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.

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 Walking Wounded and other Wild Updates

Per Russo,

Goalie Niklas Backstrom will indeed have left hip surgery Friday in Vail. Brian Stensaas was on a conference call with acting GM Tom Lynn. He reports he has two cysts on the bony part of his hip.

Lynn says they won’t know how long he’ll be out until they operate. Worst case scenario, Stensaas says, could be four to six months!

But Lynn said the doctor cautions they can’t give a timetable yet. More from Stensaas in Wednesday’s paper.

Also, I hear Brent Burns is having shoulder surgery probably on Thursday.

This is in addition to Andrew Brunette having reconstructive knee surgery this off season and Derek Boogaard having shoulder surgery.

So what does this mean for the Wild?  Well, if the prognosis for Backstrom truly is 4-6 months, that puts Backstrom back at the earliest, August 24th and at the latest October 24th.  Knowing Backstrom, he will work his hardest to rehab and be back sooner, but this essentially makes the top priority for the new GM hammering out a deal for back up goalie Josh Harding.

If this is indeed the case, you can take Harding off of the table as a bargaining chip.  That is, unless the new GM is suddenly stricken by Barry Brust-mania and believes that Brust can shoulder the load as an NHL starter.  What this could do, however, is drive Harding’s stock through the roof.  If Harding can perform like Backstrom did when he wrested the starting job away from Manny Fernandez a few years back, Harding could easily become a hot commodity among NHL teams.

The Search Begins
After being denied permission by Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs to speak with Dave Nonis, Wild owner Craig Leipold recieved permission from the Nashville Predators to speak with a couple of his old employees; Director of Hockey Operations Mike Santos and assistant GM Paul Fenton.

From Russo,

Leipold declined comment on them, ”just like I won’t comment on any of the other candidates.” 

There are lots of candidates that have surfaced. These are just two that so far I know he’ll be allowed to talk with. I’m sure there are others. I’m working the phones.

Santos is in his third year in Nashville and is responsible in negotiating player contracts and preparing for salary arbitrations. He served as assistant GM for the New York Islanders from 1997-2002 and director of hockey operations for the Florida Panthers from 2002-03.

He was Commissioner and President of the North American Hockey League from 2003-06. He’s worked for USA Hockey and the NHL.

Fenton is in his third year as Nashville’s assistant GM after eight as the director of player personnel. He oversees the Predators’ amateur player development and managers the team’s pro and amateur scouting staffs. He’s also GM of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals.

Fenton, who played eight years in the NHL for seven teams and was a former Boston University standout, also spent five seasons working for the Anaheim Ducks. 

It hasn’t happened yet, but another person I’d assume Leipold would request permission to speak with his Pittsburgh assistant GM Chuck Fletcher. He’s 41 with 16 years of experience. He’s immensely respected after years in Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

Remember, Leipold has a fabulous relationship with Penguins GM Ray Shero, who used to be assistant GM in Nashville.

In addition, the Wild have been denied permission to speak with Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill.  Nill is under contract until 2010-11 and has a commitment in his contract to stay in Detroit.  In fact, this quote was run in the Windsor Star when Toronto was inquiring about Nill’s availability.

The way we do things here, I’ve already got most of the responsibilities and input that a general manager would have. Ken [Holland] and I work really well together.

I’m comfortable, I’m well-compensated and I like the organization. I know which side my bread is buttered on.

Risebrough Presser
You’ve got to love hockey guys.  Doug Risebrough held his “exit presser” yesterday and held it at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub.  Gotta love it.

Anyway, Russo had some snippets in his blog regarding the players and it just shows how well respected Risebrough was by his own players.  Derek Boogaard had his fiancee drive to the pub after he literally just woke up from having shoulder surgery, just so that he could thank Risebrough for the opportunity and have a chance to say goodbye.  Risebrough also spent some quality time with Marian Gaborik at the arena and went to Brent Burns’ home to meet with the youngster after the new broke regarding his concussion problems.

Again, on a personal level, I’m sad to see Risebrough go.  He was a great guy, probably the nicest associated with the NHL that I’ve had the pleasure to meet.  Part of me feels that he deserved a bit better treatment than he received from Leipold; however, that’s also Leipold’s perogative as the owner.  It’s his team and he can run it as he sees fit.

On a business level, however, it was time for a change.  Risebrough had become increasingly defensive about his decisions over the past few seasons and it seemed as if fans, management and players alike were all growing tired of his smug, “I know best” attitude.  As disappointed as I am that it had to end like this, it certainly had to end.

In the transcript of the presser, however, there was one quote from Risebrough that really rings true to me.

I think the club, I believe the club is in really good shape, and I’ll tell you why. I think it’s got a good core of players. It’s got good youth. I think it’s got great flexibility in terms of the salary cap. It’s got lots of room this year, it’s got lots of room next year. So whether that means what do you want to do immediate signings or future signings, it’s all there. It’s got a great fan base that’s still in love with this team. So it’s going to be energized. I believe players that had poor years will rebound. I’m pretty comfortable to say the injuries aren’t going to be the same magnitude. So I think it’s a great opportunity for a manager and I think it’s a great opportunity for a coach. And I feel good about that. I made decisions on a regular basis for the right  reasons, and the right reasons never included me. They never included me, they were always for the franchise. Now I can say, I didn’t always make the right decisions, but I did them for the right reasons. And I feel good about that.

That right there, to me, says it all.  Whoever it is has a good base, but also has his work cut out for him.  This is a solid team in need of a few key components to become a serious contender.  I don’t think this team needs to be blown up and start from scratch again, but at the same time I don’t think that this team is ready to contend next season after all of this going on this off season.  One thing’s for sure, though.  It’s still an exciting time to be a Wild fan!