 points, Foster can more than likely attribute his proclivity for scoring to his lack of hesitation in firing the puck on goal when he had a chance, taking 124 shots throughout the course of the season.
A player like Foster who made a lasting impression was the rookie netminder called up near the end of the year to take Dwayne Roloson’s place, Josh Harding. Winning in a shutout against the Blues in his first NHL game, and following up that performance with a shutout against the Blackhawks, Harding gave Wild fans a reason to get excited during the waning games of a disappointing season. What was so extraordinary about the 21-year-old goaltending prospect’s performance was the fact Harding was able to contribute impressively after riding the bench for more than four weeks behind Manny Fernandez as the Wild struggled toward a postseason berth. Harding finished the season with a 2.59 GAA and .904 save percentage in three games.
Matt Foy, who was with the Wild off and on throughout the year and was able to contribute five points in 19 games but who never had a chance to establish any rhythm, and Erik Reitz, a defenseman who joined the club after injuries depleted the team’s defensive corps, rounded out the first-year players who were called up late in the year to provide the front office with an opportunity to start thinking early about the Wild’s roster next year.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.