Wild Down Oilers…Again

Well, so far the Wild have decided “No Koivu? No problem.”

Granted, offense is coming much, much harder and their power play looks a bit disconnected, but this team is determined.

Last night in St. Paul, the Wild came out and put on yet another terrific performance, this time downing the Edmonton Oilers 4-1 in what is becoming quite a heated rivalry between the two squads.

I’ll save you the bland rundown of what happened, but here are my thoughts on last night’s game:

  • Jared Spurgeon finally got rewarded for all of his hard work and terrific play, scoring his first career goal. Let me tell you, this kid is going to be a good defenseman in the NHL for a long, long time. I love his positional game, I love his defensive game, but the fact that he has that vision to make that first breakout pass in a way that the Wild have struggled with ever since they traded Kim Johnsson. After all of their searching for a puck-moving defenseman, after all of their attempts at trades and signings, they found one that was within their own organization. That, above everything else, bodes well for the Wild. I know, I know. It’s hard to believe, but they actually filled a pressing need from within their organization. Guess what? For all of you people whining that Chuck Fletcher hasn’t done enough to improve the organization, start drinking the Kool Aid because it’s working. It’s not going to be a quick fix. It might even be four or five years before they Wild have the type of organizational depth that they aspire to, but they’re heading in the right direction.
  • Pierre-Marc Bouchard was terrific last night. I know I sound like a broken record, but he looks more and more like his old self with each game. He’s gotten some sick chemistry with Martin Havlat that could prove interesting once Guillaume Latendresse returns to action. A line with three players with that sort of chemistry? That could be a scary good line for Minnesota.
  • There was enough good last night that I feel the need to point out one of the things that really is bothering me about this team. I’ve mentioned it before, but this game could honestly have been (and should have been) about 6-1 or 7-1 with all of Minnesota’s missed chances. The reason why this team is having such a hard time scoring, with all of the offensive chances that the get from game-to-game is simply because they don’t have that offensive juggernaut of a player that can pick up a loose puck and bury it. Yes, Latendresse is hurt and he is arguably their best goal scorer. But they’re going to need more than just him if they want to compete against the top teams in the West. The difference between Detroit and Edmonton was clear last night. You can afford to not convert on these scoring chances against a team like Edmonton and still get two points. But miss scoring chances like we did against Detroit and you wind up with a loss.
  • Martin Havlat was again very good for the Wild and, frankly, I’m starting to get a little sick of some of the criticism surrounding the dynamic winger. I was speaking with a friend of mine the other day and the guy made mention that he wished Havlat would do more to get engaged in the game. At first glance, sure. Every player can look a little listless from time to time. Everyone has their off games, so I made mention of that – that the game he was watching, Havlat just was having an off game. But that wasn’t what he was talking about. He went on to say how Havlat was a 100-point talent playing 70-point hockey. How Havlat doesn’t get involved in any of the physical stuff on the ice. He doesn’t go hard into corners after the puck, he doesn’t block shots etc.

First of all, is Havlat a 100-point talent playing 70-point hockey? Maybe. But you also have to consider the players around him. Havlat is a playmaker, plain and simple. He feeds off of the players on his line and, for a lot of this season, he’s been playing with Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck – neither of whom are known for their offense. So yeah, maybe he’s having a mediocre season this year, but how much of that is due to who he’s been playing with?

Next, the fact that Havlat doesn’t play the physical brand of hockey that my friend (and many others from what I’ve gathered) would like. Okay. So you want our leading scorer taking chances on laying hits on people, taking himself out of opportunities where he can get the puck and putting himself in harm’s way in terms of injuries? That sure makes a lot of sense. The physical part isn’t part of Havlat’s game. That’s not to say that he shouldn’t be a little more physical from time to time. There are times when he looks soft, sure. But I’d rather have him look like that and be in position to get the puck when it comes loose than go barreling into players willy nilly.

Then there’s the final part, about how Havlat doesn’t do the “little things” like go hard into corners or block shots and so on. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but having your $6 million player whom you pay to create offense getting in the way of a 100 mph slap shot on a regular basis seems kind of stupid, don’t you think? There’s a reason Havlat isn’t on the team’s penalty kill on a regular basis. Going hard into the corners, blocking shots, that stuff isn’t his role. His role is to be in a position to get the puck once we come out of those hard areas with it, or once it ricochets off of a defender’s shin pad. If Havlat is going hard into the corner after a puck, or blocking a shot, there is a significant problem with either his linemates or the defensemen because that is not what he’s supposed to be doing on the ice. That’s not to say that he shouldn’t be pursuing the puck, or trying to prevent goals, but he’s more useful to the Wild being in position to collect the puck after these things than being right in the center of things doing them.

  • Finally, there’s Niklas Backstrom. I know I probably sound like a broken record, but if the Wild make the playoffs it’s on his shoulders and, right now, his shoulders are as wide as the rink is long. If Backstrom is not getting any sort of Vezina consideration for the season that he’s having right now, it’s an absolute crime. He’s been one of the best goalies in the league all season long. He has had his share of stinkers, but he has also lost seven games in which he’s given up two or less goals this season. Seven! He’s made less than 90 percent of his saves just nine times in 37 games and has had to stop 35-plus shots eight times. He’s on, folks, and when he’s on there aren’t many in the game that are better than him. He’s given up just three goals in his last three games and the Wild are going to need to ride him for the rest of this season.

That’s that for this one. I’ll be back on Thursday with the gameday preview (sorry I missed yesterday’s) and gamer and on Friday with the Wild Nation Trade Deadline primer.

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

Chuck Norris Fears Greg Zanon

{Author’s Note: Thanks to @wildmn34 on Twitter for the title idea for the article. I wish I could take credit for the awesomeness that is enclosed in the title of the article, but I just can’t.} 

Seriously. 

The title says it all. 

If you want to know who the biggest off season acquisition was for the Minnesota Wild, look no further than the man with the number six emblazoned on the back of his sweater. 

Even if Martin Havlat wouldn’t have had his slow start and would have come on like gangbusters like he has, it would still be Zanon. 

You need proof? 

How does the tune of 180 shots blocked sound? That’s good for third in the league behind Andy Sutton and Dennis Seidenberg and almost 30 more than Nick Schultz blocked all of last season. 

Maybe second on the team with hits (behind guess who) with 169 sounds a little better? Last season, the only player who had over 100 hits was our very own cult hero, Cal Clutterbuck. 

How about leading the team in ice time, with 18:53 per game, more than even iron man Kim Johnsson averaged this season with us? Last season, the only player with more than 18 minutes of ice time was, once again, Johnsson with 19:36. 

What about that Zanon is averaging almost 20 seconds more per game on the penalty kill than anyone else on the team? 

If that last one doesn’t have you convinced, try this on for size: 

With the playoffs out of reach for the season, Greg Zanon has been playing his last handful of games on a broken ankle. 

Why? 

Because he refuses to be shut down by the coaching staff. 

In Monday’s victory over the Los Angeles Kings, Zanon blocked a grand total of six blocked shots. Six! 

That’s not even mentioning that one of said blocked shots was a 90+ mph slap shot that ricocheted off of his lil’ Zanon’s. 

His response after the game? 

“Good thing I have kids already,” said in a high pitched, squeaky voice. 

And the best part about all of this is that he’s rubbing off on players. He’s leading by example. 

Now, most people would comment and say that Zanon is an idiot for not shutting it down at this point in the season. The Wild have no real shot of making the playoffs, they’re primarily playing for pride now, so why should he risk it? 

Admittedly, the same thought crossed my mind as well, but I came to one conclusion. 

It’s for the same reason why teams begin to play more physical during big losses. 

To send a message. 

Zanon is sending a message to his team for next season. 

This is what we need to do. This is the type of warrior you need to be. This is the type of dedication that we need to win. 

The Wild anthem, played during the first intermission of every home game, has a line that says, “We will fight to the end, We will stand and defend, Our flag flying high and free,” and there is no better example of this than Greg Zanon this season. 

Zanon is not going to give up—he’s not going to “pack it in.” 

He’s going to stand and fight until the end of the season. He knows that in just a few short weeks, he’ll have all off season to let his bumps and bruises heal. But for now, he’s a hockey player in the NHL and he’s going to do the best thing that he can do. 

Just play. 

This is why Zanon is the most important acquisition of the off season. This is why he might even be one of the most important players on the Minnesota Wild. 

Because Greg Zanon doesn’t shave, he kicks himself in the face. The only thing that can cut Greg Zanon is Greg Zanon.

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.

Random, Random, Random

Well, the Olympics are here. 

That means that the Wild news slows waaaaaaaaaaaaaay down.  At least for a few weeks. 

Day one of the Olympics brought exactly what was expected.  Team USA ground out a win over the Swiss, Team Canada overcame early jitters to dominate Norway and Russia overpowered Latvia. 

But, no Wild players played, so there’s really not much for me to talk about. 

Today, though, could be a different story.  At 2 p.m. Central time, the puck will drop on Finland’s first game of the tournament, which will see Mikko Koivu and Antti Miettinen take the ice for their home country, and Niklas Backstrom likely get some splinters backing up Miikka Kipprusoff. 

That leads me to the match up of the night.  The new versus the old.  Martin Havlat versus Marian waitheshurtagain?  Well.  Nevermind.  I guess the subtext to that matchup just won’t work here.  But in all seriousness, it should be one hell of a game, as it will be the first time that two of the teams considered medal contenders face off in this tournament. 

Now that I have that out of the way, it occurred to me that I never weighed in on my thoughts of the Wild’s big trade in the hours leading up to the trade freeze. 

Wow.  I mean, wow. 

Whether you like the trade or not, there’s one thing that you absolutely have got to admit.  Chuck Fletcher’s got balls.  I mean a biiiiiiig brass set. 

Personally, I love the trade. 

Fletcher managed to dump the Wild’s most unsightly contract (let’s be fair, Butch gets a free pass here until he’s had at least a full season under the new system) and picks up a solid top four NHL defenseman and he’s 23 years old?  What’s not to like? 

I’ve read the fan reactions to the trade a hundred times and it seems to be a 50-50 split.  Half love the trade, half hate it.  But, I’d be willing to assume that the half that hate it were also the half that were whining about Doug Risebrough never making any moves of significance at the trade deadline or never trying to improve the team or always know what’s best for the team. 

Again, personally, I love the trade, and here’s why. 

First, it saves the Wild some money.  It moves Johnsson’s contract before the Olympic Break, meaning that the Blackhawks, not the Wild, have to pay him for sitting on his duff doing nothing.  

Second, it moves an older player with an expiring contract for a younger player with a few years left without giving up anything.  Say what you will about Johnny and Barker, but they both have relatively the same skill set, though Barker seems more willing to throw his weight around. 

Third, it moves a prospect that, quite frankly, I haven’t been too impressed with.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of the team drafting Leddy, but I did my best to try to see it in a positive light.  The bottom line is, though, that Leddy’s development (as was the case with Kyle Okposo before him) had started to stall.  The U is known for a great many things, but their development of their players over the last few years has been much less than stellar.  The Wild recognized that and decided to take the devil they knew over the devil they didn’t, so to speak. 

Leddy could very well turn into a top flight defenseman down the road, but he’s still at least three to four years away from being an NHL player.  Barker, meanwhile, is just five years older than Leddy, has 201 NHL games under his belt and is ready now. 

Barker will help a powerplay that has been shaky, at best, this season and will give the Wild a third young defenseman that they can count on as part of their defensive core. 

Does Barker have many of the defensive shortcomings that Johnsson did? 

Absolutely. 

But the difference between the two is that Barker is young enough to have those bad habits broken by our defensive taskmaster, Mike Ramsey. 

Anywho…That’s all for now.  I swear I’m still working on the mailbag and will have it up sometime during this Olympic break.  If you want your questions answered, I’m still taking submissions so feel free to send them in!

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.

The Dreaded Season Preview

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

Camp is just around the corner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backstrom will once again be the backbone of the team.

Backstrom will once again be the backbone of the team.

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

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

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

Extras: Craig Weller, Benoit Pouliot

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

Extra: John Scott

Goaltending
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding

Nolan is a leader on and off the ice.

Nolan is a leader on and off the ice.

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

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

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

This is the standard expected of you.

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

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

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

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.

Season in Review: Defensemen and Goaltenders

A few days prior, I outlined the season in review for the Wild’s forwards.

Now, it’s time for the back end of the team.  Defense and goaltending.  By all accounts, this was a Wild team whose defense had to be bailed out by their goaltender far, far too often.  But this was also the first time that the Wild had multiple defensemen capable of putting points up on the board, so here we go with the review.

Marek Zidlicky – 3 – D | 76 GP, 12 – 30 – 42, -12: There are a couple things that are telling about Zidlicky’s first season in Minnesota.  First, the man is a powerplay machine.  Ten of his twelve goals game with the man advantage and, for the first time, gave the Wild a real, genuine threat with his shot from the point.  The second, however, is that Zidlicky is also not known for his defense.  He showed flashes of what he could do in the defensive end, but he is primarily known and kept for his abilities moving the puck and in the offensive zone.  Zidlicky’s lack of size and his propensity to turnovers aggrivated Wild fans to no end, but there’s no denying the fact that he provided the Wild with a fantastic threat from the point.  Grade: B

Marc-Andre Bergeron – 47 – D | 73 GP, 14 – 18 – 32, +5: When I look at Bergeron’s season, there’s one thing that pops to mind that really sums it all up.  He was a plus?!?  Look, Bergeron has a lot of skills that can be/are useful to an NHL team.  It’s just that his defensive prowess is certainly not chief among them.  While a force on the powerplay, Bergeron’s play in his own zone was inconsistent at best.  He was often the victim of poor decision making and mistakes with the puck that caused the coaching staff and the fans to get a bit more grey hair on their heads.  Overall, though, his offensive skill was something that we definitely needed from the blueline and he was one of the big reasons why our powerplay was as good as it was this season.  Grade: B-

Brent Burns – 8 – D | 59 GP, 8 – 19 – 27, -7: It’s very hard to categorize Burns’s season, especially due to the fact that he was bounced around so much and because of the most recent news that he played his last six weeks of the season with a concussion.  That said, Burns regressed a bit this season and the Wild management is largely the reason why.  Everyone came into the season expecting a Mike Green-esque outburst from the young defenseman, but the flip flopping between forward and defense early in the season led to what could be called a mediocre season at best for the youngster.  Grade: C

Kim Johnsson – 5 – D | 81 GP, 2 – 22 – 24, -3: Johnsson has his share of detractors in Minnesota, largely due to his contract and lack of offensive production.  But looking at the current landscape for defensemen, his contract is not so outrageous in comparison to what other defensive defensemen are making; especially considering the fact that Johnsson has the ability to skate his way out of trouble and can provide some solid puck movement.  Johnsson played in all situations for the Wild and was oftentimes matched up against teams’ top lines which makes his season all the more impressive.  Grade: B+

Martin Skoula – 41 – D | 81 GP, 4 – 12 – 16, -12: Let’s just get the shocker out of the way right now.  Martin Skoula was the Wild’s most dependable and most consistend defenseman all year.  I know, I know what you’re thinking.  “Human Sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…Mass hysteria!”  (Author’s Note: A shiny penny for anyone who can name that movie.)  Anyway, the bottom line is that Skoula had a very un-Skoula-like season on defense.  He did not make the catastrophic mistakes that he had previously been known for and he made sound decisions with the puck and actually used his size.  Grade: A-

Nick Schultz – 55 – D | 79 GP, 2 – 9 – 11, -4: Let’s get one thing out of the way here first.  Nick Schultz will never be known for his offensive output.  He’s never going to be a powerplay specialist.  But what he does do is play against teams’ top lines night in and night out and shut them down more often than not.  He’s not flashy, but he rarely makes mistakes and has become a staple on the Wild’s blueline.  One area where I think he could excel a bit more, however, is his physical play.  He’s not a small guy by any means, but he relies predominantly on his positioning to take players out of the play.  While this is extremely effective, the Wild’s blueline has been severely lacking in its physicality in recent seasons.  Schultz is one of those players that I would love to see step up that part of his game.  Grade: B

Kurtis Foster – 26 – D | 10 GP, 1 – 5 – 6, +7: Okay.  I’m going to be honest here.  I was going to give Foster a “passing” grade, simply because he was out for the vast majority of the season and came back from a pretty harrowing injury.  But that was before I actually looked at his stats.  6 points and plus-7 in 10 games is pretty darn impressive, let alone for someone returning from a serious injury.  Let’s clear one thing up right away.  Foster is never going to be a top-pairing, or even second-pairing defenseman.  Quite simply, he’s a solid d-man who can play 15-17 minutes a night and contribute offensively.  But that stat line at least gives him a little bump in his grade.  Grade: B-

John Scott – 36 – D | 20 GP, 0 – 1 – 1, -1: Scott was recently rewarded for his solid play for the team with a one-year contract and, quite honestly, he deserved it.  He came in and provided a physical presence on our blueline that we have never had and played quite admirably for us.  His skating needs to improve for next season if he’s going to have a shot of playing any sort of regular minutes and he may be looked at to be Boogaard-Lite for us next season.  Grade: C

Niklas Backstrom – 32 – G | 71 GP, 37-24-8, 2.33 GAA, .923 Sv %: Quite simply, on most nights Backstrom was the reason that we either a) won the game or b) were in the game.  He was spectacular this season and played his way into a handsome contract extension.  He also proved that he was one of the elite goalies in the league and should likely be in the running for the Vezina trophy.  There’s not much more that you can say about his season apart from this, as he was the reason we were as close to the playoffs as we were.  Grade: A

Josh Harding – 29 – G | 19 GP, 3-9-1, 2.21 GAA, .929 Sv %: You’ve got to feel for Harding.  On any other team he’d likely be starting by now, but he just happens to be stuck behind Backstrom.  Harding performed marvelously as the back up to Backstrom, though his wins and losses don’t necessarily reflect it.  He is still growing in his game, but looks as if he could easily step up and be a starting goaltender if need be.  Grade: B

So there you have it.  The season grades for the defense and goaltenders.  Check back here as I will have a season recap and my thoughts on this season in coming days!