Wild Win! Wild Win!

Admit it. A lot of you Negative Nancies (of course I’m not referring to me, why would I ever think such a thing?) thought that the Wild wouldn’t win another game this season, didn’t you?

Sure, there’s still the stark realization that the playoffs are out of reach (Realistically, not mathematically. Sure, there’s still the slim chance that the five teams separating them from the playoffs could go into free-fall mode and the Wild could win out which, essentially, is what it would take) but the win was still a nice thing to see. Especially since the Wild actually fought for the entire game – something that has been missing from their previous efforts.

Some thoughts:

• Jose Theodore has made some big saves for the Wild, but I just don’t feel fully comfortable with him in net. Maybe it has more to do with the defense in front of him, maybe it’s an undeserved reputation, but I almost expect him to give up a soft goal or two every game.
• Brent Burns has slowly devolved from being one of our best defensive assets into being someone who many people are thinking will be moved this off season. Burns has talent – that’s undeniable – but thinking while on the ice isn’t always his strong suit. He’s an exciting player, to be sure, but he’s slowly becoming exciting on both ends of the ice and that isn’t a good thing. This was shown no better than on the Blues’ first goal where Burns dropped to the ice to try to block the pass instead of playing the man and taking him out of the play. Those types of plays are forgivable when Burns is producing, but Burns hasn’t had a point in his last six, and he hasn’t had a goal in his last 13. If you’re going to make poor decisions like that in your own zone, you should at least make up for it on the other end.
• It’s hard to tell whether or not Todd Richards’ message was received by Martin Havlat, who was benched in the Wild’s previous game. He wasn’t just gliding around out there, but he was certainly not the factor that the Wild need him to be in order for the team to be successful. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Havlat’s nine-game goal drought began on the same night as the Wild’s slide.
• On the same token, though, Pierre-Marc Bouchard looks like he has something to prove. Butch has 32 points in 53 games. This is after missing 100+ games with a concussion. With Bruno and Miettinen possibly gone after this season, the Wild may have found themselves their top line winger. The only thing is that they need to get Butch to shoot more often. He’s got an amazing shot, he just needs to use it. If they can get him taking three or four high quality shots per game on Koivu’s wing, he could be a deadly player.

That’s all for now. Look for our look ahead to free agency coming up in a few days.

What’s Going On?

So, I feel like I owe all of you an explanation.

The last week or so I’ve been very absent from the site. I haven’t even posted any quick hits or anything like that. Now, this hasn’t been anything personal on my part. Nothing with the kids or anything in my personal life getting in the way, but it has everything to do with how this team is playing right now.

Bear with me…It will make sense, I swear.

I’m not a journalist. I write for Hockey Primetime, doing what are essentially opinion pieces (the 3 Stars and Power Rankings) and I write about the Wild and occasionally other NHL stuff here but, what it boils down to is that I’m a fan. I’m a fan of this team and I’m a fan of hockey in general.

As such, I really don’t like to throw people under the bus so to speak. I don’t relish tearing players or coaches down because of the fact that I’m not a journalist. None of these players or coaches would ever have the opportunity to respond to anything that I’m saying, nor do I have any “insider information” into what is going on in the locker room at any given point in time. So, in my opinion, I try to stay away from trashing specific players and coaches because I feel that it’s just responsible. At the end of the day, Wild Nation is simply a blog. We don’t answer to anyone, we aren’t accountable to anyone but ourselves, which is why I try to maintain a respectful tone while I write.

These last few games have made it very, very hard for me to maintain that tone. Basically, I went with what my mother taught me. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. That and I really didn’t want to sound like a broken record because the same things that have been wrong with this team in the past few losses haven’t gotten fixed.

That said, it’s time to get off the mat, so to speak…Both for this blog and for the Wild.

Over the past few games, the Wild have had absolutely zero fight. For a team that has been lauded all season long for their leadership and character, they are showing zero of both right now. They’ve given up. They’ve quit.

Whether that speaks to the coach, the players or the management is a question for greater hockey minds than I (and hockey minds with a lot more access to the team than I have). But, after my long diatribe before this, I will say this.

This team needs a change.

I spoke with a friend of mine recently, who gave me his opinion on the team that I, quite frankly, happen to agree with.

This team needs an overhaul. That’s the only thing that’s going to change this culture of mediocrity that has begun to be bred among them.

The coaching staff, a good deal of the players and, *gasp* the captain.

Now, I know a lot of people are going to disagree with this, but I happen to think that there is someone out there that could be better suited to lead this team. I don’t know who it could be, I don’t know if they’re currently on the team or not, but I do know that this is a team that has flat out given up and we haven’t heard about one single player’s only meeting being called.

Now, a player’s only meeting isn’t a cure all, but it is something that can help clear the air between the players…Maybe help them get their motivation back…Help them play with some pride.

Instead, the team has been floundering with no heart, no motivation, no fire.

An overhaul could be just what this team needs. New coaching staff, some new players – a new culture.

But, I question whether or not that would be wise to do this season. The Wild are already a team in dire straits. A coaching change isn’t going to change that. A coaching change isn’t going to get them into the playoffs. If anything, it will get them a bit of a lower draft pick in the first round.

So, in my opinion, Todd Richards should be safe for the rest of this season but the fact of the matter is that, while he should shoulder some of the responsibility for this team’s collapse, he shouldn’t shoulder all of it.

It isn’t just a single player or coach that is responsible for ineptitude like this. Just as with a great team, it takes a team effort to fall this far this fast, so an overhaul could be exactly what this team needs.

Coming Up: Minnesota faces the Blues and Where to Begin – The Plan for the Off Season.

Wild Brings Effort; Ends Road Trip 0-4

Any slim chance the Wild had at making a playoff run these remaining games of the season just went out the window with this one. This just goes to show how far the Wild have to go yet to be a contender.

Just like in Vancouver, the difference here was penalties.

The Wild took penalties and the Sharks capitalized once, but once was all it took.

Again, it was just a parade to the box for the Wild. They were 4-for-5 on the penalty kill, but that one power play was the difference in this game, just like the two Vancouver power-play goals were the difference in that game.

Bottom line, this team was a team that was greatly over-achieving for the better part of 2011 and it’s starting to show.

The Wild return from this road trip being outscored 15-4, playing absolutely horrendous defense in the first two games (the last two weren’t terrible) and really struggling to score in every single game of the four.

But, let’s save the needs of this team for another time and take a look at this one:

• Niklas Backstrom was abso-freaking-lutely amazing. He stopped 47 of 50 shots and two of the ones he missed bounced in off of his own players. It wasn’t for a lack of effort on his part. He was all over the place, in a great way, but…
• …it’s about time that he gets some support. There’s bad luck and there’s this. Minnesota hasn’t been able to catch a break for the last four games and it does have something to do with bad luck. BUT — At some point a team has to make their own luck and this team just doesn’t seem capable of doing that. There isn’t a single game that they don’t look like they have to try ten times harder than their opponents to score. Backstrom can steal some games — But he can’t steal all of them.
• Clayton Stoner has turned into one of my favorite defensemen on the team, but my goodness does he need to start moving his feet more. This game, he took a holding penalty and a holding the stick penalty. In Vancouver it was interference and cross checking. That’s eight penalty minutes, six of which led to power-play goals. Stoner is one of the Wild’s better defensive defensemen – he needs to realize, though, that he’s more important on the ice on the Wild’s penalty kill than off of it.
• Great effort by the Wild tonight. They worked their rear ends off in this one and they played hard right until the end. You’ve got to believe that eventually that hard work is going to pay off. But, you’ve also got to think that eventually might not be soon enough. I will say one thing, though. If Minnesota is going to miss the playoffs, this is exactly how I’d like to see them missing the playoffs – working hard and playing some darn good hockey to boot. Who knows? If they keep playing like this, they might even give their fans something to cheer about.

Wild Score, Can’t Overtake Vancouver

It’s amazing how much difference just a few minutes time can make. For the Wild, it was two early power plays for the Canucks that ruined their chance at a victory in this one.

Two bad Clayton Stoner penalties led to two Canucks goals. That’s really all there is to say about it.

But, we could play “What If?” all day long. The fact of the matter is that the Wild dropped their third straight game, despite a solid performance and despite the returns of Stoner, Mikko Koivu and Cal Clutterbuck.

If they can’t win with that sort of emotional boost, how do they expect to make the playoffs? In a conference where you can hardly go one game without getting at least one point, the Wild have now gone three, getting out scored 12-2 during that time.

Let’s just say, the wheels have officially come off.

Why, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

A distinct lack of defense.

It seems like the Wild have gotten so used to their goaltenders stealing games for them, they’ve just stopped playing in front of them. Last night’s penalty kill in the first period was a perfect example. Defensemen weren’t challenging shooters, they weren’t clearing out the front of the net, they weren’t being physical.

In short, they weren’t doing anything that they had been doing in the games prior that had helped this team go on their tear in spite of their lack of offense.

But now that they’ve stopped playing defense, they’re not able to get away with scoring just two goals anymore, because that’s not going to be enough as they showed last night.

Here are some quick thoughts:

* I don’t typically call players out here, but Marek Zidlicky looked downright awful last night. I get that he’s not a defense first defenseman, but clearing out the front of the net, especially on the penalty kill, is sort of a pre-requisite for playing defense — instead, he just stood and watched as Kesler took a seat right in Backstrom’s lap and, to no one’s surprise, Backs didn’t see the puck and Vancouver scored. Now, I get that defense isn’t his forte, but his break out passes were awful all night long as well. I can’t remember how many times he put it right on the tape of a Canucks player, trying for that home run pass out of the defensive zone.

* I know there are going to be a lot of people calling for Backstrom’s head after this one, but come on. It’s hard enough to be a goalie in the NHL with your team playing good defense, let alone the relaxed defense that the Wild has been playing over the last few games. Sure, the goalie’s job is to stop the puck, but it’s kind of hard to do that when you can’t see it.

* I don’t know that it’s going to get any better for the Wild this season, or even next. There are going to be some huge needs that Minnesota has to address this off season, not least of which is their inability to score. Sure, they can fire off games of four or five goals every once in a while, but they make scoring look so darn hard most of the time. It’s easy to say that they just ran into the hot handed goalie, but I don’t know that it’s possible to run into as many hot handed goalies as the Wild seem to.

Quick Wild Update

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we’ve stopped the Scoreboard Watching segment here at Wild Nation because, one, it was obviously bad juju for the Wild and two, it was just getting depressing.

Needless to say, the Wild need a win in a bad way tonight against the Vancouver Canucks.

There won’t be any game preview today, but there will be a gamer, so here are some quick hits for the Wild today:

* No word yet on whether or not Mikko Koivu or Cal Clutterbuck will be back in the line up, but Koivu and Richards have been very tight lipped about whether or not he will play. My guess? Koivu’s in whether Richards likes it or not. If he can grip his stick, he’ll be playing tonight. Clutterbuck, on the other hand, I’m not so sure. Concussions are scary things and Cal was still having headaches, from what Mike Russo reported, so my guess for Cal would be that he will sit at least one more game. Of course, this is also the guy who came back from a high ankle sprain after just a week, so you never know.

* Guillaume Latendresse is back in Minnesota and this just goes to show the bad that can happen with someone coming back from injury early. G-Lat is obviously a big cog to the Wild, but it’s just deflating to see him fly back to Minnesota with an injury that is very similar to what he had surgery on. The thing that’s harder to swallow is that the Wild likely would have the same 1-2-0 record since his return, had he not returned. I understand wanting to get some offense back on the ice, but someone dropped the ball with that one in a big way.

* Did we mention it’s a big, big game tonight? Minnesota is now in eleventh, four points back from the eighth spot and now just four points ahead of the twelfth spot. We’ve been holding the Wild’s “Magic Number” at about 95 points and they need eighteen to reach that mark. That means they need to win nine of their final thirteen. Doable, but very, very tough.

That’s all for today, we’ll be back after the game though!

In Lieu of a Gameday Thread – Some Quick Hits

No gameday thread today. I got super busy, so I’m just going to throw up a few quick hits for you.

  • Marek Zidlicky is a gametime decision and that likely means that Z will be on the ice tonight and the Wild will likely skate 7 d-men. If that’s the case, what forward to you lose? Brad Staubitz? His type of game is exactly what you need against a rough and tumble team like the Ducks. Eric Nystrom? He might be the most likely candidate behind Staubitz but, again, he’s the kind of guy you want on the ice in what is going to be a physically intense game. I get that Z wants to come back to help the team, but I’d have to say that Sunday’s game against Detroit is the better option for a player who is returning from a severe separated shoulder and hasn’t taken any game contact for quite some time. We’ll see if Z hits the ice tonight though.
  • Big, big trade news. One from a Northwest foe and a couple from the Bruins (including one Minnesota boy). First, the Northwest foe. In a swap of goalies, the Avs sent embattled goalie Craig Anderson to the Sens for Brian Elliott. On the surface, this isn’t that big of a trade, but it potentially could be huge for the Sens. Anderson is likely a goalie they were going to target in free agency if he was available and now they essentially have a 25 game audition for him, plus exclusive negotiating rights. If they like what they see in Anderson, they could push ahead their rebuild early. If they don’t, well, they’re in the same place they were with Elliott.
  • Next, Tomas Kaberle finally got dealt. Thank God. We don’t have to listen to the rumors anymore. Brian Burke sent him to the Leafs’ division rival Boston Bruins for a first in 2011, prospect Joe Colborne and a conditional pick. The Bruins also moved Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart to the Thrashers for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik. Now, the Kaberle trade is quite shortsighted, but it means two things. First, Boston is content with keeping what will likely be a top-eight draft pick in Toronto’s first from this season and two, they like what they see with this team and are set on making a serious Cup push. Kaberle gives them a bona fide puck-moving defenseman that they have lacked and, quite honestly, gives them one of the better d-men in the league. They then swapped a couple of players for Peverley and Valabik and, quite honestly, made out like bandits on that one. I love Peverley’s game and he’s much more of an offensive threat than Wheeler was. Slotting him in with any of the Bruins’ top two lines makes them immediately more dangerous. Valabik and Stuart really are just a swap, but Valabik is a big guy who can play very physical hockey when he needs to.
  • Back to the Wild. How big is tonight’s game? Minnesota is just three points behind Anaheim for the sixth spot. Dallas, LA and Calgary are all idle today. Minnesota wins this one and they’re just one point out. The problem is that they’re slowly losing their games in hand, which was their biggest advantage to this point. So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this one’s a must-win.
  • Finally, a quick plug. Be sure to check out our friends at Stadium Journey. If you’re going to a game anywhere in the NHL (or in an other league, for that matter), they’re an invaluable resource and besides, they’re good people. Check out the review that I wrote for them on the Xcel Energy Center, as well as Drew Cieszynski’s review of the Rabobank Arena, home of the Wild’s ECHL affiliate Bakersfield Condors.
  • Okay, I lied. Now finally, one more quick plug. Be sure to check in on Sunday as we’re going to be hosting a live blog/chat for the Heritage Classic with our parent site, Hockey Primetime. Join myself, J.P. Hoornstra, Denis Gorman and Justin Bourne as we babble on about hockey while the Flames and Habs go at it. We’ll have the West Coast, Midwest and East Coast covered with the correspondents, so bring your questions too and we’ll gladly opine on them!

The puck drops tonight at 7 p.m. CST and is televised on Fox Sports North.

A Brief Hiatus

A Quick Update: Due to circumstances outside of my control, the hiatus of Wild Nation is going to have to be extended. We’ll now be on hiatus until January 1, from which we’ll return with a live blog of the Winter Classic!

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the site hasn’t been very active lately. Don’t worry…It isn’t from a lack of interest in my part and Wild Nation isn’t going to be going anywhere any time soon.

What it’s due to, however, is an exciting addition to the Wild Nation family, as my son Josiah was born last Monday in a very quick and exciting manner (much more so than we would have liked, but you roll with the punches I guess).

Because of this, I’m going to take a brief time off from the blog so that I’m available to help my wife out a bit and don’t have to worry about being stuck to the TV to watch the game right away if I’m not able to.

So, what all this means is that we’re going to be taking a bit of a break here at Wild Nation, but we’ll be back and have a new schedule for what you can expect going forward from the crew here on December 1.

Until then, go Wild!

The Minnesota Wild Season in Review Part 5 of 5: Looking Ahead

Well, it’s taken a lot longer than I’d expected, but here we are—part five of my five part season in review.

I’ve looked at the season on a whole, the forwards, the defense, the goaltenders, the management and now it’s time to take a look ahead to what this off season could bring.

The Wild have a long shopping list for this off season and not a whole lot of money to shop with. They currently have 17 players under contract and have restricted free agents Guillaume Latendresse and Josh Harding yet to sign.

Their shopping list will likely include another defenseman and at least one more forward, but likely two, just to be safe.

So, let’s look at what the team needs, shall we?

The first need that the team will try to address, for sure, will be another stay-at-home, shutdown defenseman. With six defensemen under contract and approximately $16.6 million allotted to these defensemen it’s hard to believe that the Wild will go out and spend on a top-flight free agent blueliner.

What I can see, however, is the Wild spending anywhere between one and two million on a defenseman that is reliable, but not flashy—someone that they can pair with their more aggressive, offensive defensemen.

The problem is that there aren’t too many players available with that description for that price tag.

Possible Targets: Milan Jurcina, Brett Lebda, Kurtis Foster

Another need that the team desperately needs is a second line center.

The Wild do already have someone within their organization that they are hoping will fit this bill in Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

The big question about Butch, however, is his health. While he has been cleared to begin light exercising, Bouchard is still experiencing many post-concussion symptoms.

With that being the case, I would expect the Wild to pursue a center looking to spend between two and four million on him.

With the impending departure of Mike Modano from Dallas, there are a few that are hoping for a nostalgic end to the former North Star’s career. In my opinion, that would be a huge mistake for the Wild.

While Modano would be a significant upgrade from James Sheppard, the fact remains that he’s 41 years old and his production has decreased significantly over the past few seasons.

What they do need, however, is a gritty, skilled center to play on their second line between Latendresse and Martin Havlat.

Possible Targets: Matthew Lombardi, Mike Comrie, Brendan Morrison, Chris Higgins

Another player that the Wild will likely look towards is a gritty forward to replace the likes of Andrew Ebbett, Owen Nolan and Derek Boogaard, all of whom will likely leave in free agency.

This is one thing that there are a lot of in this year’s free agent market.

They won’t have to pay a lot for these players, but these players are going to be invaluable to the Wild in the future and General Manager Chuck Fletcher knows this.

With the trade for Brad Staubitz, Fletcher has gotten some of this toughness but judging from how both the Ducks and the Penguins were built, and make no mistake that those teams had his finger prints all over them, he’s not done with this.

Possible Targets: Adam Burish, Raffi Torres, Colby Armstrong, Evgeny Artyukhin

Finally, I’d look for the Wild to take a shot at trying to acquire another top-six forward; probably a winger.

It won’t be any flashy signing like Ilya Kovalchuk, unless Fletcher can work some serious cap magic, but there is a definite need for a player that can score consistently to play alongside Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu on the team’s first line.

Again, I would expect the team to go after someone in the two to four million dollar range for this, as it’s going to need to make sense both economically as well as for the team on a whole.

Possible Targets: Marek Svatos, Alexander Frolov, Slava Kozlov, Alexei Ponikarovsky

Whatever the Wild does, there is going to be a sense of excitement surrounding the team come July 1.

It’s Christmas in July for NHL fans and fans in Minnesota are hoping that the Wild come out on top.

The Minnesota Wild Season in Review Part Three of Five: Defensemen and Goaltenders

Wow. It feels like forever since I’ve written ANYTHING because, well, it has been.

But, one fried motherboard and one new computer later, and yours truly is back in business!

So, when I last left you, I was grading the Wild’s roster, so why don’t I just pick up where I left off?

We’re on to the defense.

Defense was certainly the team’s weak point this past season. Between injuries and poor play, the Wild’s defense and goaltending were vastly sub-par for the entire season.

With Jacques Lemaire leaving the squad, it was expected that the team defense might take a step back and, with it, the goaltending as well—but no one could have expected the disaster that it became.

So, without further ado…Here…We…Go…

Defensemen:

Marek Zidlicky – With the system change under Todd Richards, Zidlicky was expected to be right in his element and he definitely was.

Typically an offensive defenseman and powerplay specialist, Zidlicky cemented himself as one of the Wild’s more reliable defensemen during the season, which speaks loads towards the defensive struggles of the team, as Zidlicky’s strong season earned him a three-year contract extension with the team, but still left much to be desired.

Offensively, he was one of the few defensemen that was able to move the puck with ease—his 37 assists was good for second on the team. The only problem was that his decision making left much to be desired.

His breakout passes found opposing stick on numerous occasions and, while his defensive play improved, he was still not as impressive in the defensive zone as one would have liked.

Overall, Zidlicky’s offensive prowess is something that the Wild need on their blueline, and paired with a defensive defenseman he can be a productive player, but this last season more was needed from him, and he didn’t quite deliver.

Grade: B

Brent Burns – Burnsie, the Wild’s “franchise” defenseman, struggled mightily this season.

Early in the season, he was having difficulty both recovering from his injuries from the previous season and adjusting to balancing the Wild’s new aggressive system with strong defensive play.

His decision making was often shaky early in the season and, once he returned from injury it was apparent that the psychological affects of his concussion were still lingering.

Burns often lost his man in the defensive zone early on in the season—something that led to more than a couple goals against—and seemed weary about going into the corners after the puck.

Then, he started using the new Messier concussion helmet and suddenly, his confidence started coming back.

Over the last quarter of the season, Wild fans were treated to a Brent Burns that was more like what they had become accustomed to. He hit, he joined the rush, he created plays and he was very solid in his own end.

If that continues, Burns might just go back to joining Mikko Koivu in the ranks of players that Chuck Fletcher won’t consider trading.

Grade: C

Nick Schultz – Schultzie was Lemaire’s golden boy, plain and simple. A solid, shut down defenseman that could be paired with anyone and matched up against any line to shut them down completely.

Under Todd Richards, however, Schultz didn’t necessarily find him in the coach’s dog house, but he didn’t often have the trust of his new head coach—something that I find rather curious.

It was hoped that Schultz would begin stepping up into the play and producing offensively and, while he did that to the tune of a career season, he never quite grabbed Richards’ attention.

Despite a career best in time on ice, Schultz was rarely on the ice in extremely important situations.

The fact remains, however, that Schultz is one of the team’s top defensive defensemen. This season, as with all the rest, his positioning was impeccable and his vision on the ice was just as good.

His minus-eight rating was second among the Wild’s regular defensemen (which says a lot about how poorly the team defense was playing) and he even added a little more physicality to his play.

Grade: B

Greg Zanon – If there was ever the defenseman that the Wild needed, it was Greg Zanon.

Let’s be perfectly clear. With Zanon, you won’t get a 30-goal season. You probably won’t even get a 10-goal season. But what you will get, is a player who will compete every night and do everything he needs to in order to win.

A shot-blocking machine, Zanon led the team with 196 blocked shots this season and was second on the team in hits, with 183 (which pales in comparison to team leader Cal Clutterbuck’s 316).

Not only that, but Zanon was a leader on and of the ice. He played the last chunk of the season with a broken foot, even after the Wild were out of contention, and he battled through minor injuries in each and every game, rarely even missing a shift.

Zanon is the prototypical defensive defenseman. He gets in the way of the shots, he hits and he plays through every single bit of pain. He is, in Pierre Maguire’s words, a monster.

Grade: A

Kim Johnsson – Johnsson was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks just before the Olympic trade freeze and, in all honesty, the jury is still out on the trade.

Johnsson, despite all of his shortcomings, was possibly the Wild’s best defenseman this season. His vision on the ice made him invaluable both on the penalty kill and the powerplay and, after he was traded, it was glaringly obvious that his ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone, whether by skating or by passing, was a trait that the Wild needed desperately.

When he was brought in before the 06-07 season, he was expected to bring offense to the blueline, but he just never recaptured the magic that he had in Philly before his concussions.

Under Richards, however, Johnsson began to show more of an offensive spark, potting six goals in 52 games with the Wild.

When General Manager Chuck Fletcher had an opportunity to move an expiring contract for a younger player that fit the mold that he wanted, however, he jumped at the opportunity and Johnsson was sent to the Blackhawks for the stretch run.

Johnsson: B+

Shane Hnidy – Hnidy was one of the players that I was very excited about coming into this season. He’s a hard-nosed defenseman and a great teammate.

But Hnidy never seemed to be able to grab hold in the Wild’s lineup. Playing for his fourth team in five years, his skating ability was not anywhere near where it needed to be, leaving him out of position oftentimes and it seemed that he would often be more concerned with playing the body than playing the puck.

That said, Hnidy wasn’t all bad this season. With the injuries on the Wild’s blueline, he came in and played important minute’s on the team’s powerplay—exhibiting a heavy, heavy shot and giving the team’s top-four defenseman much necessary rests. He was one of the few players that was more than willing to stand up for his teammates regardless of the outcome and his toughness was a key component to the team.

Hnidy, however, did not seem entirely comfortable with the Wild this season and did not seem to be the best fit for the team.

Grade: D

Cam Barker – Barker, who came over from Chicago in the Johnsson trade, is a mixed bag.

On one hand, he is an extremely talented defenseman who has the potential and ability to play a strong two-way game. He has the offensive skills to quarterback the powerplay and the defensive skills to lay the body and to log minutes on the penalty kill.

But, Barker wasn’t always all good.

His skating and reaction time was very often subpar and he seemed to get turned around in the defensive zone more often than he should.

With only 19 games in a Wild sweater, the jury is still out on Barker, but he has a lot of work ahead of him if he wants to be a productive blueliner for the Wild.

Grade: C-

John Scott – Scott, or Derek Boogaard Lite, was a much needed physical presence for the Wild.

Like Boogaard, Scott was on the ice for one reason and one reason only—intimidation.

Despite not having been in that role before, Scott took to it like a fish to water and quickly became a second powerful heavyweight enforcer for the Wild.

While his play improved throughout the year, Scott’s skill level was not what the Wild needed on the blueline especially, with injuries to key players and with key players struggling.

Scott jumped back and forth between forward and defense, which likely didn’t help matters, but the Wild need more from their blueline than the hulking defenseman could bring.

Grade: D

Clayton Stoner – Stoner was one of a couple young defensemen that the Wild inserted into the lineup because of the injuries that was a very pleasant surprise.

Stoner, who was limited to eight games because of injury, provided a rugged, smooth skating and puck moving defenseman.

He showed a willingness to throw down, dropping the gloves a couple times and throwing big hits. His skating ability was fantastic and his vision on the ice was great as well.

He even exhibited the offensive awareness, earning limited time in important offensive situations and getting himself a couple of assists.

What was most impressive about Stoner, however, was his poise. Despite this being Stoner’s first NHL game, he is a multi-year pro in the AHL and it showed as he fit right into the Wild’s line up and fit right into the role that the team needed.

Grade: B

Nate Prosser – There isn’t much bad that I have to say about Prosser.

The young defenseman from Elk River, Minnesota was signed as a rookie free agent with the expectation that he would practice with the team, get a taste of NHL life, then be re-signed to a two-way deal this off season and play in the AHL next season.

Injuries, however, forced the Wild to insert Prosser into the line up and his three game audition may have very well made him the front runner for the Wild’s number six defenseman spot next season.

In his three games, Prosser averaged 19:37 worth of ice time—a staggering number when you consider that he had never played a pro game.

He proved that he could move the puck, that he could hit, play solid in his own zone—essentially that he could do anything and everything that the team needed.

Grade: A

Goaltending:

Niklas Backstrom – I don’t think there is a single player, pundit or coach that will deny that Backstrom had a disappointing season this season.

When it was learned that the Wild were going to play a more offensive season this year, we all knew that Backstrom wouldn’t be protected as well as he was under Lemaire—and he certainly wasn’t.

But Backstrom’s season this season was his worst since he was 23 years old, playing for AIK Solna in Sweden.

To be fair to Backstrom, he didn’t play a whole lot different than he has in years past. His positioning was still incredible, his athleticism actually seemed much improved, but he just didn’t make the big save like he had in the past.

Whether it was nagging injuries or whether it was mental, Backstrom would not and will not make excuses, but the fact of the matter remained that the Wild needed Backs to be their best player if they wanted any hope of success this season, and he wasn’t.

That being said, I don’t think that there are many that believe that he is not capable of being the goalie that he was for Lemaire’s Wild under Richards. Backstrom is a notoriously hard worker and hard preparer.

In the 07-08 season, Backstrom was horrible in the shootout. In the 08-09 season? He was one of the best in the league.

So, suffice it to say, Bacstrom will be well prepared coming into next season.

Grade: C

Josh Harding – A slow start to the season really torpedoed Josh Harding’s chances to move into a position where he could be either a starter for the Wild or considered a starting goaltender in the NHL.

That being said, Harding showed huge jumps in his development throughout the season.

His movement has always been great, but his control (both of his body and his rebound control) has been suspect. This season, however, Harding made huge steps in both especially in the latter stages of the season when Backstrom was out with injury.

His consistency still leaves a lot to be desired, but how much of that could be attributed to the lack of team defense in front of him?

Harding is a Restricted Free Agent this off season and it is likely that he will a) be resigned by the Wild and b) be shopped aggressively to teams in need of a goaltender.

Grade: C

Anton Khudobin – I realize that I glossed over Wade Dubielewicz, but I did so for a couple reasons. One, I didn’t want to have to type his name over and over and two, Khudobin is the true third goalie of this franchise.

Khudobin was thrust into action due to injuries this season and, just like the rest of the Wild’s youngsters, performed marvelously.

In 69 minutes, the young netminder stopped 47 or 48 shots and looked extremely comfortable in net. Despite his slight size, his play in net was marvelous and there was not much criticism that could be sent his way.

His movement was good, he had good angles, he had good puck control—in otherwords, he provided the Wild a good, less expensive option as a back up for Josh Harding.

The sample size is small, but he has definitely had a good start to his NHL career.

Grade: B+

Up Next: The Coaches and Front Office

Computer Troubles

Hey all…Sorry about the lack of posts lately. It seems that my computer doesn’t hold the same pleasure for writing about the Wild that I do.

In other words, my computer has finally gone belly up. I’ll hopefully be back up and running soon, and I’ll try to pop in here and there on my Blackberry…But until then, I’m out of commission.

Sorry about this everyone, and I hope to be up and running again soon.

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