Lemaire: Youngsters' development "unreal"
You can see the return of Stephane Veilleux (above), Rickard Wallin and Zbynek Michalek this Saturday at 7 p.m. on Fan Appreciation Night against Grand Rapids.
By Ryan Stanzel
Photos courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn/Minnesota Wild
It seemed as though most were ready to write off the Minnesota Wild during a two week stretch in late February and early March that saw the team trade six veteran players, including Aeros veteran captain Jason Marshall and center Darby Hendrickson, to playoff-contending teams for draft picks.
While the Wild did finish eight points out of the final playoff spot in the National Hockey Leagues Western Conference, the dealings may go down as the most important transactions for the future of Minnesota hockey.
Instead of tanking the rest of the season, the Wild flourished with newly-found ice time for youngsters such as Rickard Wallin, Stephane Veilleux and Zbynek Michalek, who were returned to the Aeros Monday for their playoff run.
Minnesota went 9-3-1-1 in its final 14 games with its young lineup, and it wasnt the only team in the organization improving. Since Veilleux, then Houstons leading scorer, was recalled February 27, the Aeros have only four regulation losses in 16 games (8-4-3-1), as other players stepped up.
Veilleux, a 22-year-old left wing, posted 10 points (2-8=10) in 19 games with the Wild, while Wallin, a 23-year-old center, notched nine points (5-4=9) in 15 games. Michalek, a 21-year-old defenseman in his third stint of the season with Minnesota, had a goal and an assist in 22 games.
The three, who have totaled 149 points with Houston over the last two seasons, combined to have a hand in five of the Wilds seven goals over its last two victories. The wins came over playoff bound teams Dallas and St. Louis.
It was a little scary because when you take the oldest players
(Brad) Bombardir, (Sergei) Zholtok, (Jim) Dowd, (Brad) Brown who did well and replace them with players with no experience at all in the NHL, you dont know what is going to happen, said Minnesota head coach Jacques Lemaire with a twinkle in his eyes Sunday after watching Veilleuxs goal and an assist key a 3-0 home win over St. Louis to end the Wilds season. But how it turned out
look at the way the kids play now. Its unreal.
Wild president and general manager Doug Risebrough is quick to point out that its what the trio did in Houston, and subsequently in Minnesota, that led to their opportunities.
Its not just that an opportunity opened up and they are playing, said Risebrough, also with a smile just minutes after watching Veilleux poke home a power-play goal started by 19-year-old converted defenseman Brent Burns, who played one game with the Aeros this season. If they werent playing well, wed find other players. At the end of the day, the players determine who is playing where.
Risebrough shares Lemaires sentiments that the deals helped the Wild, probably sooner than originally thought.
It shows a sense of conviction that what we did was the right thing to do, said Risebrough, noting other teams like the New York Rangers that didnt improve so drastically after trading away veterans. When you are making trades, very few teams are willing to part with prospects, because they are all trying to make them into NHL players.
We went from being one of the oldest to the third or fourth youngest team in the league, he added. I believe there are at least two more players in Houston that could play right now on this team, but we dont have the spots for them.
The fact that the Wild dropped out of serious playoff consideration a month ago helped Lemaire play the Aeros three in different situations on the power play, penalty killing, in overtime. Wallins first NHL game in more than one full season saw him centering a line with Veilleux and star Marian Gaborik.
Wallin is a player who grows on me unbelievably, said Lemaire, who saw the Swedish centerman notch two goals and an assist in last Fridays 4-2 win over Dallas, a game that helped keep the Stars out of a home-ice advantage for their first-round playoff series with Colorado. You really have to look at the player to appreciate the kid. With Veilleux, its easy. Hes like (Wild assistant coach Mario) Tremblay, he plays with nerve and energy. Its easy to see that he works hard. But with Wallin, hes all finesse. Every time he gets the puck, hes doing good things. If he can start next season playing like this, itll be great.
Lemaire and his staff know that the key to continued progression will be continued improvement, and not regression.
We have to talk to these kids about next year, coming into camp in great, great shape, the shape they are in now, he said. If they do that they can start to play with this confidence early.
(The last month) showed they can play, Lemaire added. They have that in their mind. What Im more scared of is that they feel like they have made it, and dont take it as seriously as they should this summer and arrive out of shape. Then we will suffer.
The Wild staff made sure that point was stressed on the players. They told us to have a good summer but stay in shape, said Wallin. Its always nice to have those good memories for the tough workouts in the summer. It makes it easier.
Risebrough believes the improvement he saw in Wallin, Veilleux and Michalek in previous stints was mainly due to one item.
The biggest thing is probably maturity, he said. A lot of players think you have to do a lot to get up here and stay. I wouldnt say that. You have to do a little really well. All three have come to realize that.
They are not as much in awe either. But they are allowed to make a few mistakes. It forces them to be more relaxed.
The trio has been allowed to make mistakes. In overtime against Phoenix March 22, Wallins turnover led to the Coyotes game-winning goal, while Michalek was out of position to get back to take away the breakaway. But it didnt stop the Wild from putting the same players out there in the same situations.
Every mistake you make, they tell you what you did wrong and help you, said Veilleux. They teach you that you have to be a consistent player instead of being up and down.
You have to play more aggressive in the American Hockey League, added Risebrough. This is a smarter league. Effort alone doesnt solve things. You have to think your way through the game too.
The veteran players remaining on the Wild enjoyed the shot in the arm.
Its nice to see the young guys come in and all the excitement they bring, said Andrew Brunette, who himself played five minor-league seasons in places such as ECHL Hampton Roads and AHL Portland and Providence before finding his niche as an NHL regular.
Lemaire believes that as much as the younger players learn from the veterans, the older Wild can take some things from the kids.
The second half was fun. Its great to work with the kids because they listen quite a bit, said Lemaire. When a guy gets to a certain level, the routine of the coaches telling you the same thing no longer works. The kids arent like that. These players want to be in the NHL so much, theyll listen to anything. Its great for the older guys too. They need some support to bring the team to the top level.
The Wild, which will embark on its fifth season in 2004-05, is finally in the position of using the talent it has cultivated from early drafts.
The philosophy has to be in the organization right from the start, said Risebrough. Its comforting knowing that were in the right place with the right people, the coaches and the fans, to develop our players in Houston.
Wallin, Veilleux and Michalek will now try to parlay the last months experiences into a return run to the Calder Cup title.
Without a doubt theyll help us, said Aeros head coach Todd McLellan. Theyve been a big part of our success throughout this season and of course last. The playoff experience they went through together will be valuable. With that being said, the character of each of them is very strong, so I dont think there is the potential for a letdown or a situation where they arent prepared to give us everything they have. I think theyre going to come down very energized and excited and even pull along some other people with them.
You always have to be careful how you feel when you come back down, said Wallin. You have to make sure youre ready to play and work hard. Its a different game. You cant think that because you had success up there, it will be easy here.
Veilleux, who had spent the most games of the three in Minnesota prior to February, was Houstons leading post-season scorer in its 2003 championship run. Ive been here three years, said Veilleux. The Houston Aeros are my team right now even if Ive played 60 games in those three years in Minnesota. I won a championship with Houston.
While the Aeros pieced together a nice run without the trio, certain parts did suffer.
Wallin, a power-play passing specialist, will be welcomed back onto a man-advantage unit that is 4-for-56 over its last 10 games. The last time Wallin came back from a lengthy absence in the lineup, he sparked Houston to three power-play goals in a 4-1 win over Grand Rapids February 18.
Veilleux, meanwhile, brings energy to a penalty kill unit that has allowed two power play goals in three of its last six games.
Were hoping the power play comes around, said McLellan. Theres no doubt that our special teams have struggled a bit. Theyll help, but there are also other players who are going to be on the ice that have been here through the struggles and will have to polish their game as well. We cant overextend the pressure on the there guys. Others have to do the job themselves.
It was great to play in the NHL, said Michalek. We can only profit from it. We got confidence and can hopefully use it back here in the playoffs. Im happy to have been given the chance to play and I learned a lot from it.
They told us they were happy with the way we played, said Wallin. The team did really well, and now we hope to come here and help this team continue to play well too.
Its clear now that the future for both the Wild and the Aeros is much brighter than a month ago.
I've always said that we will have a good team when we draft kids and they become top players, said Lemaire. Weve got (Gaborik) and more players who are close. When these guys are among the top players in the league, well have a team for a long time.