UPDATED: Wild demote two, recall four

You know that something that I keep saying has to give?

Well, the Wild have sent down Casey Wellman and David McIntyre to the AHL, per Kent Youngblood via Twitter.

So, basically, something’s changing whether it’s someone coming in from the outside or someone coming up from Houston and, while someone coming up from the AHL might not necessarily be as noteworthy as someone coming in from elsewhere, a change is a change and the Wild are certainly a team in desperate need of just that right now.

After storming out of the gates, Wellman has looked lost the last few games and McIntyre, while he’s had good moments, has really looked like an AHLer playing against NHLers.

So, is this a precursor to a bigger move?

I’d like to think so but, truthfully, it’s hard to tell until something has happened. Keep it here and we’ll have updates for you as the situation warrants.

UPDATE: Per Kent Youngblood, Matt Kassian, Jed Ortmeyer, Chad Rau and Nate Prosser are all on their way up from Houston.

Gameday Thread: Preds smash into St. Paul

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

Why?

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

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

But it’s cool nonetheless.

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

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

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

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

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

Lineup

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

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

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

Backstrom between the pipes.

Burning Questions

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

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

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

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

Stoner, Zanon both out on Saturday (Updated)

UPDATE: Well, that was quick. According to View From The Lighthouse, Nate Prosser will be the defenseman to get the call. He’s a good middle ground between Genoway and Bagnall and he has some good experience at the NHL level (remember, even though he only played three games back in the ’09-’10 season, he spent a good chunk of time practicing with the team). Prosser is expected to get the call tomorrow and be in town in time for the game.

So, with two of the Wild’s top defensemen out with injury and Mike Lundin still nursing a back injury, the question quickly becomes: Who fills in?

Well, let’s look at the candidates, shall we?

Nate Prosser

Prosser has seen time at the NHL level and he’s started to learn how to use that big body of his down in Houston. He looked pretty good this preseason, but ultimately it was felt that he could use a little more time down in the AHL getting much more ice time than he would have in Minnesota (where he would have been finding himself in the press box more often than not).  Even in his short time in the NHL (5 games played), Prosser really hasn’t looked out of place and his abilities as a puck-mover could definitely be an asset to the team.

Tyler Cuma

I’m probably as high on Cuma as anyone out there. The kid can flat out play. Unfortunately, injuries have hampered his development and he ended up being passed on the depth chart by fellow 2008 draft pick, Marco Scandella. Cuma’s got a great upside as a shutdown defenseman (think Nick Schultz style) and he makes great decisions with the puck. The down side for bringing Cuma in at this point is that he’s a number one draft pick, who would be playing his first NHL game at home, against the Detroit Red Wings. There’s never really a “good” situation for a player to make their NHL debut in terms of nerves, but this could be one of the worst situations out there.

Chay Genoway

Genoway made an impression in camp and has been playing well down in Houston. He doesn’t have a lot of size, but he has a lot of offensive ability and he’s not afraid to battle. He has some growing left to do, but he could be a good choice — especially if the Wild are looking for someone who might be able to chip in offensively.

Drew Bagnall

Bagnall is a bruiser, plain and simple. He’s not going to contribute much offensively, but he’s going to be that defenseman that wears teams out down low. With the losses of both Stoner and Zanon, we very well might see Bagnall, who has a little more pro experience (not NHL, just pro) than his aforementioned counterparts, get the nod due to his physicality.

At the end of the day, it could be any of these four or it could be someone completely different. It all depends on what the Wild are looking for. The move will likely be made later today and it’s rumored that Clayton Stoner will be going on the IR to make room, so whoever gets the nod could be here for more than one game.

In any event, we’ll be back and let you know as soon as we know anything.

Wild trim roster to 28.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, basically, here’s our depth chart:

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

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

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

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

Goalies (2):
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding

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

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

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

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

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

Prosser has had a great camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

Preseason Gameday Thread: vs. Columbus

Minnesota/Columbus has started to turn into a pretty fierce rivalry of late.

So we’ll combine the roster and the game day threads again today, since I’m pressed for time again, but here it is. Wild fans finally get to see the line they’ve been waiting to see tonight, against Columbus.

Per Wild.com:

Devin SetoguchiMikko KoivuDany Heatley
Darroll PoweKyle BrodziakCal Clutterbuck
Kris Foucault – Zack PhillipsBrett Bulmer
David McIntyreChad RauBrad Staubitz

Chay Genoway – Kris Fredheim
Greg ZanonMarek Zidlicky
Marco ScandellaNate Prosser

Josh Harding will start in goal with Darcy Kuemper serving as the backup.

So, we’ll see the first and third lines in action tonight (just like Russo promised), but we’re also going to get to see the Foucault/Phillips/Bulmer line again. It looks like they might have done enough to make Mike Yeo want a second look at them, which is very encouraging.

No real surprises otherwise. Eden Prairie native Chad Rau gets his first action of the preseason, as does Kris Fredheim and Darcy

Minnesota will look to keep their momentum going

Kuemper.

No inside information here, but it looks to me like Marco Scandella and Nate Prosser might be the front runners for the extra defensive spot as they get the nod again. It will be interesting to see how they respond, especially since they likely won’t be seeing the ice time they did last game with Zanon and Zidlicky in the line up.

For comparison’s sake, here’s the Jackets’ roster, again per Wild.com:

Forwards: Jeff Carter, Maksim Mayorov, Vinny Prospal, Derek MacKenzie, Ryan Russell, Cody Bass, Cam Atkinson, Nick Drazenovic, Oliver Gabriel, Antoine Vermette, Rick Nash, Adam Payerl

Defensemen: Radek Martinek, Aaron Johnson, Kris Russell, James Wisniewski, Dalton Prout, Fedor Tyutin, Anton Blomqvist, Steve Delisle

Goaltenders: Curtis Sanford and Allen York

Some questions to ponder and discuss for tonight’s game:

How will Yeo’s chemistry experiment go with the de facto first line of the team? Will Setoguchi, Heatley and Koivu mesh well?

Foucault, Phillips and Bulmer are all getting another look. Will they impress again?

How much will Harding play? Will he get the full two periods tonight to see where his knee is at?

Scandella, Prosser and Chay Genoway are all getting another look. How will they fare?

Can the Wild finally put everything together and outshoot their opponent now that they have their big firepower in the line up?

Can the Wild contain the Jackets’ big line of Prospal/Nash/Carter?

Wild.com will have live in-game commentary and you can listen to the game here. The puck drops at 7pm from the Xcel Energy Center.

Baby Wild down St. Louis 1-0

Hackett makes a save on Jonathan Cheechoo

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

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

Peters scored the lone goal for Minnesota

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

So, some thoughts on the game:

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

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

Nate Prosser checks Alex Steen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

Spurgeon leads Wild to 4-3 win over Oilers

Spurgeon jockeys for position with Ryan Jones in front of the net

I don’t want to get your hopes up and say that this is an indication of how Jared Spurgeon’s season is going to be, but Tuesday’s game against Edmonton was certainly an encouraging sign.

Spurgeon put book ends on a game that saw the Wild let a three-goal lead slip through their fingers and potted the winning goal with just under two minutes to go in the game to give Minnesota their first exhibition win over an NHL team since the 2009-10 season.

Sure, it’s an exhibition game and it doesn’t mean much, but boy does it feel good.

I listened to the game on the radio, so I can’t speak to a ton of the game, but here’s what I noticed by listening:

Kassian and Hordichuk go toe-to-toe (or skate-to-skate)

  • The Latendresse/Cullen/Bouchard line was on point tonight. Some good scoring chances and a combined four points and plus-five on the night. Easily the Wild’s best line all night long, including an absolutely beautiful snipe by Pierre-Marc Bouchard (which I can say because I saw it on NHL On the Fly). Butch just picked his corner and went for it and Khabibulin never had a chance.
  • Harding was very good in his first game back. He played about 30 minutes, give or take, and stopped 14 of 15 shots. Even Mike Yeo thought so, calling Harding’s return and play “Unbelievable.” (Thanks to Russo for that quote from the big guy). The encouraging news? After a shaky start to the game, Hackett was just as good. He gave up two goals in his first six minutes in the game, but really settled down and helped keep the score even for the rest of the way.
  • The Wild are obviously still getting used to Yeo’s system, as evidenced by the second period. The first and third periods, the shots were 7-7 and 9-7 respectively, but the second period the shots were 17-5 in favor of Edmonton. Credit also has to go to Yeo for getting the team settled down after a horrible second period and getting them refocused. Again, an encouraging sign.
  • Matt Kassian, who I’m making no bones about my hopes that he makes the squad this season, came out with a brilliant display of pugilism. He absolutely hammered Darcy Hordichuk after Hordichuk took a run at Nate Prosser, then dropped Hordichuk with three big punches.
  • Jordan Hendry took a step back, in my opinion, but not a huge one. He played good hockey for two periods but had an abysmal second. I feel like he’ll get a couple more chances, but he’s got to play a steady game to make the squad.

As far as my questions go, let’s take a look, shall we?

David McIntyre braces for the face-off against Anton Lander

Will Josh Harding be the same goalie that we’re used to? Or will his string of injuries adversely affect him? Yes and no, respectively. Harding was rock solid in this one.

Will the line of Guillaume Latendresse, Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard be as dominant as they were during the scrimmages this past weekend? I wouldn’t necessarily call them dominant, but they were very, very good all night long. Exactly what the team wants from its second line.

How will the team’s youngsters fare (Jarod Palmer, Brett Bulmer, David McIntyre, Matthew Hackett)? Palmer had a goal, Bulmer annoyed everyone on the other team and Hackett rebounded from a rocky start to have a pretty good game. McIntyre wasn’t really noticeable, at least on the radio, but for a youngster that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. All-in-all, I thought the Wild’s youngsters had a pretty decent game.

Will Jordan Hendry continue to make a positive impression during his tryout? Yes and no. He had two pretty good periods, like I mentioned, but really had a rough second period. For a defenseman with over 100 games of NHL experience, that’s not the type of game that’s going to win you a contract. He’ll get some more opportunities, but he needs to rebound from this to make the squad in my opinion.

Can Clayton Stoner and Jared Spurgeon grab a hold of that lightning in a bottle that saw them both have impressive seasons in their own rights last season? Yes. Both definitely did this. Stoner played his game. He was physical, he was in great position all night long and he blocked shots. Everything that would be asked of him. For Spurgeon, he was the team’s best d-man all night long and he looked dynamic on both sides of the puck.

That’s all for right now, but I may be back later today. It’s my daughter’s birthday, so we’re going to go do whatever it is that she wants to do. The Wild are back in action on Thursday against the Blues, so I’ll update you with their roster as soon as I have it.

Photos Courtesy of Getty Images

The Monday Mailbag: 8/1/11

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

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

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

* * * * *

Blake,

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

Dale
Little Canada, MN

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

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

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

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

Scandella will have every chance to make the roster

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

Blake,

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

Linda
New Brighton, MN

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

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

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

* * * * *

Blake,

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

Rich
Duluth, MN

Short answer, Rich, yes. He is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Nation’s No Longer Ridiculously Early Season Previews: The Northwest Division

It wasn’t long ago that the Northwest Division was one of the toughest divisions in the NHL.

The 2002-03 season saw four of its five teams qualify for the playoffs and, up until the 2008-09 season, the division qualified at least three of its teams for the playoffs every season.

The last two seasons, however, have seen an interesting disparity in the division begin to arise and it’s now become a matter of the haves versus the have-nots. Last season saw two teams pick in the top-10 and would have seen one more in the top-15 had Calgary not sold its soul to Phoenix for Olli Jokinen.

The season before saw both Minnesota and Edmonton starting out in the top-15 as well; needless to say, the division’s competitiveness is waning at the moment.

So how will they match up this season?

Calgary Flames – Flames General Manager Daryl Sutter is either going to be lauded as a genius or be burnt in effigy following this season.

Sutter has been largely ineffective at running the team in a salary cap world and has found himself forced up against the cap more often than not and has seen his team go from one that was one win away from winning the Stanley Cup to one that is struggling to keep their heads above water and is no longer a shoe-in to make the playoffs.

Sutter responded to missing the playoffs by bringing in two players that were largely ineffective in their previous stints in Calgary. First, there’s Olli Jokinen, who quickly feel out of favor after a solid stint with the team after being traded there but didn’t seem suited for the new system that Brent Sutter brought with him to the team. Then there’s Alex Tanguay who returns to the team after two seasons away. Tanguay was, again, effective in his first season with the Flames as a point-per-game player under Jim Playfair, but when Mike Keenan came in Tanguay just couldn’t find his stride.

IF these two players can find their form with the Flames and Jarome Iginla can prove that last season’s 69 point performance was an aberration, this could be an effective team. But these two players have been in decline over the past few seasons leaving many to question whether or not their best days are behind them.

On defense, the Flames are anchored by Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regher. Bouwmeester, last season, seemed to not be able to cope with the added pressure of being in a hockey-crazed town such as Calgary but will have a big opportunity to rebound with his first full season as Calgary’s top defenseman with Dion Phaneuf now in Toronto.

Regher, meanwhile, will provide the same thing that he always has – a hard-nosed, gritty defenseman. He’s not going to put up the gaudy numbers of Mike Green, but he’s the type of heart and soul guy that can really help a team out.

Past Bouwmeester and Regher, the Flames can turn to Mark Giordano and Ian White, both of whom had terrific seasons with the Flames last season and are looking to build on their solid seasons. Giordano put up career highs in nearly every statistical category and proved that he was capable of being the defenseman that the Flames thought he could be when they signed him in 2004. White, meanwhile, was probably the best cog that the Flames received in their trade for Phaneuf. White put up 12 points in 27 games en route to a career season split between the Leafs and the Flames. If he can continue that performance in 2010, there’s no doubt the Flames could have a formidable blueline.

In net, the Flames will again rest their hopes squarely on the shoulders of Miikka Kiprusoff.

Since coming over from San Jose, Kipper has been a mainstay in net for the Flames and seemed to return to form last season after two subpar years. While Kipper may have led the league in losses last season, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying as his goals against average and save percentage were the best they’d been since the ’06-’07 season.

What the Flames have to manage, though, is whether or not Kipper is able to handle the amount of games that he’ll be getting in net. Behind him will be Henrik Karlsson, who the team signed in the off season. Karlsson played marvelously for Farjestad last season and the hope is that he’ll provide a better back up option than Vesa Toskala.

The pieces are all ready for the Flames this season and the hope is that they will all fall into place. If they do, they could be contending for the Division crown once again. But, if they don’t as many fear that they won’t, they’ll be a bubble team for the playoffs once again.

Colorado Avalanche – There are a lot of questions surrounding the Colorado Avalanche this season.

First and foremost is whether or not last season’s run to the playoffs was a fluke or whether this team is the real deal.

The team returns every single one of their key players from their playoff run last year and, with $18 million in cap space, has a lot of wiggle room to improve their roster throughout the season.

The forward crew will again be quite young and inexperienced, though not as inexperienced as last season. The big question marks will be whether or not their key forwards can replicate their impressive seasons that they had last year.

Chris Stewart is freshly signed and looking to build on his breakout season, which is the first extremely impressive season of his pro career. The fact that 17 of his 28 goals came in the second half of the season, however, is very promising and he’s certainly going to get his share of ice time.

In addition to Stewart, both Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene should continue to improve, though Stastny will be looked upon to set up some of the team’s goal scorers more than he’ll be expected to score himself. Look for Duchene, however, to take his next step towards being one of the league’s top superstars heading into his sophomore season. He likely won’t be as explosive as Steve Stamkos was in his second year, but Duchene will certainly get the job done for the Avs.

Peter Mueller is likely not as productive as his 20 points in 15 games last season suggests, but it does show that he is as explosive as they come. If he can carry a hot streak through a good part of the season, he could have a productive season for the Avs and give them another scoring threat.

On defense, the team has two kinds of defensemen — either ones who are extremely mobile or ones who are barely able to take the ice without the use of a walker.

All kidding aside, the Avs have a couple defensemen that are certainly either starting or in the waning of their career in Scott Hannan and Adam Foote. The good news, though, is that these two are both character players and both able to impart good leadership and good knowledge on the younger players of the team.

Past them, they have John-Michael Liles, who is good for 30-plus points and also good for a headache for any fan of the team watching. Players like Kyle Quincey and Kyle Cumiskey are still growing and are looking like they could turn into top flight defensemen for the organization.

In net, it’s pretty safe to say that Craig Anderson has answered all questions about his ability to perform. Last season was really his coming out party, as he finally had success in a full time starter’s role. That success will likely continue on into this season as the team has had barely any turnover from last season.

If Anderson can stay healthy and their young players can continue their progression and don’t have any major steps backwards, it’s safe to say that the Avs could once again be in the thick of things in the playoff race.

Edmonton Oilers – Well, there’s good news on the horizon for Edmonton fans.

The Oilers can only get better, because they certainly can’t get much worse.

To say that last season was a disaster for Edmonton would be an understatement, to say the least. The franchise had their lowest point total since the 1992-93 season and their lowest point percentage total since the 1980-81 season.

Suffice it to say, it was a bad year.

I’m sorry to say that this season probably won’t be much better, but I can say that it will be better.

Young guns Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Jordan Eberle will be on the roster this season and will get plenty of time to show what they can do. Will any of the there be rookie sensations the like of Crosby or Ovechkin? Probably not. But they will be upgrades over what the Oilers had last season and that is something that fans should take heart in.

In addition to their big three, the Oilers will also get a full season from Ales Hemsky, which likely would have helped them tremendously last season. Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Gilbert Brule all missed time due to injuries last season which likely would have made a serious impact on the team. With Hemsky fully healthy and playing on Gagner’s wing, and likely across from Dustin Penner, the forward unit will be a much improved unit over last season’s.

On defense the team is still looking to move the albatross contract of Sheldon Souray, but the good news is that they have a serviceable defensive unit behind him.

Ryan Whitney and newcomer (and underrated free agency signing) Kurtis Foster will find themselves manning the point on the powerplay and players like Jim Vandermeer and Tom Gilbert add a bit of character to the blueline. Ladislav Smid and Jason Strudwick also provide a bit of oomph on the back end, but the unit will have to get better at limiting opponents scoring chances, on a whole, if the team is going to climb from the cellar.

One of the biggest questions will be in net.

Namely, will Nikolai Khabibulin be healthy enough (or free enough) to reclaim his duty as starting goaltender and give the team some stability in net.

If he is it gives the team somewhat of a luxury that they haven’t had in recent years – the ability to relax and know that their goaltender will be there and, at times, be able to bail them out.

If he’s not, however, the team is back to the uncertainty of a goalie tandem of Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk – something that I don’t imagine any fan is looking forward to.

As I said previously, this season isn’t going to be great for the Oilers. They still have a way to go to get back to the level of an elite team. But it will be a great improvement over last season – and that’s a start.

Minnesota Wild – How much longer will the State of Hockey tolerate a sub-par team on the ice?

Well, if things don’t go well this season, owner Craig Leipold may very well find out.

Last season was an unbelievable disappointment for Wild fans and the fact that the team had a point percentage of above .500% for the eighth straight season was little consolation.

But, the good news is that the old regime’s players are beginning to cycle through and be replaced by players that are more conducive to the new style of play that the team is aspiring towards.

Added to the roster are Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and John Madden – three players that are both talented and gritty. Cullen will be expected to fill in the ever elusive second-line center role that the team has been searching for now for years and will likely be slotted in between Guillaume Latendresse and Martin Havlat.

Now the team’s lack of success isn’t to say that they don’t have talent up front, but there are far too many question marks to be able to concretely say that they are going to be a top team.

If Latendresse can continue to perform like he did last season (25 goals in 55 games for Minnesota) and if Havlat can find the form that caused Minnesota to sign him to a lucrative free agency contract, it’s certainly going to be a welcome addition.

On top of these two, the biggest question mark up front lies on the performance of Pierre-Marc Bouchard. When healthy, Bouchard can be one of the game’s elite playmakers, but he has struggled with injuries for the last season and a quarter and his production has not been up to par because of that. Last season, he missed the entire year with a concussion, but he has been scrimmaging at pro camps leading up to training camp and he will likely play at some point this season, though it is not known when.

If he can come back and play his game, he will certainly be a difference maker on the ice.

On defense, again, the team is faced with injury questions.

Brent Burns had a breakout season three seasons ago, but the last two years he has been mired with injury and inconsistency. If he can return to the player that he is capable of being, he will be a dangerous force on Minnesota’s blueline. If he doesn’t, though, he becomes little more than a defensive liability and a player that the team is reluctant to turn to when the going gets tough.

The Wild will also be hoping that defenseman Cam Barker can find his game again after a subpar performance last season. Barker is certainly better than his 21 point season indicated, but he will have to find that offensive mind frame and physical edge if he is to make an impact.

Also up in the air is the Wild’s sixth defensive spot.

Currently, it is thought that the spot will go to a younger defenseman – Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella are all names that have been mentioned. The biggest concern, however, is that these three only have a handful of NHL games between them and, though they have performed well at times, none have the body of work that would lead one to think that they could handle a full season.

In net, the Wild are again looking at the familiar duo of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, but that is not to say that there are not questions there.

Harding started slow last season, but gained his legs late and helped steady the boat when Backstrom was underperforming. Backstrom, on the other hand, struggled much of last season and a lot of that is being attributed to the fact that the team’s system is no longer as goalie friendly as it once was.

I, for one, don’t believe that Backstrom is nearly as bad as he looked last season and, with a little help I believe he could be right back where he was in seasons past. He’s a good goaltender that was, unfortunately, not given much help last season and I would look for him to rebound with a better season this year.

Overall, I don’t see the Wild contending for a playoff spot this season. While they have talent, not all of the players are in place for them to make a playoff push. That being said, they do have talent and if everything falls into place I could easily be proved wrong.

Vancouver Canucks – It may be the pre season, but the hype machine is already in full swing for the ‘Nucks.

It started with Roberto Luongo stepping down as the team’s captain and, as training camps begin, the Canucks are again one of the front runners to make a move deep into the playoffs. But will they be able to shake the monkey off their backs and make it to the Stanley Cup Finals?

At forward, the mantra will likely be maintain.

The team returns most all of their key forwards from last season, but the biggest question will be whether or not their top three can keep it going. Henrik Sedin is one year removed from a remarkable career season, and his brother Daniel would have been right there with him were it not for injury. Ryan Kesler put up career numbers last season. Now, the question that needs to be answered is was that their ceiling or are they capable of repeating.

With the Sedins, I’d be tempted to say that they are very capable of repeating. The two have long been one of the most potent duos in the league and that isn’t likely to change. Will it be another 100-plus point season for one, or both of them? Probably not. But I don’t think that another very strong performance by the two is out of the question.

Kesler, however, may have hit his peak at 75 points – a respectable number, to be sure. The team is deep in scoring, but will need Mikael Samuelsson to continue his scoring ways, as he scored more than 20 goals for just the second time in his career. On top of that, they will look at Mason Raymond to take on an increased role and continue his development.

The addition of Manny Malhotra will help the team’s checking line and their penalty kill, but won’t be much more than that. But that’s also why he was brought in. He’s a reliable checker and a solid penalty killer, which will only help the Canucks this season.

On defense, the team addressed their significant lack of grit the last couple years by bringing in Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis. Along with Bieksa, Salo, Edler and Ehrhoff, the ‘Nucks top-six defensemen all make over $3 million and, with the team $3 million over the cap heading into the season, will likely need to move one of them.

But, that being said, Hamhuis and Ballard are a huge upgrade over their previous defensive unit and the team certainly is looking better on the blueline than they have in previous seasons. With that being a huge concern for the Canucks, their fans should no longer be worried. This is a defensive unit, regardless of whether or not a move is made, that can handle the physical play of clubs bigger and stronger than them and will help protect Roberto Luongo much better.

Speaking of Luongo, he’s once again in net for the Cancucks in potentially the most uninteresting portion of the team to talk about.

Luongo’s in net, Schnieder’s behind him. There’s no question about the performance of either of the two and there’s no uncertainty about anything that is going on here. The only thing that could derail them in net is injuries, but that isn’t typically a concern of Bobby Lou.

Overall, this is the easiest to call. The Canucks will be back in the playoffs, just like they will win the division again. There aren’t any questions about any of these things.

Predictions

Alright. Here we go. This is how I think the Northwest will shape up:

1) Vancouver Canucks
2) Calgary Flames
3) Colorado Avalanche
4) Minnesota Wild
5) Edmonton Oilers

To be honest, the only for sure playoff team in this division is the Canucks. Both the Flames and Avs are bubble teams, though I could see both making the playoffs if everything aligns.

Up Next: The Pacific Division

Well, two more down last night. 

At this point, the Wild might be better off calling up the entirety of the Houston Aeros franchise…You know…To protect their regulars from what has become the Curse of the Wild this season. 

Last night in Calgary, the Wild were already down six regulars who, for those keeping score at home, are Martin Havlat, Guillaume Latendresse, Owen Nolan, Andrew Ebbett, Marek Zidlicky and Nick Schultz. 

Or, in statistical terms… 

35 percent of their goals and 35 percent of their assists. 

Them’s some pretty big shoes to fill. 

So, you’re missing four of your top ten scorers, not to mention your regular backup goalie. Couldn’t get much worse, right? 

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeell… 

After last night’s game, we’re now down two more players.  Niklas Backstrom, who took a slapshot to the throat early in the third period, left the game and would not return despite his attempts to the contrary and James Sheppard left with a knee injury following a check from Robyn Regher. 

I’ll let you digest that for a second. 

That’s right.  Nine regular players are currently on the sideline. 

And here we were, supposed to be a healthier team with Marian Gaborik gone.  The hockey gods are truly laughing at us right now. 

But, on the up side we’ve gotten a glimpse into the future…And my goodness does it look bright. 

Casey Wellman 

What can’t I say about this kid? 

No goals…Yet…But he’s been flying around the ice like a madman.  Once his brain catches up to the speed of his legs, this kid is going to be l-e-t-h-a-l on the ice.  That’s right…So much so that I spelled it out. 

Wellman seems to have that sixth gear that the truly speedy players in the NHL have.  Alex Ovechkin has it, Marian Gaborik has it and, yes, Casey Wellman has it. 

The biggest difference between the three’s speed? 

Ovechkin goes from 0-to-suspension in 3.0 seconds. 

Gaborik goes from 0-to-groin explosion in 3.0 seconds. 

Wellman goes from 0-to-60 in 3.0 seconds. 

He seems like he’s just thisclose to exploding into an outburst of points for Minnesota and, when he does, it’s going to be a thing of beauty to watch. 

Cody Almond 

I’ll be honest…I didn’t know much about Almond until this season.  But what I’ve seen from him, I like where he’s going. 

Much like Wellman, he seems like he’s just on the cusp of exploding, but what’s different is that Almond looks like he could honestly develop into a solid power forward in the NHL. 

He buzzes the net, he hits and he’s got tremendous hands and speed.  He’ll get an ample look in training camp next season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he stuck.  The kid looks good and he looks like he could really succeed between two skilled players. 

Heck…He looked right at home between Havlat and Latendresse.  Just sayin’. 

Nate Prosser 

19:31 minutes his first game and 21:00 his second. 

Not bad for a kid who was signed with the intent that he would just practice with the team for the remainder of the season. 

Injuries struck and, lo and behold, Minnesota’s own Prosser found himself in the line up and he’s made the most of it, to the tune that he might have very well been Minnesota’s best defenseman over the last two games. 

Now, he’s got a tough road ahead of him if he’s to crack the Minnesota lineup next season, but right now he’s looking like he might not have that tough of a time doing it. 

So, with these three, the future is most certainly bright for the Minnesota Wild.  They might not ever develop into anything more than role players, but for right now they’re taking center stage and thriving.