The Minnesota Wild Season in Review Part 5 of 5: Looking Ahead

Well, it’s taken a lot longer than I’d expected, but here we are—part five of my five part season in review.

I’ve looked at the season on a whole, the forwards, the defense, the goaltenders, the management and now it’s time to take a look ahead to what this off season could bring.

The Wild have a long shopping list for this off season and not a whole lot of money to shop with. They currently have 17 players under contract and have restricted free agents Guillaume Latendresse and Josh Harding yet to sign.

Their shopping list will likely include another defenseman and at least one more forward, but likely two, just to be safe.

So, let’s look at what the team needs, shall we?

The first need that the team will try to address, for sure, will be another stay-at-home, shutdown defenseman. With six defensemen under contract and approximately $16.6 million allotted to these defensemen it’s hard to believe that the Wild will go out and spend on a top-flight free agent blueliner.

What I can see, however, is the Wild spending anywhere between one and two million on a defenseman that is reliable, but not flashy—someone that they can pair with their more aggressive, offensive defensemen.

The problem is that there aren’t too many players available with that description for that price tag.

Possible Targets: Milan Jurcina, Brett Lebda, Kurtis Foster

Another need that the team desperately needs is a second line center.

The Wild do already have someone within their organization that they are hoping will fit this bill in Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

The big question about Butch, however, is his health. While he has been cleared to begin light exercising, Bouchard is still experiencing many post-concussion symptoms.

With that being the case, I would expect the Wild to pursue a center looking to spend between two and four million on him.

With the impending departure of Mike Modano from Dallas, there are a few that are hoping for a nostalgic end to the former North Star’s career. In my opinion, that would be a huge mistake for the Wild.

While Modano would be a significant upgrade from James Sheppard, the fact remains that he’s 41 years old and his production has decreased significantly over the past few seasons.

What they do need, however, is a gritty, skilled center to play on their second line between Latendresse and Martin Havlat.

Possible Targets: Matthew Lombardi, Mike Comrie, Brendan Morrison, Chris Higgins

Another player that the Wild will likely look towards is a gritty forward to replace the likes of Andrew Ebbett, Owen Nolan and Derek Boogaard, all of whom will likely leave in free agency.

This is one thing that there are a lot of in this year’s free agent market.

They won’t have to pay a lot for these players, but these players are going to be invaluable to the Wild in the future and General Manager Chuck Fletcher knows this.

With the trade for Brad Staubitz, Fletcher has gotten some of this toughness but judging from how both the Ducks and the Penguins were built, and make no mistake that those teams had his finger prints all over them, he’s not done with this.

Possible Targets: Adam Burish, Raffi Torres, Colby Armstrong, Evgeny Artyukhin

Finally, I’d look for the Wild to take a shot at trying to acquire another top-six forward; probably a winger.

It won’t be any flashy signing like Ilya Kovalchuk, unless Fletcher can work some serious cap magic, but there is a definite need for a player that can score consistently to play alongside Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu on the team’s first line.

Again, I would expect the team to go after someone in the two to four million dollar range for this, as it’s going to need to make sense both economically as well as for the team on a whole.

Possible Targets: Marek Svatos, Alexander Frolov, Slava Kozlov, Alexei Ponikarovsky

Whatever the Wild does, there is going to be a sense of excitement surrounding the team come July 1.

It’s Christmas in July for NHL fans and fans in Minnesota are hoping that the Wild come out on top.

Post-Game Thoughts

So…We lost 4-1…BUT, we actually didn’t play too bad. 

We limited their chances and, were it not for a couple defensive gaffes, we might have been able to force overtime.  One goal was an empty netter and two of the remaining three were one timers where Backstrom didn’t have much of a chance on because he was moving laterally from down low to face a shooter that was up high – this is one of the hardest shots for a goalie to stop because they have to change both their positioning AND their angle.  The d-men have got to break up those passes to help Backs out, and they just didn’t tonight. 

Here are some thoughts: 

* Burnsie is starting to look like the old Burnsie again.  He got chances, he created plays, he played physical and he wasn’t a huge liability in the defensive zone.  A funky bounce got him caught pinching on Heatley’s beautiful goal and he just flat out gave Mitchell too much space on his goal, but he played much better than his minus-4 would indicate. 

* I’m always the first to jump to Backstrom’s defense, and I don’t think there was much that he could have done on all three of San Jose’s goals last night, but the Wild needed him to come up with a big save in the third and he couldn’t do it.  He made a couple really nice saves, and the goal in the third was by no means his fault…But that’s the biggest difference this season from last is that last season, he came up with the big save(s) when the team needed him to.  This season, for whatever reason, it’s just not there right now. 

* You could definitely tell that Wellman was a rookie last night.  He definitely didn’t play his best game.  He was all over the place (not really in a good way) and there were a few times where he extended his shifts when he really shouldn’t have.  It’ll come, and he’s got a ton of promise, but he’s got a lot to learn yet. 

* Latendresse continues to just be absolutely amazing.  He scored the lone goal last night and, honestly, if he doesn’t have an A on his chest sometime in the next couple years there’s something wrong.  You can tell that he’s getting more and more comfortable with the team and with the coaching staff because he’s much more vocal on the bench and on the ice now.  The thing that I love most about him?  He doesn’t have any flashy goal celebrations.  He pumps his fist, then he waits for his teammates to get there.  None of this jumping into the boards crap, no skating past the guy that fed him the puck to pretend he’s shooting an arrow off of his stick…He just wants to celebrate with his teammates.  THAT is why he’s going to be a successful player for us for years to come. 

* Clutterbuck was absolutely invisible last night.  I don’t know if he even got a hit…That’s how invisible he was. 

* The Wild need to find a consistent finisher to play with Koivu and Brunette.  Miettinen is good, but he looks lost out there with those two at times.  They need a Bertuzzi-like power forward to play with them (Bertuzzi back when he actually was a force to be reckoned with, not now)…Someone who can get to the tight areas on the ice.  The Sharks clamped down last night, but there were small openings around the net…We just need a player willing to get into those small openings and get the puck. 

* Richards was mixing and matching lines so much last night that I thought Lemaire was back behind the bench.  He was trying ANYTHING to get some offense going.  At one point, he even stuck Sheppard in on the first line between Bruno and Miettinen and put Koivu between Wellman and Nolan. 

* While we’re not mathematically eliminated, it’s going to be pretty darn hard for us to make the playoffs.  Essentially, we have to win out and even then we still aren’t guaranteed a spot.  The good news is, though, that we’ve got a very young team and next year will look a lot better.

The Mail Bag! And other stuff

Well alright.  Sorry about the delay in this post but, as many of you are sure to know, I was a touch busy over the last few weeks getting things ready for Hockey Primetime’s trade deadline day which, I’m excited to say, was a pretty large success. 

Thank you to J.P. Hoornstra, Scott Rosts, Denis Gorman, Justin Bourne and Ms. Conduct for helping out in our trade deadline blog, as well as Dave Turner and Sam P. Woo for their coverage on HPT Radio, as well as the kind folks at Primetime Radio for hosting our show. 

Let me tell you that, if you didn’t listen in, you missed one heck of a show.  The sound quality was top notch and the guests were on the same level.  My last shill of the day on this one…If you didn’t sign up on Primetime Radio yesterday, head on over there and register.  There’s some cool stuff that’s going to be going on the over the coming months I think. 

Mailbag 

Now, a while ago I asked for mailbag responses.  Well…I got a few and my response to these has been looooooooong overdue (at least by a month or so.)  So, with my sincere apologies, here are my responses to these mailbag questions. 

Not sure if these would be interesting to anyone but me… 

1. Why would the salary cap go down next year? Who and how do they decide that? 

2. During warm ups before a game – are guys assigned to certain jobs? I’ve noticed that Sheppard clears pucks out of the net and distributes them around the ice. Brunette passes pucks to guys once at a time and they each take a shot. Is this punishment for doing something the coach didn’t like? Or do they rotate these jobs? 

3. Can you explain (in short sentences) how waivers work? You hear that a player “was put on waivers” or “cleared waivers” but I haven’t figured out what that actually means and a Google search didn’t help! 

Thanks for any light you can shed on these questions. Feel free to ignore them if they are not blog worthy. 

– Laurie/Minnesotagirl71

Laurie, 

I can tell you that these questions were most certainly blog worthy.  The reason I know this is because I actually had to do a fair amount of research in order to actually answer these! 

1. The explanation for how the salary cap is set isn’t an easy one.  Basically, there is a cap ceiling and floor.  You can’t go above the ceiling or below the floor.  This is determined by the assignment of a percentage of “hockey-related” revenues to player salaries.  The ceiling is the maximum percentage that the league allocates to player salaries, while the floor is defined as $16 million below the cap.  This is decided by the NHL front offices, though I believe that the Board of Governors also has a say in this. 

Basically, the reason that the cap would go down is based upon league revenues.  If the league gains money, the cap is likely to go up.  If it loses money, the cap is likely to either remain static or decrease. 

While I don’t have a line into the revenues of the league, my guess for this coming season is that the cap will remain static or drop a bit due to the hard economic times.  Not an indictment of anyone or anything in particular.  Just the reality of things. 

2. You’re in for a treat on this one, Laurie, because this comes straight from the horse’s mouth.  Justin Bourne of Bourne’s Blog has been gracious enough to answer this question from first hand experience: 

The jobs are pretty random – some guys like to be more focused and not worry about that sort of thing, while some guys like having an extra little role.  In general, the captain (or one of the assistants) will fish the pucks out of the net.  They’re sort of expected to, but if they don’t want to, they’ll just delegate – ask anyone in the dressing room if anyone wants to.  The drill where there’s one puck, and one player will pass it to whoever from behind the goal line for a bit, that’s a different one.  If takes more skating and effort, but for me, I liked doing that job because it made me move a bit, something I normally wouldn’t make myself do in warmup (also, it’s a little reminder of who is which hand).  Its definitely not punishment.  Just a team working out what works best for all the guys.  Somebody’s gotta do it! 

3. Ah yes, waivers.  According to the current CBA, a player is exempt from waivers based upon this chart:

 

Now, if that was as clear as mud, the bottom line is this.  If you are a goalie and are on your NHL club at the age of 18, you have six years or 80 games (whichever comes first) in which you are exempt from passing through waivers.  For a skater at age 18, you have five years or 160 games (again, whichever comes first).  This counts for both regular season and playoff games. 

It is counted as a season if a player plays more than 11 games in that season, which is why you can see players re-assigned to juniors after playing ten games etc. 

If that doesn’t make much sense, don’t worry.  I’m pretty sure 90% of general managers don’t truly understand it either. 

But, here’s the good part.  After a player is placed on waivers, there is a 24-hour period in which they can be claimed by another team.  If only one waiver claim is made on a player, they will be transferred to the club making the waiver claim.  If multiple waiver claims are made, the player will be transferred to the club that has the lowest point percentage at the time that the waiver claim was made.  So, for example, if Teams A, B and C make waiver claims on the same player, Team A has 6 points in 3 games, Team B has 3 points in 3 games and Team C has 2 points in 1 game, Team B would be awarded the transfer since they have the lowest percentage of points, not the lowest total points. 

Hopefully that’s shed some light on it for you! 

1. Any idea what big names will be free agents after the season and of those who if any can you see the Wild going after? 

2. I’ve become a pretty big Wild fan this season, I live in Kansas City, but grew up in Houston who houses the AHL affiliate Aeros, which is how I choose the Wild as my NHL team.  My question is what is the relationship between the Aeros & the Wild.  Are they co-owned?  Is there a five year lease as affiliate?  Can I expect Houston to still be the AHL affiliate 5 years, 10 years from now assuming Houston doesn’t get the Coyotes or go belly up? 

Will see Wild live for first time when they play Blues Jan. 14th, can’t wait! 

–Brian

Brian, I hope to hear soon about how you enjoyed your first Wild game!  If you ever want to experience how a Wild game is supposed to be viewed live, too, definitely come up and see a game at the X.  It’s well worth the trip. 

1. For free agents this summer, I don’t know that you’ll see the Wild make a huge splash.  Right now, the salary cap is expected to stay relatively close to what it is now ($56.8 million), and the Wild have about $45.454 million already spent towards the cap next season on 15 players.  What that boils down to is that it’s going to be tough for the Wild to get any huge acquisitions with around $11 million to spend on eight players. 

That being said, Fletcher has been very good at finding the right players for the right prices, so nothing is out of the question.  With our first two lines fairly cemented, I think you’ll see Fletcher take a stab at some quality depth players this season unless he can manage to talk a player like an Ilya Kovalchuk or a Patrick Marleau into a long-term, cap-friendly contract. 

The splash I think you’ll see the Wild make (and make no mistake, we need to make one) will be in the trade department.  We have restricted free agents Josh Harding and James Sheppard to potentially shop (Harding’s job is easily replaced for cheaper by Anton Khudobin, while Sheppard has never quite caught on here) and he has proved that he’s willing to pull the trigger on deals.  While no teams inquired about Harding at the trade deadline, he could be a very tempting player for teams who are going to have vacancies in net in the offseason. 

2. To the best of my knowledge, Houston and Minnesota are both owned and run by Minnesota Sports & Entertainment. 

While Houston does have their own executive staff, they are owned and run by MSE and managed by assistant General Manager to the Wild, Jim Mill.  While some affiliates are agreed to as a business deal, it appears that the Wild actually own the Aeros and it would stand to reason that their relationship would be one that would be longer than just a lease. 

Trade Deadline 

Alright.  Now that I’ve actually answered my mail (I promise a more timely mailbag next time around), we’re on to the move made yesterday by the Wild. 

Plain and simple, it was inevitable that Belanger would be moved.  He had not been contacted for talks by the Wild and, despite his interest in staying there was no interest in retaining him. 

To get a second round draft pick for a player of Belanger’s caliber is, in my opinion, a huge windfall for the Wild.  If you would have asked me if we would have gotten that high of a pick for him a few days ago, I would have laughed in your face. 

It’s a win for Belanger because he gets to go to a contender, it’s a win for Washington because they get a solid defensive forward and it’s a win for the Wild because they get to make out like a bandit with a shiny new draft pick. 

More importantly, though, I like the Wild’s trade deadline for the move that they didn’t make. 

They didn’t trade Owen Nolan. 

That tells you how much respect he has by the players, the coaching staff and the management.  Quite simply, he has earned the chance at a contract extension and I applaud Chuck Fletcher for giving him that opportunity.  I have been fairly outspoken in my belief that the Wild should afford Nolan every opportunity to retire in a Minnesota sweater, and it appears that they will do just that. 

Next up for the Wild are the Edmonton Oilers on Friday at 8pm CST.

The Minnesota Wild Trade Deadline Primer

The Olympics are just a few days from being over, and the Minnesota Wild have hit the ice once more, practicing together for the first time since the Olympic freeze on Wednesday. 

Looking at the standings, the Wild have a daunting task ahead of them.  With 21 games remaining, they sit five points out of the playoff race and, seeing Kim Johnsson shipped out to Chicago, are looking more and more like they will be sellers at the March 3 trade deadline. 

As Hockey Reference shows, the Wild’s chances of making the playoffs are slipping drastically. 

The bottom line remains that the Wild simply are not consistent enough to be in the playoff picture this season.  They cannot sustain any sort of solid effort on the ice in a single game, much less in a stretch of games. 

Keeping that in mind, here is a look at the players that the Wild could potentially move and what their going rate might be. 

Owen Nolan: After Johnsson, Nolan is probably the next “big ticket” item that the Wild have to offer. 

I know what you’re thinking.  14 goals, 28 points?  How is Nolan a big ticket item? 

I’ll tell you how. 

65 playoff games. 

He’s been there and done that, plain and simple.  At the trade deadline, playoff contenders are typically looking at two things.  Veteran leadership and either defensive help or scoring punch (depending on the team’s needs). 

Nolan brings both veteran leadership and the ability to score clutch and timely goals.  He has been a key part of the Wild’s locker room this season and a great number of Wild fans will be extremely sad to see him go; however, he is a player that the Wild could get some good assets for the future for. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $598K 

Expected Return: Prospects and/or picks 

Eric Belanger: Belanger is having one of the best seasons of his career.  He’s just two points off of his career high in points and assists and he’s been a huge asset defensively for the Wild. 

He also has something else that playoff teams tend to look for. 

He can win faceoffs. 

If there’s a big draw to be taken, Belanger will be in on it.  He’s been a large part of many of the Wild’s successful runs this season and has also started showing a bit of a gritty side to his game. 

As a penalty killer, he’s one of the better ones on the Wild’s squad and has started to exhibit that he has the hands to be a threat on the offensive side of things as well. 

In addition, Belanger has the added upside of still being relatively young (or, at least compared to Nolan).  If the fit is good enough, there’s the potential for the team to get a couple more solid years from him after the trade. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $390K 

Expected Return: Depth roster player and/or pick(s) 

James Sheppard: Wild fans will attest to the fact that Sheppard’s stock has fallen like a rock this season. 

Sheppard has gone from the asking price for Olli Jokinen to being less tradable than Benoit Pouliot (which, in Wild fans eyes, was saying quite a bit).  

If there’s one thing that Chuck Fletcher has proven, though, it’s that he’s more than willing to move a player that might need a change of scenery and Sheppard could use just that. 

I’m firm in my belief that he can be successful somewhere—I just don’t think that somewhere is in Minnesota. 

Sheppard was touted as the “next big thing” for the Wild, and he certainly hasn’t turned into that.  Fans have begun to tire of seeing him on the ice, to the point where many would rather see Derek Boogaard get Sheppard’s ice time. 

The bottom line is that Sheppard needs to play somewhere where the expectations facing him are tempered, and that place isn’t in Minnesota. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $312K 

Expected Return: Struggling young roster player 

Derek Boogaard: I’m putting Boogaard on this list because there is the chance that he could get moved, but I’ll say this right now. 

The chance is slim-to-none. 

Boogaard is one of the most feared enforcers in the game on a team that lacks a suitable replacement and is earning ice time this season. 

While it’s a possibility, it certainly isn’t probable. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $212K 

Expected Return: Late round draft pick 

Shane Hnidy: The Sherriff has been an excellent addition to the Wild’s blueline this season, but two facts remain. 

One, he’s been an excellent addition, meaning that he would be an excellent and cheap addition to a team needing defensive help and two, what he brings to the team can be done by either a) Clayton Stoner or b) Jaime Sifers. 

If any team is looking for an injury filler or depth on the blueline, Hnidy can certainly fill that need and fill it quite well. 

In addition, he has gotten more playing time this season on the offensive side of things (more notably, on the powerplay) and has exhibited an extremely heavy (if not very accurate) shot from the point. 

While the return for Hnidy probably wouldn’t be great, he could be a low risk, high reward pick up for someone in need of a d-man. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $167K 

Expected Return: Mid-to-late round draft pick 

John Scott: Let’s face it.  Scottie won’t be on the team next season. 

He’s regressed this season in terms of the ability that he brought to the table that had the Wild keep him around, but he’s moved forward in his enforcer ability—something that teams may be looking for. 

He brings toughness and he can play solid defense, if you don’t take into account his lack of skating ability. 

Scott is the more likely of the two “big men” that the Wild have to be moved, as he quickly became expendable on the blueline—even moreso with the emergence of Stoner. 

Scott could easily be a boon to a team looking to increase its toughness heading into the playoffs. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $123K 

Expected Return: Late round draft pick 

Josh Harding: Harding is the player that he Wild will likely look to shop the hardest, especially with the emergence of Anton Khudobin this season. 

Hards had a tough start to the season, but has rebounded nicely and if there is one thing that teams love heading into the playoffs, it’s a capable, young backup that can take over in the case of injury (see: Cam Ward). 

Harding can provide that for a team and deserves the chance to be someone’s goaltender of the future because, with Backstrom planted in net for the Wild and Khudobin and Matthew Hackett coming up behind up, the Wild’s net is starting to get a little crowded. 

Harding is a restricted free agent this coming off season and would be a tremendous pick up for just about any team looking to improve in net. 

Estimated Cap Hit: $245K 

Expected Return: Roster player and/or prospects or picks

The Draft Picks/Prospects: Fletcher has said that he’s not interesting in trading picks or prospects for players; however, he will be willing to part with picks or prospects if the price is right. 

If he can get a good, young player that can have a future on this club, he will not hesitate to pull the trigger, even if it involves a pick or a prospect. 

While it may be maddening to some, it is a stark contrast to the strategy of Doug Risebrough, and ultimately leads to the line… 

In Chuck We Trust.

Owen Nolan is Too Important for the Wild to Trade

The trade deadline is looming, and with the moves made in the past couple days by the Maple Leafs and the Rangers, it looks like everyone’s trying to get an early jump on the trading. 

The trades that have been made would likely be considered blockbusters, but it is rarely the blockbuster trade that wins one a Stanley Cup.  The trades that win the cup are the ones for crafty veterans that have been there before.  Players like Doug Weight and Mark Recchi, or Billy Guerin, or Owen Nolan. 

That’s right, Wild fans.  Our very own Cowboy has the potential to be a trade deadline move, and why shouldn’t he? 

Throughout his career, this crafty veteran has been a 20+ goal scorer ten, count them, ten times and is on pace for that mark yet again this season. 

He’s proven with the Wild over these last two seasons that, while he may not be the player he was in his prime, he still has plenty of tread left on the tires. 

So, if they’re out of contention, why shouldn’t the Wild trade him?  He’ll likely be one of the more valuable rentals that this team has to offer, and his cap hit will be very palatable for just about any team looking for some veteran scoring punch. 

He’s been to the playoffs before and has shown that he can still bring the grit that made him one of the game’s most feared power forwards. 

So, again, why shouldn’t General Manager Chuck Fletcher look at trading him? 

Because he is arguably the most important player to the Minnesota Wild. 

Say what you will about this, but trading Owen Nolan would be akin to ripping the heart out of this young, inexperienced Wild roster. 

Nolan brings to this team something that they simply don’t have a whole lot of.  Winning experience. 

Even if the team is out of contention, trading Nolan sends one message to every single young player in the Wild’s locker room: “We don’t believe that you can win.” 

Meanwhile, Nolan continues to lead this team on and off the ice, regardless of whether or not he has the C on his chest.  With all due respect to Mikko Koivu, it is Nolan that is the captain of this team.  

This is no more apparent than in his comments to the Star-Tribune regarding the trade deadline. 

“We’re in a battle here. We’re in a good race. If we stick to our guns, we’ll be in,” Nolan said. “I can’t worry about [being traded] at all. This is my team. This is who I play hard for. We’re right there. There’s no reason why we can’t make the playoffs and I can stay.” 

Sure, it’s the right thing to say.  Sure, every other player in the locker room would likely say the same thing.  But with Nolan?  There’s something about his attitude, his words that lets you know that he really means it. 

“This is my team.” 

That says it all.  There’s no extra words, no extra justification.  Just the simple statement that this is his team. 

Last season, the signing of Nolan was looked at by many as a move made by a desperate general manager who was unable to sign anyone of value, and maybe that’s what it was, but when Marian Gaborik went down for the majority of the season, it was Nolan who picked up the slack. 

The Wild’s poor December last season? 

In Nolan’s absence. 

Their record this season when the grumpy old man doesn’t suit up? 

2-3-0, averaging just two goals for per game. 

Quite honestly, the team needs Nolan not only for his on-ice presence, but for what he brings to the locker room and, in the end, that is why the team needs to keep him. 

Not for any on-ice boost that he might give them, but for the leadership and mentoring ability that he has and is able to impart on the youngsters on this team. 

That is why the Wild should not and, in my opinion, cannot trade Nolan. 

That is why Nolan should have a spot on this roster as long as he wants to play.

Gameday Thread – Game 43 – Wild @ ‘Hawks

If anyone needed a break, it was the Minnesota Wild. 

After a hot December that saw them tally ten victories (a team record for the month), the team proceeded to lose three games in five days, looking like a very tired team for the majority of those games. 

But a two-day break in the Windy City and the presence of their fathers has the team rejuvenated and ready for action against the team that is arguably the best in the league—the Chicago Blackhawks. 

The Wild have an extremely daunting task in front of them, as their loss on Saturday to the New Jersey Devils kicked off a month of January in which nine of the team’s 14 games are against teams that are currently in playoff contention and three more are against teams currently ahead of them in the standings. 

In other words, January will be a good measuring stick for just how good this Wild team actually is. 

The good news for the Wild is that Brent Burns has made this trip with the team and, though he didn’t practice, he is getting closer and closer every day to returning. 

What’s more is that, by all accounts, the Wild held one of their hardest working practices of the season yesterday—in large part because of the presence of their fathers.  The speculation following practice was that the Wild would have heard it afterwards if they didn’t, and I suspect the same will go for tonight’s game. 

As for tonight’s game, the Wild will be facing a Blackhawks team that has won three straight and eight of their last ten.  In fact, there’s not much that has not been going right for the ‘Hawks this season. 

Lineup(s)
I haven’t heard of what the lines might or might not be for the Wild but; the injuries have been talked about.  While Burns travelled, he is still out with a concussion.  In addition, the Wild might be down one of their more important players and team leaders in Owen Nolan, who is questionable for tonight’s game.  Assuming that Nolan doesn’t go, here’s my attempt at the forward lines: 

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

I think that, in the case of these lines, you could easily see James Sheppard and Cal Clutterbuck switch spots.  First, because Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak have some absolutely sick chemistry with one another and second, because Sheppard is more of a playmaking-type player—something that could be important to getting sniper Petr Sykora rolling after returning from his concussion. 

In addition, don’t be surprised if Sykora gets some shifts on Martin Havlat’s opposite wing, with Belanger in between them.  The three were showing some fantastic chemistry before Sykora went down and it took the Wild a while to find some other players that fit with Havlat.  That said, Havlat is riding a four-game points streak and has five goals and 15 points in his last 15 games, most of which has come playing with Andrew Ebbett and Guillaume Latendresse. 

On the other hand, if Nolan is able to go tonight, I’d expect the casualty to be Derek Boogaard due, in large part, to his lack of mobility. 

As for defense, I doubt you’ll see much of a change there.  Clayton Stoner has recovered from his tweaked groin and continues to gain the confidence of the coaching staff.  While he’s cooled off from his “call up” hot streak, Stoner has continued to play solid, physical defense—something that has endeared him to the coaching staff and the fans. 

In addition, against the ‘Hawks quick forward group, I’d be surprised if the Wild rolled out John Scott who, as with Boogaard, isn’t the most mobile member of the team. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Schultz-Johnsson
Stoner-Hnidy 

In nets, expect to see Josh Harding who will give Niklas Backstrom a much needed break following performances that have seen him give up three goals in six of his last seven games. 

Especially in his last few games, Backstrom simply looked tired and, because of this, I would expect Harding to be in the cage tonight regardless of the score—especially with an ever-important divisional match up coming tomorrow night. 

What to Watch For
Keep an eye on the Wild’s defense tonight.  Against both Los Angeles and New Jersey, they didn’t give their goaltenders much help and that will need to change in a big way against Chicago’s high octane offense. 

As was mentioned earlier, the Wild’s fathers are on this trip and I would expect the team (and the defense especially) to play a solid, blue collared, hockey game—lots of hitting, lots of good positioning and lots of hard work. 

For the Wild, keep an eye on the usual suspects—Havlat, Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette. 

These three players have been three of the Wild’s hottest players of late, with Koivu picking up the Wild on his shoulders and shouldering much of their offensive load. 

The dark horse for the Wild, however, is defenseman Marek Zidlicky. 

While ‘Z’ has driven Wild fans crazy with his play in his own zone, he has certainly come into his own this season and is playing much better defense than he did last season.  His pairing with Greg Zanon has turned into the Wild’s top defensive unit and he is showing that he is a true asset moving the puck. 

In his last five games, Zidlicky has six assists and is a plus-one.  He has had the hot passing hand and his ability to break the puck out will be crucial to the Wild’s transition game. 

Key(s) to the Game
Which leads me into the first key to the game. 

The Wild need to, need to, need to get their transition game going early.  They are simply not going to get a whole lot of quality chances against the Blackhawks team and are going to be pressured early and often. 

The Blackhawks give up just over 24 shots per game, while taking around 33.  For the Wild to win, they are going to need to take advantage of the ‘Hawks aggressiveness and catch them pinching.  If they can do that, they can get quality chances against this team.  If they can’t, though, they might not be seeing too many of their pucks hitting the net. 

Anyone who watched the Winter Classic can tell you that a solid transition game can change the tempo and the momentum of the game and that a solid transition game can win the game. 

My second key to the game is discipline. 

The Wild need to a) hope that Chicago remains disciplined and b) remain disciplined themselves. 

The reason I say this is twofold.  The Wild’s powerplay, of late, has largely been a momentum killer for the team.  Much of this likely has to do with the loss of Brent Burns on the blueline but, on a whole, the Wild’s powerplay has been ineffective. 

For the ‘Hawks, however, their powerplay has been buzzing of late, having converted at least one opportunity in each of its last seven games.  The team is 8-for-25 during that time—an impressive 32% clip.   

Finally, it is paramount in this game that the Wild get out to a good start.  This is a very potent offensive team that they are playing and stumbling out of the gates could very well lose the game for them.  

Minnesota has not started well for most of the season and it is very important that they get their legs under them early.  They need to slow down Chicago with physical play and they need to grind it out with them, plain and simple. 

The puck drops tonight at 7pm CST on Versus.

Reminder: I’ll be answering my first Wild Nation mailbag here next week.  If you have any questions or comments, be sure to send them to blake.benzel@hockeyprimetime.com.  So far, I’ve gotten just one response, but I’m confident that I have more than one reader, so be sure to send in your questions.

Wild Fall to Bruins 2-1 in Shootout

Finish, finish, finish.

No, I’m not talking about the Finnish trio of Niklas Backstrom, Mikko Koivu and Antti Miettinen.

Instead, I’m talking about the Wild’s lack of finishing skills.

Once again, on Wednesday night, the Wild were stymied by the “hot hand” in net as the team failed to score more than two goals for the eleventh time in 23 games.  Despite outshooting the Bruins by a margin of 29-16, the only goal that the Wild could muster was newcomer Andrew Ebbett’s tip-in goal just over halfway through the second period.

Ebbett managed to impress early and often in this one, as his speed and his skill shone through as he centered the team’s best line of the evening, playing pivot to Owen Nolan and James Sheppard.

After being placed on waivers twice so far in this young season, once by Anaheim and once by Chicago, Ebbett tipped an Owen Nolan shot past Rask to tie the game at one.

This is the second time this month that the Wild has failed to capitalize on a big win after a long layoff – the first being the month’s first game against Vancouver.

In addition to their injury problems, which have been well documented, the Wild skated a man down in Wednesday’s game due to a late illness to Miettinen, making him a late scratch.

You wouldn’t have guessed that the Wild were a man down on the evening by their effort, however.  The team came out strong and controlled play, not allowing the Bruins to have a shot on goal until 6:30 of the first period.

The Bruins made the shot count, however, as Byron Bitz tipped a shot from the point by Derek Morris past Backstrom to give them the early lead.

Despite tying it in the second, the Wild could never quite get the edge on the Bruins and the game went to an extra frame for the third time in the last six games and, just as in the other two, the Wild suddenly became inept in the shootout.

The story of the game, however, was the play of Tuukka Rask who was starting his fifth straight game in the absence of the injured Tim Thomas.  Rask stopped 28 shots in all, including five in overtime (one of which was a marvelous chance by Mikko Koivu at point-blank range) and three of four shootout chances.  With the victory,  Rask improved to 7-2-1 in the season, while Backstrom fell to 8-9-3 on the season with the loss.

The Wild play again at 1 pm CST against the Colorado Avalance on Nov. 27.

Wild Notes: James Sheppard once again played a strong game at wing, getting his second assist in two games and giving him a season-high two-game point streak. … Guillaume Latendresse, the player the Wild received in exchange for Benoit Pouliot, is currently unavailable to the team due to work visa issues.  The team hopes that the issues will be resolved in time for the team’s annual day-after-Thanksgiving matinee on Friday against the Colorado Avalanche. … Pierre-Marc Bouchard met briefly with Boston’s Patrice Bergeron Wednesday morning.  Bergeron, who has missed large parts of the last two seasons with concussions, had advice and some encouragement for Bouchard.  Bouchard has only played in one game this season due to a concussion. … After starting the season with just one goal and two assists in 11 games, Owen Nolan has five goals and three assists in his last 12 games. … Wednesday’s game was Shane Hnidy’s 499th career game. … In addition to Miettinen being sidelined due to injury, the Wild were missing Martin Havlat, Brent Burns, Petr Sykora and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, all due to injuries.

It’s Time for A Change

Hockey sticks beware.  The Minnesota Wild are on the prowl. 

At least, that’s what yesterday’s practice showed, according to Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune. 

At the X yesterday, the Wild underwent an extremely physical practice that caused tempers to run high.  Sticks were broken, slammed against the glass and, in the case of Mikko Koivu, airmailed to the fourth row. 

Richards told reporters afterwards that he’s decided to change his tone after a sleepless night following the team’s loss to Phoenix.  Apparently someone has finally realized that coaxing this team to be better just doesn’t work. 

Let’s be honest here.  Jacques Lemaire was ten times the coach that Richards is at this point in his career.  Lemaire couldn’t do it last year, so why would Richards be able to do it this year? 

Just as Brent Sutter awakened the Calgary Flames with a physical series of practices, Richards hopes to do the same to the Wild, and if there’s any team that needs it, it’s Minnesota. 

On paper, this team isn’t much different from the team that was mere points from making the playoffs last season.  Our lines are even looking very similar to last year’s team at this point.  The most auspicious change was supposed to be the coach, who would take the reins off. 

So far, the reins are off, but the results are much the same—only this time, the defense isn’t playing airtight like they have in the past. 

For a team that wanted to play a fast, physical style coming into this season (much like the Anaheim Ducks team that won the Stanley Cup), they have spent much of the season losing battles on a regular basis.  It has been very rare for a puck to be contested in the corner and have a Wild player come out with it. 

But this “new” Richards might spark something in the team.  To my knowledge, the team has been coddled for most of their careers.  Just look at Brent Burns and Mikko Koivu.  When anyone talks about them, all you hear is how much potential these two young superstars have. 

You always hear about how great of a leader that Koivu is, or how dynamic a talent Burns is. 

But you never hear that Koivu may not have been the best pick for the captain of the team this season, or how Burns tries to do so much on the ice that he is frequently not ready when the game starts going back towards his own end.

The Wild need a change, and the change needs to start at the coaching level right now.  The staff needs to stop coddling their golden boys. 

Just look at James Sheppard.  Is confidence is obviously very, very fragile right now.  He’s playing soft and he’s playing tentative—in other words, he’s not really playing. 

But why not drive home the point with him in practice?  Why wouldn’t you send him into a puck battle drill with a John Scott or a Derek Boogaard, or even Owen Nolan?  Why wouldn’t you send him into a puck battle and tell him that he’s not stopping until he gets the puck? 

Why wouldn’t you take a stick, tape it to Benoit Pouliot’s hands and tell him that you’re not taking it off until he starts focusing on his shot and shooting like he’s capable of?  Why wouldn’t you do that with Martin Havlat? 

All that has been talked about this season by the media is how bad this team is, but all that has been talked about by the team is how bad they’ve been playing.  There’s an obvious disconnect there.  This team doesn’t think that they’re not good and, honestly, neither do I.  

But what needs to happen on a player level is that players need to begin taking accountability for their actions on the ice. 

Yes, the coaching staff needs to give these guys a swift kick in the backside, but once that has been done the players need to step up and be accountable. 

There is no better example than that of Brent Burns. 

Mysteriously, Burns simply disappears after a poor performance.  He doesn’t talk to the media or even address them—he just disappears. 

To be quite honest, running and hiding isn’t a trait you’d want in your worst player, let alone one who is supposed to be one of your superstars. 

The team needs to stand up and be accountable for their actions.  This isn’t a mandate that needs to come from the coaching staff, however.  This is one that needs to come from within. 

Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette.  These are the players this needs to come from.  Koivu and Havlat.  These are the players this needs to come from. 

A locker room wide mandate that, no matter what the outcome of the game is, you’re sitting at your stall after the game facing the music.  It doesn’t matter if you win 6-1 or if you lose 6-1, you’re sitting at your stall, answering questions. 

But that’s not going to happen.  At least not yet. 

For that to happen, the main offenders would have to have some modicum of mental toughness. 

But the mental toughness won’t start coming until the team begins to show some physical toughness. 

Maybe that’s what Richards wants to start stressing in his practices.  Physical, beat down, drag out wars.  I, for one, certainly hope so because I, for one, am sick of watching this team under perform on a nightly basis. 

Hopefully the Wild will eventually get to the point where they are too.

UPDATED: Koivu Named Captain

Today the Minnesota Wild announced 26-year old Mikko Koivu as the first ever permanent captain in team history. 

When Koivu’s on, I love the way that he plays the game.  He’s a solid two-way center that can set players up, bury the puck and check.  He’s easily one of the top players and leaders on the team. 

So why am I so disappointed in this move? 

We all knew that this move was coming.  Koivu had been anointed as the captain of this team ever since Brian Rolston packed his bags and moved back to New Jersey.  Under Lemaire’s rotating captaincy last season, Koivu wore the C on his chest four months out of the season, during which the team shined with 31-19-6 record. 

Truth be told, however, I was hoping that the team would forego his expected crowning for another season. 

The main reason why, I think, is because of how Koivu reacted last season when he didn’t have the C on his chest. 

As captain, the young Finn played inspired hockey last season.  The letter on his chest seemed to give him an air about him that said “I don’t care who else is on the ice.  I’m the best player out here.”  Without the C last season and, so far this season, that confidence has yet to show up. 

Maybe this move will spark something in him.  Maybe it will cause him to realize that it’s time for him to step up like he did last season, and maybe that’s why the move was made. 

But last season, when Koivu didn’t have the C on his chest, he looked lost, just as he has this season.  This is something that I feel that the team should have addressed prior to giving him this honor. 

Now my views on this may differ from many.  Personally, I see the captain of the team primarily as a figurehead—someone who is there to talk to the refs and act as that liaison between the refs and the rest of their team.  To me, the test of a true leader is not whether you lead when you are looked at to lead and expected to lead, but instead whether or not you lead when you are not expected to. 

I haven’t been in the Wild locker room but, in my opinion, Koivu has simply not done that throughout his career. 

But now the die has been cast and its Koivu’s responsibility to be THE leader on and off the ice for this team. 

He was chosen for this honor over seasoned veterans such as Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan—two players who have been there and done that. 

Koivu has many, if not most, of the traits that you look for in a captain.  He’s got a natural leadership and charisma that many people are immediately drawn to.  He has the respect of his teammates.  He is talented and motivated. 

But he does not have the experience. 

Koivu has not yet experienced making it out of the first round of the playoffs.  In fact, he only has a handful of playoff games to his name. 

Should this be the only thing that the coach looks at when deciding the captain?  Certainly not. 

But on a team that is struggling, whether or not this player knows how to win when the going gets tough should be a factor, and the going doesn’t get any tougher than winning in the playoffs. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying this is a horrible choice. 

Of the players that the Wild were likely considering, I don’t know that there was a bad choice among them.  Koivu is going to be a fantastic captain for this team, hopefully for a long, long time. 

But for where the team is at right now, I would have just preferred a player that had a little more experience in winning and winning under adversity.

Gameday Thread – Game 3 – Wild @ Kings

The Minnesota Wild spent their first 100 minutes of this season looking like a team that was out of sorts. 

That all changed in about 23 minutes on Tuesday night, when the Wild dominated the Anaheim Ducks for the third period and the overtime period, coming from three goals down to win 4-3 in overtime. 

They will try to capitalize on the momentum gained when they visit the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, who swept the season series last year. 

The Wild are a team still trying to gel, and this could be a crucial road trip for them in terms of team unity. 

“I’d much rather have a road trip early on,” Head Coach Todd Richards told reporters.  “We’ll have a dinner in Anaheim, I know the guys are planning something on Sunday, we have a day off in San Jose, so they’ll be doing something as a group and spend some time together.” 

To a team that is still finding its identity, this time together should prove invaluable. 

Lineups
With Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Derek Boogaard both on the shelf with injuries, don’t expect to see any changes to the team’s lineup. 

That said, the Wild experimented with lines on Tuesday night’s game and Richards liked what he saw and will likely run these same lines in Thursday’s game. 

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

Schultz-Johnsson
Burns-Zanon
Hnidy-Zidlicky 

Backstrom
Harding 

I would expect Harding to get his first start of the season on this road trip as well.  My expectation would be that it would be in Edmonton – a building that Niklas Backstrom is notorious for having trouble in. 

UPDATE: Looks like I was right about one thing.  Harding will get a start on this road trip, but he’ll start in net tonight.  Sounds like Richards wants to go with the 1A and 1B approach.  What does this mean for the team?  Look for Backstrom to get around 55-60 starts this season.

While the Kings lineup hasn’t been released yet, it appears as if former Wild captain Sean O’Donnell will be back from his five-game suspension.  The odd man out will be Peter Harrold. 

In net expect to see Jonathan Quick, who is 3-0-0 lifetime against Minnesota with a 1.95 GAA. 

What to Watch For
Both LA and Minnesota are coming off of huge wins.

Both teams are going to be looking to build off of this momentum and LA will be looking to cap their three-game homestand with a victory. 

Keep an eye on the Nolan line tonight.  Nolan and Sheppard displayed a great deal of chemistry with one another during training camp and Nolan has taken Sheppard under his wing to try to improve the young forward’s game.  Both Nolan and Sheppard have played two solid games to start the season, but both have been held off the scoresheet to date. 

This is no big concern for Nolan, however, who took some time to get going last season.  For Sheppard, however, it is crucial that he start getting his confidence going and start getting some points.  He has displayed some great play so far this season and once he gets going, the flood gates are going to open. 

The Kings have been running a third line that, honestly, is by name only.  The line of Handzus-Frolov-Simmonds will likely get a lot of time against the Wild’s top scoring line.  Against San Jose, this line was the spark plug that really got the team going and the Wild’s top lines will need to be solid defensively to prevent this from happening. 

Keys to the Game
Special teams. 

Four of the Wild’s five goals this season have been scored on the powerplay and the Kings penalty kill is 2 for 7 so far this season. 

The Wild have the luxury of being able to run a number of different combinations both on the powerplay and on the penalty kill, allowing them to give teams a lot of different looks.  This will be key towards getting on the board against a goalie that has had a lot of success against the Wild. 

While special teams will be key in determining the outcome of this game, the Wild need to find their scoring touch when even strength as well.  It was the Achilles’ heel of this team last season and they need to find their scoring touch when 5-on-5 if they want to be successful. 

Again, doing the little things right is going to be important for the Wild. 

The team is winning just under 55% of their faceoffs this season – something that helped them complete their comeback on Tuesday night.  The team is finally winning big draws and, because of that, are giving themselves more scoring opportunities and preventing more as well. 

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

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