Wild Trade Sheppard to San Jose

It seems that Chuck Fletcher and Doug Wilson are becoming quick friends.

Just a few weeks after completing the trade that swapped Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat, the Sharks and the Wild have made another trade – this one sending the Wild’s much maligned center, James Sheppard, to the Sharks for a 2013 third round pick.

I think everyone will agree that this move is a bit of a surprise, especially considering that Sheppard has had to have more work done on the knee he injured prior to last season in an ATV accident, but most (if not all) Wild fans will be glad to see Sheppard move on to a different franchise after an underwhelming career in Minnesota saw him tally just 49 points in 224 NHL games.

So, what do we think of the trade?

Well, let me put the cork back in the champagne quick and I’ll tell you.

All snark aside, I think this move is and can be sold as a win-win-win trade for all three parties involved (Minnesota, San Jose and Sheppard).

Sheppard will be plying his trade in No. Cal next season.

Minnesota
How this trade is a win for Minnesota is pretty obvious. Chuck Fletcher took a player that many consider to be the biggest flop in the Wild’s draft history (not A.J. Thelen?) and not only dumped him on another team, but actually got a top-90 draft pick out of the deal.

Not only that, but the player in question will most likely not be ready for training camp and is a RFA that was in the midst of a hold out after rejecting a two-way qualifying offer from the team that drafted him – a team that, for all intents and purposes, looked like they genuinely wanted to keep him around and give him a shot to develop into the player everyone thought he would be.

Now, is there anyone that doesn’t think this trade is a win for the Wild? If they do, I certainly haven’t seen them.

Hockey Wilderness said that the poster boy for the Doug Risebrough regime is now gone and, while that is true, this trade holds more value than just the symbolism of shedding the stigma or mediocrity that Risebrough brought to this organization. This trade has more meaning than just cutting the fat of a bad draft (just two players from the 2006 draft remain with the organization). Trading Sheppard is also a shot across the bow for every player that is content or complacent in the organization.

The thing that characterized Sheppard’s stay with the Wild the most was, seemingly, a shocking lack of motivation or work ethic (and I say seemingly because I obviously don’t know what was going on behind the scenes and I do admit that there could be more going on than what I saw). He was also a player that Fletcher had gone public and said that he wasn’t ready to give up on just yet.

With the trade, Fletcher made the same point that the franchise has been making all off season: Anything less than your absolute best won’t be tolerated.

In sum, this is the third trade Fletcher has made this off season and, in my eyes, the third trade he has overwhelmingly “won.”

Now, obviously there’s a reason they play the games, but so far Chuck Fletcher is doing a pretty good job of silencing his critics this off season with his off season moves and there’s a better than average chance that he might not be satisfied quite yet, which is an exciting prospect.

San Jose
Now, at this point, one might be wondering how in the world I think this trade is a win for San Jose.

They’re getting a player who is still injured from last off season, who won’t be ready for training camp and who seems to think he’s worth a heck of a lot more than he actually is.

The truth is, though, if you’re San Jose you’ve got to look at Sheppard like a new prospect.

Sheppard is getting a much-needed change of scenery.

The Sharks organization is deep enough to where Sheppard probably won’t be sniffing the ice at the Shark Tank anytime in the near future. He’s going to be in the AHL to start his career for San Jose (which is exactly where he should have started his professional career) and he’s finally going to get the much needed opportunity to develop both his game and his confidence.

Let’s be clear. He’s 23. It’s not like the Sharks are getting a former first round pick on the downside of his career. Sheppard still could have some productive years in front of him.

Who knows. With some development, Sheppard could still find that skill and that confidence that had Wild fans so excited about his potential when he was drafted and, at the end of the day, the Sharks gave up a third round pick to get him.

Will he be worth it? Only time will tell, but there’s no doubt that this is definitely a potential low-risk, high-reward type move for San Jose and, when they work out, those are the best kind of moves.

James Sheppard
It should be pretty clear why this move is a good one for Shep.

He needed a change of scenery in a bad, bad way.

Sheppard had become a persona non grata in the Wild’s organization. The fans disliked him and, after his ATV accident prior to last season, the Wild’s front office didn’t really seem too wild about him either (no pun intended).

Basically, it broke down into the fact that Shep had worn out his welcome in Minnesota. They were tired of his underperformance, they were tired of his off-ice antics (to be fair, the only two things he did that they didn’t like happened in the last year, with his ATV accident and his hold out for a one-way contract). All of the Minnesota Nice had worn out for Shep.

In San Jose, he’s going to get a clean slate.

He’ll have the opportunity to shake the tags that he earned in Minnesota and he’ll have the opportunity to develop that he never got with the Wild.

And that is something he should be happy about.

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Look for the mailbag this afternoon unless something changes. Also, don’t forget about our contest to find the next Wild blogger. Send your submissions in to blake.benzel@hockeyprimetime.com!

Around the State of Hockey: 7/29/11

It’s Friday, so that means it’s time for another look around the State of Hockey. Enjoy the links and, if you have any stories that you’d like featured in this, feel free to e-mail them to blake.benzel@hockeyprimetime.com.

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If you haven’t checked out Episode Two of Becoming Wild, what are you doing? Click the link! – Becoming Wild

Hockey Wilderness poses the question that no one is thinking about, but they should be – Why hasn’t James Sheppard signed yet? – Hockey Wilderness

Fewer goalies are coming out of Minnesota these days, and the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League has taken notice. – MN Hockey Hub

Check out this interview with Stephanie Anderson, an incoming freshman for the Golden Gophers Women this season. – Gopher Sports

The UMD Bulldogs ring ceremony has been scheduled for the school’s Alumni Weekend. – UMD Bulldogs

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Hey, it’s the off season. There’s not much going on.

Enjoy your Friday reading and enjoy the beautiful weather!

Wild acquire Powe; Qualify seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Wild and NHL Musings

Well, a lot has happened since last we met, so I figured I’d better just tackle the slew of it in one fell swoop. I’ll be looking at some NHL news too, but mostly Wild news.

Before we get into my Wild musings, let’s take a look at the big story to hit in the NHL today.

Arbitrator Voids Kovalchuk’s Contract

This is going to be a very contentious topic, methinks, so I’ll just dive headfirst into it.

Arbitrator Richard Bloch has ruled against the NHLPA’s grievance and upheld the NHL’s decision to reject Ilya Kovlachuk’s 17-year, $102 million contract with the New Jersey Devils.

One reason for the rejection that Bloch cited was Kovalchuk’s age at the end of the contract:

“Kovalchuk is 27 years old, and the agreement contemplates his playing until just short of his 44th birthday. … Currently, only one player in the league has played past 43 and, over the past 20 years only 6 of some 3400 players have played to 42.”

Bloch also stated that this could be grounds for rejection of such contracts as Roberto Luongo, Marc Savard and Chris Pronger. Also mentioned was the contract of Marian Hossa though, as Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo’s Puck Daddy blog states, it seems unlikely that the league would target Hossa’s contract for rejection as he has already played a season under the new contract.

Now, I first need to say that I don’t believe that there is any precedent for this decision. The notion that Kovalchuk is any less likely to be playing the game at the age of 44 as Hossa is at the age of 42 is, in my mind, absurd.

Yes, only one player has played past the age of 43, but citing that Hossa is more likely to play until 42 because six out of 3,400 players have done so is ridiculous.

That being said, I think that the arbitrator made the absolute right decision in this case, siding with the NHL.

Yes, there was no precedent to do so but the NHL had to stand up and make a stand on this issue at some point. They didn’t have guts to do it with Hossa or Pronger or Luongo, but finally found it in themselves to do so and it’s long past time that they did.

Teams are going to continue to try and exploit this loophole in the CBA, but at least this gives the NHL some basis for when to say when on future contracts.

Madden Signs With Minnesota

Don’t worry. He’s not going to try to sell you any tough actin’ Tinactin. He won’t say Boom! (at least not all the time) and he won’t give you some overly complicated explanation about some overly simple football concept.

Congratulations! You are number one million to make that joke about John Madden!

Alright. All kidding aside, I love the signing of Madden. He’s a strong two-way player and the type of player that the Wild has been sorely missing since the retirement of Wes Walz.

Look. Madden’s not going to score 20 goals (he’s done so just twice in his 11 season career), nor is he going to star on our top two lines. What he will do, however, is give the Wild another reliable penalty killer, a checking-line forward capable of shutting down teams’ top lines and a leader on and off the ice.

What this also does is create competition at the center position.

Here is our depth chart at center, as it stands (and, to one Ryan Lambert of Puck Daddy and Two-Line Pass, this is off the top of my head and without looking at a roster). Those in bold and italics are the ones guaranteed a roster spot:

Mikko Koivu
Matt Cullen
John Madden
Kyle Brodziak

James Sheppard
Casey Wellman
Colton Gillies

So, what you can see here are seven centers for four full-time positions. It’s not out of the realm of reason that one of the four (most likely Brodziak) would be moved to the wing, so you essentially have three players vying for one position.

In my opinion, the player for the job is Colton Gillies.

Gillies is fleet of foot, he’s big, he’s physical and he has demonstrated a limited offensive upside. This would allow Wellman a year of development in the AHL and Sheppard one to get his confidence about him as well.

After the way Gillies performed in camp last season, I thought he would be a shoo-in for the big squad, but he instead struggled through a season in the AHL. It may be time for him to show what he can do.

What About Butch?

I had a friend ask me a question the other day about whether or not I thought Bouchard would play this season and, if he did, would he even be effective.

I thought it a good enough question to stick it into here.

First question, will Butch play this season?

My answer to that is most definitely yes.

It might not be at the beginning of the season, but he will play. He’s started exercising, he’s lifting weights and he’s feeling better, so whether it’s in October or in December, he will play this season.

The next part of the question, however, is the most important. Will he be effective?

My personal opinion is that he will.

One of the biggest hindrances in returning from a concussion is getting used to the contact once again. There’s trepidation when going into the corners, when going to the tough areas on the ice.

That’s also the biggest problem I’ve always had with Bouchard, as well.

He’s rarely gone into the corners and rarely gone into the tough areas on the ice. Bouchard is, primarily, a perimeter player. He is at his best when creating plays on the outside for players going to the net and a concussion shouldn’t change this.

This isn’t to say that Bouchard won’t have a readjustment period of some sort when he returns, but I think he will largely come back as the same player that he was before which is both a blessing and a curse for Wild fans.

Some Off Season Wild Notes

Well, let’s face it. It’s the off season.

We’re on day ten of Kovie Watch 2010, with no signs of anything happening anytime soon and free agency news has slowed to a trickle. So what’s a hockey fan to do?

Make news out of nothing? We’re not in that business here.

So, let’s just take a look at some of the goings on around the Wild.

Modano Interested in Wild?

Well, it’s amazing how much difference a few weeks makes.

First, the Dallas Stars decided that they don’t want to let Mike Modano “Brett Farve” them until the season starts. Then, the rampant speculation starts in Minnesota.

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. For whatever reason, Wild fans have some sort of sick obsession with Minnesota hockey players.

For whatever reason, anytime anyone with ties to Minnesota is available, fans start frothing at the mouth and when Modano became available the sharks began circling.

Immediately, however, all of the speculation was squashed.

It wasn’t the right fit. The Wild were in the running for a number-two center and Modano, at this stage in his career, isn’t that.

But, what do you know. The Wild suddenly want some insurance in case James Sheppard doesn’t step up his game or in case Casey Wellman isn’t ready to play in the NHL.

But, is this the right way for the Wild to go?

If Modano is willing to take a lesser roll with the team, then yes it is.

Modano still has a little bit of tread left on the tires, but he isn’t a top-six forward at this stage in his career—at least, he wasn’t with the Stars.

What signing Modano would do is give the Wild some insurance up the middle.

So, say Matt Cullen doesn’t fit with G-Lat and Havlat. Or Sheppard doesn’t step up to the challenge of making the team. Or they feel that Wellman would be best served to be in the AHL. Well, then they’ve got Modano, who is one heck of a contingency plan.

Cap Situation

As of right now, the Wild find themselves in an interesting situation in net.

They have about $3.5 million in cap space with Josh Harding left to sign in order to fill out their roster.

So, that means that they’ll likely have about $1 to $1.5 million left over once that happens.

So what does this mean? Are we done?

Like Russo, I tend to think not. I can’t imagine that the Wild wouldn’t be looking for another defenseman.

It sounds like Fletcher might be thinking the same thing, as there are rumblings that the Wild have had talks with Willie Mitchell.

The problem with that is that Mitchell will likely command more than the Wild have left, so someone will have to go.

But who?

Right now, the obvious candidate is James Sheppard, but there are others that wouldn’t surprise me, especially at forward.

The most likely forward other than Sheppard, however, is Antti Miettinen. Mittens has performed admirably on the team’s first line, but he just doesn’t seem to fit anywhere on the team. In each situation, there seems to be a player who could potentially do the job better than he.

Combine that with his size, or lack thereof, and you can see that he could very well be shopped around this season.

What Does Endras Signing Mean?

Well, in the short run, nothing.

Dennis Endras will go ply his trade overseas again and likely will then come to the team next season.

What the signing of Endras does do, however, is create competition among the Wild’s goaltenders.

Next season, it’s going to be Matthew Hackett and Anton Khudobin in Houston, with Darcy Keumper likely heading back to Red Deer.

The season after, however? The Wild are going to have a four-way battle to see who will be taking over in the back up role for either Josh Harding or Niklas Backstrom.

Now, I say Harding or Backstrom, because I don’t know that Fletcher and Richards have ruled out the possibility of moving Nik if it comes to that.

Harding is younger and has shown some significant signs of improvement over the last couple seasons.

Backstrom, though he has gotten a bit of a bad rap for his performance last season, is still Backstrom. He’s nowhere near as bad as he looked at times last season and, in my opinion, is still a top-ten goalie in this league.

So, the signing of Endras is both a depth move as well as one to spark something in the goaltenders and make them work for their jobs—both of which are good things to be sure.

For more of Blake’s work, you can follow him at the Bleacher Report and Hockey Primetime, as well as on his Twitter feed.

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.

One RFA Down; Wild Sign Sheppard

In a move that was anticipated, but dreaded by many Wild fans, the Minnesota Wild have re-signed center James Sheppard to a one year contract worth $803,250 according to Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

I’ll be honest. I see the rationale behind this, but I’m still not happy about it.

General Manager Chuck Fletcher told Russo that Sheppard’s spot on the roster will not be assured and that he will be given every opportunity to prove himself in training camp. Now, I know that I’ve been drinking Fletcher’s Kool Aid ever since he was hired, but I’m also willing to look past the Fletcher-tinted glasses and call a spade a spade.

Do I want Sheppard to succeed?

Absolutely. His emergence would only be a good thing for the Wild.

When Pierre-Marc Bouchard went down with an injury last season, he was expected to step up into the second line center role.

But, he didn’t.

Then, when Kyle Brodziak and Andrew Ebbett began to find chemistry with the team’s second line, Sheppard was expected to step up into a solid checking line center role.

But, he didn’t.

And finally, when Eric Belanger was traded to the Washington Capitals, he was expected to take advantage of the extra ice time he would be getting and start to emerge.

You guessed it. He didn’t.

Now, with the team short on centers, this could potentially be a low-risk, high-reward type deal.

Sheppard is going to be given the opportunity to succeed. He’s going to be given looks at camp and, for the first time in his career, his spot on the roster isn’t necessarily guaranteed.

That is what Fletcher is hoping lights a fire under the young player.

But, what Fletcher told Russo is a first for someone speaking of Sheppard in a Wild sweater:

“If somebody can come in and beat him in camp, then maybe that forces our hand if we’re offered a terrific opportunity to get a different asset and he’s the price we have to pay, we’ll look at it. We’re not saying we’re giving him anything other than for us not to qualify him would be a poor decision from a hockey management standpoint. I mean, why wouldn’t you protect that asset, why wouldn’t you give him every chance to become a hockey player? It’s up to him. If somebody can knock him out in camp, great, the more competition the better. And maybe he comes in and is the player that people hoped he would be. Why wouldn’t we give him that opportunity to compete? Maybe he’s inspired by that and takes a step. I think James is a good person, I think he honestly wants to be a hockey player and right now it’s about doing the rights things and committing himself to being that hockey player.”

What I like about this is that Fletcher is laying out the future for Sheppard.

You want a spot on the roster? You earn it.

You don’t earn a spot? Don’t expect to be around for long.

The bottom line is that he’s a 22-year old and he could very well be a “late bloomer,” so to speak.

He’s shown flashes here and there, but he’s never capitalized on them and, who knows—maybe this is what he needed to realize his potential.

Post-Game Thoughts

So…We lost 4-1…BUT, we actually didn’t play too bad. 

We limited their chances and, were it not for a couple defensive gaffes, we might have been able to force overtime.  One goal was an empty netter and two of the remaining three were one timers where Backstrom didn’t have much of a chance on because he was moving laterally from down low to face a shooter that was up high – this is one of the hardest shots for a goalie to stop because they have to change both their positioning AND their angle.  The d-men have got to break up those passes to help Backs out, and they just didn’t tonight. 

Here are some thoughts: 

* Burnsie is starting to look like the old Burnsie again.  He got chances, he created plays, he played physical and he wasn’t a huge liability in the defensive zone.  A funky bounce got him caught pinching on Heatley’s beautiful goal and he just flat out gave Mitchell too much space on his goal, but he played much better than his minus-4 would indicate. 

* I’m always the first to jump to Backstrom’s defense, and I don’t think there was much that he could have done on all three of San Jose’s goals last night, but the Wild needed him to come up with a big save in the third and he couldn’t do it.  He made a couple really nice saves, and the goal in the third was by no means his fault…But that’s the biggest difference this season from last is that last season, he came up with the big save(s) when the team needed him to.  This season, for whatever reason, it’s just not there right now. 

* You could definitely tell that Wellman was a rookie last night.  He definitely didn’t play his best game.  He was all over the place (not really in a good way) and there were a few times where he extended his shifts when he really shouldn’t have.  It’ll come, and he’s got a ton of promise, but he’s got a lot to learn yet. 

* Latendresse continues to just be absolutely amazing.  He scored the lone goal last night and, honestly, if he doesn’t have an A on his chest sometime in the next couple years there’s something wrong.  You can tell that he’s getting more and more comfortable with the team and with the coaching staff because he’s much more vocal on the bench and on the ice now.  The thing that I love most about him?  He doesn’t have any flashy goal celebrations.  He pumps his fist, then he waits for his teammates to get there.  None of this jumping into the boards crap, no skating past the guy that fed him the puck to pretend he’s shooting an arrow off of his stick…He just wants to celebrate with his teammates.  THAT is why he’s going to be a successful player for us for years to come. 

* Clutterbuck was absolutely invisible last night.  I don’t know if he even got a hit…That’s how invisible he was. 

* The Wild need to find a consistent finisher to play with Koivu and Brunette.  Miettinen is good, but he looks lost out there with those two at times.  They need a Bertuzzi-like power forward to play with them (Bertuzzi back when he actually was a force to be reckoned with, not now)…Someone who can get to the tight areas on the ice.  The Sharks clamped down last night, but there were small openings around the net…We just need a player willing to get into those small openings and get the puck. 

* Richards was mixing and matching lines so much last night that I thought Lemaire was back behind the bench.  He was trying ANYTHING to get some offense going.  At one point, he even stuck Sheppard in on the first line between Bruno and Miettinen and put Koivu between Wellman and Nolan. 

* While we’re not mathematically eliminated, it’s going to be pretty darn hard for us to make the playoffs.  Essentially, we have to win out and even then we still aren’t guaranteed a spot.  The good news is, though, that we’ve got a very young team and next year will look a lot better.

More Wild Kiss-Cam Hilarity

If you’re a Wild fan, you likely know of the team’s “fondness” for the Kiss Cam.

Last season, in a game in Colorado, the kiss cam was on the big screen.  As opposing arenas often do, they focused on two opposing players towards the end.

Most of the time, this just results in the player’s awkwardly pretending that they’re unaware of the ruse.  But that time, the Avs picked their spot perfectly, selecting noted team goofball Stephane Veilleux.  Veilleux grabbed the teammate it was centered on, James Sheppard, and gave him a spirited smooch on the top of the helmet.

Platonically, of course.

Click the link below to check out Puck Daddy’s post about the hilarity that ensued last night between Papa and Mama Wellman, two of the newest members of the Wild family:

http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/blog/puck_daddy/post/Video-Wild-welcomes-Wellman-with-parental-Kiss-?urn=nhl,228609

Brilliant.

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