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5 questions for the new season

By Tim Droogsma

As the Minnesota Wild prepare to open training camp, they face the most uncertainty they’ve seen since their inaugural 2000-2001 campaign. After missing the playoffs last season and losing their most exciting player to free agency, here are five questions Wild fans should be asking:

1) Is the rookie GM ready to run a team? Chuck Fletcher certainly has the pedigree and experience that would lead you to believe he will be a successful general manager. The son of long-time NHL executive Cliff Fletcher, Chuck has been around the game his entire life. Although he’s only 41 years old, he has 16 years of NHL experience in the front offices of Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh, and his role in building the Stanley Cup Champion Penguins shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s his first time in the GM’s seat, however, and with his team up against the salary cap, every move needs to be a good one.

2)Is the rookie coach ready for the NHL? Todd Richards’ career has some parallels with that of Fletcher. They’re both young, they’ve both had success in lesser roles, and both are getting their first test in the big job. Richards – a Minnesota native who starred at Armstrong High School and the University of Minnesota – had a 12-year career as a pro player, but it was mostly in the minors. (He played just eight NHL games with the Hartford Whalers.) He went into coaching, and took Pittsburgh’s AHL team to the Calder Cup finals in 2008. Last year he was an assistant with San Jose, and the Sharks posted the NHL’s best regular-season record. Again, the resume looks good, but when you’re replacing Jacques Lemaire – who has 11 Stanley Cup rings and was the only coach in Wild history – people will be watching closely.

3) Who’s going to score goals? Marian Gaborik – the last remaining original Wild player and owner of virtually every team scoring record – left via free agency and is now a New York Ranger. Scoring goals has been an issue for the team the past few seasons, and the top two returning goal scorers are 37-year-old Owen Nolan (25 goals in 08-09) and Andrew Brunette, who scored 22 last season but is 36 years old and coming off knee surgery. To bolster the offense the Wild signed free agent Martin Havlat. The 28-year-old had 29 goals last season and 169 in his career. Richards says he wants to play a more up-tempo, aggressive style than the Wild played under Lemaire, but it’s not at all clear he has the horsepower to do so.

4) Where will Josh Harding end up? Harding is 25 years old, and most NHL people believe he’s ready to become a #1 goaltender, but in Minnesota he’s stuck behind Niklas Backstrom, an All-Star and recent recipient of a four-year, $24 million contract extension. Harding will be making $1.1 million this year, and is one of the few players Fletch can dangle as trade bait as he tries to find another scorer. It seems likely that Harding will have a successful NHL career, but it seems unlikely that it will be in Minnesota.

5) Will the “Team of 18,000” show up every night? The Wild have sold out all 365 pre-season, regular-season and post-season games in their history. The Xcel Energy Center is one of the finest facilities in all of sports, and the team claims 16,500 season ticket holders and a 7,500-name waiting list for a building that calls 18,064 a sellout. Last year, however, there was plenty of grumbling among the fans about the perceived defensive style of the team, the Marian Gaborik situation and missing the playoffs after winning a division title in 2007-08. In a tough economy, with most of the few available single-game seats $65 or higher, there’s some question as to whether every game will sell out, even in hockey-mad Minnesota. The Wild has stepped up their advertising this fall, which would seem to indicate that they recognize the risk.