Around the NHL: 8/18/11

I’ll have some of the pictures from the Octagon camp up later today. They’re not the best, but it’s something!

Anyway, on to the NHL.

* * * * *

NHL to Look At Behavioral Program
In the wake of a tragic summer for the NHL, with the deaths of Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, the NHL is going to review its substance abuse and behavioral health program.

While I think it’s tragic that it took the deaths of two players to spur this on, I think that this could be something that could be greatly beneficial for the NHL and the NHLPA in the long run.

It's time for Bettman to get out of spin mode and make some changes.

The program has been brought to the attention of many this season, with the entrance of Nashville Predators forward Jordin Tootoo into the program, as well as the deaths of Boogaard and Rypien (both of whom were involved in the program at one point or another during their respective careers).

What Bettman said to the press was cryptic, saying that “we’ll talk at the appropriate time with the players’ association, making sure that we’re comfortable with all of the mechanisms and programs we have in place, which are extensive.”

Now, understandably he needs to be a bit cryptic due to the privacy of the players’ involved in the program, but it would be nice to see some sort of transparency into what is being done for these players – something that wouldn’t reveal the players or what they are going through.

Mathieu Schneider told TSN that he felt that part of the problem was the seeming reluctance for players to discuss their problems with their teammates, which is exactly why this program needs some sort of transparency.

Look, I get it. Hockey players are men’s men. They don’t need to talk to each other about their feelings and their problems. But this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed by the NHL.

The culture of the NHL is a very closed one, but some transparency to what help these players are getting (or not getting) could be an important step towards getting these players the help they need. Players’ names don’t need to be named. The NHL doesn’t need to tell people who’s involved in the program, but a look into what the program entails and what these players are going through would go a long way towards making sure that everything is being done that can be done.

Of course, if players felt comfortable talking with one another about the things they’re going through, we wouldn’t need to know what kind of treatment people are getting.

The best therapy someone can get, sometimes, is just sitting down over a beer with your best friend and talking. But these players are on the road for most of the year and most times far away from home for all but the of season. The only ones they have to talk to (outside of spouses) are the guys in the locker room, and if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, what are you supposed to do?

That’s the big question and that’s the question that both the NHL and NHLPA need to figure out.

* * * * *

The Verification Line
One of the big things in the NHL’s RDO Camp this week that we might actually see this fall when the league starts up is the verification

This is a verification line.

line.

For those who don’t know what it is, the line is a green line sitting parallel behind the goal line by just a little over 3 inches (the width of a puck).

Basically, the idea behind it is that if the puck is touching the verification line, it’s a goal.

Of all of the ideas being tested at the RDO camp, this is one of my favorites and one of the ones that I think should be implemented as soon as possible. What it does is it takes the ambiguity out of goal scoring – makes it easier for the war room in Toronto to tell whether or not it actually was a goal.

It’s funny that, in this age of technology, the best solution to determine whether or not a goal has been scored is a little extra paint on the ice, but that’s what makes this such a great idea. It’s nothing that’s going to change the flow of the game, it’s nothing that’s going to alter the on-ice product in any way.

It’s just going to make it easier to determine whether or not a goal was actually a goal.

There are some other ideas being tossed around at the RDO camp that I like a lot too, and I’ll get into those a bit more tomorrow.

* * * * *

Check back in a bit for a gallery of the Octagon camp yesterday. Otherwise, tomorrow we’ll have a little deeper look at the RDO camp as opposed to a look around the State of Hockey.

Gillies Call Up Is Good News

In the wake of a bout of illnesses that the Wild have been dealing with, Minnesota has called up Colton Gillies from the Houston Aeros as either insurance or, potentially, a replacement for an ailing player.

If you recall, last season Gillies failed to make the squad right out of camp and was assigned to the Aeros of the AHL. Gillies was disappointed about his re-assignment, but took it in stride and did everything he was asked, despite being told that there was no opportunity that he would be recalled and, indeed, despite all of the Wild’s injury troubles, Gillies was never once one of their call ups.

Gillies struggled with injuries last season and scored just 20 points in 72 games, but has a goal and an assist in two games this season and this call up seems to be as much of a reward to his dedication as to his strong play this season.

But this call up is more of a testament to the new developmental philosophy of the Minnesota Wild under Chuck Fletcher – one of the largest changes between this regime and the previous management.

Player development.

When Gillies and James Sheppard were brought in to the organization, they stuck with the squad for “developmental” purposes.

It was thought that the players would learn more from Head Coach Jacques Lemaire than they would from their junior coaches and they were too young to play in the AHL at that time.

But here’s the rub. When Sheppard and Gillies were called upon by the Wild, they weren’t getting the playing time they would have in juniors, or even in the AHL.

They were players used to playing top-line minutes that were now being asked to be checkers and, instead of playing 17-20 minutes per night were playing 7-10 minutes per night – believe me when I say that 10 minutes of ice time makes a big difference, especially when players are developing.

Players like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin – players that can enter the NHL and make an immediate impact and have the skill level necessary to play immediately on the top lines – are very rare. Even players like Steve Stamkos and John Tavares – players expected to be top, impact players in this league – experience some sort of learning curve.

If players like Crosby and Ovechkin are rare, players like Sheppard and Gillies are the norm.

These are players that need development to succeed, and that is one of the hardest calls to make for a general manager.

For every Crosby and Ovechkin, there is a Bobby Ryan or a Jonathan Toews that are elite talents, but might not be ready for the NHL the day that they’re drafted. The difference between the Ryan’s and the Toews’s and the Sheppard’s and the Gillies’s are not necessarily the ceiling of their talents (though, admittedly Ryan and Toews may have a higher ceiling than Sheppard and Gillies) but the fact that Ryan and Toews were not thrust into the NHL spotlight immediately.

Ryan and Toews were allowed to develop in situations where they were the man. They didn’t have to fight for ice time; they didn’t have to wonder whether or not they’d even be playing on a nightly basis.

Meanwhile, Sheppard and Gillies had to struggle for ice time. They didn’t get to develop their games in game situations – instead, they were forced to develop their games in practice, playing on lines with players like Derek Boogaard or Aaron Voros; players who are good at what they do, but not necessarily the players you want to use in order to help develop your young players.

The best example of this that the Wild has, right now, is Mikko Koivu.

Koivu was drafted in 2001 when he was 17 years old. He made his NHL debut when he was 22, after playing three seasons with TPS Turku and one more with the Houston Aeros. Even in his first couple seasons he wasn’t the elite center that he has turned into, but his time spent being the go-to guy in other leagues helped mold him into the player that he is today.

Sheppard has never had that opportunity and, until last season, neither did Colton Gillies.

Gillies is 21 years old now and may not yet be the impact player that many hope he will become, but if you consider that Koivu wasn’t an NHL regular until he was 22, it’s certain that he’s not done developing yet.

But right now, he’s certainly closer to being a productive NHLer than he was at this time last season.

Video: Derek Boogaard Mistakes Chris Neil’s Boys for a Puck

Well, it looks like all of my defending of Derek Boogaard for being a “noble” enforcer has gone out the window. Boogaard, for as much crap as people give him, has always been good at following “The Code” when it comes to fighting and, despite a couple errant hits because of the fact that he skates like what I imagine an ox would skate like, has always been relatively calm, cool and collected when it comes to the dirty stuff.

At least, he was while he was with the Minnesota Wild. Observe:

What you saw there was exactly what it looked like. Derek Boogaard, seemingly for no apparent reason, going after Chris Neil’s boys.

Really, Derek? I mean…REALLY??

I’ve never been one of his biggest defenders. His sole value lies in his ability to intimidate and deter. He can’t skate, the refs watch him like a hawk when he’s on the ice because of his reputation (deserved or undeserved) and I’ve seen rhinos with softer hands than he has. But one thing I’ve always done is stick up for him insofar as he plays the game honorably.

Maybe Sean Avery’s been a bad influence on him, but this is both out of character and absolutely ridiculous to boot.

There’s no way…Absolutely NO way that anyone could possibly spin this and there’s no way that he shouldn’t get a suspension worthy of a now three-time offender who intended to injure another player.

Buuuuuuuuuuuut…I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If there is one thing that can get me to laugh over and over and over again, it’s testicular trauma. So, with that being said…My GAWD did this get me when I was watching the game live.

Should he be suspended? Yes. Without a doubt and, in my mind, for no less than 10 games.

But was it really effing funny? Sorry Chris…But it got a laugh from me.

Now the only question I have is one that was posed to me by a friend: What in the world could have been said to get Boogie to do that?

Wild Nation’s Ridiculously Early Season Predictions: The Atlantic Division

August is almost upon us, which can only mean one thing – its training camp time.

The time in the NHL where there’s hope running through every team’s fan base, except for Toronto’s of course. But, with that hope in mind, it’s time for our ridiculously early season prognostications that will likely be proven to be dead wrong by the second week of the season or just the Ridiculously Early Season Predictions, for short.

We’re going to start with the Eastern Conference this season, namely the Atlantic Division so, let’s get started.

New Jersey Devils – The NHLPA filed their grievance on Thursday regarding Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract and one would assume that, despite their desire to resolve this quickly both sides are digging in for a fight.

Even without Kovalchuk in the fray, however, the Devils remain a much improved team over last season’s with the additions of Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder on defense and Jason Arnott up front. It could, in fact, be argued that the Devils could be a better all around team without Kovalchuk, as they would have to unload a contract in order to come into the season under the salary cap.

Looking at this team, however, Volchenkov and Tallinder should be upgrades over the departed Johnny Oduya and Paul Martin, while Arnott should give the team a solid second-line center that can pitch in on offense.

While these three players alone might not get the Devils back to the promised land, in the Stanley Cup finals, they will certainly go a long way towards making New Jersey more competitive both in the regular season and the post season.

New York Islanders – The Islanders may find themselves in the enviable situation of having to spend money in order to reach the cap floor this season – something that many teams might relish at this point in the off season.

The problem for the Isles, however, is how do they do that?

With the big fish out of the free agency pond, the Isles may have to resort to multiple signings, which could cut down on the amount of playing time that some of their youngsters would get.

It’s hard to imagine that forwards Doug Weight and Matt Moulson won’t be back with New York this season, so that will take care of some of it, but likely won’t resolve the entire issue, but this is good news for a team that only has seven roster players under contract for next season and 13 restricted free agents coming up.

Another year’s experience for their big time youngsters will be good for the Isles, and they’re headed in the right direction – they’re just not there quite yet.

New York Rangers – As has been the case the last few seasons, the Rangers are an enigma wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a puzzle.

They have Marian Gaborik who, after countless disappointing seasons in Minnesota, came out and showed that he could shoulder the load and be a superstar in the NHL, but past him they don’t have many players that chipped in offensively.

Then, this off season they made what many consider to be the shrewdest move, signing Martin Biron as a capable back up for a goalie who has never really had a capable back up, but they then went out and signed enforcer Derek Boogaard to a ridiculous four-year, $1.65 million per contract.

So, as it stands now, the Rangers aren’t really much better than they were at the end of last season. Alexander Frolov’s agent has stated that his client is close to a deal with the blueshirts and, if that’s the case, the team could be looking better going into this season.

But, as it stands right now, they’re in the same spot that they were last season, which means that they will likely be on the outside looking in once more.

Philadelphia Flyers – After spending most of the off season pretending like the salary cap didn’t apply to them, they’re now back under the cap by a whole $327k.

After replacing Simon Gagne with Nikolai Zherdev, which was likely a salary shedding move, it is apparent that the Flyers are anticipated increased production from James Van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux and Ville Leino next season, along with what Zherdev brings, to make up for the loss of Gagne’s production.

But the story here isn’t in the team’s offense, but in a defensive unit that could easily be the best in the NHL.

After their defense got embarrassed by Chicago through much of the finals, the Flyers responded by going out and trading for Andrei Meszaros and Matt Walker and signing free agent Sean O’Donnell.

That gives them five defensemen that could legitimately be considered top-five defensemen and two more that are legitimate shut down d-men, plus Oscars Bartulis who appears to now be on the outside looking in.

All of this points to the fact that we could very well be looking at a situation much like the Penguins and Blackhawks faced, of having to lose before you can win.

Pittsburgh Penguins – Let’s be perfectly honest here. You can never count the Pens out of anything.

While they still have one glaring need to address (a scoring winger), the Pens have upgraded their defensive unit which should be a big help for Marc-Andre Fleury.

Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin give the Pens two more defensemen that can play in any situation and takes the pressure off of Kris Letang and Alex Gologoski on the powerplay and should help in the wake of losing Sergei Gonchar to free agency.

The best news for the Pens, also, is that they have the cap room to address their need for a winger before free agency is out. With the market value for free agent forwards taking a dive, especially with the signing of Nikolai Zherdev, the Pens can more than afford to improve their forward corps.

That, in and of itself, is encouraging news for Pens fans and they should expect to see the playoffs in Pittsburgh once again.

Predictions

Well, now that we’re done with the previews, let’s take a look at how I think the Atlantic Division is going to line up come playoff time this coming season:

1) Philadelphia Flyers
2) New Jersey Devils

3) Pittsburgh Penguins

4) New York Rangers
5) New York Islanders

Through most of the season last season, all five teams were in playoff contention and it should be much of the same this season, though I think that the Rangers and Islanders will fall of towards the end of the season once again and be on the outside looking in. The Flyers, Devils and Penguins, however, should all be back in the dance once again.

Up Next: The Northeast Division

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possible Targets: Milan Jurcina, Brett Lebda, Kurtis Foster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Minnesota Wild 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 51 – Red Wings @ Wild

Well, here we are.  The first game of a three-game homestand – possibly the most important homestand of the season…Or, at least, since the last one. 

I’ve got a few housekeeping matters to talk about before I get to the preview…But I promise, its coming. 

First off, thanks to everyone who sent mailbag questions in.  It got a pretty good response for a first time and I swear the answers are forthcoming.  I’m still working on the responses, but it will be up early next week for sure and my Early Off Season preview of the defensemen will be as well. 

Now…On to the shameless plugging (then I swear, to the preview.) 

Shameless Plug #1: Check out my article on what I think the Wild’s trade deadline strategy should be, leading up to March 3.  It’s on Bleacher Report and I think you’ll like it, or at least appreciate the commentary. 

Shameless Plug #2: As always, Hockey Primetime will be offering Trade Deadline coverage on the day of.  We’ll be starting our coverage at about 8:30 am CST, and hope to have our regulars (J.P. Hoornstra, Sam P. Woo and Justin Bourne), as well as a guest or two.  It will be on Hockey Primetime, but you will also be able to see feeds of it here and at Bourne’s Blog, most likely. 

Shameless Plug #3: Finally, check out one of the new Friends of Wild Nation, Stadium Journey.  Along with it being a website reviewing sports stadiums and their surrounding areas, it will feature my review of the Xcel Energy Center (SPOILER ALERT: I really like it) soon. 

Alright.  Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, it’s down to business. 

I’ve got good news and bad news. 

First, the good news.  The Wild’s Great Eight will be hitting the ice tonight for the first time since Nov. 18. 

That’s right folks.  Burnsie is back. 

Mike Russo reported that, in his first practice back with the team, he could be heard just about everywhere in the arena and let me tell you, that’s a good sign. 

Burns has struggled this season and struggled in a large, large way.  In 21 games, he had just two goals and ten points and was a staggering minus-11. 

But, during that time, Burnsie just didn’t look like himself.  Most notably, he just didn’t look like he was having any fun. (Thanks to Wild Nationite Rick for that insight, which I completely agree with.)

I know what you’re thinking right now.  Brent Burns?  Not having fun?  Get out of town! 

The fact is, though, that it was true and it was very evident in his play.  The question tonight, however, is which Brent Burns do we get back?  The Brent Burns that tried to do absolutely everything on the ice and, as such, was one of our worst players?  Or the Brent Burns that caught the eye of Team Canada over the last two seasons? 

Based off of the accounts of his practices back, I’m betting on the latter. 

Now, onto the bad news.  I don’t want to alarm anyone, but we’re playing the Detroit Red Wings tonight. 

Sure, they’re riddled with injuries.  But they’re still the Red Wings.  You remember them.  The team that sports a 21-5-5 record against our Minnesota Wild all time. 

But, there is good news in the bad news.  This is a wholly different Wild team than the Wings have ever faced.  A different system, a different tempo…Different everything.  Also, the Wings are struggling through injuries.  Not to say that I’m glad these players are injured (I’d never wish harm to any player not named Matt Cooke), just to say that this is a Red Wings team that isn’t at full strength. 

Oh yeah.  And both teams are looking to break three-game losing streaks. 

Lineup(s)

Well, you all heard the news over the last few days.  We said bye-bye to Sykora and Earl has remained with the team thus far, so we’ll likely see the same lineup that we’ve seen over the past few games. (Unless Fletcher decides to make a trade with Detroit.  Sykora for Zetterberg?  I like it!) 

I would expect that Derek Boogaard will be a casualty, though, against a not-so-pugilistic, quick Detroit squad. 

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

On defense, he’s back, he’s back, Lord Almighty he’s back!  The return of Brent Burns essentially means that John Scott is back sitting next to Pierre-Marc Bouchard in the press box and Clayton Stoner will likely be moved to the IR. 

Schultz-Johnsson
Zanon-Zidlicky
Burns-Hnidy 

And, drumroll please, between the pipes for the Wild will be Josh Harding.  Whether it’s a message being sent to Niklas Backstrom that he needs to play better or it’s giving him a rest or even rewarding Harding for his solid play, the youngster will get the nod in the crease tonight. 

What to Watch For

Let’s just put it this way.  Whenever the Wild play the Red Wings, I’m not optimistic about our chances. 

Bearing that in mind, the Wild are now running a system that is strikingly similar to Detroit’s and, if they’re going to win tonight, need to beat the Wings at their own game – namely, shoot, shoot, shoot. 

The Red Wings pepper goalies.  They are averaging almost 33 shots per game, almost five shots more than the Wild, and even put up a 40-spot on the Capitals in their last game, despite losing 3-2. 

With Minnesota’s defensive struggles of late, it seems to me that the best defense would be a good offense. 

The key to that good offense will start with the team’s top two lines.  There is no doubt that the offensive catalyst for this team has been the line of Latendresse, Brodziak and Havlat.  The three-headed beast of HavLatziak (Cut me some slack.  It’s easier than typing all three names.) has been one of the team’s top lines over the last handful of games. 

The line that really needs to get into the game early, however, is the AMA line of Koivu, Brunette and Miettinen.  These three have struggled together of late, and it took moving Mittens to the third line to spark him into action. 

The biggest problem with this line, however, is that they are as defensively proficient as they are offensively.  This means that, essentially, they will likely draw the brunt of the matchup against Detroit’s top line of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Bertuzzi.  (Rest assured, you will know when Big Bert is on the ice.  We Minnesotans may move on, but we never forget.  The boo birds will be out in force.) 

Also, keep an eye on Brent Burns.  Since his injury, the Wild’s powerplay has been absolutely dreadful.  While Burns likely won’t log a great deal of minutes tonight, (I’d wager between 15-17), you can bet your sweet bippy that he’ll be at the point of every single one of the Wild’s powerplay. 

Key(s) to the Game

First and foremost, defense. 

Josh Harding is going to get peppered tonight.  He’s going to see a black piece of vulcanized rubber tossed at him so much that he might have nightmares about it. 

The key to this, however, is the quality of these shots.  The Wild did a great job of limiting the quality shots against the Blues and Harding rewarded them with a spectacular performance.  Conversely, the Wild did a terrible job of limiting the quality shots against the Coyotes and Stars and Backstrom was hung out to dry more often than a fifteen-year-old dress shirt. 

If the Wild can limit the quality shots that the Red Wings get, they’ll have a very good chance at stopping a struggling Red Wing team.  If they can’t, however, it’s going to be a long, long night for Harding and a long, long night for the fans in attendance. 

Also, for the love of God…Can we please score first?  Is that really too much to ask? 

I would almost sacrifice a win just to see the Wild ahead 1-0 at some point during this game.  Almost. 

The fact is that the Wild have come out flat more times than not.  In their past three games, they have not scored a single goal before the five minute mark of the second period. 

That simply is not the hallmark of winning hockey. 

Heck.  I’d even settle for not falling into a two-goal deficit. 

We’ve proven that we can finish the game with energy.  Now it’s time to prove that we can start the game with energy. 

The puck drops tonight at 7pm CST and is televised on KSTC, Channel 45. 

Also, if you’re going to the Wild’s skills competition on Sunday, keep an eye out for me.  I’ll be the bearded guy wearing the white Wild jersey autographed by Doc Emerick and possibly an Atlanta Thrashers hat. (No…I haven’t planned my wardrobe out that far in advance.  I swear.)  

In any event, feel free to stop and say hi if you see me.

Gameday Thread – Game 43 – Wild @ ‘Hawks

If anyone needed a break, it was the Minnesota Wild. 

After a hot December that saw them tally ten victories (a team record for the month), the team proceeded to lose three games in five days, looking like a very tired team for the majority of those games. 

But a two-day break in the Windy City and the presence of their fathers has the team rejuvenated and ready for action against the team that is arguably the best in the league—the Chicago Blackhawks. 

The Wild have an extremely daunting task in front of them, as their loss on Saturday to the New Jersey Devils kicked off a month of January in which nine of the team’s 14 games are against teams that are currently in playoff contention and three more are against teams currently ahead of them in the standings. 

In other words, January will be a good measuring stick for just how good this Wild team actually is. 

The good news for the Wild is that Brent Burns has made this trip with the team and, though he didn’t practice, he is getting closer and closer every day to returning. 

What’s more is that, by all accounts, the Wild held one of their hardest working practices of the season yesterday—in large part because of the presence of their fathers.  The speculation following practice was that the Wild would have heard it afterwards if they didn’t, and I suspect the same will go for tonight’s game. 

As for tonight’s game, the Wild will be facing a Blackhawks team that has won three straight and eight of their last ten.  In fact, there’s not much that has not been going right for the ‘Hawks this season. 

Lineup(s)
I haven’t heard of what the lines might or might not be for the Wild but; the injuries have been talked about.  While Burns travelled, he is still out with a concussion.  In addition, the Wild might be down one of their more important players and team leaders in Owen Nolan, who is questionable for tonight’s game.  Assuming that Nolan doesn’t go, here’s my attempt at the forward lines: 

Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen
Latendresse-Ebbett-Havlat
Clutterbuck-Belanger-Sykora
Boogaard-Brodziak-Sheppard 

I think that, in the case of these lines, you could easily see James Sheppard and Cal Clutterbuck switch spots.  First, because Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak have some absolutely sick chemistry with one another and second, because Sheppard is more of a playmaking-type player—something that could be important to getting sniper Petr Sykora rolling after returning from his concussion. 

In addition, don’t be surprised if Sykora gets some shifts on Martin Havlat’s opposite wing, with Belanger in between them.  The three were showing some fantastic chemistry before Sykora went down and it took the Wild a while to find some other players that fit with Havlat.  That said, Havlat is riding a four-game points streak and has five goals and 15 points in his last 15 games, most of which has come playing with Andrew Ebbett and Guillaume Latendresse. 

On the other hand, if Nolan is able to go tonight, I’d expect the casualty to be Derek Boogaard due, in large part, to his lack of mobility. 

As for defense, I doubt you’ll see much of a change there.  Clayton Stoner has recovered from his tweaked groin and continues to gain the confidence of the coaching staff.  While he’s cooled off from his “call up” hot streak, Stoner has continued to play solid, physical defense—something that has endeared him to the coaching staff and the fans. 

In addition, against the ‘Hawks quick forward group, I’d be surprised if the Wild rolled out John Scott who, as with Boogaard, isn’t the most mobile member of the team. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Schultz-Johnsson
Stoner-Hnidy 

In nets, expect to see Josh Harding who will give Niklas Backstrom a much needed break following performances that have seen him give up three goals in six of his last seven games. 

Especially in his last few games, Backstrom simply looked tired and, because of this, I would expect Harding to be in the cage tonight regardless of the score—especially with an ever-important divisional match up coming tomorrow night. 

What to Watch For
Keep an eye on the Wild’s defense tonight.  Against both Los Angeles and New Jersey, they didn’t give their goaltenders much help and that will need to change in a big way against Chicago’s high octane offense. 

As was mentioned earlier, the Wild’s fathers are on this trip and I would expect the team (and the defense especially) to play a solid, blue collared, hockey game—lots of hitting, lots of good positioning and lots of hard work. 

For the Wild, keep an eye on the usual suspects—Havlat, Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette. 

These three players have been three of the Wild’s hottest players of late, with Koivu picking up the Wild on his shoulders and shouldering much of their offensive load. 

The dark horse for the Wild, however, is defenseman Marek Zidlicky. 

While ‘Z’ has driven Wild fans crazy with his play in his own zone, he has certainly come into his own this season and is playing much better defense than he did last season.  His pairing with Greg Zanon has turned into the Wild’s top defensive unit and he is showing that he is a true asset moving the puck. 

In his last five games, Zidlicky has six assists and is a plus-one.  He has had the hot passing hand and his ability to break the puck out will be crucial to the Wild’s transition game. 

Key(s) to the Game
Which leads me into the first key to the game. 

The Wild need to, need to, need to get their transition game going early.  They are simply not going to get a whole lot of quality chances against the Blackhawks team and are going to be pressured early and often. 

The Blackhawks give up just over 24 shots per game, while taking around 33.  For the Wild to win, they are going to need to take advantage of the ‘Hawks aggressiveness and catch them pinching.  If they can do that, they can get quality chances against this team.  If they can’t, though, they might not be seeing too many of their pucks hitting the net. 

Anyone who watched the Winter Classic can tell you that a solid transition game can change the tempo and the momentum of the game and that a solid transition game can win the game. 

My second key to the game is discipline. 

The Wild need to a) hope that Chicago remains disciplined and b) remain disciplined themselves. 

The reason I say this is twofold.  The Wild’s powerplay, of late, has largely been a momentum killer for the team.  Much of this likely has to do with the loss of Brent Burns on the blueline but, on a whole, the Wild’s powerplay has been ineffective. 

For the ‘Hawks, however, their powerplay has been buzzing of late, having converted at least one opportunity in each of its last seven games.  The team is 8-for-25 during that time—an impressive 32% clip.   

Finally, it is paramount in this game that the Wild get out to a good start.  This is a very potent offensive team that they are playing and stumbling out of the gates could very well lose the game for them.  

Minnesota has not started well for most of the season and it is very important that they get their legs under them early.  They need to slow down Chicago with physical play and they need to grind it out with them, plain and simple. 

The puck drops tonight at 7pm CST on Versus.

Reminder: I’ll be answering my first Wild Nation mailbag here next week.  If you have any questions or comments, be sure to send them to blake.benzel@hockeyprimetime.com.  So far, I’ve gotten just one response, but I’m confident that I have more than one reader, so be sure to send in your questions.

Gameday Thread – Game 34 – Wild @ Habs

Well, well, well.  Look who’s back in Montreal. 

That’s right, Wild Nation faithful.  Guillaume Latendresse is returning to Montreal tonight to help the Wild dispatch his former team. 

While the game will likely be much more than just G-Lat versus the Montreal Canadiens, it is certainly a storyline that bears observation. 

Since arriving in Minnesota, Latendresse has been nothing short of marvelous.  He has played with a physical edge, he has shown a tireless work ethic and he has produced.  Since arriving in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, G-Lat has notched three goals and an assist in 10 games, not to mention a shootout goal against the Anaheim Ducks. 

The bottom line is that, suddenly he has had the weight of the world lifted off of his shoulders — and it shows.

But tonight the young power forward heads home again, hoping to rub some salt in the wound against his former team. 

Lineups
While I have not heard anything of yet regarding the Wild’s lineup for tonight’s game, I can’t imagine much changing for tonight’s game, though Andrew Ebbett has traveled with the team and may see action in either tonight’s or Saturday’s game.  Were I setting the lineups, though, here’s what it would look like:

Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen
Latendresse-Brodziak-Havlat
Kobasew-Belanger-Clutterbuck
Earl-Ebbett-Sheppard

This is a quick, undersized lineup that the Wild are facing tonight and it is a lineup that has a wealth of skill on it.  The biggest mistake the Wild could make, in my opinion, would be to put Derek Boogaard on the ice tonight.  Boogaard has not been able to catch a break over the last few games and, against Vancouver especially, his reputation has worked against him.  In a game that will likely be up tempo, it will be important for the Wild to put their best foot forward, so to speak.

Zidlicky-Zanon
Schultz-Johnsson
Hnidy-Stoner

There aren’t many changes here, but I’ll be honest — I want to see what Clayton Stoner can do.  He was called up just before the road trip and he’s played very, very well in Houston so far this season.  The likelihood that John Scott would play anymore than 10-12 minutes in this game is very small, so I don’t see the harm in giving Stoner a shot and getting him in his first NHL action.

Backstrom

‘Nuff said.

What to Watch For
I already mentioned the return of Latendresse to Montreal, but to me, this is one of the less intriguing storylines of the evening. 

What is more intriguing is the match up between two teams that are seemingly on opposite ends of the spectrum.  The Wild are coming off of a hard-fought win against the Columbus Blue Jackets and have lost just two games in their last 10.  The Habs, on the other hand, have struggled mightily as of late, losing four straight and just three of their last 10 games. 

The biggest thing to watch in this game will be special teams, however.  The Wild’s powerplay that started out so strong this season has faltered, with the team going zero for their last 19 opportunities with the man advantage.  Against a strong penalty killing team in the Habs, that isn’t going to be an easy stat to change.  Montreal sits at an 84% penalty kill, good for 8th in the NHL. 

The Wild is a surging team, however.  Their play has been much improved from their 3-9-0 start and they are slowly clawing their way back up the standings.  As it stands today, they are just four points from the 8th place Detroit Red Wings and three behind the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks. 

A successful road swing in Eastern Canada could go a long way towards pushing farther up the standings. 

Keys to the Game
How will G-Lat respond? 

The line of Latendresse, Brodziak and Havlat have been absolutely scintillating over the last couple games.  Havlat has six points in three games and has had a hand in six of the team’s last seven goals.  He has finally found linemates that he has chemistry with and the line is clicking. 

But, the pressure of Montreal had gotten to Latendresse before.  Will it get to him again tonight? 

I, for one, don’t think so. 

In Montreal, he was cast out to the fourth line.  His minutes cut and his confidence was shattered.  He has said himself that the fact that Richards thinks enough of him to play him consistently has helped and right now his confidence has got to be sky high. 

With a coach that trusts him enough to play him and is willing to give him every opportunity to succeed, G-Lat is starting to come into his own and is starting to apply everything that he has learned in his young career. 

The Wild also need to continue their trend of shooting, shooting and shooting some more. 

In games that they outshoot their opponents in, the Wild are 9-5-2 this season, compared to the Habs record of 8-11-2 when being outshot.  Minnesota needs to keep Carey Price busy all night long.  While Price is certainly a solid tender, he has not shown the elite level of play that he showed during his rookie season consistently and getting into his head will be paramount for the Wild’s success. 

The puck drops tonight from the Bell Centre at 6 pm CST and is televised on Fox Sports.

Gameday Thread – Game 30 – Wild @ Coyotes

The Wild roll into Phoenix tonight riding high. 

They are 6-0-1 in their last seven games, including the fact that they are currently on a five-game winning streak. 

But tonight, they will face off against the resurgent Phoenix Coyotes—a team that has persevered through their managerial hardships this season to be firmly planted in the playoff picture in the Western Conference in sixth place, just two points behind their division rival Los Angeles Kings and just six points in front of their quarry for tonight’s game. 

It’s possible that these two teams could be two of the hottest teams in the NHL at the moment. 

The Wild have won their last five and have scored at least five goals in four of them (though one of the five-goal games was the team’s shootout victory over Anaheim on Friday). 

While the Wild have been hot offensively, the Coyotes have been hot in their own end, giving up two or less goals in each of their previous five games, starting with their 2-1 loss to the Calgary Flames. 

In the previous meeting this season between the two teams, the ‘Yotes skated away victorious with the 3-2 victory as Scottie Upshall rudely ruined the celebration of Antti Miettinen’s tying goal with one of his own just 19 ticks later. 

This is a different Wild team than the one that suited up against Phoenix on November 18, however.  They are playing with confidence and poise and are looking the best that they have looked all season long. 

Lineups
As was the case on Friday, I don’t have any information for the ‘Yotes lineup, but here are the likely lines for the Wild according to team scribe Glen Andresen. 

Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen
Nolan-Belanger-Kobasew
Latendresse-Brodziak-Clutterbuck
Havlat-Ebbett-Sheppard 

According to Andresen and Mike Russo, of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, team bowling ball Cal Clutterbuck is still feeling some of the effects of the flu that kept him out of Saturday’s game against Nashville, but he is feeling much better than he was.  If he is able to go (and the odds are pretty good that, if he’s with the team, he’ll go), look for James Sheppard to get the nod over enforcer extraordinaire Derek Boogaard, as Sheppard played a great game against Nashville and got his first tally of the season.  

In fact, for those Sheppard detractors out there (we know who you are), the Shepster has a goal and two assists in his last five games, with a plus-two rating and 11 shots on goal.  Now I know he’s been having a bad season, but with those stats?  Come on…Let’s start fresh and see what he can do at wing.  What do you say? 

On defense, you can likely expect more of the same with Jaime “Why Can’t He Spell His First Name Right” Sifers getting the nod over John Scott. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Schultz-Johnsson
Hnidy-Sifers

In nets, you’ll see Niklas Backstrom for the Wild after getting an off night against Nashville. 

What to Watch For
The let down. 

With two teams riding as high as the Wild and the Coyotes, eventually a let down is inevitable.  Both teams have been playing fantastic hockey over the last few games and both teams are “due,” so to speak. 

The problem that arises with being “due,” is that it’s much easier for a hot defensive team to force their opponent to lay an egg than the other way around. 

I’ll be perfectly blunt.  The Wild have not been that hot defensive team over the last five games.  While the Coyotes come in with a paltry 1.80 goals against over their last five, the Wild sport a robust 3.20 goals against average over their last five.  Their last five have also included a lot of battling from behind—something that will take its toll on any team. 

Both teams also distribute their scoring well. 

What will be important is to see who has players that step up. 

Over the last few games, it has been the Wild’s first line of Brunette, Koivu and Miettinen that have done the stepping up.  This line will likely be drawing a bulk of Phoenix’s defensive attention tonight and will, quite simply, need to be effective.  The good news for Minnesota, however, is that their bottom three lines are starting to be equally as effective. 

In Nashville, Sheppard and Martin Havlat both played their best games of the season and the team continued to get strong play from newcomers Andrew Ebbett and G-Lat. 

For Phoenix, it will hinge largely on the play of Ilya Bryzgalov, who has been spectacular this season.  With a 1.79 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage (not to mention his three shutouts), Bryz has been on fire this season and the Wild will have to find a way to cool him off. 

Key(s) to the Game
Shoot.  Shoot early and shoot often.  From anywhere and everywhere. 

When playing a hot goalie, this is probably your best strategy.  Pepper him with shots and eventually you’ll start to see some cracks in the armor. 

This is exactly what the Wild have to do in order to break down the defenses of Mr. Bryzgalov. 

The team is extremely familiar with him from his time in Anaheim and they know exactly what they are getting with him in net—they just need to get to him.  The more shots they can get on net, the better off they will be. 

Don’t give up the lead. 

The Wild have been scored on first in eight of their last nine games.  Against a solid defensive team like the Coyotes, this is a trend that needs to stop. 

While the Wild have a team that has confidence while playing from behind, the Coyotes have a team that has confidence while playing with the lead.  It is paramount that the Wild get out to a fast start in this game.  If they don’t and allow a couple early goals, it may not be as easy to come from behind. 

If the Coyotes score first, this game might be all but in the bag because Phoenix can do what they do best.  Shut down and play mistake-free hockey. 

The puck drops tonight at 8 pm CST and is televised on Fox Sports.

Next Page »