So, What Now? Potential Wild Line Pairings

So, now that the Wild have landed the “big fish,” (not to mention a couple other parts), it stands to reason that they’re probably going to be pretty quiet for the rest of the off season (barring trades, but we won’t speculate on that). What we will speculate on, however, is how the Wild will line up when the puck drops next season. So let’s take a look, shall we?

Forwards (12)

Zach Parise, Dany Heatley, Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Kyle Brodziak, Torrey Mitchell, Cal Clutterbuck, Darroll Powe, Zenon Konopka, Matt Kassian

Roster Hopefuls: Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Brett Bulmer, Charlie Coyle, Stephane Veilleux, Jake Dowell

Defense (7)

Ryan Suter, Tom Gilbert, Clayton Stoner, Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser, Jared Spurgeon, Justin Falk

Roster Hopefuls: Jonas Brodin, Tyler Cuma, Steve Kampfer, Chay Genoway, Matt Dumba

So, looking at the roster, here are my thoughts:

Forwards

The Wild are pretty stocked at forward, which will make it pretty difficult for the young up-and-comers to make an impact right away. Of the 12 forwards already under contract, it would be a big surprise to me to see any of the Wild’s youngsters make the opening day roster if they’re not going to play big minutes. That’s no longer the way of the Wild. Instead, look for those that don’t make the opening day squad go down to Houston to play big minutes down there.

On the surface, the signing of Konopka means that Kassian is now a spare part, which is unbelievably disappointing, as he certainly quickly became a fan favorite. He’ll likely be a healthy scratch for a good chunk of the games if he’s on the opening day squad, with Mikael Granlund likely getting the nod over him.

That would mean that, more than likely, Granlund would find himself in the top-six when the season starts, with lines looking something like this:

Parise/Koivu/Heatley
Bouchard/Granlund/Setoguchi
Cullen/Brodziak/Clutterbuck
Mitchell/Konopka/Powe

Now, these are obviously very tentative groups. While I think the Wild are done in free agency, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see them take a shot at making a trade to try to free up some roster spots. Like I said, though, I won’t speculate as to who right now.

Defense

The defense is where it gets kind of dicey. The Wild now have seven defensemen, all capable of playing a regular shift, and a few on the fence that will be looking to prove that they’re ready to.

With Suter, though, it would seem that the Wild’s top-seven are pretty much set. I could see them carrying an eighth if they find a veteran capable of filling that role but, as it stands now, I would expect that the two that would be swapping time the most would be Clayton Stoner and Justin Falk, as they play similar games. Here is what I would expect the d-pairings to look like next season, barring any more moves:

Suter/Gilbert
Scandella/Spurgeon
Prosser/Falk/Stoner

It wouldn’t surprise me, however, to see Spurgeon playing regular shifts with the third pairing and have Prosser bump up to play with Scandella, just because of the fact that Spurgeon will be playing regular power play shifts. Scandella has been, however, his typical partner, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Christmas in July, Wild sign Parise and Suter

The Wild have just signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.

Let’s let that soak in, for just a moment.

The Wild, who for the past few seasons have been stuck in the rut of the Doug Risebrough era, have finally arrived as the big-time contender that Chuck Fletcher promised when he took over the reins. They beat out perennial contenders like the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, not to mention their former teams, the New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators – neither of whom are slouches, themselves.

Wow. Just wow.

Regardless of whether or not you think this makes the Wild an immediate contender, there’s no doubt whatsoever that this makes the Wild immediately better.

Parise gives the Wild a game-breaker and a player that a) has the drive and desire to win and b) makes those around him better. For those of you living under a rock the last few days, Parise has scored 30-plus goals five times in his seven season NHL career (one, of which, was ended by injury and the other was his rookie year). He’s also never scored less than 60 points outside of those seasons as well. Other than the one season where he injured his knee, he has never played less than 81 games in a season. Not only that, but he’s also scored 43 points in 61 playoff games – something that tends to hold some weight in the NHL these days.

So, suffice it to say, Parise coming home to Minnesota is a windfall for the Wild. That, alone, would have been a banner day for the team, but Chuck Fletcher wasn’t done there.

Oh, no. He decided that he wasn’t satisfied with just Parise. He decided that he wanted defenseman Ryan Suter, as well.

Suter gives the Wild a player that can play 25-plus minutes per night, he can play in every situation and he immediately replaces the shutdown hole left by the trade of Nick Schultz. He’s steady and he can put points up, as well, scoring at least 30-plus points in his last five seasons and 35-plus in his last four. He plays against teams top lines and he is the type of defenseman that can make a difference on both ends of the ice.

So, you’ll forgive me if my fan side (which I tend to squash in deference to somewhat balanced analysis) is doing backflips right now.

This isn’t just a good signing for the Wild, this is a great one; not only on the ice, but off the ice as well. The Wild desperately needed to make this type of splash, not just to improve their roster, but to energize a fan base whose interest has been waning after years of middling finishes.

We’ll have more here soon, and we’ll take a look at the wild’s updated line combinations here next, but for right now let’s just say this is a big day in the State of Hockey.

In Which Free Agency Frenzy Begins

Christmas in July is officially upon us. The Wild are expected to be unbelievably busy this off season, going for their home run (Parise and/or Suter) and also filling out their depth.

Some deals have already gone down, which I’ll talk about in a bit, but I want to first address something that happened this morning that has drawn the Wild a bit of ridicule.

The Minnesota Wild reported on their Twitter account that they put in offers on both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. This immediately led to the typical outcry on Twitter of people both lauding the move and ridiculing it but, in my mind, this is a brilliant move by the Wild.

Why, you may ask?

The Wild don’t have much to pitch both Suter and Parise. They’ve missed the playoffs for the past few seasons, they’ve been stuck in a rebuild for, seemingly, that entire time and they’ve got some gaping holes in their organization because of the draft mismanagement of the previous managerial regime. They’ve got a dearth of youngsters that are coming in that they’re hoping will work out, but there’s nothing concrete. So they can pitch the players on the perspective of future success. But what else do they have?

The fans.

The Wild’s fans are some of the most knowledgeable and passionate of any franchise in the NHL. Even when attendance is waning during the team’s down years, the building is still packed. The Wild’s players are revered around the Twin Cities and that’s exactly why the Wild’s decision to offer up the information that they put in offers to both is a great idea.

Why?

All they have to do is point to Twitter to show the players the reactions of the fans. Could they pitch it without? Absolutely. Both Suter and Parise have played at the Xcel Energy Center. They’ve experienced the Wild’s fans firsthand. Both also played in the WCHA and have experienced the phenomenon that is hockey in Minnesota. But now they can point to Twitter and say, “See? This is the response you’re getting. This is what you will mean to this franchise.”

We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the gambit works out, but if it does, it could be the home run that the Wild desperately needs.

Wild Desperate for Free Agency Home Run

As I just mentioned, the Wild needs a home run in free agency.

Last season, they needed a home run with a coach and took a flyer on Mike Yeo, who proved to be exactly the coach that the team needed.

A few seasons prior, the Wild also needed a home run in free agency, and they got what appeared to be that with Matt Cullen, Martin Havlat and Greg Zanon.

Now they’re in a similar situation and there’s nothing to indicate that they might not be hitting a similar home run this season.

Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher has come through in the clutch for the franchise when he’s needed to. He moved Brent Burns (who, for all intents and purposes, seemed to be on the way out in Minnesota anyway) and Havlat for some big pieces last season. He brought in Guillaume Latendresse who, despite having moved on from Minnesota, became a quick fan favorite.

Will Fletch hit a homerun today, though? I doubt it.

This isn’t to say that he’s not going to, but on July 1? With the amount of offers that these players are likely receiving, I highly doubt that a decision will be made today unless there’s one obvious choice.

At the end of the day, Parise and/or Suter may very well end up in Minnesota, but it could lead to a restless night for Wild fans, as the likelihood it is settled today looks slim.

Wild Sign a Pair

So far in free agency, the Wild have already made a couple of moves, signing forwards Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell to contracts.

First, let’s look at Konopka. He adds toughness to a Minnesota team that already has Darroll Powe,Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Kassian up front. With Konopka, who signed for two-years and a $925K AAV over that time, that is a scary line up of hitters.

He’s not going to score a ton of goals, and the Wild don’t expect him to. He’s going to protect the Wild’s best players, along with Kassian (who was signed earlier in the week to a one-way deal).

On the surface, Konopka seems to be a solid fit for the team’s fourth line and will provide the Wild that toughness that they wanted.

Next, let’s take a look at Torrey Mitchell.

Mitchell is fast, he’s physical and he can chip in a bit offensively – something that seems to be becoming the “mold” for the Wild’s third-line forwards.

Signed for three years and a total of $1.9M, Mitchell will be a solid fit on the third line with the likes of Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak – again, a line that I wouldn’t willingly drop my head against if I’m the Wild’s opponents.

Keep it tuned here, as we’ll be back with updates periodically, but that’s all for now.

Welcome Back

So, admittedly, it’s been a while since I did this, so forgive me while I brush off the rust here.

After taking quite a long hiatus, Wild Nation is back and hopefully, soon to be, better than ever.

While I enjoyed (and still do enjoy) what I am doing at all of the other outlets I write for (Stadium Journey, Hockey’s Future and Hockey Primetime), I’ve come to the realization that it’s ignoring my first hockey passion — the Minnesota Wild. So, I’ve decided to re-open the doors to Wild Nation and to get back on the horse, so to speak.

My goal is to provide you all with the best Minnesota Wild blog coverage I can and, every once in a while, mix in some humor. So, please, bear with me as I get back to it and I look forward to seeing all your smiling faces around here again!

Sincerely,

Blake

A change is coming

This post isn’t going to be easy to write. I figured that out as I struggled to start it, erasing at least four different opening sentences before just deciding on one – honesty.

For the last few years, I’ve poured my heart, soul and effort into Wild Nation and it has brought me many great opportunities. It was borne out of my work at Hockey Primetime (where I am now the Chief Online Editor), it led to my time at Bleacher Report as the Featured Correspondent for the Minnesota Wild which, in turn, led to my current role at Stadium Journey as the Minnesota Regional Correspondent.

As my role with Hockey Primetime has grown, I’m sure that many of my readers have noticed that I have had less and less time to devote to Wild Nation. I’ve pushed through it, trying to provide as consistent content as I could but, after this year’s NHL Entry Draft, I began writing for Hockey’s Future. Through that, a new opportunity has opened up for me to write more consistently about the NHL – what has turned into, essentially, my dream opportunity. The downside of this opportunity is that it leaves me with little-to-no time to provide you with the kind of content that I want to in regards to the Minnesota Wild.

Keeping that in mind, Wild Nation is not going away – it is simply changing.

Starting next week, Wild Nation will instead become a weekly blog on Hockey Primetime. I will still provide my insight and views on the Wild – it will just be on a weekly basis.

This is a bittersweet moment for me, as I move on, and I hope to one day bring Wild Nation back to you, better than before. But, until then, you all have my heartfelt thanks for reading my work and supporting Wild Nation, and I hope that you continue to do so as it transitions to Hockey Primetime.

Thank you,

Blake Benzel

Wild win second straight

What a sight Tuesday night was for the Wild.

Just a few days after the Wild put forth a great effort against the Dallas Stars, they went out and did it again on Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche.

It was exactly what the Wild were waiting for. A follow up performance to a solid game, and it was one heck of a follow up performance.

The Wild dominated for extended periods of time and really looked just like they did during their rise to the top of the NHL. The puck support was there, they worked their asses off, they pressured in the offensive zone. For the most part, it was a slam dunk for the Wild and a huge confidence booster for the Wild heading into the All-Star break.

The Wild fell behind early, again, on a sharp angle goal that Backstrom couldn’t get his glove up in time for but the Wild wouldn’t let themselves get down and fired off two goals in response to head into the intermission on top.

The second period saw former Wild player Chuck Kobasew tap in a goal that snuck past Backstrom to tie the game and the third saw Carson McMillan put the Wild on top for good.

What was best about McMillan’s goal is that, in the sequence leading up to it, the Wild were scrambling. They got pinned down in their own zone, having trouble gaining control of the puck and getting it out and, when they finally did, it looked as if they were going to get caught in the middle of a bad change.

McMillan had other ideas, though. He saw an opportunity, cut his change short and caught Shane O’Brien day dreaming with the puck. He got it free, came down and scored the game-winning goal.

That one goal could be what turns this season back around for Minnesota but, we’ll have to wait until after the All-Star break to see.

Some thoughts:

  • Backstrom looks to be struggling with his confidence. He just wasn’t there on either ofColorado’ goals. Maybe the win will help him get his mojo back but, truthfully, he looks shaken right now. It’s not that he was off his angles or anything like that – he was solid there. The problem is that he just doesn’t have any confidence that he’s going to stop the puck. Like I said, hopefully this gets some of his confidence back, because the Wild need him if they’re going to keep going.
  • It’s hard to believe, but it looks like Marek Zidlicky may have played his last game in a Wild uniform. He may have a chance to work his way back into the line up at some point, but if the Wild’s defensemen keep playing like they have the last two games, I don’t see Mike Yeo making any changes anytime soon.
  • Dany Heatley was great again forMinnesota, and he’s really gotten some chemistry going with Kyle Brodziak and Nick Johnson. Even when Koivu comes back, it’s going to be hard for Yeo to break up this line if they keep producing like this.

In any event, the Wild are off until next Tuesday. Pending any big moves, I’ll be back with coverage of the All-Star festivities on Thursday.

Tim Thomas and the White House

Let me get one thing out of the way here really quick. On a whole, my political views tend to be left of center. I pride myself on being more pragmatic than subscribing to any one ideology, but for the most part, I find myself falling on the left side of the tracks, so to speak.

Tim Thomas does not.

On Monday, the Boston Bruins were invited to the White House for the yearly meet-and-greet with the President of the United States. All of the players from last year’s Stanley Cup squad were invited and all (with the exception of Michael Ryder, whose schedule conflicted  with the visit) showed up.

Tim Thomas did not and, you know what? I think it’s an unbelievably big deal.

Now, I’m sure I’m going to get a fair share of people reading this that are expecting me to roll out a ridiculously long political manifesto about how Thomas is disrespectful and yadda, yadda, yadda. But here’s the thing. I actually applaud his actions.

Sure, the act might have been disrespectful to some degree. The expectation for professional athletes is that you go to these events, smile and shut up.

Instead, Thomas chose not to. He exercised his inalienable right to freedom of expression and, whether or not I agree with his political leanings, I applaud this and I think that the majority of pundits and writers out there should be doing the same.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to make Thomas out to be some great political activist. His actions will be debated over the next couple of days and, likely, left alone after that, but I applaud Tim Thomas for sticking to his convictions and doing something that, quite honestly, is a protest.

Recently, Wild Nation joined the protest against SOPA and PIPA. We went black for 24 hours and our site was, for all intents and purposes, shut down even though you could click through the script and read what you wanted. It would be unbelievably hypocritical of me to cry foul now, when it appears that Thomas is doing basically the same thing.

Bloggers and journalists live and die by the First Amendment. Without it, bloggers aren’t able to do what they do and journalists would certainly have a more restrictive environment. Every time I fire up my lap top and write something for Wild Nation, I’m exercising my First Amendment rights.

So was Tim Thomas.

Regardless of whether or not his actions were respectful or politically motivated, Thomas is afforded the right to express himself how he chooses. You may not like the way he chose to do so, or agree with the political leanings of his actions (if any because, honestly, we don’t know one way or the other yet), but to vilify Thomas for these actions would be one of the highest forms of hypocrisy.

Do I agree with what he did? Absolutely not. Do I think he was right? No, I don’t. But I will fight tooth and nail in defense of him, because he had the right to do it, just as I had the right to shut down Wild Nation for a day in protest and just as I have the right now to write this.

Wild rebound with strong win over Stars

It’s going to be a short one tonight because, frankly, it’s late and I’m tired.

The Wild responded against the Dallas Stars and responded in a big way. They fell behind in the first period, after being outshot 11-5 (but not being outplayed) when Eric Nystrom repaid the Wild’s “betrayal” by putting the Stars up 1-0.

If we’ve learned anything about the Wild over this last stretch of games, it’s that when the going gets tough, they fold, right?

Not this time.

Minnesota fought back, this time, and Devin Setoguchi potted a power-play goal to tie the game.

The Wild continued to play good hockey but, again, the Stars got the upper hand with Phillip Larson scoring to put them up 2-1. After that, Darroll Powe manned up and answered the bell against Steve Ott, and everything changed.

Just over two minutes over that fight, Cal Clutterbuck potted his 12th goal of the season after a Dallas turnover and a missed check then, not even 20 seconds after that, Chad Rau scored his first NHL goal, banking the puck off of Brendan Morrow’s stick and past Kari Lehtonen and 59 seconds after Clutterbuck scored, Kyle Brodziak fired a one-timer past Lehtonen to put the Wild up 4-2 and they never looked back.

Dany Heatley capped it off in the third with a goal for his first three-point night since November 2010 and the Wild, all of a sudden, look like they remembered how they got to the top of the standings in the first place.

Some thoughts:

  • The entire defensive unit looked cohesive, once again. In fact, they looked better than they’ve looked in weeks. I don’t want to point my finger and say it was Zidlicky but, after the best defensive performance that the Wild have had in the past few weeks, it’s going to be hard to put him back in the line up. Stoner and Falk were both beasts, Prosser got an assist in his first game back with the team, Spurgeon played out of his mind, Schultz and Zanon were steady again. No one played their way out of the line up, so I don’t see number three coming back in.
  • Heatley played, in my opinion, his best game in a Wild uniform. A goal, two assists, three shots and, most of all, he wasn’t a liability and he was noticeable when he was on the ice. All of this after getting bumped down to the second line and playing with a couple of grinders in Brodziak and Johnson.
  • Harding looked sharp and, despite Backstrom’s record against the Avs, I don’t see Harding leaving the net after this one. No way Yeo changes anything after this one.

Three Stars

1)      Dany Heatley – A goal, two assists and, best of all, he wasn’t invisible.

2)      Chad Rau – Scored his first NHL goal.

3)      Justin Falk – Could be that he was the Wild’s best defenseman on Friday. He was physical, played great defense and had a great bounce back game after being scratched in Toronto.

UPDATED: Wild demote two, recall four

You know that something that I keep saying has to give?

Well, the Wild have sent down Casey Wellman and David McIntyre to the AHL, per Kent Youngblood via Twitter.

So, basically, something’s changing whether it’s someone coming in from the outside or someone coming up from Houston and, while someone coming up from the AHL might not necessarily be as noteworthy as someone coming in from elsewhere, a change is a change and the Wild are certainly a team in desperate need of just that right now.

After storming out of the gates, Wellman has looked lost the last few games and McIntyre, while he’s had good moments, has really looked like an AHLer playing against NHLers.

So, is this a precursor to a bigger move?

I’d like to think so but, truthfully, it’s hard to tell until something has happened. Keep it here and we’ll have updates for you as the situation warrants.

UPDATE: Per Kent Youngblood, Matt Kassian, Jed Ortmeyer, Chad Rau and Nate Prosser are all on their way up from Houston.

The ball keeps rolling down hill; Wild lose to Leafs

Honestly, I don’t know what more to say than what has already been said by every other person covering the Wild out there.

For the first time this season, I truly feel like the Wild have nothing good that they can take away from last night’s loss to the Maple Leafs. In other games, they struggled and it was their struggles that really turned the game on its ear for them, but last night they just didn’t do anything right.

They were down 1-0 50 seconds in and 2-0 5:11 in on two plays that were easily avoidable. The defense was horrific, the offense was non-existent. In fact, I would venture that the Wild’s goaltending was the best part about their performance last night – and they gave up four goals.

To briefly defend that assertion, yes, Backstrom could have been better last night. At some point, he’s got to take it upon himself and make a big save to keep the Wild in the game when they’re playing bad. That said, the Wild simply cannot rely on him to do it all himself.

On the Leafs’ first goal, sure, Backstrom probably should have frozen the puck instead of playing it to the corner. But look at this picture:

Let’s break this down for a moment, shall we? (I know I said it would be brief. I lied.)

First, Backstrom directed the puck to the corner instead of freezing it. Mistake number one. Gotcha.

In the above picture, Lundin is chasing Lupul. Why? Because he got REALLY excited about the puck and over pursued. Wellman is standing, staring, presumably because he likes Lupul’s skates and wants to know where he got them. Zidlicky is actually doing what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s a bit high because of how the play developed, but he’s trusting that the center, Peters, is covering low (which he is) and playing the pass out to Kadri at that point in time. Peters is seeing the play develop and happens to be the only Wild player on the ice not looking at the puck and Heatley is doing…something…over by the hashmarks.

When the play develops, and watch this on NHL.com, because it is a truly spectacular display of what not to do in this situation. Lupul forces the issue, attacking the center of the ice. Wellman, Lundin and Zidlicky converge on him, Peters kind of, sort of makes an attempt to drift towards Kadri and Heatley just kind of stays where he is because, once Backstrom makes the save, he’ll be able to release and…Oops.

I could do this with all four Maple Leafs goals but I’ll spare all of you (and myself) the pain involved in it. Suffice it to say that yes, Backstrom wasn’t great, but the Wild’s defense was much, much worse.

So what’s the fix?

At this point, if I’m Mike Yeo, I’d recommend to Chuck Fletcher that every single player on the Wild’s roster be fair game for a trade and let your entire team know that this is what you’re recommending because this team needs a kick where the sun don’t shine.

Right now, they’re not exploding – they’re imploding. They’re frustrated and they’re no longer even keeping up the pretense that they’re playing within their system and they’re starting to turn on one another.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Fletcher knows something needs to change and he’s working hard to change it. As Mike Russo said, a trade is looking imminent. Something – anything – to wake this team up and give them some sort of spark.

I’m sure that many are hoping that the trade will involve a top-six forward *cough*Zach Parise*cough* coming to the Wild and, while I’d like to hope that is the case, I don’t see that happening unless Fletcher has some sort of assurance that Parise will sign a long-term extension with the Wild. Otherwise, giving up the prospects and picks it would take to get someone like Zach Parise wouldn’t be worth it.

You could look at Columbus (one of the few teams that may, legitimately, be out of the playoff race) but, if they go into “sell” mode, it’s going to be for prospects and picks and I don’t see the Wild giving up either to get someone like Vinny Prospal or Antoine Vermette, though either player may help the Wild this season.

I don’t want to speculate who the Wild might try to move because, really, I don’t know that there’s a player on their roster (other than the three that are on IR) that is safe. Moving a key piece like Heatley or Backstrom or Matt Cullen is a very high-risk move that could reap a high-reward, not necessarily just in the return, but in the fact that it might give the team that kick in the rear that they need.

I don’t know, though. If I had the answers, I’d be an NHL general manager. I don’t have the answers and, at this point, I’m really at a loss for any sort of solution.

Yes, the three players that are arguably the Wild’s three best players are hurt. There is most certainly that to take into account. But, at the same time, isn’t that why we picked up Heatley and Devin Setoguchi?

Players need to start stepping up. Heatley and Setoguchi have combined for 22 goals so far this season. If they were one person, that would get them in the top-ten for goal scoring. That’s just not good enough.

The Wild brought them in to score. They brought them in to change the mentality of the team and, instead, the team seems to have changed the mentality of the players.

I would be very surprised if a move isn’t made before Hockey Day in Minnesota on Saturday but, that’s not to say that I think Fletcher is going to make a knee-jerk reaction and make a trade just for the sake of making a trade. He’s learned from his mistakes in trading for Kobasew (which, in my opinion, still wasn’t a horrible trade) and Barker (which was a horrible trade). If there’s a good trade to be had, he’s going to make it.

But something has to give soon. Otherwise, we might be talking about how great it will be to see Yakupov play with Granlund next season (which, truth be told, would be pretty cool).

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