Around the NHL: Vacant Captaincies

Today’s going to have a little less coverage than a normal Tuesday would because, well, NHL ’12 comes out in stores today, so you all will have to suffer through a day or two of my nerdiness, but fear not. That nerdiness will result in a review of the game coming up this week, so you’ve got that to look forward too.

As a result, though, there will be no player profile today and there will be a truncated Around the NHL, so let’s get to it!

Captain Questions
There are six separate franchises that are searching for captains this off season, so I thought that we could take a look at each of those franchises and whose chest I think that they should put the C on.

Zach Parise

First, let’s take a look at the New Jersey Devils.

Gone is Jamie Langenbrunner, their previous captain, and Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias all are listed as the alternate captains on the team’s website. So, which one of these would make the best captain for the team? Or is there an unlisted player who would fit the bill?

Well, first of all, let’s look at the three alternates.

You have Elias, the veteran, Parise, the franchise, and Kovlachuk, the player who’s going to be in a Devils sweater for the next 16 years.

To me, the decision is simple. Elias has come out and said that he doesn’t want the role and, to be honest, I don’t feel that he’s best suited to be a captain. An alternate, yes, but not the guy with the C on his chest. Elias is on the downside of his career. This season, he’ll turn 36 and, though he’s still good, he’s no longer that point-per-game player that he once was. Kovalchuk might be the choice at some point down the road, but he’s not the answer for this season. The answer for this season is simple: Zach Parise.

Yes, there’s the chance he might not be there after this season, but you’ve got to take that chance if you’re the Devils. No one else on the roster is either ready or seemingly primed to step into that role and the other two alternates just simply aren’t as good of a choice.

He’s your franchise. He’s your best player and he’s also the player that you need to woo to keep in your organization, and he also happens to be one of the best guys for the job. He’s not a free agent signing, like Kovalchuk. He’s a Devil, through and through, and the organization needs to show that confidence in him to give themselves every opportunity to re-sign him before he hits free agency next season.

After the Devils, we’ve got the Philadelphia Flyers.

Chris Pronger

The Flyers currently have no alternates listed on their website and, to be quite honest, probably have the easiest decision to make. If he’s healthy, the captain should be Chris Pronger.

He’s a veteran, he’s got experience wearing the C and he’s one of the most respected and feared players in the NHL.

If we’re going to nitpick things, yes, Daniel Briere could be a viable option, as could Scott Hartnell, but really, the job is Pronger’s to lose or to turn down.

Next, let’s look at the Buffalo Sabres.

This is probably one of the more intriguing situations out there. With Craig Rivet’s rough season last year, the Sabres played most of the season without a player wearing the C. That meant Jason Pominville, Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and Jochen Hecht

Jason Pominville

all wore the A for Buffalo last season and were the captain by committee.

So, who gets the C?

Is it one of the aforementioned five?

The answer is yes. It’s the player that has shown the endurance and the resilience to keep playing, even after some crushing hits or devastating injuries. It’s Jason Pominville.

To be fair, all of those five players are pretty suitable candidates for the job and each of them would bring something different to the job but, in my opinion, you’ve got to go with Pominville. He’s been a key player for Buffalo his entire career and he’s a proven performer. He can play in every situation and he is as much of the fabric of the Buffalo Sabres franchise as Ryan Miller (who, let’s be honest, is the de facto leader in the locker room).

So, what about the Colorado Avalanche?

Replacing Adam Foote will be no small task for this young roster, but they’ve got someone tailor made for the position.

Matt Duchene

Last season, the alternates were Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny, but I don’t think that either will be the one to get the C this season.

That honor is going to go to Matt Duchene.

He’s the face and future of the franchise and he’s proven over the last couple seasons that he’s up to the task, not quailing under the pressure of the NHL in his first two seasons. He’s well respected in the room and he’s loved by the fans and, let’s face it, the trend in the NHL is to give the C to your young superstar. Throw in the fact that, if the Avs struggle, Hejduk and Stastny will be among the first names to get bandied around in the rumor mill and it makes sense.

The Avs franchise has been in flux for a couple seasons now and naming Duchene would lend a sense of stability to the organization.

But what about the Florida Panthers?

Ed Jovanovski

Their website only lists one alternate, and that’s Stephen Weiss, but I don’t see Weiss getting the C just yet.

That honor is going to go to the guy who started his career with the Panthers and helped lead them to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season. Ed Jovanovski.

Jovo Cop is the man for the job. Indeed, why bring him back to a young team unless you plan on him being a major part of your leadership core. Yeah, he’s a newcomer to the squad as it stands now, but he’s well liked by the fans and he’s got a huge history with the organization and, the symbolism behind naming him captain alone would be worth it.

And finally, we have the New York Islanders.

Both Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo are listed as the team’s alternates, and I think that they have a future captain on their squad in John Tavares, but I don’t think that is the route they’re going to go quite yet.

Mark Streit

As evidenced by their building process, Garth Snow is exceedingly cautious and exceedingly patient and, it stands to reason that his coach would be as well. I think that Tavares is their captain of the future, without a doubt, but right now the honor will and should fall on Streit.

The Isles are still a very young team. They’re still growing and they need someone who’s been there and done that, and Streit is that guy. He’s been around the block a couple times and he’s going to be the guy to help lead these youngsters this season.

So there you have it. My view on the captaincy situations of these six teams. What do you think? Am I crazy? Am I dead on? Let’s hear it!

Around the NHL: 8/2/11

There’s no shortage of news around the NHL the last few days, what with Alexander Frolov bringing up Sean Avery’s former racial intolerance, the 2011 class for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame being announced and Versus being re-branded as the NBC Sports Network, but those are just scratching the surface so let’s get to it.

* * * * *

Sharks Extend Burns
Just a few weeks after Brent Burns was traded to the San Jose Sharks, the NHL’s Bay Area team extended Burnsie to the tune of 5 years and $28.8 million. Not a small deal, to be sure, for a player that is likely going to be a cornerstone of their defense for quite some time.

Now, I’ve got as many mixed feelings about this contract as I do about Burns.

Sharks fans should probably get used to this picture. They'll see it a lot.

If the Sharks get the Brent Burns of the ’07-’08 season that was both an offensive threat and a defensive stalwart, they got a heck of a deal. That season, Burns came into his own as an offensive defenseman and was one of the best two-way defensemen in the league. He was as aggressive in the offensive zone as he was reliable in his own zone and, at 22, he looked poised to become one of the premiere defensemen in the league.

Unfortunately, Burns never had the opportunity to build on that successful season as he struggled through two injury-riddled seasons.

Then last season, he found his offensive game again, tallying 17 goals and 46 points and, most nights, was the Wild’s most dynamic offensive player.

The downside, however, was that the defensive portion of his game had disappeared.

He wasn’t the reliable defensive player that he was back in the ’07-’08 season when he was paired with Keith Carney. Instead, he was a defensive liability in most situations, getting caught with his back to the play in his own zone, or not boxing out or pursuing the puck when he should have been playing his position.

In other words, he started being responsible for as many goals in his own zone as he was in the offensive zone.

So, that’s the reason that I have mixed feelings about this signing. Burns is definitely an elite offensive defenseman, but over the last few seasons his game has become largely one dimensional and his decision making has become very suspect. No longer is he a reliable player in his own zone – instead, he is a player that has become cringe-worthy when he’s in his own zone and, for me, that’s not worth $5 million per season.

* * * * *

Isles Stadium Bid Rejected
On one hand, this is a very surprising development in what was becoming a very positive story for the New York Islanders.

The Lighthouse Project seemed to be gaining a great deal of momentum and it looked like it was a near certainty that the team would find itself looking at a new arena. Fans were hopeful, ownership was hopeful – it looked like it was going to be a sure thing.

On the other hand, though, one shouldn’t be surprised that voters wanted nothing to do with helping to fund an arena for a floundering sports franchise at this point in time.

With all the positive vibes that were surrounding the Lighthouse Project, it was largely overlooked that the United States was (and still is) embroiled in its most severe economic crisis in quite some time (and possibly ever). The buzz or the hype simply didn’t matter, at this point. The fact was that people were voting for a publically-funded arena for a franchise that has made the playoffs just four times since 1993 and hasn’t made it out of the first round since the ’92-’93 season.

The bottom line, unfortunately, was the bottom line. There was no way that taxpayers were going to put up their own money for a franchise that has cracked 90 points just three times in the last two decades.

It probably would have made a difference were the team a successful one but, at the end of the day, the team isn’t successful and the economic times are so uncertain that people just weren’t going to put up with funding a new arena.

It’s sad, it’s even more bad news for a franchise that has been wrought with bad news over the last handful of seasons – but it shouldn’t be unexpected.

* * * * *

That’s all we have for today. It’s a bit shortened, but be checking back later tonight for a look at the ten most-anticipated games from this year’s Wild schedule!

Around the NHL: 7/26/11

Like I said yesterday, the mailbag was cancelled due to not enough responses, so yeah…Get your questions in to blake.benzel@hockeyprimetime.com and I’ll answer them next week.

Today, though, it’s time for a look around the NHL. Enjoy!

* * * * *

Yashin Back to the Island?
Of all of the rumors and hearsay that one hears throughout the course of the off season, this one is potentially the most ridiculous.

The even more ridiculous thing is that it’s more than a rumor. The two sides are talking.

Consider this. The Isles are already paying Yashin $2.2 million over the next two seasons AND the reason for this is because Yashin was run out of town for underperformance. So…We thought that he was overpaid and underperforming at $8.75 million per year (which he was), but we like him so much that we’re going to pay him the $2.2 million buyout penalty, plus a salary?

Right.

I understand that the Isle have cap to burn, and maybe the Yashin camp will give them a break and sign at the league minimum so that his cap hit isn’t north of ridiculous this time (I doubt it), but either way his cap hit will be close to $3 million.

$3 million for a player who hasn’t played in the NHL since the ’06-’07 season and who has only topped 50 points in the KHL once since joining the league?

Yeah. I can think of better ways for the team to spend their money.

* * * * *

Draper to Retire
It looks like Kris Draper is set to announce his retirement today after being part of one of the most lop-sided trades in NHL history (from Winnipeg to Detroit for $1 in 1993).

All Draper did after that trade is win four Stanley Cups and a Selke Trophy for the Red Wings, while Winnipeg moved to the desert a few seasons later. Was losing Draper the reason? Probably not. But it’s fun to poke and prod anyway.

Draper leaves the league having scored 20 goals only once in his career, and having scored 40 points just once. He also never scored more than six points in a playoff run, but he will be sorely missed by the Red Wings and their organization.

His legacy won’t be one of gaudy numbers or of goal scoring or point production, but one of the blue collar work that it takes to do absolutely anything and everything necessary to win. He’ll be remembered as part of the famed “Grind Line” in Detroit which, along with Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty made life hell for opposing teams. He’ll be remembered as being a tremendous leader and one hell of a guy.

But more importantly than that, he’ll also be remembered for his daughter taking a deuce in the Cup.

* * * * *

Jets Release Logos
The Winnipeg Jets have released their new logos and I, for one, think they’re boring, bland and, quite frankly, ugly.

I get the tribute to the Canadian Royal Air Force, and it’s a touching tribute. It’s a great reason for a logo and the Jets truly are embracing their military as well as the history behind the RAF.

But where is the color?

Navy, silver, white and red. My guess, by looking at the logos, is that the primary colors of the sweaters will be navy and silver. Dull, dark colors.

It seems to me that navy blue is becoming the new black in the NHL. Columbus, Florida, Nashville – all of these franchises sport navy blue in one form or another as a primary color on a sweater, whether it be alternate or otherwise, yet you look at the sweaters that sell and they’re the brightly colored ones (or ones with Crosby on the back).

I get that Winnipeg doesn’t have the history of the old Jets to draw upon and I get that the team is trying to distinguish itself from the old but, in my opinion, they could have done a lot better with those logos.

Catching Up – Trade Deadline, Blackhawks, Isles, Gillies and Rangers

Sorry about the lack of blogs over the last few days, but it’s been super crazy in Casa de Benzel. Anywho, a lot has gone on over the past few days for the Wild, so here’s three blogs shoved together into one gigantic mish mash of ideas bouncing around in my head.

The Trade Deadline
This has been beaten to death already, so I’m not going to dwell on it too long, but here’s my take on the Wild’s deadline.

First, was I disappointed that the team didn’t make a move for someone like Weiss or Penner? Yeah. I’m not going to lie, I was very disappointed.

BUT

I can totally understand why no move was made.

The asking prices at the deadline are starting to border on ridiculous. I mean, seriously. Is Dustin Penner really worth a top prospect and two picks? We’re talking about a guy who has scored more than 50 points once in his career.

Sorry, but I don’t buy it.

I’d rather see the Wild roll with what they’ve got than mortgage the farm to get a mediocre player (which is exactly what the Kings did).

If the Wild had a wealth of prospects in their system, maybe – but the fact remains that they don’t.

That’s the key to becoming a team that’s consistently good like the Red Wings. You build from within. Is it frustrating this season? Absolutely. We were one terrific scorer away from being a huge force.

But look at next season. You want offense? We’ve got Mikael Granlund coming in next season, not to mention Mikko Lehtonen, who has already expressed interest in coming over to play.

We’re starting to build from within, which is exactly why doing nothing of note at the trade deadline was a smart move from an organizational stand point. Besides, every single person that was complaining about the Wild doing nothing – I guarantee that each one of those people would be complaining if the Wild overpaid for a player like Penner also.

Blackhawks @ Wild
There’s not really much to say about this game that hasn’t already been said.

There was the obvious letdown from the Wild not doing anything at the deadline, but that doesn’t excuse the Wild’s lack of effort. They were just flat, flat, flat until Martin Havlat broke through in the third.

And then their power play came out and shot them in the foot (something that has been a growing trend in the past few weeks).

Looking at the game, the Wild were outmatched from the get-go, especially in their own zone. The ‘Hawks are a team that the Wild have a hard time hanging with when Minnesota is on but, when they’re not, it’s downright brutal.

The worst part was their last power play. You had the idea that something was going to go wrong as soon as the Wild drew that penalty. Their PP had been brutal all night long and their final PP was no different. They actually had some good looks on their final power play, but a brain fart by Pierre-Marc Bouchard that saw him sprawl out to try to keep the puck in the zone saw this one lead to the back breaking goal.

They just lacked jump in this one and, in a game where they were severely out-skilled, they needed that jump to have a shot.

Wild @ Islanders
This one was just abso-freaking-lutely brutal.

I mean, from top to bottom brutal.

No effort, no cohesion, no goaltending – nothing. There’s not much to say other than that.

Backstrom was awful, so was Brodziak and most of the Wild’s defense. But that’s not what’s being talked about. What’s being talked about is…

Trevor Gillies Hit
The game back after a nine-game suspension and Trevor Gillies goes out and does this.

You’ve all seen the hit by now, so I won’t belabor the point by embedding it, but I’m having a hard time with this simply because I find myself in agreement with Mike Milbury.

Trevor Gillies has absolutely no place being in this league. The guy is a glorified door man. How many times has he played more than six minutes this season?

Twice.

How many times has he played less than two?

15, including one game where he played nine seconds. Nine.

You can’t tell me this guy is on the team for any other reason than to hurt people, and that is absolutely despicable.

You can debate the two hits all you want. Sure, Clutterbuck’s hit was an illegal hit, but it wasn’t a suspendable hit, or even a hit that deserved a major. Gillies, on the other hand, came in elbow up and sandwiched Clutterbuck’s head between his elbow and the glass.

Should Clutterbuck have pulled up and maybe not finished his check for once? Probably. But that certainly doesn’t excuse what Gillies did. Especially not in the case of a guy who had just missed nine games for head hunting.

Yes, Clutterbuck runs around. Yes, some of his hits might even border on being a touch late. But the difference is that Clutterbuck has respect for the people that he’s hitting. Rarely will you see him lay a dirty hit on a player like he did in this instance, and even rarer will you see a player not get up because of one of his hits. He might be a nuisance to other teams, he might run around and yap, his hits might be a bit late occasionally, but he does not hit dirty, contrary to what many may think. He just hits hard.

There is absolutely no defense or excuse for what Gillies did. The guy is 6’3”, 227 and he is leaving his feet to check a guy that’s 5’11”, 213. Gillies has four inches and 16 pounds on Clutterbuck. He doesn’t need to leave his feet to lay a good, solid check on him. Yet he did. He left his feet, he raised his elbows and he targeted Clutterbuck’s head. Don’t give me any of this “no intent to injure” business. That’s about as large of an intent to injure as you can get.

Now, if he weren’t just coming off of a nine-game suspenson for doing the exact same thing, I’d say he should get maybe two or three games. But his nine-game suspension obviously didn’t take the first time around.

Maybe a 15-game suspension will.

Wild @ Rangers
Now that I’m off my soap box, here’s some quick thoughts on last night’s game against the Rags.

I only caught the first period live, the rest I had to catch on DVR, and I won’t lie; I was considering skipping the rest of the game after catching the first.

They looked awful. And by awful, I mean just as bad as they did against the Isles. They couldn’t get anything going, their legs weren’t there, they had no jump in our steps. They just looked plain bad.

But something happened between the first and second periods. Something must have been said by someone, whether it was one of the team’s elder statesmen or the coaching staff, I don’t know. But someone said something that lit a fire under the team.

Sure, they got outshot 17 to 8 and 16 to 8 in the second and third periods respectively, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The effort was there again. They were driving to the net, they were getting to the hard areas on the ice and they were creating chances and, once again, they proved you don’t need to take 40 shots to score three goals.

Heck, they didn’t even need 20.

The line of Brodziak, Havlat and Bouchard had a nice game and rebounded well from their stinker of a performance on Wednesday. The line combined for two goals and five points and, to be honest, I think we have our top line right there. Sure, Brodziak isn’t a top flight center, but he’s the type of center that I think players like Bouchard and Havlat need. Neither Butch nor Havlat are the most physical players on the planet, so they need a grinder on their line to help do the dirty work and that’s exactly what Brodziak excels at. (Incidentally, with this team playing so well, I’d almost say move Mittens off of the Koivu line when G-Lat comes back – give Bruno and Koivu a guy who can actually bury the puck on their line.)

Casey Wellman was great. He was exactly what the Wild needed. His speed created a lot of chances and he was in the right place at the right time for his beautiful goal to make it 2-1. He played just nine minutes, but he made an impact in those nine minutes.

Brent Burns and Nick Schultz were great on the blue line, as was Clayton Stoner. I continue to be impressed by the way the defense has turned around this season after their horrid performance last season. Sure, the Rangers got 40 shots, but the defense did a great job of clearing the shooting lanes so that Theodore could see the puck and clearing away any rebounds.

Speaking of Theodore, he really stole this game. It could have easily been 5-3 or 6-3 in a hurry, but because of Theo the Wild snuck out of that first period with just one goal against and regrouped in a big way. I love Backstrom, but I’d have a hard time going away from Theo after this one. If I’m Richards (and there’s likely a very good reason why I’m not him or in his position), I’d start Theo on Sunday against the Sabres. He’s the hot hand and, if nothing else, it could give Backs some motivation to go out and improve in his next outing.

That’s all I’ve got for this one. Because of the Sunday game, likely no game preview but I should have a gamer up.

Laterz!

Mid-Morning Musings: Devils and Gestures and Headshots. Oh My!

***Mid-Morning Musings is a feature that I’ll be doing every couple days (read: every day the Wild don’t have a game) during the week here at Wild Nation. It will have to do with anything and everything hockey related, Wild or otherwise, so sit back and enjoy my opinionated ramblings.***

Could things get any worse for the Devils right now?

I mean, honestly. Any worse?

First they get out to their horrific start, then they have to deal with a knee injury to Zach Parise and now Martin Brodeur is looking like he will have to miss time?

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear here. The Devils are a good team playing bad hockey. They’re much better than their 4-9-1 record indicates. But at the same time, they’re a team that’s doing next to nothing to get themselves out of this slump.

But, as much as this is the player’s and the coach’s fault, some of the blame with this has got to fall on Lou Lamoriello and the rest of the front office and ownership.

This team’s off season put them in this situation.

Lou addressed a big need on this team in bringing in Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder on defense – they were shrewd signings and very important ones at that. But then he did something very un-Lou-like.

Now I don’t know if it was pressure from the owner or a slight break in his better judgment, but the signing of Ilya Kovalchuk was not only ill-conceived, it was ill-timed as well.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Kovie. I think he’s a much better player than people give him credit for and I’m the first to jump to his defense. He was a point-per-game player for them and gave them another offensive weapon.

But the team was 13-9-5 while he was there. Not a bad record, to be sure, but look at the results. They never put together more than two wins in a row – something they did seven separate times before his arrival (four three-game winning streaks, and one five-game, four-game and six-game streak apiece). They also went on losing streaks (no matter how small) four times – something they did just five times the entire rest of the season.

Did he help their offense? Not a ton – approximately 2.81 goals for with Kovie against about 2.65 without.

The only thing that he did was come into the locker room and mix up a team that had very good chemistry prior to his arrival.

And you re-sign him?

You can say what you want about this team, but the franchise’s Stanley Cup hopes were squarely in the capable hands of Zach Parise and Travis Zajac. The two were gelling and were beginning to come into their own as players in the league.

Give them another season together and they would have been the one-two punch that the Devils needed. But instead, you bring in Kovalchuk and screw up their chemistry.

So what you are left with now is a team that doesn’t know how they’re going to get under the salary cap once players return from injury and, what’s more, a team that doesn’t know how they’re going to keep their top players after signing Kovalchuk, not to mention one whose chemistry has been drastically altered in a bad way by his signing.

Any way you cut it; this was just a poor, poor decision by Lou.

*****

A lot has been made of the suspensions so far this season, and I definitely agree that the disciplinary culture of the NHL needs to be looked at in a big way.

So far, here’s what the suspensions look like (from the 2010-11 NHL fines and suspensions wiki page):

Date

Name

Team

Offense

Length

9/24/10

Nick Boynton

Blackhawks

Throat-slashing gesture

1 game

10/4/10

Mike Cammalleri

Canadiens

Slashing Nino Niederreiter

1 game

10/10/10

Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond

Devils

Instigator penalty in last 5 minutes of game

1 game

10/12/10

James Wisniewski

Islanders

Obscene gesture to Sean Avery

2 games

10/12/10

Niklas Hjalmarsson

Blackhawks

Boarding Jason Pomminville

2 games

10/18/10

Shane Doan

Coyotes

Blindside hit to the head of Dan Sexton

3 games

10/22/10

Rick Rypien

Canucks

Grabbing a Minnesota Wild fan

6 games

10/27/10

Stephane Robidas

Stars

Automatic suspension for two game misconduct boarding penalties within 41 games

1 game

11/1/10

Daniel Briere

Flyers

Cross-check to the head of Frans Nielsen

3 games

So far this season, 20 games worth of suspensions have been handed out – two of which were automatic suspensions (Letourneau-Leblond’s instigator penalty and Robidas’s boarding call).

But other than that, what does this really tell us?

Well, for one, it tells us that the NHL is putting a greater emphasis on its image than on the safety of the players.

Of the 20 games, 9 were for incidents that had absolutely nothing to do with a hockey play.

Yes, we can all agree that Rick Rypien should have been suspended for what he did – no question about it. But James Wisniewski and Nick Boynton?

I guess I can see it to an extent, but to what extent are you bringing more attention to it by bringing down a suspension to the player?

I’ll be honest, I was watching the Isles/Rangers game when Wiz made the gesture and I barely caught it. The broadcast didn’t replay it over and over and over again – it was a one time thing that, odds are, if I hadn’t been paying attention at that exact moment I would have missed.

But the NHL is dead set on making sure that they keep their image up. They don’t want to be seen as the “rogue sport.”

But wouldn’t their efforts towards their image be better served going towards the safety of their players?

Boynton and Wisniewski just made an innocuous gesture. One that, if you weren’t paying attention right then, you would have missed (and if myself, a 28-year old man, barely caught the gesture, what are the odds that a kid is going to be paying attention to the game long enough to catch it?) and one that, at the end of the day, kids are likely seeing and hearing worse than on the playground?

I understand that you want to make sure that players know that this isn’t okay. I get it. But don’t we have anything better to do with our time?

So here’s a thought. Gestures, anything like that – automatic game misconduct, they forfeit that game’s salary and a $10,000 fine. There you have it. It’s over, done with. You don’t have to worry about the rogue fellatio gestures anymore.

But for plays that are dangerous to players, a suspension is needed.  So how about this?

A blindside hit to the head – automatic 3 game suspension. No questions asked, if you get booted from a game for a blindside hit to the head, you sit for three games, repeat offender or not. Heck, we can even make it reviewable by the league to ensure that the right call was made on the ice.

Sure, an automatic suspension isn’t going to quell the problem. It’s not going get rid of these types of dangerous hits immediately, nor will it likely do anything to stem the problem down the road – players who are going to be repeat offenders (yes, Matt Cooke I’m talking about you) are going to do it regardless of the ramifications – but what it will do is make sure that the players know that there’s no questions asked; if they do this, they will be suspended.

*****

That’s all for this time. Hope you enjoyed the first of many mid-morning musings. Feel free to discuss below and I’ll pipe in with my thoughts when I can.

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

Welcome – Wild Add New Goalie

First of all, allow me to welcome all of you to the new Wild Nation website.  As you know (or may not know), I also work with Hockey Primetime as a correspondent and the Chief Online Editor.  Both Sam Woo and Webmaster Paul have been very patient and gracious with helping get this site set up, so thank you to both of you.

Now, to get down to business.  The Wild have added to their goaltending depth, signing veteran goaltender and journeyman back up Wade Dubielewicz (who will heretoforth be referred to as Dubie, mostly so I don’t have to keep looking up how to spell the name) to a one-year contract.  The terms of the contract have not yet been disclosed, but the signing of Dubie is a pretty good indication that the Wild intends to trade goaltender Josh Harding before the start of the season.

Dubie comes to the Wild with a 17-15-1 career record, a 2.64 GAA and a .916 Sv Pct and was a large part of the New York Islanders playoff push a couple of seasons ago.

The bottom line is that he is a competant back up that could sneak in for 15 or so games per season.  Is Harding better?  Absolutely.  But Harding is also a goalie that could be useful for the Wild to address some more pressing needs.  Only time will tell as to what Fletcher will do…But one thing’s for sure.  Harding definitely should have some bags packed.

The Walking Wounded and other Wild Updates

Per Russo,

Goalie Niklas Backstrom will indeed have left hip surgery Friday in Vail. Brian Stensaas was on a conference call with acting GM Tom Lynn. He reports he has two cysts on the bony part of his hip.

Lynn says they won’t know how long he’ll be out until they operate. Worst case scenario, Stensaas says, could be four to six months!

But Lynn said the doctor cautions they can’t give a timetable yet. More from Stensaas in Wednesday’s paper.

Also, I hear Brent Burns is having shoulder surgery probably on Thursday.

This is in addition to Andrew Brunette having reconstructive knee surgery this off season and Derek Boogaard having shoulder surgery.

So what does this mean for the Wild?  Well, if the prognosis for Backstrom truly is 4-6 months, that puts Backstrom back at the earliest, August 24th and at the latest October 24th.  Knowing Backstrom, he will work his hardest to rehab and be back sooner, but this essentially makes the top priority for the new GM hammering out a deal for back up goalie Josh Harding.

If this is indeed the case, you can take Harding off of the table as a bargaining chip.  That is, unless the new GM is suddenly stricken by Barry Brust-mania and believes that Brust can shoulder the load as an NHL starter.  What this could do, however, is drive Harding’s stock through the roof.  If Harding can perform like Backstrom did when he wrested the starting job away from Manny Fernandez a few years back, Harding could easily become a hot commodity among NHL teams.

The Search Begins
After being denied permission by Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs to speak with Dave Nonis, Wild owner Craig Leipold recieved permission from the Nashville Predators to speak with a couple of his old employees; Director of Hockey Operations Mike Santos and assistant GM Paul Fenton.

From Russo,

Leipold declined comment on them, ”just like I won’t comment on any of the other candidates.” 

There are lots of candidates that have surfaced. These are just two that so far I know he’ll be allowed to talk with. I’m sure there are others. I’m working the phones.

Santos is in his third year in Nashville and is responsible in negotiating player contracts and preparing for salary arbitrations. He served as assistant GM for the New York Islanders from 1997-2002 and director of hockey operations for the Florida Panthers from 2002-03.

He was Commissioner and President of the North American Hockey League from 2003-06. He’s worked for USA Hockey and the NHL.

Fenton is in his third year as Nashville’s assistant GM after eight as the director of player personnel. He oversees the Predators’ amateur player development and managers the team’s pro and amateur scouting staffs. He’s also GM of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals.

Fenton, who played eight years in the NHL for seven teams and was a former Boston University standout, also spent five seasons working for the Anaheim Ducks. 

It hasn’t happened yet, but another person I’d assume Leipold would request permission to speak with his Pittsburgh assistant GM Chuck Fletcher. He’s 41 with 16 years of experience. He’s immensely respected after years in Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

Remember, Leipold has a fabulous relationship with Penguins GM Ray Shero, who used to be assistant GM in Nashville.

In addition, the Wild have been denied permission to speak with Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill.  Nill is under contract until 2010-11 and has a commitment in his contract to stay in Detroit.  In fact, this quote was run in the Windsor Star when Toronto was inquiring about Nill’s availability.

The way we do things here, I’ve already got most of the responsibilities and input that a general manager would have. Ken [Holland] and I work really well together.

I’m comfortable, I’m well-compensated and I like the organization. I know which side my bread is buttered on.

Risebrough Presser
You’ve got to love hockey guys.  Doug Risebrough held his “exit presser” yesterday and held it at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub.  Gotta love it.

Anyway, Russo had some snippets in his blog regarding the players and it just shows how well respected Risebrough was by his own players.  Derek Boogaard had his fiancee drive to the pub after he literally just woke up from having shoulder surgery, just so that he could thank Risebrough for the opportunity and have a chance to say goodbye.  Risebrough also spent some quality time with Marian Gaborik at the arena and went to Brent Burns’ home to meet with the youngster after the new broke regarding his concussion problems.

Again, on a personal level, I’m sad to see Risebrough go.  He was a great guy, probably the nicest associated with the NHL that I’ve had the pleasure to meet.  Part of me feels that he deserved a bit better treatment than he received from Leipold; however, that’s also Leipold’s perogative as the owner.  It’s his team and he can run it as he sees fit.

On a business level, however, it was time for a change.  Risebrough had become increasingly defensive about his decisions over the past few seasons and it seemed as if fans, management and players alike were all growing tired of his smug, “I know best” attitude.  As disappointed as I am that it had to end like this, it certainly had to end.

In the transcript of the presser, however, there was one quote from Risebrough that really rings true to me.

I think the club, I believe the club is in really good shape, and I’ll tell you why. I think it’s got a good core of players. It’s got good youth. I think it’s got great flexibility in terms of the salary cap. It’s got lots of room this year, it’s got lots of room next year. So whether that means what do you want to do immediate signings or future signings, it’s all there. It’s got a great fan base that’s still in love with this team. So it’s going to be energized. I believe players that had poor years will rebound. I’m pretty comfortable to say the injuries aren’t going to be the same magnitude. So I think it’s a great opportunity for a manager and I think it’s a great opportunity for a coach. And I feel good about that. I made decisions on a regular basis for the right  reasons, and the right reasons never included me. They never included me, they were always for the franchise. Now I can say, I didn’t always make the right decisions, but I did them for the right reasons. And I feel good about that.

That right there, to me, says it all.  Whoever it is has a good base, but also has his work cut out for him.  This is a solid team in need of a few key components to become a serious contender.  I don’t think this team needs to be blown up and start from scratch again, but at the same time I don’t think that this team is ready to contend next season after all of this going on this off season.  One thing’s for sure, though.  It’s still an exciting time to be a Wild fan!

Clutterbuck Breaks Hits Record; Wild Win

Let’s be honest.  Everyone and their mother knew that Cal Clutterbuck would break the hits record last night.  He’s been averaging at least 6 hits per game over his last few games and needed just two more to eclipse Dustin Brown’s old mark.

Clutterbuck has been a breath of fresh air this season to a Wild team that has lacked energy at times.  He comes out hard every night and he is always moving.  His big hitting style of game has endeared himself to Wild fans the world over and has made him Public Enemy Number One to everyone else.  He has even drawn so much attention to himself through his hard work and energy that a grassroots campaign has started amongst Wild fans for a push for the Calder Trophy, awarded each year to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.

Clutterbuck has gotten noticed, not only by Wild fans, but by opposing players, fans and hockey pundits around the league.  From Don Cherry’s rant to fans categorizing Cal as a cheapshot artist, he has raised the ire of many a fan and player in his short time in the NHL.  The fact of the matter is, however, that Clutterbuck is a player that plays the game like it was meant to be played.  He skates hard every shift, he works hard every practice and he doesn’t back down from anyone.

The most impressive part of Clutterbuck’s season this year (apart from the hits) has been the offensive upside that he’s flashed.  Let us not forget that Mr. Clutterbuck used to play on John Tavares’s wing in the OHL.  He has offensive instincts; however, he was not quite up to snuff when he came into training camp this season.  He was given things to work on down in the AHL and his wrist shot went from a mediocre one to what Mario Tremblay and Jacques Lemaire have described as the best wrist shot on the team.  This hard work and willingness to be coached will ultimately be what defines Clutterbuck in his career.

What’s more is that Clutterbuck has earned favor with management with his hard-hitting, explosive, energetic playing style and has even found himself playing on the penalty kill and power play this season.  While his rookie campaign has been fantastic, there’s no doubt that he will continue to get even more responsibility in coming seasons with the team and I have no doubt that what we’ve seen this season is only scratching the surface of his overall potential.

317.  It’s not 552, but it’s still a Wild player with his name in the record books.

Game Notes

  • Surprisingly enough, there was a hockey game that occurred last night.  Now I know it’s the Islanders, but a 6-2 victory is still a confidence builder no matter who you play.  The team played with an edge last night; something that I haven’t seen from this team for quite some time.  I don’t know if it’s the attitude that Owen Nolan has instilled with the ‘C’ on his chest for a brief couple games or if it is the desparation of realizing that they may not make the playoffs, but this team played a fantastic, physical game last night; something that they will have to continue to do if they are to make any sort of push.
  • I mentioned to a friend in passing yesterday that, if the Wild wanted to make the playoffs without Mikko Koivu, Marian Gaborik would need to average at leasttwo points per game from here on out.  Apparently he heard me all the way from Long Island.  After playing a fantastic game against the Rangers two nights ago, Gaborik came back last night with a quiet two goal, two assist performance.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am no fan of Marian Gaborik’s, but I cannot deny that he is a potential game breaker in every game he plays in.  Playing most of the game with Nolan, Gaborik showed instant chemistry with the veteran and easily had his best game of the season.  The best part about this?  I hardly even recognized that he was on the ice.  These are the types of games that define what a player is.  Not the five-goal games, but the games where you think to yourself, “He didn’t have an especially impressive game” and you look at the stat sheet and realize that he’d notched four points.
  • Speaking of Owen Nolan, is there anything that this man doesn’t do?  He leads, he scores, he hits, he fights.  Nolan is the type of player that the Wild have been missing for years and that Wild fans have been dreaming about for years.  As far as I’m concerned, he can play for the Wild as long as he wants to and he should have the ‘C’ on his chest for all of that time.
  • After a shameful performance in New Jersey, Niklas Backstrom looks to be back to his old tricks.  He has given up just 4 goals in 3 games and has looked absolutely spectacular at times.  He has proven time and again this season that his shoulders are broad and he could very well will the team into the playoffs.
  • The physical play of the Wild’s blueline last night was something that has been sorely missed this season.  Not necessarily during the whistle, but it seemed as if every single defenseman was playing with a chip on his shoulder last night.  They let absolutely no one get to their goalie and defended him marvelously.
  • In his post game comments, Lemaire mentioned something that I had taken note of throughout the game.  The Islanders were taking runs at anyone wearing a white sweater.  Lemaire was very blunt in saying that he felt their players were being a bit brave out there and that he thought it would be interesting to see what happens when the Isles play the Wild next season.  The Isles thought that they could intimidate the Wild with physical play; but the Wild certainly answered the bell and didn’t allow themselves to be intimidated. 
  • The Wild now travels to Alberta to take on Calgary and then Edmonton.  Needless to say, these are two huge games for Minnesota, as they are still jockeying for playoff position.  A win in one or both of these games could easily slide the Wild back into the playoffs.  The biggest problem, however, is consistency.  If the Wild can build off of this win and take the confidence into Calgary, there’s no doubt in my mind that they may be able to steal a win from the red hot Flames.  The game in Edmonton will be interesting as well, as Niklas Backstrom has even come out and said that he doesn’t play well in that building.  History will have to be put behind him and he will have to come out strong if the Wild are to make up any ground.

Gameday: Wild @ Islanders – 3/25/09

Sans Brent Burns and Mikko Koivu, the Wild rolled into the Big Apple last night and left with a demoralizing loss despite a fantastic game by Niklas Backstrom.  The team dropped from 10th in the West down to 11th, chasing 8th place Anaheim who is two points ahead of them, and two points back from 9th place Nashville.

Ok.  That was the bad news.

The good news?  Tonight we roll into the island to play the league’s bottom team in the New York Islanders.

This is not to say that the Isles should be taken lightly, as they have been hot as of late; however, if there is any team that the Wild could use as a “slump-buster,” this is certainly it.

When you look at the two teams, they have similar stats on paper.  The Wild have only scored a paltry 184 goals this season (good for second last in the West) while the Isles are just two behind them (good for last in the East).  The difference between the two teams, however, has been their defense and goaltending.  The Wild have given up just 180 goals this season (good for third best in the league) while the Isles have given up 234 goals this season (good for eleventh in the East).  The Isles are also having similar problems to the Wild on the blueline; namely, not enough grit.  If the Wild are to be successful against this team tonight, they will need to get into the high traffic areas on the ice and push around an Isles defense that is extremely undersized.  This means that players that like to get their noses dirty in front of and behind the net, such as Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette, will be key to the Wild’s hopes of victory tonight.

Defensively, the Wild will need to focus on stopping the Isles offensive weapons.  Though young, the Isles still boast some players that have the talent to put the puck in the net; most notably Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and Sean Bergenheim, not to mention their leading scorer, Mark Streit.  The biggest key to the resurgence of the Islanders over the last few weeks has been their balanced attack.  They have been given the freedom to play spoiler and have taken to it quite nicely and the Wild will have to focus on their entire line up in order to keep the team down.

Goaltending has been a concern for the Isles since the injury of franchise goalie Rick Dipietro; however, Yann Danis has stepped up in his absence and performed marvelously.  A little confidence can go a long way with Danis, and the Wild need to avoid giving him any at all, getting to him early and often.  This will involve shooting the puck and getting it on net; the latter of which the Wild have struggled with all season long.

In the previous meeting this season, the Wild cruised to a 4-1 victory over the Isles, outshooting them 39-16 and dominating for most of the game.  A repeat performance of this would be key to getting the Wild back on track and giving the team confidence heading into a crucial two game swing in Canada against the Flames and the Oilers.

Keys to the Game

  1. Shoot the Puck.  It seems to be common sense, but the Wild have gotten behind in the shots early in too many of their games this season and, as a result, have had to fight back in too many of their games.  Especially with an inexperienced goalie in net, the key to the Wild’s game should be to get traffic in front of him and get the puck on net.  If they can do this, there’s no reason that they can’t have an offensive outburst and win this game walking away.
  2. Be Physical.  The Wild are a team that have been pushed around a little more than they would like this season and it needs to stop.  The blueline especially has been a weak point for the Wild this season in terms of physicality and the Isles are a small team.  The Wild came out with a physical game last night against the Rangers and any carry over from this would be a huge help for the team.
  3. Establish Consistency.  The Wild have lacked consistency all season long, both in the micro and macro views.  In games they often go stretches without pressuring their opponent and oftentimes dig themselves holes during these periods.  If the Wild are able to maintain consistency during the games, this will translate over to the macro view and consistency will begin to be established from game-to-game as well.  This is key for the Wild to win games down the stretch and make a push for the playoffs.

This is a Wild team that can be good.  They just need to find the consistency to do so.  If they’re able to shorten their memories and put their loss last night behind them, they should have no problem handling the Isles.  The question will be if they are able to do just that.

Clutter-Watch 2009: For all intents and purposes, tonight will be the game that Cal Clutterbuck breaks the NHL Record for hits in a season, set by Dustin Brown.  Needing just two more hits to do so, it is very likely that this could be accomplished by the end of the first period, or even his first shift.  As Mike Russo mentioned in his blog, however, I wouldn’t expect much of a fanfare for this.  After all, the statistic has only been around for a few short years.  We could very well be watching young Cal’s statistics next season as well, as he’ll likely be given more responsibility, more ice time and more opportunities to do what he loves to do: hit.

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