What to watch on the Wild’s day off: Rangers v. Kings

So, the NHL season is started and it’s going to see us make a bit of a change to our schedule. We’ll obviously be keeping you appraised of all the goings on in the State of Hockey and the NHL, but one of the big changes you’ll see is that, on off days, we’ll be highlighting a NHL game that we think you should pay attention to because we think it’s going to be pretty fun to watch.

Before we get started, though, some cheap plugging (you should know by now I’m not above that):

Our Staff Predictions at HPT (Note: Mine are at the top because my opinions are most important, obviously, not because it’s alphabetical)
Building off of that, here are my East and West predictions for this season
Also, I simmed the playoffs in NHL ’12 based on my predictions.
And finally, my Three Stars from last night’s action.

* * * * *

We still like Willie here

Now that I’m done with my shameless self-promotion, it’s on to the game tonight that I think you all should be watching.

And that game is….. *drumroll*

New York Rangers vs. Los Angeles Kings

Why: Apart from the fact that it’s the lone televised game if you don’t have Center Ice (which I know all of you do), it’s because both the Rangers and the Kings have brought in some big new blood this off season, and this is your first chance to see them each in full action (we all know the preseason doesn’t really count).

When: The puck drops at 12pm CST on Versus

Marian Gaborik

He likes when people pass him the puck

What to Watch For: How will elite playmaker Brad Richards fit with enigmatic sniper (and favorite Wild Nation punching bag) Marian Gaborik? My guess is that it will be a pretty good fit, as Gaborik has never had a number one center the likes of Richards to work with and he’s not necessarily one that can create his own offense.

What Else: Henrik Lundqvist started at a turtle’s pace last season, but ended up being the hare at the end of the season with yet another spectacular year. Can King Henrik start out a bit quicker this season in front of his countrymen?

State of Hockey Connections: Apart from the obvious (you know, that guy that kept the number 10 warm for Devin Setoguchi), the Rangers feature three Minnesota natives – Derek Stepan (Hastings), Ryan McDonagh (St. Paul), and Michael Sauer (St. Cloud). Over in LA’s locker room, the Kings don’t have a single Minnesotan on their roster (one Wisconsinite, but we won’t hold that against them), and feature former Wild captain and fan favorite defenseman Willie Mitchell on their blue line.

Fun Fact: Teams that have opened in Europe have gone on to win the Stanley Cup in three consecutive seasons. So, you know, they’ve got that going for them.

Live Blog?: Alas, not this time. There will be plenty of time for that, my friends.

Quick Thoughts on Last Night’s Game

Wow, was that a wild one last night (no pun intended).

I don’t have time to go into it fully, so I’ll just give you some quick hits that I thought from the game. Feel free to discuss below!

-          I know he made 39 saves, but Jose Theodore just didn’t impress me last night. He gave up bad rebounds and just looked off all night. A lot of it is the same complaint that I’ve had of Theodore all season, as well. He just looks too casual in net, almost as if he’s not even trying…And that’s the problem, is that you get the impression that he just doesn’t care.

  • The enigma that is Martin Havlat continues. Havlat has looked fantastic all season long. Most games, he’s been the Wild’s best player. But last night, he looked lost and listless for most of the game and just wasn’t engaged all night long, as his minus-4 rating showed.
  • But as poor as Havlat was, man was Koivu good. His four assists tied a career high and he dominated play all night long. He created plays and he was just plain strong everywhere one the ice.
  • I’ve been extremely impressed with Pierre-Marc Bouchard since he returned from his concussion. He doesn’t look like he has any lingering after affects from the concussion and he’s actually playing like he was a few seasons ago. Butch has just eight points in 15 games, but he’s starting to find his legs and really get into it.
  • It sounds like the Wild will be without Marek Zidlicky for a while and this could actually be a blessing in disguise for the Wild. Yes, Zidlicky has been one of the team’s best defensemen all year long, but this injury means more power play time for Brent Burns, who has been one of the Wild’s best players all year long. Burns is killing it right now and he’s on pace for a career season that is just head and shoulders above any that he’s only going to be getting more ice time with Zidlicky out.

That’s it for this time, but I’ll be back tomorrow with a little longer article looking at the state of the Wild in the new year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predictions

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

1) Philadelphia Flyers
2) New Jersey Devils

3) Pittsburgh Penguins

4) New York Rangers
5) New York Islanders

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

Up Next: The Northeast Division

The 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 Product of Boredom: Top 5 Wild Games

Though the season is nearly here, there is still plenty of boredom to be had in the interim and even more boredom induced blogs.  I’ve already given you the top five forwards, defensemen and goalies in Wild history, so I figured it would be fitting to give you some discussion with the top five games in Wild history.  Just thinking about these games is getting me all forclempt…So talk amongst yourselves…

5)      October 11, 2000 | v. Philadelphia Flyers | Final Score: Wild 3 Flyers 3 – If you need to ask why, you’re probably not a Wild fan.  The Wild’s first ever regular season game in Minnesota was easily one of their most memorable as the team not only netted their first point in team history, but Minnesota native Darby Hendrickson notched the first ever goal on home ice.

4)      April 3, 2008 | v. Calgary Flames | Final Score: Wild 3 Flames 1 - With this victory, the Wild clinched their first ever (and only, to date) division title and notched Jacques Lemaire his 500th career victory.  After falling behind early, the Wild battled back with three straight goals (two by Marian Gaborik) to down their division rival Flames.

3)      December 17, 2000 | v. Dallas Stars | Final Score: Wild 6 Stars 0 - If there was any game in the Wild’s first season that was the most anticipated, it was this one.  Amidst chants of “Norm Green Sucks,” the former Minnesota North Stars returned to Minnesota to the not so friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center and the Wild made sure that they gave the fans a night they would remember.  On the strength of two-point nights by Gaborik, Hendrickson and Jeff Nielsen, and a 24 save performance by former Star Manny Fernandez, the Wild sent the raucous crowd home happy with not just a victory over the Stars, but an emphatic one at that.

2)      December 20, 2007 | v. New York Rangers| Final Score: Wild 6 Rangers 3 - Every once in a while, you see a performance that simply cannot be described.  That was this night for Marian Gaborik.  Gaborik posted the league’s first five goal game in 11 years and showed the entire NHL what he is capable of if he is fully healthy.  After notching a hat trick just 26 minutes into the game, Gaborik turned on the afterburners and helped lead the Wild to a very emphatic victory over the visiting Rangers, and a night that none will soon forget.

1)      April 22, 2003 | @ Colorado Avalanche | Final Score: Wild 3 Avalanche 2 OT – The Wild weren’t even supposed to be in the playoffs, let alone defeating the juggernaut that was the Colorado Avalanche, but the team accomplished both feats in one fell swoop in this game.  Behind what is arguably the single most memorable goal in Wild history, the team came back from behind twice in the game and Manny Fernandez was spectacular in backstopping the team to their most memorable victory in franchise history.

The Product of Boredom: Top 5 Wild Forwards

Yesterday’s foray into boredom saw us run down the top-five defensemen in Wild history, book ended by Nick Schultz and Brad Bombardir.  While the first two days of this venture were admittedly the easier of the three, today’s is one that will likely (or hopefully) spark some debate amongst Wild fans.  The Wild have, despite not having many superstars at the forward position, had players that have made important contributions to the franchise throughout their tenures with the Wild.  Players such as Pascal Dupuis, Antti Laaksonen and Richard Park all did not make this list, but all served as important pieces of the franchise during their time spent here.  But now, on to the list.

5) (tie) Brian Rolston – When Rolston came to the Wild, he was viewed as a solid, if not unspectacular player.  He had only notched three 20+ goal seasons prior to coming to the Wild and in only one of those did he top 30.  But there are times in a player’s career where everything just seems to click and make sense, and that happened to Rolston during his time with the Wild.  Scoring 30+ goals in each of his three seasons with the Wild and, for the first time, giving Lemaire a player that many gave serious consideration to giving the C on a permenant basis were just two of his many achievements with the team.  He helped solidify one of the top penalty kills in the league as well as bring a powerful presence to the powerplay.  While his stats declined every season he was with Minnesota, his importance to the team in both his heart and leadership did not.

5) (tie) Cal Clutterbuck – Now this is probably going to be the most contentious pick, but I couldn’t leave Cal off this list.  Call me a fanboy if you will, but you cannot discount the importance of what Clutterbuck brought to the Wild last season.  Never before in Wild history have they had a player whose energy could change the energy and momentum of the game in one shift, and that is exactly what Clutterbuck brought to the table last season.  Beyond that, he not only played a hard, physical game each night — he did it cleanly.  The importance of his season last year cannot be understated, as it finally introduced a team that was lacking in the grit category to a player who was most certainly not.

4) Andrew Brunette – There’s no way that you can have this list and not have the player who scored the single most important and greatest goal in Wild history to date.  Even if he had not made his way back to the team, Andrew Brunette would still remain on this list as one of the top forwards ever to don the Wild sweater.  His leadership and playmaking ability more than makes up for his lack of foot speed and he is one of the more durable members of the NHL (he played the second half of last season with a torn ACL).  Behind the net, there aren’t many in the NHL who have better puck control than Bruno and his vision on the ice is absolutely spectacular.

3) Mikko Koivu – What can you say about Koivu?  With the departure of Marian Gaborik, he is now the heart and soul of the Wild franchise and, to be quite honest, he moved into that position last season as well.  He plays a phenomenal two-way game and he is turning into one of the top centers, power forwards and defensive forwards in the game today.  He’s not flashy, but every so often, his determination will show through as he fights through player after player to get the puck to the net.  Last season was supposed to be the season that he put up gaudy numbers, playing alongside Gaborik.  It obviously didn’t work out that way, but look for this season to be even better as he plays in Richards’ system and with new addition Martin Havlat.

2) Wes Walz – If there was ever a player that epitomized Minnesota Wild hockey, it would be Wes Walz.  I’m a firm believer that the number 37 should be hung in the rafters, not just for what he did on the ice, but for what he brought to this team.  Walz came to the Wild an NHL journeyman and turned into one of the best defensive forwards that the NHL had at the time.  Always drawing the top line, Walz and Antti Laaksonen turned into one of the best penalty killing duos in the NHL and, after Laaksonen’s departure, Walz continued his checking ways.  He scored in spurts and never lost the offensive skill that he was drafted for initially, but he settled into a different role — one that didn’t always call on him to make the big play.  His tenure with the Wild could easily be summed up by his battle in the first round of the ’02-’03 playoffs with Peter Forsberg, as that battle ultimately led to the Wild winning the series.  Regardless of how he left the Wild, there’s no question that Walz left a lasting impression on the franchise and on the fans.

1) Marian Gaborik – As much as I wanted to, there’s no way I could have gotten around this.  Gaborik leads the team in every appreciable offensive category and, when he was healthy, was a catalyst for the team.  The Wild often went how number 10 went and, unfortunately, we never got to see a complete season with Gaborik.  His explosiveness was second to none on the Wild roster and he even began to mature in his two-way play during his time with the Wild.  Whether you liked him or you didn’t like him, you can’t deny that Gaborik is the top forward in the Wild’s history — so far.

Eight “Wild” Predictions

The off season is winding down and teams are, for the most part, set.  Soon everyone and their mothers will be coming out with season previews (myself included), but I’d like to get a head start on some of this — not with a season preview, but with some “Wild” predictions for this upcoming season.

1) The Minnesota Wild will have home ice for the first round of the playoffs.  Let’s be honest.  The Wild were just a few points from making the show last season…Without Marian Gaborik.  This season, they’ll get a healthy (we hope) Martin Havlat, along with growth from both Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and a full season from Brent Burns.  Throw Vezina finalist Niklas Backstrom in the mix and you have yourself the formula for a solid team.  It could honestly be stated that all four of the team’s division rivals either maintained the status quo, or got a little worse.  The Wild, meanwhile, have the looks of a team that could be poised to shoot out of the gate with a new superstar and a new, up-tempo system.  Not only that, they still have all of the key aspects from Lemaire’s system that made them so difficult to play against.  The Wild will be sitting atop the Northwest Division at the end of this season.

2) James Sheppard will have his breakout season.  It was supposed to be last season, but Lemaire’s gameplan just simply didn’t fit Shep’s style of play.  Under Todd Richards, he’ll be given the opportunity to be a little more aggressive, both on the forecheck and with the puck, and this should benefit in a large upswing in his point production.  He’ll be given second line duties, likely between Nolan and Bouchard and that should greatly help both his confidence and his numbers.

3) Owen Nolan will lead the team in goals.  If he’s healthy, Nolan is still the dynamic goal scorer he once was.  He proved that last season with 25 goals in 59 games.  If he plays a whole season (which I believe he will), Nolan will top the 40 goal mark for the third time in his career.

4) Josh Harding will finish the season with the Wild.  Let’s face it.  If he hasn’t been traded by now, he’s not going to be.  Unless Fletcher gets a killer deal for the young goalie, he’s going to stay in Iron Range Red at least through this season.  The more I think about it, the more the signing of Dubie as the team’s third string goalie was much more about an insurance plan for Backstrom’s hip and much less about giving the Wild the luxury of being able to trade Harding.  The Wild are looking to make a push towards the playoffs again this season and Harding backing Backstrom up gives them the best opportunity to do just that.

5) Benoit Pouliot will actually make a difference.  It’s do or die for Benny Poo this season.  Last season was supposed to be the season where he proved that he was a 4th overall draft pick and, instead, he found himself set squarely in Lemaire’s doghouse.  This season, I would put his odds at making the team at about 90%, meaning that he’ll have the opportunity to show his stuff in a system that will allow him to be a little bit more creative with the puck.  My guess?  He’ll flourish under Richards’ system and show the promise that caused the Wild to draft him 4th overall.

6) Marian Gaborik won’t play at the Xcel Energy Center this season.  Initially, your reaction might be “No **** Sherlock,” until you remember that the New York Rangers are scheduled to visit Minnesota this season.  Why do I think that Gaborik won’t be healthy for his visit to Minnesota?  Easy.  In terms of a mathematical equation, it’s as follows: League’s Weakest Groin + League’s Worst Ice = x.  I’ll let you fill in what x equals.

7) Jacques Lemaire will win in his return to Minnesota.  There is no one who knows this Wild team better than Lemaire does.  Because of that, there is no one who is better equipped to beat the Wild than Lemaire is.  He knows the players’ tendencies and he knows how to stop them.  Plain and simple…The Wild haven’t changed their identity enough for them to beat Lemaire…Yet.

8) The Wild will be much more fun to watch this season.  Sure, this seems at first like a gimme statement.  But, honestly, I enjoyed watching the team under Lemaire.  The reason WHY I’m saying they’ll be more fun to watch is because of two free agent signings — Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy.  These two players give the Wild a physical element on their blueline that they haven’t had in a long, long time.  Teams are going to have to keep their heads up in the neutral zone, plain and simple.  And if they don’t?  Well…That’ll be pretty fun to watch.

Wild Schedule Released

For a complete version, click here.

The NHL has released the schedules for the upcoming season today.  Here are some of the highlights for the Wild. 

  • The Wild’s season opener will be on October 3, against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
  • Their home opener will be against one of Chuck Fletcher’s former teams, the Anaheim Ducks, on October 6.
  • The team starts the year with a very road-heavy schedule, playing nine of their first fourteen games on the road.
  • The Wild play fifteen sets of back-to-back games.  In other words, 37% of their games are back-to-back sets.
  • Marian Gaborik returns to Minnesota on October 30, while Jacques Lemaire returns on January 2.
  • The team will play home-and-home series against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Carolina.
  • Three of the team’s last five games are on the road against Division Rivals.
  • Todd Richards will return to San Jose on October 10, Martin Havlat will return to Chicago on October 26 and Chuck Fletcher will return to Pittsburgh on October 31.
  • Training camp will open on September 13 and pre-season games will be announced at a later date.

Wild Roster Set?

By all accounts, the Wild may very well be done in free agency after missing out on coveted free agent center, Saku Koivu. 

Koivu’s spurning of the Wild screamed with a “big brother looking out for little brother” vibe and, honestly, it’s very hard to begrudge the elder Koivu brother for his reasoning.  But, missing out on the elder Koivu has left us with a very gaping hole in the middle of our line up that the Wild may now be filling from within.  Wild General Manager, Chuck Fletcher, has repeatedly stated that he would look within the organization to fill the second line center spot if Koivu was not landed, and he likely will.  You can hardly blame him for doing so either, as the remainder of the free agent crop down the middle is fairly thin.

First, you’ve got the NHL’s answer to Brett Favre in Mats Sundin.  Yes, he showed up looking more like Kyle Wellwood than his former self when he played with Vancouver, but once he got his legs under him, he was very silently effective.  The problem is, that I think he’s still on the phone with Domino’s trying to figure out what toppings he wants on his pizza for dinner last week.  Sundin’s best days are easily behind him and there’s no reason for the Wild to be barking up this tree.  Next, you’ve got the ageless Robert Lang who was quietly having a solid season for Montreal last season when his achilles tendon got sliced up by a skate blade.  Again, there’s no reason to take a waiver on a player who is coming off of an injury that could easily be a career altering injury for a player in his early 20′s, let alone late 30′s.  Following Lang is the enigmatic Mike Duff…I mean, Comrie.  Don’t get me wrong.  I would love to have Hillary Duff present for 41 Wild home games a year…But it’s just not going to happen.  No way, no how.  Fletch has already stated that Comrie wasn’t an option and, honestly, I don’t see the benefit of paying a guy upwards of $3M per year just because he’s got some nice arm candy coming along with him.

That leaves the Wild fairly scant for options on their second line.  Barring a trade, the Wild look more and more like they’re going to be content to go with the cards that they’ve been dealt.  That means one of the following for their second line center.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard - Bouchard will likely get another look at the pivot in Richards’ system.  It likely won’t be nearly as physically demanding as Lemaire’s center position was, so it could be a good fit for Butch.  The problem I have with this is that I very much enjoyed seeing Butch setting up on the sideboards as opposed to down low.  As a center, he would have to play down low much more and, despite having some of the best puck control in the game, I don’t think he’s got the physicality in his game to do so.

James Sheppard - Oh how I would love for this to actually be a working solution.  Of all our first round prospects, Sheppard has flashed the most potential.  Every once in a while, he would forget himself over the last couple seasons and attempt something absolutely brilliant with the puck.  Then, right in the middle of it, he would come to his senses and not finish the move.  Yes…That is a very great deal of snark coming from my direction, but it is well deserved.  Sheppard has the most untapped potential of any player on the Wild’s roster.  You can see that he’s got the talent — he’s just been afraid to use it.  This season could easily be a break out season for Shep and, if that happens, he’ll be squarely in the middle of the second line for us.

Owen Nolan - This one may be thinking outside of the box just a little, but Nolan was one of our most reliable in the face off circle last season.  Not only that…But, come on…He’s Owen Nolan for crying out loud!  If he wants to play center, he’ll play center.  All kidding aside, Nolan brings a lot of things to the ice that other people, quite simply, don’t.  Apart from the amazing amount of talent that he has, his intangibles are absolutely invaluable.  The Wild could certainly do a lot worse than having him anchoring our second line.  Besides…I hear that every night before he goes to bed, the boogyman checks his closet for Owen Nolan.

Kyle Brodziak – This could be a bit of a stretch, but if Brodziak has the upside that Fletcher and Richards seem to think he does, he could turn into a plesant surprise.  Fletcher said in acquiring him that he had an offensive upside, so if he gets with the right people, he could really flourish.

Benoit Pouliot - Good old Benny Poo.  To be honest, I was surprised that the Wild qualified him — but, I suppose he might warrent a chance in a system that allows him to use all of his offensive creativity.  If the Wild signs him to anymore than a 1-year deal, I’ll be very surprised, as it is most definitely put up or shut up time for Pouliot this season.  A solid performance could see him move steadily up the depth chart, while more invisible performances could see him sink slowly into obscurity

Gaborik-Gate 2009
Okay.  Let’s get one thing out here, right off the bat.  I’m glad that Marian Gaborik has taken his services to the Rangers.  I am very much looking forward to not seeing him in Iron Range Red again.  There was no doubt that the team was better with him on the ice than off — but the biggest problem remained that he was rarely on the ice over the past few seasons and, when he was, it was a crapshoot as to whether we’d get the 5-goal game Marian Gaborik or, as some Wild faithful have taken to calling him, Gho$t.

So the current drama of Gaborik (yes, we still are entrenched in drama surrounding him even though he’s gone) is that the Wild never offered him a contract.  Really?  Fans are really upset that Gaborik’s paper towel groin is heading to some of the worst ice in the NHL for 41 games a season?  The bottom line is this: the Wild had holes to fill and Gaborik would have had to take a paycut for them to do so.  That wasn’t going to happen.  Not with Ronnie $alcer running things and certainly not with Marian Gaborik’s inflated sense of self worth pedigree. 

The most important thing in the NHL right now is cap flexibility.  The Wild will have that.  Martin Havlat signed with us for less than he was being offered elsewhere.  That is the type of player we want — one who wants to be here.  Not a player who we have to trade away a top prospect and draft pick for his “best friend” to play here.  Not a player who won’t budge on his contract demands, despite claiming he wants to remain here.  That’s what’s important.

Havlat’s statement on his Twitter account that he won’t let Minnesota fans down is a statement that we as fans aren’t used to hearing from our superstars…And it’s about time the State of Hockey gets a superstar befitting of the State.  It wasn’t Marian Gaborik — but we’ll see if it will be Martin Havlat.

And So Ends the Marian Gaborik Era…

5 years, $7.5M per year.

Does anyone else think this is either going to make Glen Sather look like a genius or an idiot?

Truth be told, I’m glad to be rid of the distraction that has been Marian Gaborik.  From his frequent injury troubles, to his often inflated contract demands, Gaborik has been nothing but a thorn in the Wild’s side over the last few seasons and, I am glad to say, that he is now the New York Rangers’ problem.

Truth be told, this could work out very, very well for the Rags.  When at his best, Gaborik is a dynamic winger that can score with the best of them.  The Rangers witnessed that first hand.  When at his worst, however, Gaborik is oftentimes invisible in all three zones.  The biggest problem with the enigma that is Marian Gaborik?  He’s at his worst more often than not — or at least he was with Minnesota.

Don’t get me wrong.  Marian Gaborik is a fantastic player and has the potential to be a star in this league.  But $7.5M for one extremely good season?  I don’t buy it, not one bit.  If he’s healthy (and he claims he is), he’ll notch 75-85 points for the Rangers…And I doubt he’ll get much more.  Don’t get me wrong…That’s fantastic.  It’s certainly something that the Wild could use on their roster.  But the problem is that now, he has no excuses.  He’s had surgery on both of his hips — that should take care of his groin.  He’s no longer playing under Jacques Lemaire — he can no longer fall back on a defensive system as a crutch.  He’s got support around him — Chris Drury and company should help him shoulder the load.

Will Gaborik flourish or wilt?

I, personally, think that he’s a 80-85 point player, not the 100+ point player everyone seems to think he is.

But I’ve been proved wrong before.

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