Wild Nation’s No Longer Ridiculously Early Season Previews: The Northwest Division

It wasn’t long ago that the Northwest Division was one of the toughest divisions in the NHL.

The 2002-03 season saw four of its five teams qualify for the playoffs and, up until the 2008-09 season, the division qualified at least three of its teams for the playoffs every season.

The last two seasons, however, have seen an interesting disparity in the division begin to arise and it’s now become a matter of the haves versus the have-nots. Last season saw two teams pick in the top-10 and would have seen one more in the top-15 had Calgary not sold its soul to Phoenix for Olli Jokinen.

The season before saw both Minnesota and Edmonton starting out in the top-15 as well; needless to say, the division’s competitiveness is waning at the moment.

So how will they match up this season?

Calgary Flames – Flames General Manager Daryl Sutter is either going to be lauded as a genius or be burnt in effigy following this season.

Sutter has been largely ineffective at running the team in a salary cap world and has found himself forced up against the cap more often than not and has seen his team go from one that was one win away from winning the Stanley Cup to one that is struggling to keep their heads above water and is no longer a shoe-in to make the playoffs.

Sutter responded to missing the playoffs by bringing in two players that were largely ineffective in their previous stints in Calgary. First, there’s Olli Jokinen, who quickly feel out of favor after a solid stint with the team after being traded there but didn’t seem suited for the new system that Brent Sutter brought with him to the team. Then there’s Alex Tanguay who returns to the team after two seasons away. Tanguay was, again, effective in his first season with the Flames as a point-per-game player under Jim Playfair, but when Mike Keenan came in Tanguay just couldn’t find his stride.

IF these two players can find their form with the Flames and Jarome Iginla can prove that last season’s 69 point performance was an aberration, this could be an effective team. But these two players have been in decline over the past few seasons leaving many to question whether or not their best days are behind them.

On defense, the Flames are anchored by Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regher. Bouwmeester, last season, seemed to not be able to cope with the added pressure of being in a hockey-crazed town such as Calgary but will have a big opportunity to rebound with his first full season as Calgary’s top defenseman with Dion Phaneuf now in Toronto.

Regher, meanwhile, will provide the same thing that he always has – a hard-nosed, gritty defenseman. He’s not going to put up the gaudy numbers of Mike Green, but he’s the type of heart and soul guy that can really help a team out.

Past Bouwmeester and Regher, the Flames can turn to Mark Giordano and Ian White, both of whom had terrific seasons with the Flames last season and are looking to build on their solid seasons. Giordano put up career highs in nearly every statistical category and proved that he was capable of being the defenseman that the Flames thought he could be when they signed him in 2004. White, meanwhile, was probably the best cog that the Flames received in their trade for Phaneuf. White put up 12 points in 27 games en route to a career season split between the Leafs and the Flames. If he can continue that performance in 2010, there’s no doubt the Flames could have a formidable blueline.

In net, the Flames will again rest their hopes squarely on the shoulders of Miikka Kiprusoff.

Since coming over from San Jose, Kipper has been a mainstay in net for the Flames and seemed to return to form last season after two subpar years. While Kipper may have led the league in losses last season, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying as his goals against average and save percentage were the best they’d been since the ’06-’07 season.

What the Flames have to manage, though, is whether or not Kipper is able to handle the amount of games that he’ll be getting in net. Behind him will be Henrik Karlsson, who the team signed in the off season. Karlsson played marvelously for Farjestad last season and the hope is that he’ll provide a better back up option than Vesa Toskala.

The pieces are all ready for the Flames this season and the hope is that they will all fall into place. If they do, they could be contending for the Division crown once again. But, if they don’t as many fear that they won’t, they’ll be a bubble team for the playoffs once again.

Colorado Avalanche – There are a lot of questions surrounding the Colorado Avalanche this season.

First and foremost is whether or not last season’s run to the playoffs was a fluke or whether this team is the real deal.

The team returns every single one of their key players from their playoff run last year and, with $18 million in cap space, has a lot of wiggle room to improve their roster throughout the season.

The forward crew will again be quite young and inexperienced, though not as inexperienced as last season. The big question marks will be whether or not their key forwards can replicate their impressive seasons that they had last year.

Chris Stewart is freshly signed and looking to build on his breakout season, which is the first extremely impressive season of his pro career. The fact that 17 of his 28 goals came in the second half of the season, however, is very promising and he’s certainly going to get his share of ice time.

In addition to Stewart, both Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene should continue to improve, though Stastny will be looked upon to set up some of the team’s goal scorers more than he’ll be expected to score himself. Look for Duchene, however, to take his next step towards being one of the league’s top superstars heading into his sophomore season. He likely won’t be as explosive as Steve Stamkos was in his second year, but Duchene will certainly get the job done for the Avs.

Peter Mueller is likely not as productive as his 20 points in 15 games last season suggests, but it does show that he is as explosive as they come. If he can carry a hot streak through a good part of the season, he could have a productive season for the Avs and give them another scoring threat.

On defense, the team has two kinds of defensemen — either ones who are extremely mobile or ones who are barely able to take the ice without the use of a walker.

All kidding aside, the Avs have a couple defensemen that are certainly either starting or in the waning of their career in Scott Hannan and Adam Foote. The good news, though, is that these two are both character players and both able to impart good leadership and good knowledge on the younger players of the team.

Past them, they have John-Michael Liles, who is good for 30-plus points and also good for a headache for any fan of the team watching. Players like Kyle Quincey and Kyle Cumiskey are still growing and are looking like they could turn into top flight defensemen for the organization.

In net, it’s pretty safe to say that Craig Anderson has answered all questions about his ability to perform. Last season was really his coming out party, as he finally had success in a full time starter’s role. That success will likely continue on into this season as the team has had barely any turnover from last season.

If Anderson can stay healthy and their young players can continue their progression and don’t have any major steps backwards, it’s safe to say that the Avs could once again be in the thick of things in the playoff race.

Edmonton Oilers – Well, there’s good news on the horizon for Edmonton fans.

The Oilers can only get better, because they certainly can’t get much worse.

To say that last season was a disaster for Edmonton would be an understatement, to say the least. The franchise had their lowest point total since the 1992-93 season and their lowest point percentage total since the 1980-81 season.

Suffice it to say, it was a bad year.

I’m sorry to say that this season probably won’t be much better, but I can say that it will be better.

Young guns Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Jordan Eberle will be on the roster this season and will get plenty of time to show what they can do. Will any of the there be rookie sensations the like of Crosby or Ovechkin? Probably not. But they will be upgrades over what the Oilers had last season and that is something that fans should take heart in.

In addition to their big three, the Oilers will also get a full season from Ales Hemsky, which likely would have helped them tremendously last season. Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Gilbert Brule all missed time due to injuries last season which likely would have made a serious impact on the team. With Hemsky fully healthy and playing on Gagner’s wing, and likely across from Dustin Penner, the forward unit will be a much improved unit over last season’s.

On defense the team is still looking to move the albatross contract of Sheldon Souray, but the good news is that they have a serviceable defensive unit behind him.

Ryan Whitney and newcomer (and underrated free agency signing) Kurtis Foster will find themselves manning the point on the powerplay and players like Jim Vandermeer and Tom Gilbert add a bit of character to the blueline. Ladislav Smid and Jason Strudwick also provide a bit of oomph on the back end, but the unit will have to get better at limiting opponents scoring chances, on a whole, if the team is going to climb from the cellar.

One of the biggest questions will be in net.

Namely, will Nikolai Khabibulin be healthy enough (or free enough) to reclaim his duty as starting goaltender and give the team some stability in net.

If he is it gives the team somewhat of a luxury that they haven’t had in recent years – the ability to relax and know that their goaltender will be there and, at times, be able to bail them out.

If he’s not, however, the team is back to the uncertainty of a goalie tandem of Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk – something that I don’t imagine any fan is looking forward to.

As I said previously, this season isn’t going to be great for the Oilers. They still have a way to go to get back to the level of an elite team. But it will be a great improvement over last season – and that’s a start.

Minnesota Wild – How much longer will the State of Hockey tolerate a sub-par team on the ice?

Well, if things don’t go well this season, owner Craig Leipold may very well find out.

Last season was an unbelievable disappointment for Wild fans and the fact that the team had a point percentage of above .500% for the eighth straight season was little consolation.

But, the good news is that the old regime’s players are beginning to cycle through and be replaced by players that are more conducive to the new style of play that the team is aspiring towards.

Added to the roster are Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and John Madden – three players that are both talented and gritty. Cullen will be expected to fill in the ever elusive second-line center role that the team has been searching for now for years and will likely be slotted in between Guillaume Latendresse and Martin Havlat.

Now the team’s lack of success isn’t to say that they don’t have talent up front, but there are far too many question marks to be able to concretely say that they are going to be a top team.

If Latendresse can continue to perform like he did last season (25 goals in 55 games for Minnesota) and if Havlat can find the form that caused Minnesota to sign him to a lucrative free agency contract, it’s certainly going to be a welcome addition.

On top of these two, the biggest question mark up front lies on the performance of Pierre-Marc Bouchard. When healthy, Bouchard can be one of the game’s elite playmakers, but he has struggled with injuries for the last season and a quarter and his production has not been up to par because of that. Last season, he missed the entire year with a concussion, but he has been scrimmaging at pro camps leading up to training camp and he will likely play at some point this season, though it is not known when.

If he can come back and play his game, he will certainly be a difference maker on the ice.

On defense, again, the team is faced with injury questions.

Brent Burns had a breakout season three seasons ago, but the last two years he has been mired with injury and inconsistency. If he can return to the player that he is capable of being, he will be a dangerous force on Minnesota’s blueline. If he doesn’t, though, he becomes little more than a defensive liability and a player that the team is reluctant to turn to when the going gets tough.

The Wild will also be hoping that defenseman Cam Barker can find his game again after a subpar performance last season. Barker is certainly better than his 21 point season indicated, but he will have to find that offensive mind frame and physical edge if he is to make an impact.

Also up in the air is the Wild’s sixth defensive spot.

Currently, it is thought that the spot will go to a younger defenseman – Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella are all names that have been mentioned. The biggest concern, however, is that these three only have a handful of NHL games between them and, though they have performed well at times, none have the body of work that would lead one to think that they could handle a full season.

In net, the Wild are again looking at the familiar duo of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, but that is not to say that there are not questions there.

Harding started slow last season, but gained his legs late and helped steady the boat when Backstrom was underperforming. Backstrom, on the other hand, struggled much of last season and a lot of that is being attributed to the fact that the team’s system is no longer as goalie friendly as it once was.

I, for one, don’t believe that Backstrom is nearly as bad as he looked last season and, with a little help I believe he could be right back where he was in seasons past. He’s a good goaltender that was, unfortunately, not given much help last season and I would look for him to rebound with a better season this year.

Overall, I don’t see the Wild contending for a playoff spot this season. While they have talent, not all of the players are in place for them to make a playoff push. That being said, they do have talent and if everything falls into place I could easily be proved wrong.

Vancouver Canucks – It may be the pre season, but the hype machine is already in full swing for the ‘Nucks.

It started with Roberto Luongo stepping down as the team’s captain and, as training camps begin, the Canucks are again one of the front runners to make a move deep into the playoffs. But will they be able to shake the monkey off their backs and make it to the Stanley Cup Finals?

At forward, the mantra will likely be maintain.

The team returns most all of their key forwards from last season, but the biggest question will be whether or not their top three can keep it going. Henrik Sedin is one year removed from a remarkable career season, and his brother Daniel would have been right there with him were it not for injury. Ryan Kesler put up career numbers last season. Now, the question that needs to be answered is was that their ceiling or are they capable of repeating.

With the Sedins, I’d be tempted to say that they are very capable of repeating. The two have long been one of the most potent duos in the league and that isn’t likely to change. Will it be another 100-plus point season for one, or both of them? Probably not. But I don’t think that another very strong performance by the two is out of the question.

Kesler, however, may have hit his peak at 75 points – a respectable number, to be sure. The team is deep in scoring, but will need Mikael Samuelsson to continue his scoring ways, as he scored more than 20 goals for just the second time in his career. On top of that, they will look at Mason Raymond to take on an increased role and continue his development.

The addition of Manny Malhotra will help the team’s checking line and their penalty kill, but won’t be much more than that. But that’s also why he was brought in. He’s a reliable checker and a solid penalty killer, which will only help the Canucks this season.

On defense, the team addressed their significant lack of grit the last couple years by bringing in Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis. Along with Bieksa, Salo, Edler and Ehrhoff, the ‘Nucks top-six defensemen all make over $3 million and, with the team $3 million over the cap heading into the season, will likely need to move one of them.

But, that being said, Hamhuis and Ballard are a huge upgrade over their previous defensive unit and the team certainly is looking better on the blueline than they have in previous seasons. With that being a huge concern for the Canucks, their fans should no longer be worried. This is a defensive unit, regardless of whether or not a move is made, that can handle the physical play of clubs bigger and stronger than them and will help protect Roberto Luongo much better.

Speaking of Luongo, he’s once again in net for the Cancucks in potentially the most uninteresting portion of the team to talk about.

Luongo’s in net, Schnieder’s behind him. There’s no question about the performance of either of the two and there’s no uncertainty about anything that is going on here. The only thing that could derail them in net is injuries, but that isn’t typically a concern of Bobby Lou.

Overall, this is the easiest to call. The Canucks will be back in the playoffs, just like they will win the division again. There aren’t any questions about any of these things.

Predictions

Alright. Here we go. This is how I think the Northwest will shape up:

1) Vancouver Canucks
2) Calgary Flames
3) Colorado Avalanche
4) Minnesota Wild
5) Edmonton Oilers

To be honest, the only for sure playoff team in this division is the Canucks. Both the Flames and Avs are bubble teams, though I could see both making the playoffs if everything aligns.

Up Next: The Pacific Division

The Dreaded Season Preview

 So the pre season is nearing an end and teams are beginning to take shape and look like what they might actually look like in the regular season.  In some cases, it’s scary good.  In others, it’s scary bad.  Either way, it’s the time of the year when you can start hearing the sounds and seeing the sights.

Camp is just around the corner.

I was going to get ambitious and do a full 30-team preview of this season…But that will be covered by our father site, Hockey Primetime, so I’ll leave that to them.

Meanwhile, the Wild have been linked to both Alex Tanguay and Mike Comrie in the rumor mill.  The Tanguay rumors have since been substantiated, but the Comrie rumors are still just that — rumors.  With Tanguay, if the Wild are to sign him, they will likely have to unload some salary via a trade.  Despite the fact that Tanguay will likely be looking at a pay cut from last season’s salary, the Wild still would need to make some moves to fit him under the cap.

Comrie is an entirely different animal.  He’s been spotty, at best, throughout his NHL career, but when he’s on, he’s a terrific talent.  It’s just a matter of whether or not he’s on.  He can put up numbers when he’s on, but when he’s off he can be horrible.  That said, he could be a bargain that the Wild could use.

In any event, the Wild are mostly done with their off season and moving towards the pre-season.  With that in mind, here is our season preview, here at Wild Nation.

Key Additions: RW – Martin Havlat, C – Kyle Brodziak, D – Shane Hnidy, D – Greg Zanon

Key Losses: RW – Marian Gaborik, LW – Stephane Veilleux, D – Kurtis Foster, D – Marc-Andre Bergeron, D – Martin Skoula

Overview: This off season saw the Wild receive a complete make over.  The only thing that was missing was Ty Pennington standing outside of the Xcel Energy Center, shouting “Move that bus!”  Immediately after the season ended, the only head coach in team history, Jacques Lemaire, stepped down leaving an enormous void for the team to fill.  A short time later, owner Craig Leipold decided that it was time for the team to switch directions and let General Manager Doug Risebrough go as well.  The General Manager search was punctuated by the hiring of wunderkind GM-in-training Chuck Fletcher signing on the dotted line.  The Wild got their man, now it’s time for the team to put the rubber to the road and see what they can accomplish.

Richards looks to bring a new style of play to the team.

Richards looks to bring a new style of play to the team.

Coaching: One of Fletcher’s first moves was to bring in Todd Richards as coach for the team.  Richards was, honestly, the team’s first choice and an easy hire for Fletcher to make.  The difficult part will be once the season starts.  With coaching candidates such as Peter Laviolette and Guy Carbonneau that were passed up for Richards, he will be expected to pay dividends immediately.  Having promised an aggressive, up-tempo style of play, Richards will be expected to get the most out of players like Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Benoit Pouliot and James Sheppard, who struggled mightily in Jacques Lemaire’s system.  Truthfully, I have never thought that Lemaire’s system was the problem with these players — but that will be put to the test this season.  The biggest problem for Richards is going to be experience.  He is going into the season with the prospect of facing the lion’s share of their games against their division rivals, most who have coaches that have a good amount of experience winning at the NHL level.  As Dan Bylsma and Bruce Boudreau have both proven, that isn’t necessarily worth anything more than the paper it’s printed on.  At the same time, however, a new face coming into a new team could pose problems for Richards early.  Look for him to rely heavily on the experience of Mike Ramsay behind the bench early on in the season.  Grade: C+ 

The Wild will look to Havlat to replace departed Marian Gaborik.

The Wild will look to Havlat to replace departed Marian Gaborik.

Forwards: This season is going to see the Wild look drastically different up front.  Not necessarily because of the loss of Marian Gaborik (Wild fans were plenty used to not seeing him on the ice during his tenure with the team), but because of the changes that could come with a new coach.  The undersized Bouchard may no longer be relegated to the wing and may get a chance to play his natural position once again.  James Sheppard will likely get an increased role in the team, as will resident bowling ball, Cal Clutterbuck.  The team will roll into camp with seven players on the camp roster that can legitimately play center — something that is quite odd for a team that has struggled at depth at that position.  If a second-line center is not acquired before camp, look for Bouchard to fill that role.  Either way, though, the team is lacking a sixth legitimate top-six forward.  This isn’t to say that they don’t have players that have the talent to step up into that role, but the players that they have that are capable don’t have the best track record at doing so.  Where the team really excels is in their bottom-six forwards.  Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak, Eric Belanger and Antti Miettinen are all experienced checking forwards and can all be part of a line that is capable of shutting the other team down.  Factor in tough guy Derek Boogaard and prospects Pouliot, Sheppard and Colton Gillies and you have a bottom-six that could be pretty imposing to play against.  Overall, the team is certainly not top heavy at forward and will likely look to their role players to again play a significant part of their scoring.  The addition of a healthy Havlat will likely help the team significantly but, unless another top-six forward is acquired, the fans of Minnesota could again be looking at a low-scoring season.  Grade: B-

Brent Burns will be expected to rebound from a disappointing 2008 season.

Brent Burns will be expected to rebound from a disappointing 2008 season.

Defense: This could, yet again, be the team’s strong suit.  They have defensemen that are capable of stepping up and joining the rush in Brent Burns and Marek Zidlicky, but now have four defensemen that are more than capable in a stay-at-home role, including two that will be given increased offensive responsibilities as well.  Nick Schultz is one of the most under rated defensive defensemen in the game and, under Richards’ new system, I would look for him to flourish and have a tremendous year.  Schultz has the tools to be a fantastic two-way defenseman and now will get to use his offensive tools a little more, as Fletcher has asked him to take more of an offensive responsibility as well.  Kim Johnsson is a former 40-point scorer on the blueline that will likely be given all of the tools to return to that stature.  After concussion problems sidelined him with the Flyers, the Wild took a chance on him and got one of their more reliable defensemen over the past few years.  The biggest change in the blueline, however, is the sandpaper added through Greg Zanon, Shane Hnidy and John Scott.  These three will likely share minutes as the fifth and sixth defensemen for the team and add a great deal of grit to the line up.  All three love to hit and all three are solid, stay-at-home defensemen that can be paired with either Burns or Zidlicky to give the Wild a presence behind them when they pinch in.  As for Burns and Zidlicky, a new system gives them the opportunity to showcase their offensive abilities.  Burns had a rough season last year, switching back and forth between wing and defense and struggling with injuries and fans can expect him to rebound this season.  As for Zidlicky, you can expect more of the same.  Poor decisions punctuated by fantastic offensive moments.  Zidlicky will likely find himself paired with either Johnsson or Schultz most of the time and will be looked at to contribute heavily on the powerplay.  Overall, I feel that this is still one of the strengths of the team and the addition of the grit will easily make them better.  Despite playing in a new system, expect stalwart defensemen Johnsson, Burns and Schultz to continue to practice what they learned under the tutelage of Jacques Lemaire and don’t expect this unit to give up many chances.  Grade: A-

Backstrom will once again be the backbone of the team.

Backstrom will once again be the backbone of the team.

Goaltending: Let’s get one thing out of the way right now.  Niklas Backstrom is actually this good.  The system certainly helped him but, when he’s on, he’s one of the top five goalies in the league — easily.  Last season, Backstrom was one of the biggest reasons why the Wild were even in the playoff hunt and this season it will likely be the same story if they are to be there again.  He will likely face a few more quality chances per game, but I wouldn’t expect that to change the results much.  Behind him, barring a trade will be Josh Harding.  For Wild fans, that is great news.  Harding was slated to be the Wild’s heir apparent in net before the emergence of Backstrom, and he has evolved into quite the goaltender.  This is again a case of the Wild having a 1A and 1B goaltender, as Harding can easily slide in and the Wild won’t miss a beat.  If Harding is traded, the Wild picked up New York Islanders folk hero, Wade Dubielewicz as an insurance policy.  While Dubie is nowhere near the goaltender that Harding is, he is more than a sufficient back up and has proven that he is capable of winning games at the NHL level.  Overall, goaltending will again be the strongest part of the team and will again be the backbone of any playoff push that the Wild hopes to make this season.  Grade: A+

Line Combinations: This will likely be changed throughout the season, but here is what I would expect the Wild’s line combos to look like:

Forward
Andrew Brunette/Mikko Koivu/Martin Havlat
Owen Nolan/Pierre-Marc Bouchard/Cal Clutterbuck
Antti Miettinen/James Sheppard/Colton Gillies
Derek Boogaard/Eric Belanger/Kyle Brodziak

Extras: Craig Weller, Benoit Pouliot

Defense
Brent Burns/Nick Schultz
Marek Zidlicky/Kim Johnsson
Greg Zanon/Shane Hnidy

Extra: John Scott

Goaltending
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding

Nolan is a leader on and off the ice.

Nolan is a leader on and off the ice.

Captain: One of the biggest question marks this season is “who will the captain be?”  The odds on favorite, most likely, is Mikko Koivu.  He captained the team for most of last season and emerged as both a leader on the ice and in the locker room.

If I’m Richards, however, I look to one person and one person only.  The man they call Cowboy — Owen Nolan.

Nolan is one of the most respected and feared veterans in the league and commands respect wherever he goes.  Giving him the ‘C’ will give legitimacy to what is, once again, a young team searching for their identity and sends a message to all of the players in the locker room:

This is the standard expected of you.

The team was abysmal without Nolan on the ice last season and his dedication to the team shone through in the way he carried himself.  He is to this team what Wes Walz was when he was playing.  He is the type of player that will lead this team regardless of whether or not he has the ‘C.’

So why not make it official?  Slap the ‘C’ on number 11’s chest and watch it all unfold.

Expected Finish: Honestly, this is my expectation.  If the team is healthy (Havlat, Burns, Nolan etc.), this team is a playoff team.  They were a few points from the playoffs last season without their top scorer — there’s no reason to think that they can’t make it this season if they’re healthy.  To go one step farther…If this team is healthy, they can win the division.  Vancouver failed to improve this off season, while Calgary got better on the back end, but worse up front.  The two powers of this division are ripe for the picking and, the Wild are the best team for the job.  Realistically, I think this team can have a shot at the division crown once again — but things will have to go their way.  On this one, though, I’ll split the difference.  2nd in the Northwest, 6th in the West.

Update on the Shortlist

Per Mike Russo, there has apparently been an addition to the Wild’s shortlist.

According to Russo, the Wild have interviewed Ducks Assistant GM, David McNab.  The interview took place on Saturday.

This is an interesting selection for the Wild, namely because McNab is very keyed into the NCAA and has been instrumental in the Ducks’ wealth of quality collegiate players in their system.  In addition, Russo added that Paul Fenton, Mike Santos, Pat Quinn and Pierre McGuire have all interviewed for the position already and that Chuck Fletcher will be the next to interview, likely either today or Thursday.  He also mentioned that acting General Manager, Tom Lynn, will be the last to interview.

Russo also mentioned that this may not be the last round of interviews:

There also could be another round of interviews potentially. The Wild is doing none of the interviews at the arena, meaning there’s always a chance they bring some of the candidates back to tour the offices and arena.

That’s all for today.  If I have anything more, I’ll update as I hear it!

And We Have a Shortlist

Mike Russo posted a blog early, early this morning (burning the midnight oil during the off season…The sign of a great writer) that essentially outlined the Wild’s shortlist for the GM position.  You can check the full blog out here and the article he wrote here.  Anyway, here are my thoughts on the candidates:

Chuck Fletcher: Pittsburgh’s Assistant GM has been considered the front runner for this position over the last week or so and is already well respected within the NHL.  At 41 years of age, he already has 16 years of experience under his belt with Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh and has worked alongside many of the NHL’s most respected executives.  He has obviously had a large hand in the resurgence of the Penguins over the last few years and, in all honesty, I think the job could be his to lose.  Reports say that Fletcher is to be in town later this week to interview.

Pierre McGuire: McGuire, while the unconventional choice, could bring an interesting viewpoint to the Wild’s front office.  He has long been looking to get into management in the NHL and I would think that you would be hard pressed to find anyone more knowledgable about the talent in the NHL than McGuire.  That said, he has absolutely zero experience with working with the cap.  He is the other of the two front runners for this job, but I think that the recent failings of Barry Melrose in Tampa (whether it was his fault or not) may cause Leipold to shy away on this one.  He is reportedly scheduled to interview tomorrow.

Pat Quinn: I’m not going to make any bones about it.  I love Pat Quinn.  I do think, however, that he’d make a better coach than a GM and he has been saying that he would like to get back into coaching.  He has family in Minnesota (Eden Prairie to be precise) and expressed immediate interest in both the GM and coaching position.  I honestly think that he will likely be the next coach if he is still available when the GM is hired.

Tom Lynn: Lynn is an obvious for consideration for this position, as he was Risebrough’s Assistant GM.  I have a hard time believing that Leipold will go with Lynn, however, as he has repeatedly said that he wanted a fresh look at the team; which I don’t believe Lynn would give.

Paul Fenton: I think Fenton could be the dark horse in all of this.  He and Leipold know each other well and he has certainly been successful in Nashville at helping mold a winning organization.  I would be surprised if Leipold goes with Fenton, but I also think it could certainly be a possibility.

Backstrom For Vezina; Aeros Advance

First off, I’d like to thank you all for bearing with me over the last few days.  My seven month old daughter had come down with something which necessitated my being gone for a few days.  But never to fear…It’s the off season, so not a whole heck of a lot occurred over those last few days!

Niklas Backstrom
It’s been a big couple weeks for the Finnish netminder.  First, his surgery was a huge success, leading Dr. Philippon to conclude that Backstrom will be ready to go in full in about 12 weeks.  I don’t know all of the details, but apparently the cartilage damage was much less than the doctor had originally thought and the issues with Backstrom’s hip have been corrected by the surgery.  Keep in mind that this is the same surgery that Marian Gaborik underwent during the season.

In addition to a successful surgery, Niklas Backstrom also became the third member of the Wild’s organization to be named a finalist for a voted-upon NHL end of the year award.  The other two?  Jacques Lemaire and Wes Walz for the Jack Adams and Selke trophies respectively.  This is not the first hardware that Backstrom has won as a member of the Wild.  In the ’06-’07 season, his rookie season, he walked away with the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award for the league’s best save percentage and teamed with Manny Fernandez, winning the William M. Jennings Trophy, for the team with the least goals against.

Backstrom will have a tough time winning this award, however, as he will be going up against Boston’s Tim Thomas and Columbus’s Steve Mason. 

My personal thoughts on this is that Backstrom will come in second in the voting.  Backstrom was certainly the Wild’s best player, and Josh Harding’s 3-9-1 record on the season certainly helps Backstrom’s cause, but let’s not forget that Harding posted extremely impressive stats during those 13 games as well.  The way I look at it is like this:

  • Without Mason, the Jackets miss the playoffs AND are likely to have a lottery pick in the top six.
  • Without Backstrom, the Wild are likely to have a lottery pick in the top ten.
  • Without Thomas, the Bruins probably wouldn’t have won the conference, but still likely would have made the playoffs.

To me, what that equates to is that Mason will get the Calder-Vezina sweep this season (and, honestly, I think there’s a pretty good argument for him getting the Hart as well, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Backstrom had a phenomenal season and, let’s be honest…If the Wild make the playoffs, there’s no question that he’s up there for the frontrunner.  The bottom line is that, as important as he was this season to our team, Mason was just a touch more important in their run.

Aeros Advance to Round Two
Leave it to the farm team of a Minnesota team to take every opportunity to give their fans more hockey.  Houston won game seven against the Peoria Rivermen 5-2 on the strength of goals by Krys Kolanos, Marco Rosa and Maxim Noreau as well as empty netters by Corey Locke and Mitch Love.  Goaltender Anton Khudobin was credited with the win, saving 19 or 21 shots.

Houston advances now to play the first seeded Milwaukee Admirals in what should prove to be an intriguing match up; at least from a front office point of view.  Milwaukee is the farm team for Nashville, making it Craig Leipold’s current farm team vs. his former farm team.  In other words, two candidates for the Minnesota Wild GM position (Tom Lynn and Paul Fenton) fighting it out for GM supremacy, though I doubt this series would be the deciding factor in one or the other getting the job.

Houston has three of the top 20 scoring leaders thus far for the playoffs, with Corey Locke third in scoring (4-5-9), Matt Beaudoin sixth (2-6-8) and Krys Kolanos sixteenth (2-4-6).  Meanwhile, Khudobin is trucking along with a 4-3 record, a 2.45 GAA and a .906 Sv Pct, as well as one shutout.  The most interesting stat?  Corey Lock has 24 penalty minutes.  Anyone care to explain that one to me??

Wild Sign Carson McMillian
The Wild also have signed another of their 2007 draft picks to an entry level deal.  Carson McMillian of the Calgary Hitmen has been signed to a three-year, entry level deal.  McMillian was in his fourth season with the Hitmen this season and recorded career highs in goals (31), assists (41), points (72) and penalty minutes (93).  On top of that, he added seven game winners, five powerplay tallies and four shorties.  It will be interesting to see how McMillian fares in Houston next season, as he is certainly an intriguing player for this organization (one that has rarely seen success at drafting in the later rounds). 

Seventh Heaven
There are two game sevens on the docket tonight and, honestly, does it get ANY better than a Game Seven in the NHL Playoffs?  It’s win or go home for four teams and it’s going to be I-N-T-E-N-S-E!!!  Now I typically shy away from predictions (for those unable to pick up on sarcasm through text, I’ll note it here), but I feel inclined to share my views on these two games.

2) Washington v. 7) NY Rangers - I made the observation a few days ago that, if any team is equipped to come back from a 3-1 defecit, the Capitals were certainly one of them.  It took a few games for the Caps to realize that they can’t shoot at Lundqvist’s mattresses (and for Boudreau to realize that he can’t have Theodore in nets), but once the Caps got it figured out and started executing their gameplan, they started rolling.  Torts will be back on the bench for the Rangers after his Game 5 hissy fit and, if I were a Caps fan, I wouldn’t relish sitting behind him because he’ll likely be packing for this one.

The Rangers Win If: They score first.  If they can do that, they can tighten up around Lundqvist and clog up the neutral zone.  In their three wins, the Rangers have proven that they can give the Caps fits when they do this.  The Caps offensive stars need room to skate in order to be effective, and if the Rangers are protecting a lead, they can afford to tighten up and not give the Caps the space to skate

The Capitals Win If: They get to Lundqvist early and often.  Not necessarily score, but pepper him with shots.  He’s been pulled in two straight games and they can’t afford to let him gain any confidence.  Crash the net, get in his way, do anything and everything they can to disrupt his game.  If that means buzzing him and taking  a goalie interference penalty early on, that’s what they have to do.  Get in his head and this one’s over.

My Prediction: Washington 4 New York 2

(3) New Jersey Devils v. 6) Carolina Hurricanes – This series has been the epitome of even.  Neither team has won more than one game in a row and only two of the six games have been decided by more than one goal.  At the onset of the series, everyone expected this to come down to goaltending and, tonight, it will.  Both Ward and Brodeur will be at their best and this game will be very, very tightly played.

The Devils Win If: Their offense shows up early.  This team has an absolutely explosive offense.  The problem is that they have been extremely inconsistent this series.  One game, they’ll look like absolute world beaters; the next, they look like they couldn’t find the back of the net if it were the size of the broad side of a barn.  If they come out of the gates ready to skate hard and ready to play, they’ll gain the advantage over Carolina.  If they falter, though, Carolina will exploit this.

The ‘Canes Win If: Cam Ward plays like he did in Games 5 and 6.  Ward is the catalyst for this team.  If he’s playing well, this team gains confidence and can steamroll opponents.  This team does not have the defense to protect Ward if he’s playing poorly and that can lead to a collapse if he is.  A couple big saves early and Ward’s confidence will go through the roof.  If this happens, it gets exponentially harder for the Devils to take ahold of this game and get any sort of momentum.

My Prediction: Carolina 3 New Jersey 2 (OT)

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!

Updated: Who Replaces Risebrough?

With Jacques Lemaire stepping down as Head Coach and Doug Risebrough now on the outs as General Manager, Owner Craig Leipold needs to put together an intensive search for the new General Manager of the team.  There are some pretty good odds that he will look both within and around the NHL for his candidates and you would have to imagine that he already has a good idea of who he’d like to approach.

That said, the man that Leipold should offer the job to is right underneath his nose.

At least…He was until a few days ago.

That’s right.  The man who would be perfect for the job is none other than former coach, Jacques Lemaire.  This may not necessarily be the popular decision for Wild fans, but the bottom line is that Lemaire is best suited for this job.

Why you ask?  Simple.  First, there is absolutely no one in the league that knows the personnel that the Wild currently have at their disposal better than Lemaire.  He knows what the team needs, he knows what will work with who the Wild currently have and he is one of the best hockey minds in the league.  Second, he is a winner through and through.  With how used to winning he is, you’ve got to think that the Wild’s mediocrity over the last few seasons (yes, they were mediocre in winning the Northwest Title) has eaten away at him like nothing else.  He wants to win and he genuinely cares about the franchise.  You can see this in his press conference, where he did not step aside because he was done coaching, but he stepped aside because “it was time.”  That, to me, speaks to someone who is acting in the franchise’s best interests. 

Lemaire spoke highly of the organization in his press conference and it was clear that it was going to be hard for him to leave.  While his tenure as coach is certainly over, I don’t believe that his tenure with the Wild has to be.  There’s no doubt that, if Leipold hasn’t already contacted him, he should.  Lemaire knows the game better than almost anyone else in the league and he certainly knows the team better than anyone else in the league.   It’s also evident that he knows what the players are looking for in a coach as well, as evidenced by his comments after announcing that he was stepping down.

Who better to provide the team with what everyone’s clamoring for than the man who got them to where they are?

I don’t know who Leipold has contacted or will contact.  But I do know that, if he’s interested, the job should be Lemaire’s.

Update: Russo has reported that Lemaire has said that he’s not interested in the position.  I don’t know who is going to replace Risebrough, but one thing is for certain; they’re going to have their work cut out for them.

Breaking News: Risebrough Fired

Per Russo,

According to two outside NHL sources, Wild GM Doug Risebrough has been fired by owner Craig Leipold. It is unconfirmed inside the organization.

Leipold was said to have agonized over the decision but decided, in the final analysis, that a change in direction was called for.

Here’s the memo from the team:

Minnesota Wild Owner, Craig Leipold, announced today that the organization will not renew the contract of President and General Manager, Doug Risebrough, beyond the 2008-2009 season.

“The entire Minnesota Wild organization is forever indebted to Doug for his substantial efforts in establishing this franchise’s solid foundation and winning tradition,” said Leipold. “The positive impact of Doug’s service will be felt for many years to come. We wish Doug the very best.”

The search for a new General Manager will begin immediately. The first order of business for the incoming General Manager will be to select the Team’s next Head Coach.

Until a replacement is found, Assistant General Manager Tom Lynn, will be acting-General Manager.

Personally, I’m sad to see Risebrough go.  I have had the pleasure of meeting with and talking to him at length, and I’ll tell you that you’re not going to find a better person in the NHL.  He’s personable, friendly and very fun to talk to.

On a business level, however, you had to see the writing on the wall with the departure of Jacques Lemaire.  It started with Craig Leipold buying the team.  At that point, the guard began to change.  Lemaire’s departure was another signal that the team was going to begin heading in a different direction, and this latest occurrance cements it.  This is a team that is going to look quite different come next season.

The question at hand is now not who will be the head coach for next season, but who will hire the head coach next season.

My guess is that Leipold already has himself a short list and, other than Jay Feaster and JFJ I’m not sure who would be available for the GM position so I won’t speculate as to who he is going to be looking at.  One thing is for sure, however.  This marks a new era for the Wild; 100%.

Risebrough has come under fire recently for not being able to land the “big fish.”  Whether that was a product of perception, with Lemaire as the coach, or a product of Risebrough not being willing to take big risks the fact remains that this was a change that needed to be made and in a sweeping manner.  I’ll have more on this as it unfolds, but there’s no doubt that it’s an extremely exciting time to be a Wild fan and this should be a very eventful off season for the team.