Wild ride for an expansion team

In an era when contraction has become the buzzword in hockey and baseball, the Minnesota Wild has emerged as an exemplary expansion franchise.

From the time it came into the National Hockey League in 2000-01, filling the void left by the desertion of the North Stars, who went to Dallas in 1993, the Wild has been playing before capacity crowds at the Xcel Energy Center.

And now, in only its third season, the Wild has evolved into an artistic success as well as a financially robust venture. Defying the notion that money is needed to buy a playoff berth, the team with the lowest payroll among the NHL’s 30 franchises is in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

Whiz kid Marian Gaborik and a collection of no-name teammates, with an aggregate income of $20,491,250, have been skating neck-and-neck with defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit, with a $68,005,506 payroll and a roster studded with future Hall of Famers, and 2001 champion Colorado, which shells out $60,070,926 in annual salaries and flaunts several of the world’s finest players.

“On paper we’re not as good as other teams, but when I step on the ice I feel confident in our team because we have a system that gives us the opportunity to be right there,” center Cliff Ronning said, a 17-year NHL veteran who came last summer in a trade with Los Angeles and whose $1,850,000 salary makes him the Wild’s highest-paid player.

The second coming of the NHL to Minnesota has a strong Montreal accent. Executive vice president and general manager Doug Risebrough, coach Jacques Lemaire and assistant coach Mario Tremblay were part of the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s.

After stints as a player-coach in Switzerland and with Longueuil of the Quebec Junior League, Lemaire returned to the NHL and became the Canadiens’ coach late in the 1983-84 season, remaining with them through the following year. He then moved into the front office. Lemaire returned to coaching with New Jersey in 1993, spending five years there and leading the Devils to the 1995 Stanley Cup championship.

Lemaire, 57, was semi-retired and working as a senior consultant with Montreal when Risebrough asked him if he wanted to come to Minnesota and help start a team from scratch.

“I had a few reservations,” Lemaire said.

“First of all, the general manager was very important for me. I needed a person who would share my feelings, my thoughts about the game, somebody I knew in the past. I knew the way he played. I figured I could get along easily with Doug. I knew his thoughts. He would see the players the way I see them, which is important.

“The second part is getting to a new team bothered me. I love to win, but when I lose my life is different. I shouldn’t bring my work home, but I do. If we don’t play well, I don’t have a good day until we do. It’s not only not having a good day at work; it’s everywhere.”

The Wild’s next major move came at the 2000 draft when it took Gaborik, a precocious teenager who’d demonstrated a flair for scoring in his country’s Senior League. “We got lucky in two ways,” said Risebrough. “We got the player we liked the most, and it was a really good draft year. As your team develops, the toughest thing is offense. So to get a key component in our first pick was really hopeful.”

When Gaborik came to training camp that September he was a one-dimensional offensive player, and Lemaire didn’t think he’d make the team. But when Gaborik also showed a willingness to work on his defense, Lemaire decided to keep him. Gaborik had an outstanding rookie season and a brilliant second year. Now, in 56 games, he has 26 goals and 26 assists. “He is just scratching the surface,” Lemaire said.

At the All-Star Game, in which Gaborik had a goal and two assists, Pittsburgh’s president and resident superstar, Mario Lemieux, called the right wing who turned 21 Friday “one of the four or five best players in the game.”

Three other draft choices are on the Wild’s roster. Ten players were signed as free agents, seven came in trades, three in the expansion draft and another on waivers.

Throughout his coaching career, defense has been a hallmark of Lemaire’s teams. And the Wild, which excels in the neutral-zone trap, has by far the best defense in the Western Conference. Deviating from his past practice, Lemaire has been alternating goalies. It’s bringing out the best in Dwayne Roloson (1.93 goals-against average and .930 save percentage) and Manny Fernandez (2.27 and .925).

“Their coach has structure and a system and their players have bought into it,” Chicago Blackhawks coach Brian Sutter said. “They’re one of the quickest teams in the league. They give everybody trouble, not just us. It doesn’t surprise me one bit to see where they are. They had one of the best records in the league the second half of last season.”