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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benoit Pouliot for Guillaume Latendresse

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

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

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

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

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

Kim Johnsson and Nick Leddy for Cam Barker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Up Next: A look to the future

The Mail Bag! And other stuff

Well alright.  Sorry about the delay in this post but, as many of you are sure to know, I was a touch busy over the last few weeks getting things ready for Hockey Primetime’s trade deadline day which, I’m excited to say, was a pretty large success. 

Thank you to J.P. Hoornstra, Scott Rosts, Denis Gorman, Justin Bourne and Ms. Conduct for helping out in our trade deadline blog, as well as Dave Turner and Sam P. Woo for their coverage on HPT Radio, as well as the kind folks at Primetime Radio for hosting our show. 

Let me tell you that, if you didn’t listen in, you missed one heck of a show.  The sound quality was top notch and the guests were on the same level.  My last shill of the day on this one…If you didn’t sign up on Primetime Radio yesterday, head on over there and register.  There’s some cool stuff that’s going to be going on the over the coming months I think. 

Mailbag 

Now, a while ago I asked for mailbag responses.  Well…I got a few and my response to these has been looooooooong overdue (at least by a month or so.)  So, with my sincere apologies, here are my responses to these mailbag questions. 

Not sure if these would be interesting to anyone but me… 

1. Why would the salary cap go down next year? Who and how do they decide that? 

2. During warm ups before a game – are guys assigned to certain jobs? I’ve noticed that Sheppard clears pucks out of the net and distributes them around the ice. Brunette passes pucks to guys once at a time and they each take a shot. Is this punishment for doing something the coach didn’t like? Or do they rotate these jobs? 

3. Can you explain (in short sentences) how waivers work? You hear that a player “was put on waivers” or “cleared waivers” but I haven’t figured out what that actually means and a Google search didn’t help! 

Thanks for any light you can shed on these questions. Feel free to ignore them if they are not blog worthy. 

– Laurie/Minnesotagirl71

Laurie, 

I can tell you that these questions were most certainly blog worthy.  The reason I know this is because I actually had to do a fair amount of research in order to actually answer these! 

1. The explanation for how the salary cap is set isn’t an easy one.  Basically, there is a cap ceiling and floor.  You can’t go above the ceiling or below the floor.  This is determined by the assignment of a percentage of “hockey-related” revenues to player salaries.  The ceiling is the maximum percentage that the league allocates to player salaries, while the floor is defined as $16 million below the cap.  This is decided by the NHL front offices, though I believe that the Board of Governors also has a say in this. 

Basically, the reason that the cap would go down is based upon league revenues.  If the league gains money, the cap is likely to go up.  If it loses money, the cap is likely to either remain static or decrease. 

While I don’t have a line into the revenues of the league, my guess for this coming season is that the cap will remain static or drop a bit due to the hard economic times.  Not an indictment of anyone or anything in particular.  Just the reality of things. 

2. You’re in for a treat on this one, Laurie, because this comes straight from the horse’s mouth.  Justin Bourne of Bourne’s Blog has been gracious enough to answer this question from first hand experience: 

The jobs are pretty random – some guys like to be more focused and not worry about that sort of thing, while some guys like having an extra little role.  In general, the captain (or one of the assistants) will fish the pucks out of the net.  They’re sort of expected to, but if they don’t want to, they’ll just delegate – ask anyone in the dressing room if anyone wants to.  The drill where there’s one puck, and one player will pass it to whoever from behind the goal line for a bit, that’s a different one.  If takes more skating and effort, but for me, I liked doing that job because it made me move a bit, something I normally wouldn’t make myself do in warmup (also, it’s a little reminder of who is which hand).  Its definitely not punishment.  Just a team working out what works best for all the guys.  Somebody’s gotta do it! 

3. Ah yes, waivers.  According to the current CBA, a player is exempt from waivers based upon this chart:

 

Now, if that was as clear as mud, the bottom line is this.  If you are a goalie and are on your NHL club at the age of 18, you have six years or 80 games (whichever comes first) in which you are exempt from passing through waivers.  For a skater at age 18, you have five years or 160 games (again, whichever comes first).  This counts for both regular season and playoff games. 

It is counted as a season if a player plays more than 11 games in that season, which is why you can see players re-assigned to juniors after playing ten games etc. 

If that doesn’t make much sense, don’t worry.  I’m pretty sure 90% of general managers don’t truly understand it either. 

But, here’s the good part.  After a player is placed on waivers, there is a 24-hour period in which they can be claimed by another team.  If only one waiver claim is made on a player, they will be transferred to the club making the waiver claim.  If multiple waiver claims are made, the player will be transferred to the club that has the lowest point percentage at the time that the waiver claim was made.  So, for example, if Teams A, B and C make waiver claims on the same player, Team A has 6 points in 3 games, Team B has 3 points in 3 games and Team C has 2 points in 1 game, Team B would be awarded the transfer since they have the lowest percentage of points, not the lowest total points. 

Hopefully that’s shed some light on it for you! 

1. Any idea what big names will be free agents after the season and of those who if any can you see the Wild going after? 

2. I’ve become a pretty big Wild fan this season, I live in Kansas City, but grew up in Houston who houses the AHL affiliate Aeros, which is how I choose the Wild as my NHL team.  My question is what is the relationship between the Aeros & the Wild.  Are they co-owned?  Is there a five year lease as affiliate?  Can I expect Houston to still be the AHL affiliate 5 years, 10 years from now assuming Houston doesn’t get the Coyotes or go belly up? 

Will see Wild live for first time when they play Blues Jan. 14th, can’t wait! 

–Brian

Brian, I hope to hear soon about how you enjoyed your first Wild game!  If you ever want to experience how a Wild game is supposed to be viewed live, too, definitely come up and see a game at the X.  It’s well worth the trip. 

1. For free agents this summer, I don’t know that you’ll see the Wild make a huge splash.  Right now, the salary cap is expected to stay relatively close to what it is now ($56.8 million), and the Wild have about $45.454 million already spent towards the cap next season on 15 players.  What that boils down to is that it’s going to be tough for the Wild to get any huge acquisitions with around $11 million to spend on eight players. 

That being said, Fletcher has been very good at finding the right players for the right prices, so nothing is out of the question.  With our first two lines fairly cemented, I think you’ll see Fletcher take a stab at some quality depth players this season unless he can manage to talk a player like an Ilya Kovalchuk or a Patrick Marleau into a long-term, cap-friendly contract. 

The splash I think you’ll see the Wild make (and make no mistake, we need to make one) will be in the trade department.  We have restricted free agents Josh Harding and James Sheppard to potentially shop (Harding’s job is easily replaced for cheaper by Anton Khudobin, while Sheppard has never quite caught on here) and he has proved that he’s willing to pull the trigger on deals.  While no teams inquired about Harding at the trade deadline, he could be a very tempting player for teams who are going to have vacancies in net in the offseason. 

2. To the best of my knowledge, Houston and Minnesota are both owned and run by Minnesota Sports & Entertainment. 

While Houston does have their own executive staff, they are owned and run by MSE and managed by assistant General Manager to the Wild, Jim Mill.  While some affiliates are agreed to as a business deal, it appears that the Wild actually own the Aeros and it would stand to reason that their relationship would be one that would be longer than just a lease. 

Trade Deadline 

Alright.  Now that I’ve actually answered my mail (I promise a more timely mailbag next time around), we’re on to the move made yesterday by the Wild. 

Plain and simple, it was inevitable that Belanger would be moved.  He had not been contacted for talks by the Wild and, despite his interest in staying there was no interest in retaining him. 

To get a second round draft pick for a player of Belanger’s caliber is, in my opinion, a huge windfall for the Wild.  If you would have asked me if we would have gotten that high of a pick for him a few days ago, I would have laughed in your face. 

It’s a win for Belanger because he gets to go to a contender, it’s a win for Washington because they get a solid defensive forward and it’s a win for the Wild because they get to make out like a bandit with a shiny new draft pick. 

More importantly, though, I like the Wild’s trade deadline for the move that they didn’t make. 

They didn’t trade Owen Nolan. 

That tells you how much respect he has by the players, the coaching staff and the management.  Quite simply, he has earned the chance at a contract extension and I applaud Chuck Fletcher for giving him that opportunity.  I have been fairly outspoken in my belief that the Wild should afford Nolan every opportunity to retire in a Minnesota sweater, and it appears that they will do just that. 

Next up for the Wild are the Edmonton Oilers on Friday at 8pm CST.

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 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 39 – Wild @ Kings

It’s amazing how much difference a couple months time makes.

After a 3-9-0 start, the Wild were looking to be in the running for the Taylor Hall Sweepstakes. The turnaround that the team has made the season, however, has been nothing short of miraculous.

After their horrific start, the Wild are 16-7-3 and were 9-4-0 during the month of December and now are just four points back from the odds on favorite to win the Northwest Division this season, the Calgary Flames, and third place in the division.

More importantly, they are just four points back from a playoff spot.

The combination of new blood being injected into the system and the old blood learning the new system has proven to be a potent mix and the team is looking poised for a solid run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing out last season.

They come into Los Angeles tonight with a record number of wins for the month of December and are looking to increase on that total against a very good and very surprising Los Angeles Kings team.

The Kings are third in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference despite slumping of late. A testament to how good the Pacific Division has gotten, the Kings dropped from first in the division to third after a stretch of two losses and eight games off in between.

Lineups
The Wild will be short one of their top checking players, as Chuck Kobasew is going to be on the shelf for about 4-to-6 weeks with a sprained MCL. While his injury will certainly hurt the team, it is possible that it may have opened up a spot for Petr Sykora to return to the lineup sooner than hoped.

Sykora is travelling with the team on their two-game road swing but has not yet gotten approval to play. If that changes, though, the Wild could see a big addition to their lineup.

Barring Sykora’s return, though, here are the forward lines for the Wild as predicted by Wild.com:

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

Now, while Belanger’s line is listed as the team’s second line here, it’s important to note that the Kings will likely see a large dose of Ebbett’s line early and often. They have been one of the hotter lines on the team since Latendresse and Ebbett have both gotten healthy and that could bode well for the Wild. In addition, the injury to Kobasew might just give Sheppard yet another chance to prove himself. He’s played much better of late, but he needs to step his game up another level if he wants to continue to find playing time as players begin returning from injury.

On defense, Clayton Stoner has been an absolute revelation for the Wild and looks to have stolen John Scott’s spot from him. In his five games since being called up, Stoner has a pair of assists, an even rating, a couple fights and is averaging just under 13 minutes per game. His solid skating ability and his willingness to throw his body around has quickly endeared him to Wild fans.

Wild.com lists the defensive pairings as follows:

Zanon-Zidlicky
Stoner-Johnsson
Hnidy-Schultz

The one thing that I like the most about these pairings is that it gives the Wild a 100% legitimate shutdown pairing in Hnidy and Schultz. But what’s more is that the defensively responsible Stoner and Zanon give both Zidlicky and Johnsson chances to step up into the play a little bit more often—something that benefitted the Wild in their 4-3 defeat of the Blues on Saturday.

There was a break between the games, so in net we’re most likely going to see Niklas Backstrom again. Backstrom has been absolutely fantastic in his last eight games, with six wins and a 1.87 goals-against average.

What to Watch For
The Wild have forward on their team that is white hot right now, and he’s not who you’d think.

Guillaume Latendresse has notched four goals in his last four games and six in 13 games with the Wild. In addition, in those 13 games, the Wild is 11-2-0 and is 4-0-0 when he scores a goal.

You don’t believe me? Do the math yourself.

G-Lat has quickly become an important cog in the Wild’s offense and is continuing to get more and more ice time with Minnesota.

The other key is going to be Martin Havlat. He was largely invisible on Saturday night against St. Louis, but has really snapped out of his early season slump with nine points in his last eight games with a plus-six rating.

He is going to be very important to the continued success of the Wild and the continued success of both Latendresse and Ebbett. He has shown great chemistry with both and this looks to be as bona fide a second line as the Wild has had all season long.

If these three start clicking in a game, watch out…It can be scary good.

Key(s) to the Game
Shoot the puck.

Both teams have great records when outshooting their opponents and tonight should be no different.

For the Wild, LA’s Jonathan Quick is a goalie that thrives on confidence. If they can get to him early, they can have success. But Quick gets better as the game goes on and as he gets more confidence, so hitting him early and often will be paramount for a Wild win.

For the Wild, stopping Anze Kopitar will also be a huge task. Kopitar is one of two Kings players in double digits for goals this season and is the only one who is active (Jarrett Stoll is out with a groin injury). If the Wild can stop Kopitar, they’re that much closer to stopping the Kings.

Kopitar, however, is not the only player that the Wild need to focus on. Ryan Smyth quickly asserted his presence in the Kings’ lineup this season before getting injured and has since returned to the lineup and will provide a huge boost for a Kings team playing without Stoll and Justin Williams.

The puck drops tonight at 9:30 CST and will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.

Minnesota Wild Power Rankings – Week 4

So eleven games into this young season and the Minnesota Wild are floundering.  Despite their exemplary home ice performance, they are an embarrassment when they hit the dusty trail and head off to another team’s barn. 

That said, there haven’t been a whole heck of a lot of good things going for the Wild this season, so I’ve decided to take the optimist’s approach and do a little Minnesota Wild Power Ranking.  I won’t do the whole team because, let’s face it…That’d just be depressing.  But I will provide you with a top five and some honorable and dishonorable mentions. 

So…Keeping this in mind, here we go. 

Power Rankings

  1. Andrew Brunette – Let’s face it.  There aren’t many bright spots on the Wild’s roster so far this year.  The biggest bright spot, though is Bruno by far.  Despite his minus-8 rating, he’s on pace for 52 goals this season and hasn’t slowed down since the season started.  While 52 might be a bit much to expect of Bruno, there’s no doubt that he’s been the lone bright spot in the Wild’s otherwise anemic offense.
  2. Niklas Backstrom - Backstrom’s stats haven’t been quite as good as they were last season’s Vezina Finalist campaign.  That doesn’t change the fact that the Wild wouldn’t even be in half of the games that they have lost if it weren’t for Backstrom’s spectacular performances.  Now if only he could convince the defensemen to pass to players wearing the same jerseys as they are…
  3. Eric Belanger - I was among many who thought that Belanger might start slowing down this season and he has, but it hasn’t taken away from what he means to this team.  So far, Bella has been keeping up his solid two-way play and looks to be having a bit of a breakout season at 31 years young.  The good news?  He’s playing the best hockey I’ve ever seen him play.  The bad news?  That means he’ll likely be traded sometime this spring if the Wild don’t right the ship.
  4. Mikko Koivu - I was critical of the Wild giving Koivu the C initially, but Mikko has certainly gotten a jump in his step since being awarded the captaincy.  If his strong play keeps up, he’ll certainly help this team get on track.  Let’s just hope his play continues to look better than his bobblehead…
  5. Greg Zanon - I love Zanon.  There.  I said it.  I’m not ashamed either.  The man is, quite literally, a vulcanized rubber puck magnet.  He’s the defenseman that I’ve always wanted on this team but that we’ve never had.  He sacrifices his body, he hits and, right now, he’s got more points and as many shots as wunderkind James Sheppard. 

Honorable Mention - Seriously?  Honorable mention?  Not so far. 

Dishonorable Mention – Far too many to name, but I’ll point out James Sheppard and Martin Havlat.  Both had high expectations coming into this season and both have fallen flat on their faces so far in the season.

Game Recap: Wild 4 Ducks 3

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

But just barely. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why not.  Let’s go to overtime. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was a lot like that. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

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

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

Gameday Thread – Game 1 – Wild @ Blue Jackets

It’s finally here.

The Wild’s season starts today in Columbus, Ohio against a Blue Jackets team that they have already had extensive experience with during the preseason.

The biggest storyline going into this game is Wild center Eric Belanger’s hit on Jackets winger Jason Chimera.  Despite Belanger’s multiple apologies about the hit, Chimera has been much less than understanding and there is a good chance that the Jackets may be out for some retribution in this game.

Despite all of this, Belanger has been very adamant about the fact that he will not fight, telling the Star Tribune’s Mike Russo that “he would not be fighting Chimera or anybody else and that if they want to take any stupid penalties on him, ‘be my guest.’”

Lineups
The expected Wild lineup for tonight is as listed below:

Brunette-Koivu-Havlat
Nolan-Bouchard-Sykora
Clutterbuck-Sheppard-Miettinen
Scott-Belanger-Brodziak

Schultz-Johnsson
Burns-Zidlicky
Zanon-Hnidy

Backstrom
Harding

For the Blue Jackets, it’s looking like this according to Russo a couple days ago:

Huselius-Brassard-Nash
Filatov-Vermette-Voracek
Chimera-Pahlsson-Umberger
Torres-Murray-Dorsett

Tyutin-Klesla
Hejda-Commodore
Methot-Russell

Russo posted this morning, however, that Commodore is out with a tweaked groin, so that the team has called up Mathieu Roy in his place.  Mason will start in nets for the Jackets.

What to Watch For
The last game that the Wild’s full line up played in, the team started off slow, but skated off with a 5-4 shootout victory.

There’s going to be a much different atmosphere in Columbus tonight, but the Wild will need to get out of the gates early – something that they’ve had problems with in their history.

It will also be important for Todd Richards to manage the game from the bench.

While I have been critical of Richards’ coaching during the preseason, the fact remains that he knows how to win games and is extremely capable of doing so.  He won’t have the last change tonight, but he will need to make decisions of the fly to try to negate the Jackets’ tough top two lines.

Look for the Jackets to come out physically as well, as they will likely be looking for some revenge on Belanger’s hit.  That said, the Jackets will likely not take any stupid penalties as Ken Hitchcock always has a good handle on his team’s discipline.

Keys to the Game
The Wild will need to set the pace for this game if they want to be successful.  The Jackets have a lot of offensive weapons that they can call upon and, if the Wild can set the pace, they can negate them at least a little.

In addition, the team will need to “just play hockey,” as Greg Zanon has said it.  They need to forget about trying to do everything perfect in Richards’ system and just go out and play hockey like they are capable of.

The puck drops in Columbus at 6 PM CST tonight.

Game Recap: Wild Blank Jackets 2-0

The reigning NHL hits king, Cal Clutterbuck, sent a message Friday night — that he isn’t going to be content just being a checker.

Cal Clutterbuck celebrates one of two goals Friday night against Columbus.

Cal Clutterbuck celebrates one of two goals Friday night against Columbus.

Unfortunately, the storyline of the night wasn’t Clutterbuck’s offensive performance.  Instead, it was another ill advised hit — this time, Wild center Eric Belanger on Jackets forward Jason Chimera.

One night after Islanders forward Kyle Okposo was taken off on a stretcher following a Dion Phaneuf hit, Chimera had to be removed from the ice on a stretcher following a check from behind by Belanger late in the second period.  Chimera, in his first shift back after being struck in the face by a puck, was driven face first into the glass by Belanger.  A Blue Jackets spokesman said that Chimera was coherent as he left the ice and gave the sellout crowd a thumbs up.

The hit was atypical for Belanger, who has accrued just 251 penalty minutes in his eight season career.  Belanger was assessed a 5-minute boarding penalty and a 10-minute game misconduct.

The hit put a damper on an otherwise impressive performance by the Wild.  The team made the most of their opportunities and the players that were trying to impress coach Todd Richards did just that.

Colton Gillies finished the game with zero points, but put forth a strong effort that saw him tally three shots on goal in just under fifteen minutes of ice time.  Danny Irmen also captured Richards’ attention with yet another hard working, solid performance.  While it’s extremely unlikely that he’ll make the team, he’s definitely gotten noticed.

“Coming in, I didn’t know anything about Danny Irmen when I got here,” Richards told reporters.  ”Watching him skate, he has some skill, he handles the puck well, he moves well enough out on the ice.  Now it’s just getting him in game situations.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I think Irmen might actually have the inside track to landing a job on the big squad this season due to the size of his salary.  Should Gillies make the squad, he would be due over $1M on a team that is pressed right up against the cap.  Irmen, on the other hand, is set to make just a fraction of Gillies — something that will certainly rest on the minds of Richards and Fletcher when making the final roster decisions.

In nets, Backstrom and Harding combined for the shutout with 27 saves between them.

Wild Sign Sykora

So the worst kept secret in the NHL (or at least one of them this pre-season) has come to pass.

The Wild signed right wing Petr Sykora to a one-year, $1.6M contract today effectively ending his tryout the day after it began.

Sykora takes the ice for the first time for the Wild in practice.

Sykora takes the ice for the first time for the Wild in practice.

“I’m shocked,” Sykora sarcastically told reporters.  “I guess my practice yesterday made them sign me.”

All joking aside, this is a fantastic move for the Wild and one that gives them a legitimate second-line scoring threat.  No offense to Cal Clutterbuck or Antti Miettinen, but Sykora has proven season after season (10-straight, in fact) that he is a capable 20 goal scorer.  You’ve got to expect that Sykora will play on the second line centered by playmaker extraordinaire, Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

Sykora’s signing brings up a couple questions now, though.

First, where do the fringe players fit in?

The Wild had a few players that they were giving nice, long looks to in camp to try to win their way on the squad and Sykora has now effectively taken one of the few spots available.  This means that the jobs of Andy Hilbert (who was at camp on a tryout), Colton Gillies, Danny Irmen and Petr Kalus just got a lot more difficult.

Essentially, the signing leaves the team with approximately $800k remaining in cap room and GM Cliff Fletcher wanting to leave more room than that for call ups due to injuries.  What this adds up to is either a) players who otherwise might have made the squad now won’t or b) there’s going to be some trading going on in the weeks leading up to the season.

If the case is option B, who are the most likely casualties?

Immediately, you’d have to look to Eric Belanger.  The Wild now have the luxury of having too many centers (what a difference a year makes) and, ultimately, Belanger doesn’t really seem like he fits into the current team’s plans.  While Belanger is no stranger to these rumors, he has fit in quite well on the Wild and I, for one, would be sad to see him go.  He’s a solid checking line center that works hard each and every night and takes extreme pride in what he does.

Finally, who moves off the second line?

Initially, in practice this season, the team’s second line has been Miettinen, Clutterbuck and Bouchard.  Bouchard is set at center from the looks of things, so that leaves it between the two wings — Miettinen and Clutterbuck. 

Personally, I think that Miettinen makes more sense to have on the second line.  I think that Clutterbuck could benefit greatly from being Owen Nolan’s linemate for a season and Miettinen has a little bit more refined of an offensive game than Clutterbuck does at this point in his career.

It’s obviously a conundrum for coach Todd Richards to sort out but, quite honestly, it’s one that the Wild should be happy to have.

That’s it for today, but tomorrow is game two of the pre-season, so keep your eyes peeled for another gameday thread!

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