Wild acquire Powe; Qualify seven

The Minnesota Wild has acquired Darroll Powe from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a 2013 3rd Round Pick.

I love this move for Minnesota for a number of reasons, most important of which is that they’re receiving a player that will have the opportunity to contribute next season without giving up a roster player.

But I also love Powe’s game. He led the Flyers last year with 196 hits and the expectation is that he’ll slot in on the other wing on the third line with Cal Clutterbuck. Can you say scary?

All indications is that Powe brings the same type of game that Clutterbuck brings, just without the offensive upside. He’s a reliable penalty killer (he was second on the Flyers among forwards with 257 shorthanded minutes) and he’s a strong, character player – something that the Wild minced no words about wanting to acquire.

With the acquisition of Devin Setoguchi, the Wild’s top-six is more or less set, but the Wild now have a strong contingent of players jockeying for position on the team’s third and fourth lines. Powe, Clutterbuck, Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz will likely all get some good looks in the team’s bottom-six, while you’ve also got James Sheppard, Casey Wellman, Colton Gillies and Cody Almond competing for spots as well.

To me, when you look at the players that will likely make the roster (the first five I mentioned), I think it makes the most sense for the roster spots to go to Gillies and Almond. (Keep in mind that this is before camp, so obviously this could change.)

Gillies and Almond both play a game that suits playing on the third and fourth lines. To be honest, I think either player could flourish being slotted between Powe and Clutterbuck, while I think Gillies could really find himself in a great position to have a strong rookie season playing on the wing with Cullen and Clutterbuck.

Initially, that would leave Sheppard and Wellman as the odd men out.

For Sheppard, I think that it’s very clear that he needs to play at least one full season in Houston. Sheppard is a player that should not be a bottom-six forward. He has top-six skill that just hasn’t been realized, and I think that the best thing for him will be what the Wild did with Gillies – stick him in the AHL and let him develop both his game and confidence in his game.

For Wellman, it’s clear that the best position for him is going to be on one of the top two lines for Minnesota. He’s not a checker. He’s a finesse player with a tremendous amount of skill. Because of the chemistry that Kyle Brodziak has shown with both Guillaume Latendresse and Martin Havlat, to me that means that Wellman is going to have to wait one more year to get his shot, and that’s not a bad thing. A full year in Houston will also do Wellman wonders, especially if Houston can build off of their success this season.

Next season, the Wild will likely have an influx of very highly skilled, young players vying for roster spots. Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund will both be jockeying for spots on the roster. Add Wellman to that mix and you could potentially have a deadly stable of youngsters ready to contribute, and that’s never a bad thing.

* * * * *

The Wild also made their qualifying offers today. They qualified seven players, which were Powe, Gillies, Sheppard, Wellman, Justin Falk, Jarod Palmer and Jeff Penner. They did not qualify Patrick O’Sullivan.

The seven aforementioned players will all become restricted free agents as of July 1 if they are not signed before then, though I would imagine that the lot of them will be.

As far as O’Sullivan is concerned, from what people are making it sound like, the Wild will try to re-sign him to a two-way contract should he not sign with any NHL squad or in Europe.

In other RFA news, the Montreal Canadiens did not qualify Benoit Pouliot, which is making the Latendresse trade look better and better by the day.

* * * * *

Speaking of free agency, I’ll be hosting our annual UFA day chat here and at Hockey Primetime and I’m currently working on getting some solid guests lined up to help field your questions. We’re still unconfirmed as to whether or not there will be a radio show, but I’ll keep you updated as I hear.

Wild Nation’s Ridiculously Early Season Predictions: Northeast Division

Well, it’s ridiculously early season preview time again.

Last time, we took a look at the Atlantic Division, with many of the teams taking much different approach to the season than they did last season. In other words, spending money and spending money on areas of need, in some cases, and to shore up strengths in others.

This time, though, we’re taking a look at the Nord-east Division, the home of some of the more intriguing teams coming into this season.

Boston Bruins – The Bruins have some work left to do this off season, as they are already about $3.1 million over the salary cap (though that will be temporarily relieved when the team places Marco Sturm on the Injured Reserve).

The good news for the Bruins are that they have just two contracts that are worth $5 million or more (Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara), but the bad news is that one of those contracts is for Thomas, who is both a 35-plus contract (meaning that, if he retires, it counts against the salary cap regardless) and has a No-Movement Clause that prevents him from being traded or moved to the minors prior to July 1, 2012.

In other words, it makes him darn hard to move.

What the Bruins do have, however, is a strong core.

They have Tukka Rask in net, a goalie who you could have made a strong case for the Vezina for last season, and a core of solid young forwards led by David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Tyler Seguin will be on the opening day roster and really, the Bruins are looking pretty good heading into the season despite the questions surrounding whether or not Tim Thomas and Marc Savard will be moved.

Buffalo Sabres – There are many intriguing teams in the Northeast Division this season and many intriguing storylines – unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), none of these involve the Sabres.

The team’s biggest off season acquisition?

Rob Niedermayer.

But, for a team that won the Northeast last season that could be a good thing.

They have eight of their ten top scorers returning and that’s not mentioning Tyler Ennis, who scored at nearly a point-per-game pace in his ten-game cup of coffee last season.

The one area that this team could be lacking in is their defense. They lost a lot of experience and talent in Lydman and Tallinder and I’m not so sure that Leopold and Morrisonn are necessarily an upgrade on defense. If you’re a Sabres fan, this unknown could be a scary proposition. But, with Ryan Miller in net, these losses could go unnoticed, as the Vezina Trophy winner remains one of the top goalies in the league.

The bottom line? The Northeast is Buffalo’s to lose, but if their defense doesn’t live up to what it will need to, you could easily see them do just that.

Montreal Canadiens – So, how do you reward a goalie that many heralded as the revelation of the playoffs?

Trade him, of course.

That is the type of puzzling logic that Canadiens fans saw themselves subjected to over the off season.

Let us not forget that the player that they dubbed their number one immediately following the Halak trade, Carey Price, has yet to be re-signed.

But, it’s not all bad news for the Habs. Price is a restricted free agent and will be back with the team next season, one way or the other. The Halak trade brought in a great young player in Lars Eller and their top forwards still remain.

The team also has one of the most exciting young defensemen in the league in P.K. Subban, who proved himself to be a terrific addition on the blueline and will most certainly be a welcome addition to a defense that is looking better and better as the season nears.

The team’s forwards are set and should prove effective once again as their “big four” of Gomez, Cammalleri, Plekanec and Gionta have another year with one another, which can only mean good things. The biggest question marks at forward are how Andrei Kostitsyn will respond to the trade of his brother as he comes off a sub-par season and whether or not career under-achiever Benoit Pouliot can build on the strong play that he showed last season.

With all of these questions, however, there’s no doubt that their season all hinges on their play in net. If Price is signed and performs up to expectations, there’s no doubt that the Habs could be back in the playoffs. That being said, though…That’s a LARGE if.

Ottawa Senators – Ottawa arguably made the biggest splash this off season in the Northeast, signing Sergei Gonchar to a three-year deal.

Apart from that singular splash, however, Sens chose to maintain the status quo.

Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen, but he does immediately make the Sens a much better team.

Once again, however, the Sens biggest question remains in nets. Whether Brian Elliott or Pascal Leclaire can step up and be the team’s top goalie remains to be seen, but there is some optimism surrounding this team.

Jason Spezza had 38 points in the 30 games after he came back from injury, which lends to the idea that he might be back to his 90-plus point form. Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek will also help spur on an offense that struggled at times last season. The most optimistic showing, however, was the emergence of Peter Regin during the post season as both a scorer and a clutch scorer, at that.

As with Montreal, however, Ottawa’s questions lie in net. If Elliott and Leclaire can hold down the fort in net, Ottawa could be the sleeper team in a division of some of the NHL’s most storied franchises.

Toronto Maple Leafs – This is the part where Toronto fans are hoping that whoever is doing the preview is going to say that they’re the sleeper team in the East and going to win the division and so on, and so on.

Sorry Leafs fans. It’s not going to happen just yet. The operative word, though, is yet.

As it stands now, the Leafs have one of the best defensive units in the East. Phaneuf, Komisarek, Kaberle and Beauchemin could all be top-two defensemen in the right situations, while Schenn and Lebda round out a very impressive top six. Throw in the fact that they have J.S. Giguere in nets who looked much closer to the Giguere of old after being traded to Toronto from Anaheim last season and you’ve got an impressive back end.

The biggest question mark for Toronto, though, is their offense. When your leading scorer has 55 points, there is a big problem. The addition of Kris Versteeg should help this immediately, while Kulemin and Bozak will continue to grow and should put forth more impressive seasons than they did last year.

It’s very apparent that Brian Burke is still trying to mold this team into the one that he wants them to be and it’s apparent that he’s taking steps in that direction, especially after the signing of Colby Armstrong.

The best compliment that a rebuilding franchise can get is that it’s hard to play against and Toronto will definitely be that. They will be difficult to play against and they will be competitive but, at the end of the day, I don’t foresee them making it into the playoffs this season.

Predictions

So, now that the previews are behind us, let’s see how I think the Northeast will break down:

1) Buffalo Sabres
2) Boston Bruins
3) Ottawa Senators
4) Montreal Canadiens
5) Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season four of the five Northeast teams made the playoffs and I don’t see that happening again. I think that the Sabres and the Bruins will be squarely in the midst of the playoff race, while the Senators and Habs will be a bubble team. The Leafs will once again be on the outside looking in.

Up Next: The Southeast Division

The Minnesota Wild Season in Review Part 4 of 5: The Management

Well, we’re just about there. The NHL Draft.

On Friday, the front offices from all 30 NHL teams will be together in one place for two straight days, drafting and wheeling and dealing.

They’ll be looking for the best fits for their organizations and, suffice it to say, this is as good a time as any for us to talk about the coaching and front office of the Wild this season.

Granted, this season wasn’t the easiest for either the management or the fans. The management (namely Todd Richards and Chuck Fletcher) had to deal with players that weren’t necessarily the right fit for their system while the fans had to suffer through a team that wasn’t necessarily playing at the top of their game because of this.

That being said, I have some strong opinions about this, so let’s get started.

Head Coach
If you’ve read anything I’ve written over this past season, you know that I was very underwhelmed with the first NHL season of Todd Richards.

Richards came to the Wild with a winning pedigree and a reputation of being a “winner.” He hadn’t missed the playoffs in his career and he was sold to fans as a coach that would make the team competitive right away.

What ended up happening, though, is that Richards just couldn’t get through to the team.

While it was expected that Richards would push the team hard during training camp and that pushing would allow the team to pick up his new, up-tempo system quicker, it was very apparent that the team was not comfortable with this system, even heading into the Olympic break.

Now, whether this is an indictment of Richards’ ability to get through to the team or just a matter of the conditioning of Jacques Lemaire not wearing off as quickly as they had hoped is a matter that is up for debate. My personal opinion, however, is that it was the former.

Richards often looked lost on the bench, especially early on in the season. He didn’t look like a man who had control of his players early on—he looked like a man who was searching for answers and finding none.

Maybe it’s because I was used to the demeanor of Lemaire, who typically wore his emotions on his sleeve, behind the bench but Richards’ cool and calm demeanor oftentimes came off as aloofness and confusion rather than someone who knew what to expect from his team.

To Richards’ credit, the team suffered through a rash of injuries this season that was fairly spectacular (to the tune of 300+ man games lost to injury) and he had to work with what he had, but I never got the feeling that he was quite in control of the team the way that a coach should be.

That being said, as the season progressed, Richards seemed to control the bench much better and get much more comfortable both being vocal with his players on the bench as well as with the referees.

As the team progressed and got more comfortable with Richards and his system, Richards got more comfortable behind the bench and it showed.

The biggest moment that, in my opinion, defined the beginning of his season was the Petr Sykora debacle.

Sykora came to Minnesota on the hopes that he would provide both goal scoring and a player to mix with newly acquired Martin Havlat but, for whatever reason, Sykora never really got that chance.

Now, to be fair to Richards, I don’t know the behind the scenes goings on of the team. Sykora could have been dragging down the locker room with his attitude or he could have not been putting forth the effort—I just don’t know. But, from my view point, Sykora was never given an ample chance to succeed with the Wild and it ended up costing the team a player that could have been a valuable goal scorer.

In all, Richards season was a fair representation of the Wild’s—a maddeningly inconsistent one. He improved as the season went on, which gives me hope for his future with the team, but he certainly needed to be better this season for the Wild to both understand and execute his system to the fullest.

Grade: C+

General Manager
The opposite of Richards, if you’ve read anything I’ve written this season you’ll know my opinion of Fletcher.

In short, he did a marvelous job with not a whole lot of assets to work with.

It started at the 2009 Entry Draft, where he wheeled and dealed, picking up more picks and also center Kyle Brodziak, who would turn into one of the team’s most reliable checkers and players this season.

Fletcher has been derided by many Wild fans for some of his moves (trading down to pick Nick Leddy, giving up too much for Chuck Kobasew) and, to their credit, the moves are moves that could easily be classified as questionable. Overall, however, Fletcher did a fantastic job.

While I won’t look at all of his moves this season, let’s look at a few.

Alexander Fallstrom, Craig Weller and a 2nd Round Choice in the 2011 NHL Draft for Chuck Kobasew

This is one of the more questionable trades that Fletcher made this season and the biggest thing that stands out in this one was the inclusion of either the 2nd round pick or Fallstrom.

Many thought that the inclusion of one or the other would have been enough, but the Wild were not dealing from a position of strength and were desperate to find another NHL-level player.

It remains to be seen what Fallstrom will develop into, or who the draft pick will turn into, but for what the team needed at that point in time it was a calculated risk, though not one I necessarily agree with.

Benoit Pouliot for Guillaume Latendresse

This trade could easily be one of the best trades of the season for both squads.

Both Pouliot and Latendresse were supremely talented players that desperately needed a change of scenery. Both were being knocked for having the same downfalls and both went to their new teams for a fresh start.

While I won’t speak of what Pouliot brought to Montreal, I will say that Latendresse flourished under his fresh start to the tune of 25 goals in 55 games.

While Latendresse’s season with Minnesota was far from perfect, he turned into an instant fan favorite and became the hard-hitting power forward that Minnesota had always lacked.

In other words, this trade was a tremendous coup for Fletcher and the Wild.

Kim Johnsson and Nick Leddy for Cam Barker

This trade is one that many people were concerned about, especially given that Leddy was just selected in this past draft in the first round.

Many thought that the trade of Leddy stunk of hypocrisy because of the high value that Fletcher placed both on draft picks as well as developing from within their own system, but the reality of the situation is that you have to give in order to get.

While the Blackhawks were able to shed Barker’s salary by taking on the expiring contract of Johnsson, they weren’t willing to just give Barker up for just that.

The reality of this, however, is the same as with the Kobasew trade. Fletcher gave up a valuable asset, Leddy, who is at least two or three years away from being a potential contributor on the team for one who is ready now.

On top of that, Barker’s youth is something that will be extremely useful for the Wild. At 23, he still has his best years ahead of him. He’s big, he’s physical and he has offensive tools and, while he isn’t the best skater, that can be taught.

The bottom line is that Fletcher gave up a player who is still three years away from being an NHL player for one who can help the team immediately.

The bottom line for Fletcher here is that his first season as a General Manager was a bit of a mixed bag.

He made some good trades and signings and he made some that might not have panned out as he would have liked.

In the end, however, his season was one that should give Wild fans a lot of hope. Unlike his predecessor, he is not content to sit around and maintain the status quo. He is going to do whatever he has to do to try to improve the team and that in and of itself is a welcome change for those used to the mindset of Doug Risebrough.

Grade: A-

Up Next: A look to the future

The Infernal Ramblings of an Incoherant Mind

Look, I’ll be honest here.  There’s really not a whole heck of a lot going on in the Wild universe to talk about. 

I didn’t catch all of last night’s game, as I turned it off after the second due to a combination of my wife being sick, my daughter being on a sugar high (without any sugar, go figure) and my disgust at the way the Wild were playing. 

Imagine my surprise when I pulled up the boxscore on my Blackberry later on in the night only to see the Wild pulled out a win in overtime. 

“@#$!. @#$%. @#$!.” 

That was about what it sounded like when I found out I turned the game off about 20+ minutes of game time too early.

Buuuut, win we did.  And it was a big one too, at least in terms of confidence.  We won with Koivu out of the line up, we beat a Flyers team that is still pretty decent, even with the injuries that they are suffering through and Casey Wellman proved that he is a beast (or, in the immortal words of our almost-GM, a MONSTER). 

Wellman was our most impressive player on the ice for about 75% of the game that I saw, and that’s not a knock on him or on the team — he just played that good. 

He also proved that he’s a good teammate too, jumping Carcillo after his hit on Latendresse despite being a buck-seventy, soaking wet. 

But, since I’m not able to speak to much of when the Wild played well last night, I’ll instead focus on thoughts on tonight’s game. 

* Not that there’s ever a GOOD time to face the Red Wings, but tonight’s tilt could be a very poorly timed one for the Wild.  Why, you ask?  Because Detroit has lost just twice in regulation since the Olympic break and just once more in overtime.  That’s right, they’re 9-2-1 during that time and haven’t lost a game in regulation in over two weeks. 

And you know what else?  They’ve scored 41 goals in these 12 games while giving up just 30.  And since their last regulation loss?  23 goals in seven games, giving up just 13. 

* Josh Harding is probably going to get the nod in nets tonight for the Wild and I wouldn’t expect another disaster like the last time the Wild visited Motown.  Harding knows that he didn’t play his best game that night and he’s probably had this game circled on his calendar since.  He’ll be ready. 

* Playoff probability reports need to start taking reality into their equations as well. 

I understand that the Wild could theoretically still make the playoffs, but come on…Can’t we all just agree that 0.2% means there’s a snowball’s chance in Hades that they’ll make it and stop giving people unrealistic hope? 

* I was knocked out of one of my two fantasy leagues this season — the one run by Justin Bourne.  I feel like I should get a part of whatever he’s going to give out as a prize though if he wins it because, after all, it was my spectacular collapse in the waning weeks of the season that allowed him to sneak in at the 7 spot. 

* Is there any question that Latendresse for Pouliot is the best trade in the NHL, bar none?  Here are their stats prior to and since moving to their new teams: 

The Tenderness w/ MTL: 23 GP, 2 G, 1 A, -4, 11:21 TOI
The Tenderness w/ MIN: 49 GP, 25 G, 11 A, +4, 16:33 TOI 

{Author’s Note: Yeah, Latendresse’s work ethic was definitely the reason he wasn’t producing, not a lack of ice time or a stifling coach…} 

Pool Boy w/ MIN: 14 GP, 2 G, 2 A, E, 11:56 TOI
Pool Boy w/ MTL: 32 GP, 15 G, 8 A, +11, 16:53 TOI 

{Author’s Note: See Previous Note} 

Imagine that.  They both start getting more ice time and quality line mates and they both start producing.  Who woulda thunk it? 

* Can I gush some more about Wellman?  I’m absolutely amazed that this kid has just one point with us.  He was given more ice time last night and he responded by playing just a fantastic game. 

In fact, I would say that he played the type of game that’s been expected of a certain other young center all season long.  (Hint: It rhymes with Games Peppered.) 

* Speaking of good trades, Cam Barker is quickly falling into that category as well. 

He’s not flashy, he’s nothing spectacular, but he’s got a great shot, he’s played D well for us and he’s proving to be an effective partner for Mr. Burns. 

* And speaking of Mr. Burns (eeeeexxxxcellent), I think it’s safe to say that he’s starting to get back to form. 

His defensive mistakes have been drastically cut down on and he’s starting to play like Brent Burns can play.  It’s only a matter of time before he gets hot and starts burying the puck on a regular basis. 

Well…That’s it from me for now.  Enjoy the game tonight all!  The puck drops at 6:30 and it’s on FSN.

The Minnesota Wild Trade Deadline Primer

The Olympics are just a few days from being over, and the Minnesota Wild have hit the ice once more, practicing together for the first time since the Olympic freeze on Wednesday. 

Looking at the standings, the Wild have a daunting task ahead of them.  With 21 games remaining, they sit five points out of the playoff race and, seeing Kim Johnsson shipped out to Chicago, are looking more and more like they will be sellers at the March 3 trade deadline. 

As Hockey Reference shows, the Wild’s chances of making the playoffs are slipping drastically. 

The bottom line remains that the Wild simply are not consistent enough to be in the playoff picture this season.  They cannot sustain any sort of solid effort on the ice in a single game, much less in a stretch of games. 

Keeping that in mind, here is a look at the players that the Wild could potentially move and what their going rate might be. 

Owen Nolan: After Johnsson, Nolan is probably the next “big ticket” item that the Wild have to offer. 

I know what you’re thinking.  14 goals, 28 points?  How is Nolan a big ticket item? 

I’ll tell you how. 

65 playoff games. 

He’s been there and done that, plain and simple.  At the trade deadline, playoff contenders are typically looking at two things.  Veteran leadership and either defensive help or scoring punch (depending on the team’s needs). 

Nolan brings both veteran leadership and the ability to score clutch and timely goals.  He has been a key part of the Wild’s locker room this season and a great number of Wild fans will be extremely sad to see him go; however, he is a player that the Wild could get some good assets for the future for. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $598K 

Expected Return: Prospects and/or picks 

Eric Belanger: Belanger is having one of the best seasons of his career.  He’s just two points off of his career high in points and assists and he’s been a huge asset defensively for the Wild. 

He also has something else that playoff teams tend to look for. 

He can win faceoffs. 

If there’s a big draw to be taken, Belanger will be in on it.  He’s been a large part of many of the Wild’s successful runs this season and has also started showing a bit of a gritty side to his game. 

As a penalty killer, he’s one of the better ones on the Wild’s squad and has started to exhibit that he has the hands to be a threat on the offensive side of things as well. 

In addition, Belanger has the added upside of still being relatively young (or, at least compared to Nolan).  If the fit is good enough, there’s the potential for the team to get a couple more solid years from him after the trade. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $390K 

Expected Return: Depth roster player and/or pick(s) 

James Sheppard: Wild fans will attest to the fact that Sheppard’s stock has fallen like a rock this season. 

Sheppard has gone from the asking price for Olli Jokinen to being less tradable than Benoit Pouliot (which, in Wild fans eyes, was saying quite a bit).  

If there’s one thing that Chuck Fletcher has proven, though, it’s that he’s more than willing to move a player that might need a change of scenery and Sheppard could use just that. 

I’m firm in my belief that he can be successful somewhere—I just don’t think that somewhere is in Minnesota. 

Sheppard was touted as the “next big thing” for the Wild, and he certainly hasn’t turned into that.  Fans have begun to tire of seeing him on the ice, to the point where many would rather see Derek Boogaard get Sheppard’s ice time. 

The bottom line is that Sheppard needs to play somewhere where the expectations facing him are tempered, and that place isn’t in Minnesota. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $312K 

Expected Return: Struggling young roster player 

Derek Boogaard: I’m putting Boogaard on this list because there is the chance that he could get moved, but I’ll say this right now. 

The chance is slim-to-none. 

Boogaard is one of the most feared enforcers in the game on a team that lacks a suitable replacement and is earning ice time this season. 

While it’s a possibility, it certainly isn’t probable. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $212K 

Expected Return: Late round draft pick 

Shane Hnidy: The Sherriff has been an excellent addition to the Wild’s blueline this season, but two facts remain. 

One, he’s been an excellent addition, meaning that he would be an excellent and cheap addition to a team needing defensive help and two, what he brings to the team can be done by either a) Clayton Stoner or b) Jaime Sifers. 

If any team is looking for an injury filler or depth on the blueline, Hnidy can certainly fill that need and fill it quite well. 

In addition, he has gotten more playing time this season on the offensive side of things (more notably, on the powerplay) and has exhibited an extremely heavy (if not very accurate) shot from the point. 

While the return for Hnidy probably wouldn’t be great, he could be a low risk, high reward pick up for someone in need of a d-man. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $167K 

Expected Return: Mid-to-late round draft pick 

John Scott: Let’s face it.  Scottie won’t be on the team next season. 

He’s regressed this season in terms of the ability that he brought to the table that had the Wild keep him around, but he’s moved forward in his enforcer ability—something that teams may be looking for. 

He brings toughness and he can play solid defense, if you don’t take into account his lack of skating ability. 

Scott is the more likely of the two “big men” that the Wild have to be moved, as he quickly became expendable on the blueline—even moreso with the emergence of Stoner. 

Scott could easily be a boon to a team looking to increase its toughness heading into the playoffs. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $123K 

Expected Return: Late round draft pick 

Josh Harding: Harding is the player that he Wild will likely look to shop the hardest, especially with the emergence of Anton Khudobin this season. 

Hards had a tough start to the season, but has rebounded nicely and if there is one thing that teams love heading into the playoffs, it’s a capable, young backup that can take over in the case of injury (see: Cam Ward). 

Harding can provide that for a team and deserves the chance to be someone’s goaltender of the future because, with Backstrom planted in net for the Wild and Khudobin and Matthew Hackett coming up behind up, the Wild’s net is starting to get a little crowded. 

Harding is a restricted free agent this coming off season and would be a tremendous pick up for just about any team looking to improve in net. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $245K 

Expected Return: Roster player and/or prospects or picks

The Draft Picks/Prospects: Fletcher has said that he’s not interesting in trading picks or prospects for players; however, he will be willing to part with picks or prospects if the price is right. 

If he can get a good, young player that can have a future on this club, he will not hesitate to pull the trigger, even if it involves a pick or a prospect. 

While it may be maddening to some, it is a stark contrast to the strategy of Doug Risebrough, and ultimately leads to the line… 

In Chuck We Trust.

Gameday Thread – Game 59 – ‘Yotes @ Wild

It seems like forever since I’ve written one of these, so I may be a bit rusty, but bear with me — this could be a game that you’re going to want to watch if you’re a Wild fan. 

Over the last couple years the Wild have, to use a Mike Milbury-ism, been the Coyotes’ daddy.  Prior to this season, the Wild were a stunning 9-1-0 against the Glendale Canines, and were firmly in control of the match up. 

Funny how an off season can change things. 

With new coaches, the two teams began to take on different styles of play and the Coyotes were no longer the doormat that the Wild were used to. 

Long story short, this season has been a largely different story in the series, with the Coyotes taking the first three games of the season series by a combined score of 11-6. 

Soooooooo, what does this mean exactly? 

Well, this means one of two things.  Either the Coyotes will continue their dominance of the boys in Iron Range Red tonight or, gosh darnit, the Wild are due. 

The Wild come into this game five points out of playoff contention with 24 games to play.  Not insurmountable odds, but a harrowing task indeed. They also come into this game having gotten 42 of their 62 points at the Xcel Energy Center—where tonight’s game is being played. 

A look in the infirmary shows that the Wild are slowly but surely starting to get healthy again.  Niklas Backstrom could return to action tonight and Andrew Brunette, who has sat out the team’s last two practices for maintenance issues, will be a go tonight.  “Sherriff” Shane Hnidy is going to be a game time decision tonight, as he missed practice yesterday with an illness, and Anton Khudobin will likely be the second goaltender in place of Josh Harding. 

Lineup(s) 

With the M*A*S*H unit that has been the Wild’s lineup this season, it’s hard to tell who might be in, but after last game’s physical tone I would expect Richards to counter with a physical lineup tonight. 

Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen
Latendresse-Brodziak-Havlat
Nolan-Belanger-Clutterbuck
Boogaard-Ebbett-Earl 

The physical lineup means that James Sheppard will again be sitting up in the press box, observing.  

Now I don’t like to speculate too often, but one has got to wonder if Sheppard will be shopped around much like Benoit Pouliot was.  Contrary to his stats, Sheppard is a talented player—he just seems to need a fresh start.  I doubt that the return for Shep would be all that great right now, but he could be a useful piece to add on to a deal. 

On defense, I’m guessing that Hnidy will be ready to go, as he’s what is commonly referred to as a warrior, so our defense shouldn’t change. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Johnsson-Schultz
Burns-Hnidy 

And finally, the six-million dollar question.  Who starts in net? 

I’m gonna go with my gut on this one and say that Khudobin starts with Backstrom backing up.  I say this for two reasons.  One, Backstrom has sit out the last six games and should get a little more than just a few practices before he is tossed to the wolves and two, why not ride the hot hand?  Khudobin has two wins (one in relief) in his NHL career and has given up just one goal.  That could earn him another shot. 

What to Watch For 

The last meeting between these two teams ended with some fairly heated exchanges and what looked to be some bad blood. 

Now, with Minnesota on the outside looking in and Phoenix playing extremely good hockey right now, I’d look for this to carry over.  The Wild will need a spark at the start of this game and will look to come out with energy and with physical play and, let’s be honest, in terms of this stuff a lot of hockey player have long memories. 

As far as Phoenix is concerned, keep an eye on Matthew Lombardi. 

Lombardi had his first career five-point game on Monday night and is riding high after being moved from center to wing.  Playing with Robert Lang and Shane Doan, look for him to continue to be an integral part of their offense. 

For Minnesota, they need to find a way to get to Ilya Bryzgalov.  Bryz has historically not had a whole lot of success against Minnesota, but this season has played lights out against the Wild. 

Minnesota needs to figure out how to recapture their success against Bryz and against the Coyotes to gain any sort of momentum.  These last three games of their homestand are incredibly crucial to the direction of the team after the Olympic break, as they will have exactly two days to decide which direction they will take in regards to the trade deadline. 

Minnesota has not seriously flirted with the playoffs yet this season, but a strong last three games could put them in the position to do so and influence general manager Chuck Fletcher’s moves going forward. 

Key(s) to the Game 

Honestly?  Open the scoring before the second period.  If Minnesota can do that, they’re already part-way towards success against Phoenix. 

Getting on the board early and getting their confidence will be key against a Phoenix team that has not given them much to be confident about this season. 

Past that, just coming out and playing a solid, physical game. 

Minnesota is proving this season that they have a team that is capable of throwing their bodies around and are starting to turn into a very difficult team to play against. 

They’re playing against a Coyotes team that is riding high, and they need to be that difficult team to play against.  Play physical, send a message to Phoenix that they won’t be pushed around. 

It’s that simple.  If they can dictate the tempo by playing physical, they can come away with a victory in this one. 

The puck drops at 7pm CST and is broadcast on Fox Sports North.

Wild Newcomers Are Starting to Pay Dividends

Right now, it’s looking like Chuck Fletcher might deserve to be locked away for robbery. 

Why, you ask? 

Because, at this point, that’s what his additions of Chuck Kobasew, Guillaume Latendresse and Andrew Ebbett look like. 

Okay.  So maybe I’m going a touch strong on the hyperbole, but you can’t deny that the Wild’s newcomers have given the team quite the boost in the last few games. 

Chuck Kobasew? 

Well, the man with an uncanny resemblance to Brad Pitt got off to a slow start for the Wild with just a goal and two assists in his first nine games, not to mention a minus-2 rating.  Since returning from his injury, however, Kobasew has three goals, all of which came as a hat-trick in the Wild’s post-turkey day feast against the Colorado Avalanche, a minus-1 rating and 15 shots.  15 shots in just four games, from a checker? 

That sounds like someone who’s making a difference to me. 

Then you’ve got G-Lat.  Dubbed as such by Wild.com scribe Glen Andresen, I’ve decided to adopt the nickname for my own purposes because, quite honestly, just thinking about typing his name gives me carpal tunnel syndrome. 

G-Lat was cast off from Montreal after tallying two goals and an assist in 23 games, including a minus-4 rating.  For Minnesota?  He’s equaled that output in just three games, with a plus-1 rating. 

Not only that, but G-Lat has seemingly transformed from a lazy, uninspired shadow of a power forward to the energetic, physical mountain of a man that he was billed as coming into Montreal his rookie season.  Not only that, but somewhere on the road between here and Montreal, he learned how to play defense. 

And then there’s Andrew Ebbett.  Mighty Mouse himself. 

Proving that it is indeed possible to be smaller than Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Ebbett has provided an instant offensive spark to whatever line he’s been put on.  

In his first game for the Wild, against Boston?  Game-tying goal. 

In the second of back-to-back games against Colorado?  Game-winning shootout goal. 

In Wednesday’s game against Nashville?  Game-winning overtime goal. 

Now that’s what I call coming through in the clutch. 

Now I know what a lot of you are thinking.  

For Kobasew, it was likely an aberration, right? 

But consider that he has scored 20+ goals in three of the last four seasons.  You simply just don’t forget how to score just because you come to a new team.  He is capable of putting up goals—it’s just a matter of finding players that he meshes with. 

For G-Lat, he’s just trying to impress his new team. 

Maybe.  I’m still going to hold my judgment on this one until his body of work is a little bigger.  But honestly, everyone knew that he had talent.  Everyone knew that he was capable of being a solid player in this league. 

Consider his circumstances in Montreal.  A Quebecois player, playing in Montreal?  It takes a special kind of good to be able to withstand the pressure that comes with that.  It takes a Maurice Richard-type of talent to be able to withstand that and, no matter how good G-Lat might be for Minnesota, no one will ever mistake him for The Rocket. 

So maybe, just maybe he’s playing this way because the pressure is no longer on.  His every move isn’t going to be critiqued in Minnesota (just every other move).  Maybe, now that he’s free of the expectations that come along with a French-Canadian player in Montreal, he’ll emerge into the player he is capable of being. 

But again, I’m going to hold my judgment until he has a larger body of work. 

As for Ebbett? 

Honestly, I can’t find any reason why anyone should be weary of his performance.  Despite his size, the man has put up points at every single level.  His last season at the University of Michigan?  14 goals, 42 points in 41 games.  His last full season in the AHL?  18 goals, 72 poitns in 74 games.  His first season with the Ducks?  8 goals, 32 points in 48 games. 

He’s capable of scoring and, honestly, has seemed to be a cap casualty in both Anaheim and Chicago this season.  But if he keeps playing this way, there’s no way he’s going to be one in Minnesota. 

But to be honest, the biggest contribution that these players have brought to the team isn’t necessarily on the ice. 

Yes, they’re helping the Wild win games.  But what their additions have done is juiced the locker room, so to speak. 

The Wild are 4-0-1 in their last five games and are playing their best hockey of the season.  The energy that is flowing through this locker room right now is absolutely amazing. 

The additions do two things. 

First, it shows players in the locker room that they need to perform, otherwise they might be on their way out. 

I can tell you that I was quite surprised when I pulled up TSN’s website and saw the article saying that Pouliot had been shipped off to Montreal. 

Pouliot was playing the best hockey of his career and was starting to show signs of improvement on the ice.  But it wasn’t enough for Fletcher.  He saw an opportunity and took it and now Benny Pooh is a Canadien. 

Second, it forces players to actually earn their jobs. 

In Wednesday’s game, James Sheppard was scratched and not necessarily because of his play.  Sheppard has been a force in the last couple games since he’s been slid over to the wing, but the Wild simply do not have the room for him in their lineup—especially not if they feel that it is necessary to skate Derek Boogaard. 

The Wild have a full roster right now, and still have Petr Sykora and Pierre-Marc Bouchard on the IR.  When those two players get healthy, who knows what’s going to happen. 

Players are certainly going to have to start earning their keep. 

Players like Sheppard and Boogaard, whose spots on the roster were once assured?  They might not be any more.  Or players like Martin Havlat who have been under-performing?  They might not be assured a spot in the lineup on a nightly basis anymore. 

The bottom line is that Chuck Fletcher is putting his stamp on this team and it’s already starting to pay dividends.  As it stands now, not only are the Wild out of the cellar in the division and the conference—they’re just six points back from the seventh seed in the playoffs. 

What this has done is sent a shot across the bow of all of the Nervous Nellies in the State of Hockey.  It’s sent a message to all of the fans deriding Fletcher, claiming that he hasn’t done a good enough job of setting the team up for success. 

It’s told them one thing: Patience is a virtue.

It’s Time for A Change

Hockey sticks beware.  The Minnesota Wild are on the prowl. 

At least, that’s what yesterday’s practice showed, according to Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune. 

At the X yesterday, the Wild underwent an extremely physical practice that caused tempers to run high.  Sticks were broken, slammed against the glass and, in the case of Mikko Koivu, airmailed to the fourth row. 

Richards told reporters afterwards that he’s decided to change his tone after a sleepless night following the team’s loss to Phoenix.  Apparently someone has finally realized that coaxing this team to be better just doesn’t work. 

Let’s be honest here.  Jacques Lemaire was ten times the coach that Richards is at this point in his career.  Lemaire couldn’t do it last year, so why would Richards be able to do it this year? 

Just as Brent Sutter awakened the Calgary Flames with a physical series of practices, Richards hopes to do the same to the Wild, and if there’s any team that needs it, it’s Minnesota. 

On paper, this team isn’t much different from the team that was mere points from making the playoffs last season.  Our lines are even looking very similar to last year’s team at this point.  The most auspicious change was supposed to be the coach, who would take the reins off. 

So far, the reins are off, but the results are much the same—only this time, the defense isn’t playing airtight like they have in the past. 

For a team that wanted to play a fast, physical style coming into this season (much like the Anaheim Ducks team that won the Stanley Cup), they have spent much of the season losing battles on a regular basis.  It has been very rare for a puck to be contested in the corner and have a Wild player come out with it. 

But this “new” Richards might spark something in the team.  To my knowledge, the team has been coddled for most of their careers.  Just look at Brent Burns and Mikko Koivu.  When anyone talks about them, all you hear is how much potential these two young superstars have. 

You always hear about how great of a leader that Koivu is, or how dynamic a talent Burns is. 

But you never hear that Koivu may not have been the best pick for the captain of the team this season, or how Burns tries to do so much on the ice that he is frequently not ready when the game starts going back towards his own end.

The Wild need a change, and the change needs to start at the coaching level right now.  The staff needs to stop coddling their golden boys. 

Just look at James Sheppard.  Is confidence is obviously very, very fragile right now.  He’s playing soft and he’s playing tentative—in other words, he’s not really playing. 

But why not drive home the point with him in practice?  Why wouldn’t you send him into a puck battle drill with a John Scott or a Derek Boogaard, or even Owen Nolan?  Why wouldn’t you send him into a puck battle and tell him that he’s not stopping until he gets the puck? 

Why wouldn’t you take a stick, tape it to Benoit Pouliot’s hands and tell him that you’re not taking it off until he starts focusing on his shot and shooting like he’s capable of?  Why wouldn’t you do that with Martin Havlat? 

All that has been talked about this season by the media is how bad this team is, but all that has been talked about by the team is how bad they’ve been playing.  There’s an obvious disconnect there.  This team doesn’t think that they’re not good and, honestly, neither do I.  

But what needs to happen on a player level is that players need to begin taking accountability for their actions on the ice. 

Yes, the coaching staff needs to give these guys a swift kick in the backside, but once that has been done the players need to step up and be accountable. 

There is no better example than that of Brent Burns. 

Mysteriously, Burns simply disappears after a poor performance.  He doesn’t talk to the media or even address them—he just disappears. 

To be quite honest, running and hiding isn’t a trait you’d want in your worst player, let alone one who is supposed to be one of your superstars. 

The team needs to stand up and be accountable for their actions.  This isn’t a mandate that needs to come from the coaching staff, however.  This is one that needs to come from within. 

Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette.  These are the players this needs to come from.  Koivu and Havlat.  These are the players this needs to come from. 

A locker room wide mandate that, no matter what the outcome of the game is, you’re sitting at your stall after the game facing the music.  It doesn’t matter if you win 6-1 or if you lose 6-1, you’re sitting at your stall, answering questions. 

But that’s not going to happen.  At least not yet. 

For that to happen, the main offenders would have to have some modicum of mental toughness. 

But the mental toughness won’t start coming until the team begins to show some physical toughness. 

Maybe that’s what Richards wants to start stressing in his practices.  Physical, beat down, drag out wars.  I, for one, certainly hope so because I, for one, am sick of watching this team under perform on a nightly basis. 

Hopefully the Wild will eventually get to the point where they are too.

The Injury Bug Strikes Again

This has become a common theme. 

The injury bug has hit the Wild yet again.  This time, with three of the anointed top-six forwards of the team going down. 

First, there was Pierre-Marc Bouchard.  Anyone who saw Columbus’s game could have told you that he just wasn’t himself.  Turns out, Butch has a concussion and, based off of what happened to Brent Burns last season, management is going to take it nice and slow. 

Then, there was Derek Boogaard.  Not a top-six forward by any means, Boogaard was sidelined with, wait for it, a concussion.  Boogaard has since been cleared to play and may yet play on this road trip.  While it certainly helps the depth of the squad, it doesn’t give them the top-six scoring threat that they desperately need. 

Coming next, there was freshly signed Petr Sykora with the dreaded sore Gaborik. {Author’s Note: For those new readers, we here at Wild Nation describe groin as Gaborik…And no, we’re not bitter.}  Sykora was a new signing that was supposed to infuse a secondary scoring threat to this offense.  Instead, he’ll be infusing a secondary scoring threat to the press box — at least for the next game or two. 

Finally, there is the cult hero — the indestructible Cal Clutterbuck.  The reigning hit champion’s title defense took a hit (no pun intended) on Saturday night when he suffered an ankle sprain.  He’s been contained to a walking boot and crutches since the game and has since flown back to Minnesota, pending an MRI.  The hope is that it is no a high ankle sprain — an injury that typically takes 6-8 weeks to recover from. 

What this boils down to is that the team now has significant gaps on their top two lines to fill.

The Wild will have to rely upon the enigmatic James Sheppard and Benoit Pouliot to step up and fill the void left by Sykora, Clutterbuck and Bouchard.  A very scary proposition. 

Or… 

A golden opportunity. 

While I am slowly giving up on Pouliot again, I am still dead set that James Sheppard can be a top-six forward.  He has again shown flashes of what he is capable of.  He has driven to the net, he has forechecked his backside off, he has been a somewhat reliable center.  But none of this has translated over to the scoresheet — something that is vitally important if he is to have any sort of future with the team. 

Meanwhile, while Pouliot and Sheppard try desperately to elevate their game, General Manager Cliff Fletcher is left looking at a roster that is severely depleted from the roster that he felt could be successful this season. 

Certainly, he is exploring the team’s trade options.  Unfortunately, those options are very slim pickings.  He could part with some draft picks for a player from a cap strapped team, or find a team to pawn off a prospect or two on.  

But therein lies the rub.  

Our cupboard is bare.  Barer than most.  

We start trading away prospects and draft picks now, we shoot Fletcher’s strategy of restocking our system in the foot. 

But, if we’re unwilling to part with any draft picks, we now have a strategy for the season that sees inexperienced or ineffective players having to fill in for players like Clutterbuck, Sykora and Bouchard. 

Who’s to say which is better?  I, myself, prefer the idea of restocking our system. 

We all knew it was going to be a rebuilding year, and most of us were hopeful that we could win while rebuilding.  

The more injuries strike us, however, the more desperate the situation becomes, and we all know that desperation can be the downfall of many an organization. 

Just ask Toronto.

Game Recap: Wild 4 Ducks 3

The end result definitely made what it took to get there bearable. 

But just barely. 

After two periods of some of the sloppiest hockey I’ve ever seen the Wild play, the team rebounded and in a big way. 

During the first two periods, the Wild’s play was absolutely atrocious.  They were giving away odd man rushes like candy on Halloween, to the point where they actually gave up a 4-on-1 at one point.  In fact, the only reason that the fans in the X had to cheer during the first 40 minutes of the game was when the result of the Twins game trickled down. 

But then big John Scott stepped onto the ice in the third. 

Scott was determined to stay with the team, no matter what, this season so he took boxing lessons with Derek Boogaard over the off season and man did it show.  Say what you want about fighting’s place in the game, but this fight was one of the ones that actually had a purpose. 

Scott started and ended the fight with a big right hand and the end result was pugilism specialist George Parros looking up at the rafters, wondering what train just hit him. 

The end result for the Wild?  A spark of energy that the team hadn’t had all game long. 

Suddenly, it just clicked.  It was one of those moments when, all of a sudden, you could see everything just make sense to the team.  After two periods of playing tentative, sloppy hockey, suddenly the team was loose, they were going out and actually just playing hockey instead of worrying about who needed to be where. 

It started after Joffrey Lupul went off for hooking.  Just over a minute into the powerplay, Mikko Koivu got the Wild on the board, and the team took off.  Just under six minutes after that Petr Sykora notched his first goal in a Wild sweater and the crowd began to stir — there was something special in the works.  Then, when Ryan Whitney went off for tackling holding, the X began buzzing.  Could we be seeing yet another spectacular finish to a Minnesota sports game? 

Eric Belanger would give the fans their answer just over a minute in as he beat J.S. Giguere on a goal that you could barely tell made it in the net it came out so quickly. 

So, why not.  Let’s go to overtime. 

It didn’t take the Wild long in OT, as Kyle Brodziak took a page from the Cal Clutterbuck notebook and goaded James Wisniewski into taking a penalty after the whistle.

Petr Sykora scored his first goal in a Wild sweater on Tuesday.

Petr Sykora scored his first goal in a Wild sweater on Tuesday.

That set up Andrew Brunette, who knows a thing or two about game winners, to be the star of the night and cap the team’s comeback with a goal on the powerplay 3:02 into OT. 

“Backs” to Basics
Despite what the stats indicate, Niklas Backstrom played a relatively solid game.  All three goals were a direct result of a defensive lapse by the team and only one of those three goals Backstrom had any sort of chance on. 

Don’t let the stat sheet fool you.  Backstrom is a top flight goalie.  But your goalie can only do so much. 

On Lupul’s goal, there is absolutely no reason why Lupul should have been standing, untouched, in front of the team’s net.  The result?  An easy tip in for the young sniper. 

On Artyukhin’s, it was a significant lack of back checking that resulted in the Russian forward being wiiiiiiiide open in the slot with an empty net in front of him.  The extra “I’s” are to emphasize just how open Artyukhin was.  Let’s just say that my one year old daughter could have buried that shot with no problem. 

On Koivu’s goal, the only one that Backstrom had any chance on, he was left untouched in the slot.  Give any NHL player that much time in the slot (except for maybe Derek Boogaard) and they’ll kill you. 

The bottom line is that the Wild have a world class goalie behind them, but they need to give him the chance to make the save.  On only one of the Ducks’ three goals, Backstrom had that chance and, on that one, Koivu had to bounce it off the pipe to get the goal. 

Rivalry Renewed
I’d equate this game to the first time you see an ex-girlfriend in a few years.  You start out amicably, but by the end of the night, you remember why the two of you broke up. 

This was a lot like that. 

The teams started out relatively calmly.  There was some physical play, but nothing that wasn’t to be expected. 

But by the end of the second period, these two teams looked to be back to flat out hating each other again.  Even to the point where the two teams were looking to extend the extra curricular activities after the game had ended. 

I’d tune in the next time these two teams face off on the 14th

Time to Shine
Here’s the deal, and I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this. 

When he wasn’t trying to avoid rogue goalies last night, Benoit Pouliot actually looked pretty good. 

He didn’t get onto the score sheet and he didn’t play a big role in the game with only 5:11 in ice time, but one thing is for sure.  In that 5:11 that he was on the ice, you noticed him — and not in a bad way either. 

He was throwing his weight around and he honestly seemed to be buying into the checking role that he was playing. 

In fact, watching from up above, I got the sense that people might just think that he’s not trying hard out there because he just skates so darn effortlessly.  The man looks like he’s actually skating above the ice instead of on it. 

With Bouchard out indefinitely with an injury and the team not calling up any more forwards as of yet, Pouliot has a golden chance that he needs to seize. 

Bottom line, he needs to make it impossible for Richards to remove him from the line up — something that I think he is more than capable of. 

Flipping and Flopping
It became painfully obvious in the third period that Richards may have to re-think his line combinations. 

First, Havlat and Sykora looked like two peas in a pod playing together.  As much as I love having Bruno on Koivu’s wing, putting Koivu between Havlat and Sykora would give us a bona fide scoring line. 

Brunette has proven that he can play with nearly anybody, so why not put him on a line with Sheppard and Miettinen (of whom Bruno has already displayed a fair amount of chemistry with)? 

It would give the team a great, gritty, second line with Nolan, Belanger and Clutterbuck and it would also give the team three lines that could be fairly dangerous. 

3 Stars

  1. John Scott - No goals, no assists, 5 PIM.  Scottie was the reason for the turn around.  His fight against Parros energized the crowd and energized the team.
  2. Andrew Brunette - Bruno managed to turn what was a pretty bleh performance into a pretty good one with his overtime winner.  How does the saying go?  Winning heals all wounds?
  3. Martin Havlat - Havlat was all over the place, assisting on the first three Wild goals.  He looks like he’s getting comfortable with the system, so it’s only a matter of time now.

Coming Up…
Check back here tomorrow for our pregame report for the team’s game against the LA Kings and be sure to check Hockey Primetime for my Central Division Notebook tomorrow!

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