By Jacob Luft, CNNSI.com
The honeymoon continues in the Twin Cities, where fans never can get enough hockey, even if it is the third-year expansion team variety.
The Wild haven't come close to making the playoffs in their first two years, and probably won't in 2002-03, but you won't find anybody complaining. Having known what it's like to be without an NHL team when the North Stars left for Dallas in 1993, even losing hockey is better than none at all.
How puck crazy are these people? They have sold out every home game in franchise history. When tickets went on sale for the home opener, more than 1,500 fans camped outside the Xcel Energy Center to be first in line at 8 a.m. Almost every seat for every home game this season is already sold.
The team is hoping to reward the fans' enthusiasm with a better product on the ice. Hopes are high after an inaugural season of 68 points that rose to 73 last season.
Piece by piece, the club is building a legitimate NHL offense. Andrew Brunette was brought in before last season and he ended up leading the team in scoring with 69 points. Rookie winger Pascal Dupuis was a revelation, as was center Richard Park.
"I like Ronning's overachieving attitude," general manager Doug Risebrough said. "That's why we acquired him. I'm not expecting him to be our sole source of production. But I do believe that the combinations will benefit him and us."
So there is a good chance the club can build on its total of 195 goals last season, which ranked 25th in the league. As for goals allowed, improving on their ranking of 24th will be difficult, especially when you consider the league's intention to crack down on the clutching and grabbing that trapping teams love to lean on.
"We play a very up-tempo game with lots of skating, we pressure the puck a lot more because we can skate," Risebrough said. "Yes, there are times when we play a lot more defensive, but I guess when you are playing Stanley Cup champions, you should play a little defensive for a team that has been two years in the league."
Ronning has played in 1,017 games, more than twice as many as the team's second-most experienced player, Darby Hendrickson (456). And he also knows how to play on an expansion team, having been with the Predators for most of the past four seasons, before getting dealt to the Kings at the trade deadline last year.
The hard-working Ronning makes up for his lack of size (5-feet-8, 185 pounds) with his pure passion for the game, which should make him a beacon for the young players on the squad.
"We've had a lot of success in veteran players that have a real pride about how they play and a real professionalism," Risebrough said. "I think they are great examples to young players that management has a hard time articulating, but when young players see it first hand they know what it takes, they see the example of what it takes. Cliff is one of those guys."
Fernandez showed enormous potential two years ago, posting a .920 save percentage and winning 19 games. But he slipped from a 2.24 goals-against average to 3.05, and his save percentage dovetailed to .892.
The 32-year-old Roloson was more reliable with a 2.65 GAA and .903 percentage. But Fernandez still is considered young for a goalie at 28, so he will have every opportunity to prove himself.
"Goaltenders come on later, so I still view Manny as a growing goaltender," Risebrough said. "He knows in his brief term as a Wild, that the first year is probably wants to model himself after and the second year is probably the year that he learned about mistakes. So a combination of both of those things coming up at the same time might give us a little more consistency."
The Slovakian right winger exploded last season with 30 goals, up from 18 his rookie year. His assists total more than doubled -- from 18 to 37.
On paper, that is a tremendous season for many NHL players, much less a second-year guy. But Risebrough is hesitant to slap the emerging superstar tag on Gaborik just yet.
"I can't say that we feel he's passed all the tests," he said. "I would say he's got a lot of offensive ability with his skating, his shot. He's a smart player, so what he has to learn is that he needs to play with somebody. I see a lot times Marian trying to do things on his own one-on-one, and it's not because he wants to do it that way, he wants to help the team, but this is too good of a league with too many solid players who can play defensively that they don't get exposed one on one."
On the plus side, Gaborik will have Ronning as his center, making him more of a threat at even strength, in addition to the power play.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard has quickly answered questions about his size, gaining 12 pounds since the draft while putting on a show in training camp.
There are rumblings that he might make the team out of camp, but it is more likely that he will return to juniors, where he scored 140 points in 69 games with Chicoutimi to win the scoring title in the QMJHL by 10 points.
Bouchard's physical skills as an offensive forward are unquestioned, from his goal-scoring touch to his playmaking ability. Plus, his on-ice intelligence draws just as much praise as his stickwork.
If he can continue to gain weight, he won't have to wait more than another year to become an NHL regular.
Jacob Luft is a CNNSI.com producer.