FILE - This Sept. 27, 2011 file photo shows Minnesota Wild wing Pierre-Marc Bouchard controlling the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues, in St. Paul, Minn. Getting Guillaume Latendresse, Bouchard and Josh Harding back healthy this season ought to be a big boost for the Minnesota Wild and their depth. (AP Photo/Andy King, File)
ST. PAUL, Minn. - For the Minnesota Wild, the season has been framed around the headliner acquisitions of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi and what ought to be the most formidable first line in franchise history.
There is a development with the potential to go even further in determining the Wild's success, however.
The healthy return of three key players has helped solidify some depth in important places. If Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Josh Harding perform at their pre-injury levels, the Wild will feel a lot better about the team under first-year coach Mike Yeo.
"From a physical standpoint, there's a lot of optimism going into our first game on the ice," general manager Chuck Fletcher said.
Both owner Craig Leipold and Fletcher were blunt in their criticism of the effort some of the players gave last season, particularly with the way they prepared.
"We have some talent here, so why can't we become a good team? We failed that test the last two years in my opinion. I'm not saying it was the coach's fault at all. We need a lot more accountability from our players," Fletcher said. "We talked about that all summer and the results are promising, so that's a good first step."
If Fletcher's challenge was printed on a poster, Latendresse would be pictured on it.
After scoring 25 goals in 55 games in the 2009-10 season following a trade with Montreal, Latendresse came to camp last year overweight and in poor condition. He got hurt, needed surgery to fix a torn labrum in his hip and a bilateral sports hernia, and played in only 11 games.
"He knew all the standards we set for him at the end of last season. He feels good," Fletcher said. "He's skated a lot more this summer than he did last summer. He's in much better shape. To me, he's poised to have a big season."
After the team's first practice last month, Latendresse acknowledged he was a little nervous but quickly reiterated his confidence in his ability.
"I know what kind of player I am. I know I can score goals. I know I can play in this league," Latendresse said.
The 24-year-old changed his diet during the off-season, one factor in his improvement.
"When you eat or what you eat, when to take protein, all those things that we think we know," Latendresse said. "But we don't know everything."
He'll be on the second line with Bouchard and centre Matt Cullen when the Wild host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night to open the season.
"Those two guys are great playmakers, so it'll be good for me to find my perfect spot and get open and make sure I'm ready," Latendresse said. "With those two guys the puck's going to come. I just need to put my head down and make some space for those guys."
For Bouchard, last season was mostly about being on the ice, no matter the result. He missed more than a year because of lingering post-concussion symptoms and, finally, a quarter of the way into last season he was cleared for action. Bouchard finished with 12 goals and 26 assists in 59 games, and the slick-skating former first-round draft pick is poised to build on that with more offensive skill around him.
"It's a fresh start. It was fun this summer to be able to go through my training and my normal life," Bouchard said.
Then there is Harding, the backup goalie, who missed all of last season due to torn ligaments in his left knee, a nasty injury suffered in a preseason game. Jose Theodore did not return, so Harding signed a one-year contract to give the Wild some experience behind Niklas Backstrom.
"I didn't know if I'd be here. I didn't know what would happen. A year off is a year off. I think the Wild gave me a great opportunity here that I definitely respect, and I love being part of the organization and am happy to be back," Harding said.