Gameday Thread: Here come the Avs

The Wild have a couple big announcements for their blue line heading into today’s game.

First, congratulations to Nick Schultz, who will play in his 700th NHL game tonight. To put that in perspective, the total number of games for the Wild’s other blueliners after tonight’s game will be 202.

Schultz has been a rock on the blue line for the Wild since playing 52 games for the Wild as a 19-year-old and has been one of the steadiest defensemen in the league since that time. It’s pretty much that he’s going to play 70-plus games in the season and that he’s going to be playing against team’s top lines more often than not.

The latter part of that is one reason why it is such a testament to Schultz that he is a career plus-19 and that he’s only had three minus seasons in his career.

He doesn’t create many goals (his career high in points is 20), but he’s not going to make it easy for other teams to score many goals (though, I must say that he’s probably deflected more goals into the Wild net than any other player in team history – again, a testament to his positioning, because he’s right where he needs to be).

On a personal note, Schultz has long been one of my favorite Wild defensemen, so congratulations Nick. Here’s me hoping for another 700 games with number 55 wearing Iron Range Red!

Second, congratulations to Kris Fredheim, who the Wild signed to an NHL contract today and who will play in his first NHL game today.

For those of you who don’t know much about Fredheim (and I don’t blame you, because I knew next to nothing about him until today), here’s a little scouting report from Houston Beat Writer extraordinaire and contributor to the blog, Ms. Conduct:

He’s a good, solid, stay-at-home defenseman that you really just never have to worry or think too much about. I almost never even notice him with the Aeros, which I think is a good thing in a stay at home d-man. Nothing flashy or too aggressive about his game. He just does things the right way and sort of flies under the radar as a result.

He’s got good size and good speed and good positioning, so I don’t see him having much trouble adapting to the NHL, though he’ll take a bit to get used to the speed, I’d wager. But he’ll be fine. The best part is that Yeo knows him and his strengths and weaknesses, so he’ll put him in a position to succeed.

So, there you have it. If this season has done anything for the Wild, so far, it’s shown the defensive depth that the organization has, so I don’t think there’s any cause for concern with Fredheim slotting into the line up tonight.

Anyway, congratulations to Schultz and Fredheim. Now let’s go buy some bubble wrap for the Wild’s d-men.

Lineup

Here is the probable line up, per Wild.com (again, with my thoughts intersperced):

Setoguchi/Koivu/Heatley (God, how I just want these three to do something. Anything. Just play like they’re capable of playing. That’s all I ask. Maybe a couple goals too. But that’s really all I ask.)
Bouchard/Cullen/Clutterbuck (As you’ll see below, I think Wellman will end up on this line at some point. Clutterbuck is good, but he’s a checker first and a scorer second. The Wild need someone with a scorer’s mentality on this line.)
Powe/Brodziak/Johnson (This line has been one of the Wild’s best liens over the past few weeks. They’ve just been flat out on point.)
Gillies/Peters/Wellman (See my thoughts on this one below.)

Wellman was recalled again today (after getting demoted yesterday), so I’d guess he’ll get slotted into the line up tonight as Wild.com was speculating. He’ll likely start on the fourth line, but given that the organization has said time and time again that Wellman is the type of player that needs to be in the top-six to succeed, I’d guess he’ll find his way up to the second or even first line at some point during the evening.

Schultz/Prosser (It really says a lot about Prosser that they’d be slotting him in on the top pairing next to Schultz.)
Stoner/Fredheim (Once again, Stoner has come back and been a stud. That’s a great partner for a player in his first NHL game to skate next to.)
Spurgeon/Falk (Two of the Wild’s brightest young defensemen skating next to one another? Should be good to watch.)

Having allowed just four goals in his last two games and with a 17-4-2 record against Colorado, Backstrom will be in the cage.

Burning Questions

Can Casey Wellman contribute at the NHL level? Wellman was sent toHoustonat the beginning of the season under instructions to dominate. He’s done that, but can those skills translate to the NHL level? Mike Yeo seems to think so. Most of Wellman’s goals this season have been “NHL” goals, meaning they’re goals that would have been scored in the NHL as well. If that’s the case, he could finally be ready.

Can the Wild’s young defense keep stepping up? With Zidlicky out,Minnesotahas just one player on their blue line tonight that’s played in a full NHL season. So far, their young blue line has been one of the big reasons that Minnesota has been as good as they have been. The Wild need that trend to continue tonight.

Can the top line finally put together a full, solid game? Heatley, Koivu and Setoguchi are together again thanks to an injury to Guillaume Latendresse. They absolutely dominated in the pre-season. The Wild need them to do that again, and quick.

Can the Wild avoid the hometown blues? The first game back after an extended road trip is typically a tough one. Can the Wild come out strong and avoid that? Coming back home from the Eastern Time Zone should help, but they’ve got to come out strong tonight.

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

Player Profile: Nick Schultz

Nick Schultz

Nick Schultz

Born – 8/25/82
Position – D
Ht – 6’1”
Wt – 200
Shoots – Left

The Skinny

Nick Schultz and Andy McDonald

Schultz's positional game often puts him in the right place at the right time, for better or worse

After six straight seasons of not finishing the season in the minus category, Nick Schultz completed his third straight “minus” season last year, but it’s not as if anything really had changed in the defenseman’s game to cause the change – it’s just the way the NHL works.

Schultz is consistently on the ice against the league’s top talent, night in and night out. In fact, he’s one of the most steady, reliable defensemen that the Wild have.

He’s not going to blow anyone away with any Orpik-ean hits, nor is he going to fly from coast-to-coast, channeling his inner Bobby Orr like Mike Green or P.K. Subban do. What he will do, however, is be in position. All the time, every time, he’ll be where he’s supposed to be.

That is both a blessing and a curse for the Wild.

Because he’s right where he needs to be, many times that puts him right in the firing line or in the passing lane and it always seems to be when a puck deflects in the net off of a Wild player, it’s a shot deflected off of Schultz’s leg, or a pass deflected off of his stick. I prefer, however, to look at that more as a testament to Schultz’s positioning as opposed to a knock on his play, though. He’s just always where he’s supposed to be in the defensive zone.

You know exactly what you’re getting with Schultz too. Last season, Schultz’s offensive output was 17 points, the second highest total in his career, and that’s exactly what you’re getting with him. A player who is going to contribute on your team by keeping goals out of the back of the Wild’s net as opposed to putting them into the back of the opponents’.

This Season

Nick Schultz and Samuel Pahlsson

Don't expect much offense from Schultz. His value is at the other end.


This season, Schultz will once again be inMinnesota’s top-four defensemen – likely finding himself paired with Marek Zidlicky on the team’s top pairing (given the chemistry that Greg Zanon and Clayton Stoner had with one another last season). Schultz isn’t going to contribute on offense quite a lot, but I would expect him to find himself splitting the shutdown time with Zanon and Stoner, taking some of the burden off of him and lending towards a better season statistically.

He’s still going to be one of Minnesota’s premier penalty killers and he’s still going to see time against teams’ top lines, but it seems like the plan this season is to share the shutdown detail as opposed to laying it on one specific pairing, which could be a good thing when it’s all said and done.

Offensively, I don’t think you should expect a lot out of Schultz, but he should push the 20-point barrier again. With Brent Burns gone, there’s potential for Schultz to see a bit of time on the power play now and again, which could lead to a few more points – but I doubt it.

Prediction
All-in-all, I’d expect a return to defensive form from Schultz this season, though I don’t think he’ll produce all that much offensively. If you’re looking at his game from an offensive standpoint, though, you’re doing it wrong. Schultz is a defensive defenseman and one that is playing his best games when you don’t notice him on the ice.

My prediction for Nick Schultz this season is:

72 GP, 2 G, 12 A, +6

Holy crap, the pre-season starts tomorrow (Line Combos)

Well, we all knew it was coming but this one really snuck up on me after my weekend of family (and wedding) fun. We have line combinations for the Wild’s first pre-season game on Tuesday.

Per Russo:

The roster Tuesday:

Fowards:

Guillaume Latendresse-Matt Cullen-Pierre-Marc Bouchard

Darroll Powe-Kyle Brodziak-Cal Clutterbuck

Brett Bulmer-Warren Peters-Jed Ortmeyer

Matt Kassian-David McIntyre-Jarod Palmer

Defensemen

Jordan Hendry-Mike Lundin

Clayton Stoner-Jared Spurgeon

Justin Falk-Nate Prosser

Extra, it appears: Tyler Cuma

Goalies:

Josh Harding, making his first start since his exhibition debut a year ago, and Matt Hackett will split the cage.

No big surprises here yet, but you do get a good idea of what Coach Mike Yeo is thinking for some line/d-pairing combinations.

Jordan Hendry earned a spot on Tuesday's roster

First of all, as Russo says, it was supposed to be Nick Schultz paired with Mike Lundin (top d-pairing, anyone?), but instead Jordan Hendry impressed so much on Saturday’s and Sunday’s scrimmages that he earned the spot.

Well, that’s definitely some encouraging news.

So, basically, the Wild are going with two of their NHL forward lines followed by two lines of players vying to make the squad and two NHL d-pairings followed by three players trying to make the squad.

That’s right, I said two NHL d-pairings.

I’ve maintained all along that the Wild would probably look to an NHL veteran to fill their seventh d-man spot, and Jordan Hendry will be that guy. Bank on it.

He doesn’t take ice time away from any prospects (unless the prospects just plain stink) and he’s a guy that is established enough in the NHL and plays a safe enough defensive game to push players like Clayton Stoner. The fact that he came out and impressed during this weekend’s scrimmages just proves it.

He might not get the lion’s share of ice time this season, but Hendry will be on the squad in some capacity.

Kassian might be a dark horse to make the squad.

Of the group playing on Tuesday, the two that I think will get a good, long look this camp will be Matt Kassian and Jed Ortmeyer.

While still a prospect, Kassian’s game doesn’t really have much growing to do. He’s a fighter, plain and simple. That’s his role and that’s where he excels. We’ve got a new coach with a similar, yet different philosophy than Richards. Brad Staubitz might not be who he wants to roll with in the enforcer role all the time, which opens the door for Kassian.

In Ortmeyer, you’ve got a proven NHL veteran. He’s a consummate pro and can fill that 13th or 14th forward spot with ease, slotting in whenever and wherever he’s needed. In essence, he’s like the utility man on a baseball team. Unsung, but always there when you need someone.

We’ll have a brief preview of the game up tonight or tomorrow, as well as our player profile of Darroll Powe.

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!

Wild Stomp Flames; Backs Gets Shutout in Return

Well, as they say about the best laid plans, I had plans to have a nice write up about the game tonight…Buuuuuuuuuut…Yeah. We’ll just say that I just decided to give you my game notes instead. Enjoy and feel free to leave your comments on tonight’s game!

  • Great effort by Brodziak on Havlat’s first period goal. No one but Havlat expected that puck to be coming to him and he just picked his spot and buried the puck past Kipper.
  • How in the world was Brunette able to just camp in front of Kipper? There wasn’t a defenseman within a stick’s reach of him. You can’t have that, especially not short handed.
  • Jared Spurgeon has been great in the last couple games. He’s making smart plays and he’s coming out of tough areas on the ice with the puck. He’s also got a great first pass out of the zone – something the Wild have sorely missed about not having Kim Johnsson in the line up.
  • 200 games played for Cal Clutterbuck and 869 hits. Really? That’s absolutely ridiculous, especially for a player who isn’t the biggest player on the ice. It’s no wonder why he’s such a popular player.
  • 471 straight games by Jay Bouwmeester. I wonder what Michael Peca would have to say about that?
  • Unbelievably dangerous hit by Curtis Glencross on Clayton Stoner. Glencross got five for it and, honestly, Stoner’s lucky that he was able to turn his head to the side. Bush league hit by Glencross that, honestly, should be looked at by the league. You shouldn’t need any sort of reminder not to hit a player in the back in that sort of position.
  • Maybe it’s a little cynical of me, but it isn’t really heartening that our second power-play unit has Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck on it.
  • The Wild had a five-minute power play that had a lot of pressure in the Calgary zone, but just couldn’t get anything going. That could easily be a shift in the momentum for the game.
  • How much confidence does Richards have in Stoner and Zanon right now? They were matched up against Hall’s line in Edmonton and now they’re matched up against Iginla in Calgary. Great play by these two.
  • Minnesota’s penalty kill looks good so far. We’re keeping players to the perimeter and, when we’re not able to, we’re clearing the puck away to the corner or down the ice.
  • Cam Barker looks like he’s making the most of being inserted back into the line up. He’s not making stupid plays and his footwork is a lot better than it has looked in the past. He’s playing physical, he’s playing well positionally. Everything the Wild wanted from him.
  • Great play by Jared Spurgeon to start the play that ultimately had Madden score. He won’t get an assist on that one, but his rush was what opened up the ice to give Madden the opening to score.
  • It’s a nice luxury when you have two defensive pairings that you can count on to play big minutes against teams’ top lines. Both Stoner and Zanon and Schultz and Burns have been called on to play against the Flames’ top line and both pairings have done a great job of it.
  • I don’t even know that Clutterbuck could believe that he scored his goal. He beat Kipper short side, over his blocker from the boards. So, yeah, it’s safe to say that he’s got a bit of an accurate shot.
  • Flames pressuring in the third and the Wild look like they’re scrambling a bit. Half the period is over, but the Wild need to be careful not to sit back on their heels and watch their 4-0 lead.
  • What an effort by Chuck Kobasew, diving backwards to slap the puck past Kipper as he sprawled to stop it. Yet another strong effort by a player on the Wild – something that’s really been emblematic of this team in this game.
  • Havlat is just a master at stick handling in traffic. It’s absolutely ridiculous what he can do with the puck with players around, going over, under, through – everything he can to get the puck to the net.
  • Great passing on Havlat’s second goal of the night. A beautiful tic-tac-toe play with a no-look pass from Cal Clutterbuck to Martin Havlat for Havlat’s 200th career goal and you’ve got to admire the way this line is meshing, especially in the absence of Havlat’s normal partner in crime, Guillaume Latendresse.
  • There looks to be absolutely no pride by the Flames in this one. They just look like they’ve given up and packed it in after a pretty terrible performance by the team in the last half of the game.
  • Great game by Niklas Backstrom, who gets a shutout in his first game back from injury. Absolutely terrific, doing exactly what Niklas Backstrom is expected to do – be a nice, stabilizing, calming factor in net.
  • Havlat and Brodziak both had three point nights and that entire line looked great. It’s going to be hard to break them up when Latendresse gets healthy again.
  • Minnesota has scored at least four in its last three games, out scoring their opponents 14-1 during that time. Not too shabby. There might be some hope for this team yet.

Wild Crush My Optimism; Drop a Pair in Helsinki

With the Helsinki games done, the Wild head back to St. Paul with a measly one point out of four available.

The Wild have looked very good, in spurts, but overall showed that they have a long, long way to go to join the ranks of the league’s elite.

I will say that today’s game had the Wild looking much, much better but still was not a consistent effort for a team that desperately needed one.

The Wild came out very, very flat in yesterday’s game and had many mental and defensive lapses. They showed many of the same weaknesses that they showed last season – leaving pucks free in front of the net, leaving the slot open and making poor outlet passes and difficulties exiting their own zone.

Today’s game was much better, in that fashion. The Wild didn’t necessarily have the mental lapses that they were prone to and their defensive zone coverage was much better. When a puck was free in front of the net, it was quickly shuffled to the perimeter – either down to the corner or to the sideboards. When a man was in the slot, he was quickly shadowed and tied up when the puck came to him. To that end, the Wild have got to be very happy with their performance today.

But a general lack of intensity was plainly clear after the first period and the Wild looked listless for long stretches during the game after coming out and dominating early. Whether it was the length of the trip wearing on them or whether it was a lack of motivation, I don’t know, but the Wild clearly have to find that intensity if they want to be successful.

Again, however, I hate to beat a dead horse but this all goes back to the coach.

The Wild came out like gangbusters early in today’s game. They had intensity and they were playing aggressive, angry hockey. They looked ready, plain and simple. But they couldn’t sustain that intensity. Just like the pre-season and last season – they had it, then they went into the locker room and left it in there.

Plain and simple, either these players aren’t buying into what Richards is preaching, or he’s not getting through to them – either way, something is lacking behind the bench.

It’s like what my fellow Hockey Primetime Colleague, Justin Bourne, said in his Puck Daddy Column today:

The first games on the schedule are more important, because positive momentum is paramount in a hockey dressing room. Once that snowball gets rolling in either direction, it’s tough to turn around.

It’s how a team like the Phoenix Coyotes can come from nowhere last year to become one of the more formidable opponents in the West.

They got a few early wins, started to believe in Coach Dave Tippett, and bought into the systems. If they start 0-3, the little behind-the-scenes pot-shots start (along with creeping doubt), and maybe the train never gets on the tracks. Instead, they had a fantastic start to 2009-10 — a 6-3 win in Los Angeles — and that makes a guy eager to get back to the rink and do it again. Winning is addictive.

Plain and simple, it happened last season and it’s happening again this season and you’ve got to wonder how much longer Fletcher will continue to let it happen before he makes a change.

But enough about that, for now. The Wild looked good on the ice today, lack of intensity aside. They showed good presence in the defensive zone, keeping players out of the slot and clearing pucks away from the front of the net and Backstrom rewarded them with a spectacular performance. Even in the post-game skills competition, Backstrom looked sharp, only getting beat on what was a spectacular move by Jeff Skinner.

Offensively, the Wild looked good in spurts and, were it not for a spectacular performance by Cam Ward, they could have easily skated away with four or five when it was all said and done.

So there are a lot of positives that can be taken from this game but, in the end, the Wild are 0-1-1 heading back to St. Paul and that is definitely not what they wanted.

Some random thoughts about tonight’s game:

  • I love me some Cal Clutterbuck, but honestly I can’t understand Richards’ insistence that he play on the second line with Havlat and Cullen. For the second straight game, Clutterbuck looked out of place (in my opinion) on the second line while Latendresse looked like he was being wasted on the fourth line. Indeed, Latendresse created more chances than all but a handful of the Wild’s roster while only playing 12 minutes, while Clutterbuck was largely ineffective. Both Latendresse and Wellman played great in limited ice time and it is baffling to me how they were not used more in a game that desperately needed the Wild to generate some sort of offense.
  • How great was Backstrom tonight? Other than his little brain fart on Jeff Skinner’s breakaway, Backstrom was the Wild’s best player all night long. He made 36 saves and he was the reason why the game even got to a shootout. Even in the shootout, he was solid and the lone goal that beat him was just a dandy.
  • Two games down and two losses. I know a lot of people are saying that Richards has more job security than Denis Savard did a couple seasons ago, but at this point I can’t imagine that he’s got that much more – especially not with Michel Therien now on the team’s payroll. I know, I get it. Therien was brought in as a scout and I truly believe that he was. But what his presence does is give the Wild options. If they decide it’s time to make a move, they have a former NHL coach that they can just insert right in. That’s heartening for Wild fans and could be a little disheartening for Richards.
  • It was nice to see Burns and Schultz have a solid game. These two should easily be the Wild’s top defensive pairing. Schultz is one of the most under-rated shutdown defensemen in the league, while Burns is looking like he’s figured out that he doesn’t have to do it all in order to be effective. Burns had a stellar game today, creating chance after chance and other than a couple penalties (one of which was a terrible call, in my opinion) Schultz did as well.
  • On the topic of defensemen, Cam Barker was better today, but not great. He’s got to, got to, got to, got to move his feet better. Too often he gets caught flat footed, and that’s where he gets caught taking bad penalties. You can tell he’s got all the tools to be a really good defenseman in the NHL – he just needs to start using them.

Chuck Norris Fears Greg Zanon

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

Seriously. 

The title says it all. 

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

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

You need proof? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? 

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

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

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

His response after the game? 

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

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

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

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

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

To send a message. 

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

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

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

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

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

Just play. 

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

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

Gameday Thread – Game 39 – Wild @ Kings

It’s amazing how much difference a couple months time makes.

After a 3-9-0 start, the Wild were looking to be in the running for the Taylor Hall Sweepstakes. The turnaround that the team has made the season, however, has been nothing short of miraculous.

After their horrific start, the Wild are 16-7-3 and were 9-4-0 during the month of December and now are just four points back from the odds on favorite to win the Northwest Division this season, the Calgary Flames, and third place in the division.

More importantly, they are just four points back from a playoff spot.

The combination of new blood being injected into the system and the old blood learning the new system has proven to be a potent mix and the team is looking poised for a solid run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing out last season.

They come into Los Angeles tonight with a record number of wins for the month of December and are looking to increase on that total against a very good and very surprising Los Angeles Kings team.

The Kings are third in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference despite slumping of late. A testament to how good the Pacific Division has gotten, the Kings dropped from first in the division to third after a stretch of two losses and eight games off in between.

Lineups
The Wild will be short one of their top checking players, as Chuck Kobasew is going to be on the shelf for about 4-to-6 weeks with a sprained MCL. While his injury will certainly hurt the team, it is possible that it may have opened up a spot for Petr Sykora to return to the lineup sooner than hoped.

Sykora is travelling with the team on their two-game road swing but has not yet gotten approval to play. If that changes, though, the Wild could see a big addition to their lineup.

Barring Sykora’s return, though, here are the forward lines for the Wild as predicted by Wild.com:

Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen
Nolan-Belanger-Clutterbuck
Latendresse-Ebbett-Havlat
Sheppard-Brodziak-Boogaard

Now, while Belanger’s line is listed as the team’s second line here, it’s important to note that the Kings will likely see a large dose of Ebbett’s line early and often. They have been one of the hotter lines on the team since Latendresse and Ebbett have both gotten healthy and that could bode well for the Wild. In addition, the injury to Kobasew might just give Sheppard yet another chance to prove himself. He’s played much better of late, but he needs to step his game up another level if he wants to continue to find playing time as players begin returning from injury.

On defense, Clayton Stoner has been an absolute revelation for the Wild and looks to have stolen John Scott’s spot from him. In his five games since being called up, Stoner has a pair of assists, an even rating, a couple fights and is averaging just under 13 minutes per game. His solid skating ability and his willingness to throw his body around has quickly endeared him to Wild fans.

Wild.com lists the defensive pairings as follows:

Zanon-Zidlicky
Stoner-Johnsson
Hnidy-Schultz

The one thing that I like the most about these pairings is that it gives the Wild a 100% legitimate shutdown pairing in Hnidy and Schultz. But what’s more is that the defensively responsible Stoner and Zanon give both Zidlicky and Johnsson chances to step up into the play a little bit more often—something that benefitted the Wild in their 4-3 defeat of the Blues on Saturday.

There was a break between the games, so in net we’re most likely going to see Niklas Backstrom again. Backstrom has been absolutely fantastic in his last eight games, with six wins and a 1.87 goals-against average.

What to Watch For
The Wild have forward on their team that is white hot right now, and he’s not who you’d think.

Guillaume Latendresse has notched four goals in his last four games and six in 13 games with the Wild. In addition, in those 13 games, the Wild is 11-2-0 and is 4-0-0 when he scores a goal.

You don’t believe me? Do the math yourself.

G-Lat has quickly become an important cog in the Wild’s offense and is continuing to get more and more ice time with Minnesota.

The other key is going to be Martin Havlat. He was largely invisible on Saturday night against St. Louis, but has really snapped out of his early season slump with nine points in his last eight games with a plus-six rating.

He is going to be very important to the continued success of the Wild and the continued success of both Latendresse and Ebbett. He has shown great chemistry with both and this looks to be as bona fide a second line as the Wild has had all season long.

If these three start clicking in a game, watch out…It can be scary good.

Key(s) to the Game
Shoot the puck.

Both teams have great records when outshooting their opponents and tonight should be no different.

For the Wild, LA’s Jonathan Quick is a goalie that thrives on confidence. If they can get to him early, they can have success. But Quick gets better as the game goes on and as he gets more confidence, so hitting him early and often will be paramount for a Wild win.

For the Wild, stopping Anze Kopitar will also be a huge task. Kopitar is one of two Kings players in double digits for goals this season and is the only one who is active (Jarrett Stoll is out with a groin injury). If the Wild can stop Kopitar, they’re that much closer to stopping the Kings.

Kopitar, however, is not the only player that the Wild need to focus on. Ryan Smyth quickly asserted his presence in the Kings’ lineup this season before getting injured and has since returned to the lineup and will provide a huge boost for a Kings team playing without Stoll and Justin Williams.

The puck drops tonight at 9:30 CST and will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.

Gameday Thread – Game 2 – Ducks @ Wild

Just three seasons ago, the Minnesota Wild were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the rough and tumble Anaheim Ducks. 

Just three seasons later, both teams are attempting to rebound from what could be considered disappointing seasons and opening day losses. 

The Ducks saw themselves booed by their hometown crowd in the first period of their tilt against the San Jose Sharks, while the Wild put up a valiant effort against a strong Columbus Blue Jackets team, only to come up short.

The Wild will need to see more out of Bouchard to be successful.

The Wild will need to see more out of Bouchard to be successful.

Lineups
The lineup looks to be much the same for the Wild as it was against Columbus.  While Benoit Pouliot has been given the green light, I think that Richards keeps Scott in the line up against a Ducks team that likes to throw their weight around. 

Brunette-Koivu-Havlat
Nolan-Bouchard-Sykora
Clutterbuck-Sheppard-Miettinen
Scott-Belanger-Brodziak

Burns-Zidlicky
Schultz-Johnsson
Zanon-Hnidy

Backstrom
Harding 

As far as the Ducks are concerned, I’m trying to track down what their lineup might be, but have been unsuccessful as of yet.  I’ll post an update as soon as I know, but I do know that Petteri Nokelainen is day-to-day with an abdominal injury and likely won’t go tonight. 

For the Wild, Derek Boogaard is still out indefinitely with a concussion. 

What to Watch For
There are a few big storylines coming into this one. 

First, these two teams just flat out don’t like each other.  It started in the playoffs three years back and has continued to grow from there.  From pre-game skirmishes to mid-game scraps, one thing is for sure.  When these two teams get together, it’s going to get physical and it’s going to get physical quick. 

I’d list a fight card for this, but honestly it’s a crapshoot.  This rivalry has seen the likes of Derek Boogaard and Todd Fedoruk square off, but at the same time has seen Nick Schultz and Ryan Getzlaf drop the mitts. 

But, if I had to put money on it, I’d say John Scott and George Parros would be a good bet. 

Next, watch for Pierre-Marc Bouchard to have a short, short leash.  He got benched late in the game on Saturday and saw just four shifts in the final period.  Head Coach Todd Richards said that he is looking for Bouchard to be more aggressive at the center position; something that Bouchard has not excelled at in his career.  

Playing with veteran goal scorers Owen Nolan and Petr Sykora on his wings, Bouchard is in a perfect position for the breakout season that everyone has been looking for from him, but he needs to prove himself capable. 

Finally, you’ve got to wonder how long it will take Richards to resume the experiment of getting Pouliot to actually play hockey.  Richards put Pouliot between Havlat and Sykora during the preseason and it paid immediate dividends.  The Wild had their fair share of offensive woes against Columbus, only filling the net once, and Richards will be under the gun to get the team producing more offense. 

Keys to the Game
The physical play will be a big part of this game.

Rule #32: Enjoy the Little Things

Rule #32: Enjoy the Little Things

Both teams are capable of getting down and dirty and really grinding it out and both teams have some heavy hitters on them.  This game is going to be won by the team that wins the physical battles.  This means that the Wild will need to not only match the Ducks’ physicality, but also remain disciplined.  When the game gets physical, it is all too easy to start a parade to the penalty box.  If the Wild can play physical, but remain disciplined, the parade could be towards the opposing penalty box.

Just like in Zombieland, one of the keys to winning in the NHL is to enjoy the little things. 

The Wild need to do just this. 

They need to win the battles that involve the “little things” that can lead to victory.  Winning faceoffs, forechecking, and Richards’ personal favorite buzzword, competing.  If the Wild can win the little battles, it will go a long way towards winning the game.

The Dreaded Season Preview

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

Camp is just around the corner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backstrom will once again be the backbone of the team.

Backstrom will once again be the backbone of the team.

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

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

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

Extras: Craig Weller, Benoit Pouliot

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

Extra: John Scott

Goaltending
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding

Nolan is a leader on and off the ice.

Nolan is a leader on and off the ice.

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

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

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

This is the standard expected of you.

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

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

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

Next Page »