ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild unexpectedly surged to the top of the NHL by early December thanks to goaltending, solid defense and timely goals.
The timely goals would disappear during the second-half swoon and were a direct reflection of the loss of top-six forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse to concussions. Now, entering an important offseason for the franchise, which has missed the playoffs four straight seasons, the status of Bouchard and Latendresse is an interesting question.
Both have shown the ability to be significant pieces for a Wild team that struggles to score. Yet their concussion symptoms have lingered, leaving their status in doubt going forward. Concussions have become a hot topic in sports, and now it’s hitting home for Minnesota. The two missed a combined 111 games this season due to concussions.
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“He’s a heck of a hockey player, Pierre-Marc Bouchard,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said at his season-ending press conference. “It’s hard to replace him. It’s hard to find 50-, 60-point guys in the marketplace that you can just airlift in.”
Fletcher said developing more depth will be part of dealing with such injuries.
“Obviously there will be some quality players and we’ll see what we can do and we’ll hope some of our young players can take a step,” Fletcher said. “But it’s not easy to do. Certainly we’re going to try and improve our offense this summer. We’re going to try and improve our depth, and you hope that he’s healthy. If he’s not, then we have to hope we have enough talent and depth to overcome that.
“Again, if it’s a third- or fourth-line player, maybe it’s a lot easier just to have that depth in the system. But when you lose players like Pierre-Marc or Guillaume this year, obviously there’s not players like that in Houston or they’d be in Minnesota. If you have players that talented, they’d normally be playing for you not playing for your farm team waiting for a call.”
Bouchard’s recovery will be watched closely. He was hit into the boards by Winnipeg’s Zach Bogosian on Dec. 13 and suffered facial injuries. Bouchard, 27, missed two games before returning but never felt right. After playing eight more games, he missed the final 41 games of the season with the concussion, which the team said dated back to the Bogosian hit.
Minnesota’s slide coincided perfectly with Bouchard’s original injury.
Adding to the concern is Bouchard’s history. He suffered a concussion late in the 2008-09 season. He played in the season opener in 2009-10 before missing the rest of the year and the first 23 games of the following season, missing a total of 104 games during that stretch. Bouchard is signed through next season at $4.08 million.
Bouchard, the Wild’s first-round pick in the 2002 draft, was ninth on the team with 22 points this season despite playing just 37 games. He was seventh on the team with nine goals and added 13 assists. When the season ended, he had done some light skating on his own but was still experiencing concussion symptoms. Fletcher said his symptoms aren’t as severe as they were in 2009-10.
“He’s way better than where he was in the past, but the fact that he has concussion symptoms still is a problem,” Fletcher said. “He’s a young man. I believe fully that he’ll be healthy again and be able to come back and play and resume his career. There’s no guarantees, but the fact that his symptoms are much better than where they were, they give us hope that he’ll get healthy and he’ll come to camp next year and be ready to go. But there’s no promises and there’s no time frame. It’s tough to guess as to when he’ll come back.”
Minnesota has a little more control over Latendresse’s return. He’s reportedly feeling better after seeing a specialist in Atlanta and he doesn’t have Bouchard’s history with concussions. He’s also set to become a free agent.
Latendresse, who was acquired in November 2009 for former first-round bust Benoit Pouliot, made $2.6 million this season. He missed 62 games because of his concussion. Latendresse was originally hurt Nov. 10 and returned to play two games but left early in his second game back and never returned. He had scored in three straight games prior to his concussion and finished the season with five goals and four assists in just 16 games. His shooting accuracy of 13.9 percent was second on the team for players with at least 14 shots on goal.
Latendresse, 24, was a revelation when he was acquired in 2009, scoring 25 goals in 55 games with the Wild. He signed a two-year, $5 million contract as a result, but his past two seasons have been wiped out by injuries. He played in only 11 games in 2010-11 but still showed his scoring touch with three goals and three assists.
The big power forward (6-foot-2, 234 pounds) is a restricted free agent, and Minnesota can extend him a $2.5 million qualifying offer. More likely, the Wild will either let Latendresse become an unrestricted free agent by not extending him an offer by June 30 or the two sides could try to come to an agreement on a new contract at a lower salary.
“I think Guillaume has made a lot of progress based on what I’ve heard,” Fletcher said. “Obviously, he’s not been able to do a lot of training. So, he’s not close to being in shape, but the fact that he’s improved a lot as of now is a great sign because he’ll have all summer to train, and short of a setback there’s no reason why he can’t be 100 percent and in great shape for training camp.”
Whether that training camp will be in Minnesota is another story. Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.