Wild trims roster, heads overseas on a losing note
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - After a listless 4-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday closed the NHL portion of their preseason with a winless record, the Minnesota Wild headed straight to the airport, and fled the country.
The Wild will spend the next week-plus in and around Helsinki, playing one preseason game versus Finnish team Ilves Tempere and two regular season games versus the Carolina Hurricanes. Most players and team officials said it should be a memorable October adventure, which is needed after what has been a truly forgettable September.
There are certainly no awards given for being the best NHL team in the preseason (bad news for the Calgary Flames, who are 5-0-0 thus far in games that count for nothing). But that doesn't mean that anyone playing for or coaching the Wild finds the team's 0-4-2 preseason record to be acceptable.
"Dig yourself a hole early, and it's tough to get out of," said Wild coach Todd Richards, who was speaking of Thursday's game, but unintentionally offering up a microcosm of his first season behind the Wild bench. Last year the Wild won just three of its first dozen games, and entered the 2010 training camp determined to make a better fist impression this time around - a mission that was clearly not accomplished.
"It seems like we're waiting, and I don't know what we're waiting for," Richards said. "It can't be something where we say 'OK, let's turn it on now, and let's go.' It's going to be too late."
After sending a handful of players to the minor league team in Houston this week - including defenseman Marco Scandella, who played on Thursday and was demoted after the game - general manager Chuck Fletcher said he's satisfied with the 24-player roster that boarded the Finland-bound charter later Thursday night, but hinted that he will keep tinkering as well.
"This is our team right now, but tomorrow we could get a phone call and we reserve the right to make sudden changes," Fletcher said, noting that there were six regulars missing due to injury on Thursday, and he only realistically expects four of them back within the next month. Most notably, Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Marek Zidlicky got a few extra hours to pack on Thursday, hopeful of suiting up in Finland. Defenseman Brent Burns left Thursday's game in the third period, with what Richards called a tweak in his back, but is expected to be at full strength for the regular season opener.
Of the players sent down, Fletcher said that there were relatively few tough decisions, as the line between those ready for prime time and those who need more seasoning was readily apparent in most cases.
"The players sort of make the decisions for us, so I wouldn't say it's been particularly difficult," Fletcher said, saying that he's happy with the number of first- and second-year pros in the organization who will be good down the road, but aren't ready now. "We've had some competition but things sort themselves out."
For the players who remain on the big team's roster, there's growing frustration that their on-ice efforts haven't been reflected on the scoreboard.
"We're not good enough right now," said forward Matt Cullen, who scored his second goal of the preseason on Thursday. "We're working our butts off but the bottom line is we haven't played well enough to deserve a win. We have a significant amount of work to do in the next eight days, and fortunately none of these count."
Cullen was one of the two dozen players who made the voyage to Helsinki. One more player will be cut there (but will stay with the team for the duration of the trip) for a final regular season roster of 23. And German goaltender Dennis Endras will join the team for three days in Finland, to work with goaltending coach Bob Mason and serve as an emergency backup in case either Niklas Backstrom or Anton Khudobin is injured.
And after all of the overseas travel is concluded, the Wild home opener is just two weeks away - Oct. 14 versus Edmonton.
"We're looking forward to getting the team away," Fletcher said.