Wild rebound with strong win over Stars

It’s going to be a short one tonight because, frankly, it’s late and I’m tired.

The Wild responded against the Dallas Stars and responded in a big way. They fell behind in the first period, after being outshot 11-5 (but not being outplayed) when Eric Nystrom repaid the Wild’s “betrayal” by putting the Stars up 1-0.

If we’ve learned anything about the Wild over this last stretch of games, it’s that when the going gets tough, they fold, right?

Not this time.

Minnesota fought back, this time, and Devin Setoguchi potted a power-play goal to tie the game.

The Wild continued to play good hockey but, again, the Stars got the upper hand with Phillip Larson scoring to put them up 2-1. After that, Darroll Powe manned up and answered the bell against Steve Ott, and everything changed.

Just over two minutes over that fight, Cal Clutterbuck potted his 12th goal of the season after a Dallas turnover and a missed check then, not even 20 seconds after that, Chad Rau scored his first NHL goal, banking the puck off of Brendan Morrow’s stick and past Kari Lehtonen and 59 seconds after Clutterbuck scored, Kyle Brodziak fired a one-timer past Lehtonen to put the Wild up 4-2 and they never looked back.

Dany Heatley capped it off in the third with a goal for his first three-point night since November 2010 and the Wild, all of a sudden, look like they remembered how they got to the top of the standings in the first place.

Some thoughts:

  • The entire defensive unit looked cohesive, once again. In fact, they looked better than they’ve looked in weeks. I don’t want to point my finger and say it was Zidlicky but, after the best defensive performance that the Wild have had in the past few weeks, it’s going to be hard to put him back in the line up. Stoner and Falk were both beasts, Prosser got an assist in his first game back with the team, Spurgeon played out of his mind, Schultz and Zanon were steady again. No one played their way out of the line up, so I don’t see number three coming back in.
  • Heatley played, in my opinion, his best game in a Wild uniform. A goal, two assists, three shots and, most of all, he wasn’t a liability and he was noticeable when he was on the ice. All of this after getting bumped down to the second line and playing with a couple of grinders in Brodziak and Johnson.
  • Harding looked sharp and, despite Backstrom’s record against the Avs, I don’t see Harding leaving the net after this one. No way Yeo changes anything after this one.

Three Stars

1)      Dany Heatley – A goal, two assists and, best of all, he wasn’t invisible.

2)      Chad Rau – Scored his first NHL goal.

3)      Justin Falk – Could be that he was the Wild’s best defenseman on Friday. He was physical, played great defense and had a great bounce back game after being scratched in Toronto.

Gameday Thread: Preds smash into St. Paul

The Wild haven’t played a game since Saturday’s win over the St. Louis Blues, but one thing’s for sure. It was probably the most enjoyable three day break for the fans that they’ve had in quite some time.

Why?

Because the Wild were sitting atop the NHL for the entirety of it.

Now, we at Wild Nation aren’t counting our chickens before they’re hatched. There’s still 62 games to play. It doesn’t matter if the Wild are first in the NHL on November 23. It matters if the Wild are first in the NHL on April 7.

But it’s cool nonetheless.

Now, the Wild aren’t getting ahead of themselves. They’re not content with this accomplishment and they’re not going to rest on their laurels. In fact, Mike Yeo is saying all the right things, basically saying that the Wild aren’t satisfied with this (a paraphrase, of course). He’s saying what he’s supposed to, the players are saying what they’re supposed to. Everyone’s focused on moving forward.

That’s going to be important, because the Wild have a huge test coming up tonight in the Nashville Predators who, if you were wondering, are currently fifth in the West, just three points behind the Wild.

The Wild have won eight of their last ten, but they’ve also been playing against a bunch of teams that have been struggling. The two losses in their last ten were against the Kings and Sharks – two teams that have been playing quite well – so this is going to be a great test of where the Wild are at.

The good news is that they’re not only winning the games they’re supposed to be winning, but they’re also finding ways to win close games and they’re starting to expect to win close games and they’re starting to expect to win, period.

That’s good news, because that confidence is going to come in handy, especially as long as their top scorers aren’t scoring.

Lineup

Per Wild.com, here’s the line up for tonight’s tilt:

Setoguchi/Koivu/Heatley (Koivu finally showed up on offense on Saturday. Now it’s time for Heatley and Setoguchi to follow suit. If I know anything about the Wild’s Captain, he’s not going to be satisfied with his performance against the Blues, and he’ll drive his linemates to be better too.)
Bouchard/Cullen/Clutterbuck (This line has really struggled without the presence of Latendresse or Setoguchi. Clutterbuck is a great player, but something just seems off when I watch these guys skate together.)
Powe/Brodziak/Johnson (I can’t really say much that hasn’t already been said about these three. They’re playing with a chip on their shoulder and they’re really coming into their own as a solid checking line.)
Gillies-Peters-Staubitz (The Wild basically need these three to play eight to ten minutes of mistake-free hockey. They’ve been doing that recently.)

Schultz/Prosser (Nate Prosser is blossoming into a stud, right in front of our eyes. That is all.)
Scandella/Stoner (Marco Scandella is returning to the line up after missing a couple games with a concussion. Given how cautious the Wild have been returning people from concussions of late, I wouldn’t expect any setbacks, but keep an eye on him nonetheless.)
Spurgeon/Falk (Justin Falk has been unbelievably impressive this season. With how he’s playing, as well as the rest of the young defensemen, it’s going to be really hard to justify taking anyone out of this line up when Greg Zanon and Mike Lundin get healthy.)

Backstrom between the pipes.

Burning Questions

Can the Wild avoid a letdown tonight? The Wild have had great success against teams not in the top eight, but have struggled a bit against the conference’s top eight. This is going to be a huge test for the team, but one that I think they can definitely pass if they play their game.

Can the Wild’s weapons start firing? Dany Heatley is second on the team in points, but sports a sad looking 9.5% shooting percentage. Setoguchi’s is much better at 14.3% (it’s higher than his career average) but Koivu’s is at 6.5%. The Wild need these three to get into a groove, and the only way they’re going to do that is by shooting the puck.

Can the Wild’s second line get into the act again? The Wild’s second line has really looked lost at times with Clutterbuck on it. With Latendresse out indefinitely, they need to start getting some chemistry between the three.

The puck drops tonight at 7 pm and will be televised on FSN. Enjoy!

Wild shock Wings in overtime

I’ve been waiting for a few games this season to say this in a good way but, tonight, the Wild got what it deserved.

After a shaky first period, they came out and played with the Wings in the second and third. They didn’t dominate play, but they didn’t look outmatched either.

In the second and third period, what they looked like was a team that was finally understanding their system and finally understanding what it was that they have to do to win.

It still wasn’t a complete game, but the Wild’s penalty kill was effective and their power play wasn’t a momentum killer like it has been in past games (though it still wasn’t perfect, or good for that matter). Basically, it was the best game that they’ve played within the system so far this season (in my opinion, anyway).

It wasn’t perfect, but it was darn sure a start.

There are still a lot of things that need to be fixed.Minnesota’s power play is still horrendous. They seem to be allergic to shooting the puck when they have the lanes and, instead, hold onto the puck and try to find the perfect play.

The Wild also need to stop taking freaking penalties late in the game. Honestly, there’s rarely a good penalty to take, but with five minutes left in a one-goal game? That’s the kind of thing that just kills a comeback.

So, with no burning questions for tonight’s game, I’m just going to throw out a few random thoughts at you:

  • The power play continues to be a troubling part of the Wild’s game and a big part of that is their play from the point. Their defensemen aren’t getting shots through, they’re forcing the issue (not in a good way) when they try to be aggressive and when they’re not forcing the issue and trying to be aggressive, they’re just playing pitch and catch between two players and not getting anything towards net. So, basically, they’re either trying to pretend to be aggressive, or being too passive. Either way, that’s bad news for the Wild’s power play.
  • My God Josh Harding was great tonight. That’s three straight games where Harding has absolutely stood on his head and kept the Wild in the game. You all know that I am a HUGE Niklas Backstrom supporter, and I’m always going to be. But, right now, Harding is making the decision to go back to Backs in the cage a very, very difficult one. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s a goalie controversy inMinnesotayet, but Hards is doing his best to create one.
  • How good has Justin Falk looked? He’s been an absolute beast on the blue line for the Wild, and it was evidenced tonight by the fact that Falk was on the ice with the goalie pulled and the Wild pushing for the tying goal. He’s positionally sound, he’s physical and he’s showing that he actually has a bit of offensive acumen at times too.
  • On the same token, how bad has Marek Zidlicky continued to look. He’s a complete liability defensively (like usual), only he’s not getting the production to make up for that. He’s the Wild’s power play quarterback, the Wild had eight power plays and Zidlicky had zero shots on goal. That says it all. It’s getting to the point that, when Stoner and/or Zanon are healthy, Zidlicky may find himself the odd man out (and should, in my opinion).

The Wild are off until Thursday, when they face off against the Canucks. Laterz!

Wild trim roster to 28.

It's time for the Wild to get down to business

After Pittsburgh’s game, it was apparent why this was coming. The Wild needed to get down to their roster to gain some chemistry as soon as possible.

With the cuts made on Sunday, the Wild are now down to a roster of 28. That’s 24 healthy players and 4 injured players. (For those keeping score, the opening day roster has to be 23).

If you couldn't tell, this is Brett Bulmer doing what he's best at.

Among those kept were Marco Scandella (no real surprise after Yeo essentially said he thought he could play top-four minutes in the NHL), Justin Falk (who really has nothing left to gain from remaining in Houston), Nate Prosser (he’s had a great preseason, but I expect him to be one of the last players sent down), Casey Wellman (he hasn’t really played at all, but showed some good signs in Pittsburgh) and Brett Bulmer (wait, what?).

Basically, with Bulmer, the Wild want to see more of him. He’s a Cal Clutterbuck-esque forward. He gets under players’ skins, he hits, he’s fearless and he can skate like the wind. With the injuries (the forwards injured are Kassian and Almond, both of whom probably had the best shots at making the opening day roster), it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that Bulmer makes the cut to play with the big squad on Oct. 8.

That’s going to have to be a judgment call by the management though.

For now, the Wild just want to see more of him.

So, basically, here’s our depth chart:

Forward (16):
Devin Setoguchi/Mikko Koivu/Dany Heatley
Guillaume Latendresse/Matt Cullen/Pierre-Marc Bouchard
Darroll Power/Kyle Brodziak/Cal Clutterbuck
Colton Gillies/Eric Nystrom/Brad Staubitz

Extras: Casey Wellman, Brett Bulmer
Injured:
Matt Kassian, Cody Almond

Defense (10):
Greg Zanon/Marek Zidlicky
Nick Schultz/Marco Scandella
Clayton Stoner/Jared Spurgeon

Extras: Justin Falk, Nate Prosser
Injured:
Mike Lundin, Drew Bagnall

Goalies (2):
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding

Looking at it, it’s certainly not the best team out there, but it doesn’t look half-bad either. Spurgeon and Stoner have most certainly earned their roster spots this preseason, while Scandella has at least earned the opportunity to be an injury fill-in for Lundin.

Here’s the thing, though. Lundin is one of our top-four defensemen. So who becomes the odd man out when he returns?

To me, it’s Scandella, and for the same reason that Colton Gillies became the odd man out last season.

Scandella is still young, and the front office obviously wants him to get ice time. If he’s not able to get top-four minutes in Minnesota, I think it’s the best move for him to get top-two minutes down in Houston.

It’s a tough message to deliver to a kid who has impressed this preseason, but it is what it is. The Wild will likely keep eight defensemen, and he won’t benefit from sitting in the press box on a nightly basis when Lundin returns from injury.

Prosser has had a great camp

If the Wild keeps eight, I think the two extras that they keep are Falk (nothing left for him to learn in Houston) and Prosser (great camp). Both players really have done their thing down in Houston, and I think both have at least earned the chance to try to work their way into a regular role with the team during the season. Given how steady our regular defensemen have been this preseason, however, I think the Wild only keep seven, which I think makes Prosser the odd man out for right now.

As for the forward, I think you’ll see Wellman sent down and, unless Bulmer blows someone away and one of the bottom two lines has a catastrophic injury, Bulmer sent back to juniors.

Neither is going to benefit from being a healthy scratch on a nightly basis and, when Almond and Kassian get healthy, I think those are the two that you’re going to see round out the squad. The Wild love the toughness that Kassian brings and, really, it’s hard not to. The dude is a grade-A, bona fide fighter and he’s tough as nails. He’s great in the room and he’s a pretty decent skater as well, which means that he’s a player that both Yeo and Fletcher are going to like.

As for Almond, I think he’s gone as far as he can in Houston. Would I rather see the Wild bring in a fringe veteran so that he’s not just sitting in the press box? Sure. But he at least gives the Wild a viable option if injuries present themselves or if they don’t want to throw an enforcer in on the fourth line.

As far as who’s gone, let’s take a look quick.

Jordan Hendry was released from his tryout and told to search for a one-way contract elsewhere, but also told that if nothing better presents itself he has a two-way deal waiting for him in Minnesota, but he would be starting in Houston.

Kris Foucault, David McIntyre, Carson McMillan, Warren Peters, Chad Rau, Jeff Taffe, Jon DiSalvatore, Jed Ortmeyer, Jarod Palmer, Tyler Cuma, Chay Genoway, Jeff Penner, Dennis Endras, Matt Hackett and Darcy Keumper were all sent to Houston.

So that’s your Wild roster. That’s who has the bet shot of making the team on Opening Day this season. There’s three games remaining, so let’s see who can impress over the next three games and get their shot on opening night.

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

Baby Wild down St. Louis 1-0

Hackett makes a save on Jonathan Cheechoo

Well, I don’t want to say that was unexpected but…Okay…That was unexpected.

The Baby Wild came out last night and took on a St. Louis Blues team that was mostly comprised of their NHL regulars, and looked pretty darn good in the process.

Peters scored the lone goal for Minnesota

Niklas Backstrom and Matthew Hackett combined for the shutout, while Warren Peters got the lone goal, beating Jaroslav Halak witha nifty little backhand. Incidentally, Backstrom got an assist on the play too, making him not only their top goalie, but one of their top offensive players also.

So, some thoughts on the game:

  • I was impressed with the defensive responsibility of the team on Thursday. The Wild needed to have a performance like this in order to compete with a more experienced, more talented Blues squad and they did just that. For three periods, they did everything they were supposed to do and it showed in the results.
  • The Wild’s AHL veterans (Jed Ortmeyer, Warren Peters) both looked good again. Unless one of the youngsters really blows Mike Yeo away, I think that 13th forward position could go to one of those two.
  • Of the four defensemen that played last night that are vying for a roster spot, Scandella probably looked the best out of everyone. Prosser and Hendry looked good, but Falk was just terrible for most of the game.
  • Zack Phillips was good, but he was trying to do too much for most of the game. It’s a definite learning curve, and he needs to learn that he won’t be able to dance around the ice in the NHL like he does in the Q. He showed signs of what could be in store, though. He could be a dandy.
  • Both Backstrom and Hackett were tremendous against the Blues. Backstrom made a handful of spectacular saves, as did Hackett who withstood a 14-1 barrage in the third.

But what of my questions? Well, let’s take a look.

Nate Prosser checks Alex Steen

How will the Wild’s youth fare tonight against a fairly experienced roster? Well, given that they won and shut out a team full of regulars, I’d say they fared pretty darn good.

Will Niklas Backstrom look like the Backstrom who was a Vezina Trophy finalist, or the Backstrom who has struggled at times the past two seasons? It’s a limited sample size, but he definitely looked good. We’ll see how he fares the rest of the pre-season, but it’s definitely an encouraging sign.

Where will the Wild’s scoring come tonight, with mostly youth and fringe players playing? Well, the answer to this question, obviously, was Warren Peters.

Can Minnesota’s inexperienced defensive unit hold their own against a fairly experienced stable of forwards? Yes, and yes. This defensive unit was great for the duration of the game. They helped prevent any major scoring chances and gave the goaltenders the opportunity to see the puck.

Will Zack Phillips (my dark horse roster pick), Kris Foucault, Brett Bulmer or Jarod Palmer emerge as surprise front runners to make the roster on opening day? No. The youngsters didn’t have bad games, but none of them blew anyone away. All showed that they’ve got the tools to be good down the road, but right now none looked quite ready to be a full-time NHLer.

Will Jordan Hendry rebound from a less than stellar performance last game? Yes. He wasn’t the team’s best defenseman, but he had a very good game save for a mistake here and there.

Check back later today for our gameday thread. Otherwise, enjoy the weather today…It’s only going to get colder!

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

The Monday Mailbag: 8/1/11

First of all, be sure to head on over to Hockey’s Future and check out my review of the Minnesota High School kids drafted this season.

Now that the house keeping’s over with, we had a pretty good response to our call for mailbag questions, so let’s get to it. For brevity’s sake, we’ll split it up and get to the ones we didn’t get to this week next week.

Remember, if you have any questions you want in the mailbag, send them in to blake.benzel@hockeyprimetime.com!

* * * * *

Blake,

What do you think of the Wild’s defense after losing Brent Burns? How big of a role do you think Marco Scandella will play this season?

Dale
Little Canada, MN

Well, Dale, that’s a difficult one. There’s no doubt that the Wild’s defense is filled with promise this season, but it looks like that they could once again have difficulties moving the puck. Here’s how I see their D this season:

Zidlicky/Zanon
Schultz/Lundin
Stoner/*Up For Grabs*

Vying for a Spot: Spurgeon, Scandella, Falk, Bagnall, Cuma, Prosser, Genoway, Penner

So, basically what you see here is that there is one spot in the top-six available for about eight players that could legitimately have a shot at the roster this season. The front runners for that sixth spot are likely to be between Spurgeon, Scandella, Falk, Cuma and Prosser.

Scandella will have every chance to make the roster

Now, of those five, Spurgeon and Scandella undoubtedly have the inside track because of their time spent with the team last season. Falk is close, but I don’t think he’s quite there yet. Prosser could sneak in and steal the job with a good camp, but that would take pretty poor camps from Scandella and Spurgeon. As far as Cuma, I hesitated putting him on the list because I think that he needs a full, injury-free season in the AHL before he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL.

The seventh defensive spot gets a little more difficult. I would imagine that, between Spurgeon and Scandella, whichever player doesn’t make the team will be playing in the AHL this season to continue their development, and that makes a lot of sense.

So, that was a long-winded answer to the first question but, to the second question, I’d be surprised if Scandella starts the season in the AHL. The sixth spot seems like it’s going to be Spurgeon’s to lose. Now, that doesn’t mean that Scandella can’t win the job from him, but given Spurgeon’s play last season he’s definitely got the inside track.

As I mentioned, I don’t think it would be wise to keep Scandella on the team if he’s not in the top-six because he’s still young and, quite honestly, I think his development would be better served playing 20-plus minutes per night in the AHL as opposed to 10-15 per night every couple nights in the NHL.

* * * * *

Blake,

Do you think the Wild will make the playoffs this season?

Linda
New Brighton, MN

Linda, you just hit the most-asked question this week. In short, yes, I think they will make the playoffs.

Their offense has greatly improved with the additions of Heatley and Setoguchi, their goaltending is, again, strong with Backstrom and Harding in net. The big question mark is their defense and, with both Rick Wilson and Darryl Sydor, I don’t think that the D will be as bad as everyone is afraid it will be.

That being said, there are a lot of variables to consider in this (which I won’t bore you with right now) but, yes. I do think that the Wild will make the playoffs this season. I see them finishing somewhere between 6-8 in the West and 2 or 3 in the Northwest.

* * * * *

Blake,

Is Niklas Backstrom an elite goalie in the league without Lemaire’s trap?

Rich
Duluth, MN

Short answer, Rich, yes. He is.

The main argument that I’ve seen against Backstrom is the exact point that you brought up. He can’t succeed in a system that’s not defense oriented which, in my mind, is a huge fallacy.

The biggest reason why Backstrom succeeded under Jacques Lemaire wasn’t necessarily the system (the trap is largely a neutral zone system), but it was because of the fundamentals that Lemaire preached to his defensemen.

Don't fool yourself. He's still really good.

Players didn’t get caught with their backs to the play under Lemaire. They didn’t leave their feet to block shots, they boxed players out and kept the puck to the outside – fundamentals.

The Wild did that at the beginning of last season, and Backstrom excelled.

Why? Because he’s largely a positional goaltender. Athletics are not his strong suit. He’s not a Tim Thomas-type goalie. He doesn’t flop around like a fish out of water to make saves. He’s at his best when he’s on his feet, cutting down angles.

I could go on, and on, but I’ll sum it up with this. The goalie position is one of the most contentious positions in sports. On one hand, yes, their job is to stop the puck. But it’s a lot more complicated than that. The goalie can’t control the defense not doing their job. They can’t control forwards not back checking. All they can control is where the puck goes when it comes at them and, even then, they don’t have a heck of a lot of control then.

As far as Backstrom is concerned, if the defense is doing their job, he’s still a top-ten goalie in the NHL. If they’re not, I’d say he’s still at least top-12.

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

Wild embarrassed by Vancouver

Well, to be honest, that was to be expected.

I don’t think there’s any team in the NHL that could be missing their leading scorer, two of their top-four defensemen and ice six rookies (including four rookie d-men) and expect to contend with the Vancouver Canucks.

To the Wild’s credit, they hung with the ‘Nucks a lot longer than I thought they would but in the end the new Wild Killer, Ryan Kesler, put away the Wild with a hat trick en route to scoring his 40th goal of the season.

There’s not much to say about the macro in this one. The Wild were out matched in every facet of the game by a team that is just far superior to them right now.

So, let’s take a look at the micro:

  • Colton Gillies looked really good in this one, in my opinion. He spent a lot of time skating on the wing on the Wild’s second line and created a few good chances to boot. I’ve got to say, I’m very impressed with the way he skates. He’s very fluid on the ice and skates a lot like Brent Burns (that’s a compliment, folks). One thing I do have to say about Gillies, though, is that I’d like to see him a little stronger on his skates. There’s one time in particular that I’m thinking of, on the power play, when he skated into the slot and just got dumped by a Vancouver defenseman with a solid check to his chest.
  • Russo made mention that Niklas Backstrom is just emotionally deflated right now, and I’d say that goes for the entire team. They just look like they don’t have it in them to fight back anymore. I hate to say it but, they’ve given up. That much is plain to see.
  • The Wild’s defense was just awful. In fact, the team’s best pairing was probably the rookie tandem of Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner. Greg Zanon looked alright, but Brent Burns, Justin Falk and Maxim Noreau just looked terrible. It might be acceptable for Falk and Noreau to have an off game, given their lack of NHL experience, but Burns looks like he’s devolving to Martin Skoula with each passing game. He’s consistently out of position and he looks like he’s pushing far too much to make things happen – which is commendable because no one else seems to be, but he’s consistently making mistakes while he’s pushing to make things happen.
  • This last stretch of games, where the Wild has lost 11 of 13, has shown a lot about what this team is made of – not a whole lot of heart. The Wild come out against St. Louis and beat the Blues in a shootout and follow that up with a game against Edmonton for their first winning streak since mid-February. But then they come out and just get dominated by playoff teams in three straight games. Where’s the drive? This team should be getting up for big games like those. They should be amped up to play against the best of the best to prove to everyone and themselves what they can do. Instead, they consistently come out flat in those games. Not the make up of a winner, at all. In fact, if you want to see some heart out of a Minnesota team before the beginning of next season, I’d recommend checking out the Frozen Four finals tomorrow night and watching Minnesota-Duluth.

Sorry about the downer of a post, but there’s not much you can say after last night’s loss. I’ll check back in after the weekend!

Wild Falls to Vancouver in a Big Way

Man, if you didn’t see this one coming, you weren’t paying attention.

The Wild came out tonight, after a lackluster performance last night in Edmonton, and skated like they had lead in their breezers and played like they had lead between their ears.

That might have been a bit harsh, but it’s not too far off from the truth. For three periods of play tonight, the Wild looked like absolute garbage.

But it really should have been expected after the way that they played for the last two periods of last night’s game. In back-to-back games, there’s absolutely no way that you come out strong the very next night after an outing like that.

Plain and simple, the Wild came out flat and it showed in the results. In fact, it should have been a shutout were it not for the fact that Miettinen scored a fluke goal late in the third.

Vancouver controlled play all night long tonight and Manny Malhotra had a three-point night to down the Wild quite easily in this one.

I’d say more but, to be quite honest, I don’t really have much more to say. The Wild got dominated from buzzer to buzzer and that’s all there is to it.

Random Thoughts

  • One game into his Minnesota Wild career and color me VERY unimpressed with Jose Theodore. The man looked so casual in net tonight that, honestly, it bordered on lazy. For most of the evening, his movements in net simply looked listless and sluggish. He was out of position and he was, quite frankly, out of the game. Now, this could have been in large part due to the fact that he didn’t really have a training camp and it was his first game, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt but he has got to be better if the Wild are to be successful at all this season.
  • I can honestly say that I’ve never been as impressed with a young Wild defenseman as I have been with Justin Falk. The guy just keeps getting better and better with each and every game. His strength is absolutely fantastic (I’ve never seen a player that can manhandle a player in the corner with a single arm) and he has a great mind for the game. The scariest part is that he’s still young and still learning. Once he gets completely used to the speed and flow of the game, he’s going to be one hell of a defender.
  • If I had to take one positive away from tonight’s game, it would be that Guillaume Latendresse had another fantastic game for the Wild. Latendresse was physical, he drove to the net and, essentially, did everything that he is expected to do yet, for some reason, there were just five players on the Wild with less ice time than him. For whatever reason, he seems to be remaining in Richards’ doghouse, despite being tied for third on the team in points, not to mention having the best shooting percentage. At this point, it seems to be a mystery as to what he needs to do to get more ice time because, from my vantage point, he seems to be doing everything right.
  • Clayton Stoner had a relatively good game tonight – or, at least as good of a game that he could have with just 10 minutes of ice time. The most impressive part of his game, though, was his fight in the first period. He might not always be the best player on the ice, but he knows how to throw ‘em, that’s for sure.

The Depth Chart and Other Randomness

Depth Chart
Earlier today, Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune posted what will be the Wild’s depth chart if it starts the season with the way the roster is now:

Goalie
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding
Barry Brust
Anton Khudobin

LD-RD
Kim Johnsson-Brent Burns
Nick Schultz-Marek Zidlicky
Greg Zanon-Shane Hnidy
John Scott-Jaime Sifers
Tyler Cuma-Justin Falk
Clayton Stoner-Jamie Fraser
Marco Scandella-Maxim Noreau

LW-C-RW
Andrew Brunette-Mikko Koivu-Martin Havlat
Owen Nolan-James Sheppard-Pierre-Marc Bouchard (RW until training camp)
Antti Miettinen-Eric Belanger-Cal Clutterbuck
Colton Gillies-Kyle Brodziak-Derek Boogaard
Petr Kalus-Benoit Pouliot-Craig Weller
Robbie Earl-Morten Madsen-Danny Irmen
Matt Kassian-Cody Almond-Carson McMillan

First of all, if you haven’t checked out Mike Russo’s blog and you’re a Wild fan, shame on you.  It’s one of the best resources for all things Wild out there.  Click here to go there.  Bookmark it, scour it daily and above all thank him for his amazing coverage of the Wild!

Anyway, off my soapbox for the moment.

Looking at this depth chart, the thing that immediately jumps out at me is not the center position.  A lot has been made of our depth (or lack thereof) down the middle.  In looking at the team, however, we’ve got five potential pivots on our roster, and that’s not including Colton Gillies, Owen Nolan or Benoit Pouliot.  Throw those two into the mix and we could have as many as eight players on the opening day that could be capable of anchoring a line in the middle.

The thing that really jumps out at me is our lack of depth at left wing.  After Nolan, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen, the talent level really drops off.  This isn’t a knock on Gillies; however, we have a serious lack of skill and depth on the left side and, honestly, on the wing in general.

To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, is our talent on defense and in nets.  Our top-six defensemen could be the best top-six that the team has had.  The additions of Zanon and Hnidy give the team two reliable, physical anchors on the blueline and will force opposing teams to keep their heads up.  Meanwhile, expect Scott and Sifers to compete for the seventh spot in camp, most likely with Scott winning the battle.  That’s not to say, however, that our youth could not come in and surprise.  With Cuma, Falk, Stoner and Scandella in the wings, there is a good chance that Scott and Sifers may not be foregone conclusions at the 7 and 8 slot.  It will take a lot for any of these four to make the squad, however.  Of the four, Stoner probably has the best shot as this could be his make it or break it year, but make no mistake — the Wild’s top 7 are pretty much set.

Olvecky Signs in Nashville
Joel Ward, Ryan Jones and now Olvecky?  Those Tennessee boys sure do like Wild prospects.

In all honesty, I think that Olvecky has a fantastic chance to make the Nashville squad next season right out of camp.  Olvecky is a big body with a lot of untapped talent to boot, and he performed admirably for the Wild in a limited role with the team in the handful of games he played for us last season.

He really started to come into his own last season and seems like he could be the type of player that Barry Trotz will really love.  For $600K and a two-way contract, I’d take Olvecky any day of the week.  A good depth pick up by the Preds.

Qualifying Offers Signed
The Wild had a few players of their own signed as well.

Restricted free agents Benoit Pouliot, Clayton Stoner, Danny Irmen and Robbie Earl all signed their qualifying offers and it seems as if the lot of them (with the exception of Pouliot) could see another year playing in the minors.  Earl and Irmen both have too many players in front of them to have a shot at making the squad (that is, barring a spectacular camp from either) and Stoner will have to do some serious damage in camp to work his way up the depth chart.

Injuries do happen, though, and we could very easily see one of them get a cup of coffee in the NHL and do what Cal Clutterbuck did last season and not let go.

In addition, Russo reports that the Wild could be close to signing Duncan Milroy and Joe DiSalvatore to plug some holes in their minor league system.

Fletcher Working Trade Market
There are a lot of people who are getting scared by the Wild’s seeming lack of movement this off season.

Those fans are the Chicken Littles of the fanbase.

While there are some quality players out there, there really aren’t any players that would meet any immediate needs for us.  I mentioned Mats Sundin, Robert Lang and Mike Comrie previously, but Sundin likely doesn’t have much more tread on his tires, Lang is rumored (or already has) to jump ship to the KHL and Comrie, well, let’s just say I don’t want to sign a player for his girlfriend.  In addition to those players, there are players such as Alex Tanguay and Petr Sykora left over.  Undoubtedly, these players could make an impact on the Wild roster, but would they really fit?

In the case of Tanguay, he’s a tremendous talent, but he’s also been pigeonholed as a playmaker — of which, the Wild have many.  Sykora would be a cheap, effective sniper, but do the Wild want to sink the money it would take to get him on an aging player?

Bottom line is that the best route for the team to improve, at this point, is the route that Fletcher is taking — trades.

There are many top flight forwards that have been presumed available via trade.  Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins, Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators, Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks, even Chicago’s Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane have always been rumored to be available.

To be honest, the names remaining in free agency don’t even hold a candle to a lot of these names.  I’d much rather have a Kessel, Heatley, Sharp or Kane over any of those available — regardless of the assets we have to give up for them.

The bottom line is that the Wild are far from done, in my opinion.  But Fletcher has said all along that he’s not afraid to go late into the summer with a less than full roster to give himself the flexibility that he needs to get the players it takes to make this a winning team.

So…

Fear not Chicken Little.  The sky is not falling.  With a little patience, we could have a playoff team yet.

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