The Minnesota Wild Season in Review Part 4 of 5: The Management

Well, we’re just about there. The NHL Draft.

On Friday, the front offices from all 30 NHL teams will be together in one place for two straight days, drafting and wheeling and dealing.

They’ll be looking for the best fits for their organizations and, suffice it to say, this is as good a time as any for us to talk about the coaching and front office of the Wild this season.

Granted, this season wasn’t the easiest for either the management or the fans. The management (namely Todd Richards and Chuck Fletcher) had to deal with players that weren’t necessarily the right fit for their system while the fans had to suffer through a team that wasn’t necessarily playing at the top of their game because of this.

That being said, I have some strong opinions about this, so let’s get started.

Head Coach
If you’ve read anything I’ve written over this past season, you know that I was very underwhelmed with the first NHL season of Todd Richards.

Richards came to the Wild with a winning pedigree and a reputation of being a “winner.” He hadn’t missed the playoffs in his career and he was sold to fans as a coach that would make the team competitive right away.

What ended up happening, though, is that Richards just couldn’t get through to the team.

While it was expected that Richards would push the team hard during training camp and that pushing would allow the team to pick up his new, up-tempo system quicker, it was very apparent that the team was not comfortable with this system, even heading into the Olympic break.

Now, whether this is an indictment of Richards’ ability to get through to the team or just a matter of the conditioning of Jacques Lemaire not wearing off as quickly as they had hoped is a matter that is up for debate. My personal opinion, however, is that it was the former.

Richards often looked lost on the bench, especially early on in the season. He didn’t look like a man who had control of his players early on—he looked like a man who was searching for answers and finding none.

Maybe it’s because I was used to the demeanor of Lemaire, who typically wore his emotions on his sleeve, behind the bench but Richards’ cool and calm demeanor oftentimes came off as aloofness and confusion rather than someone who knew what to expect from his team.

To Richards’ credit, the team suffered through a rash of injuries this season that was fairly spectacular (to the tune of 300+ man games lost to injury) and he had to work with what he had, but I never got the feeling that he was quite in control of the team the way that a coach should be.

That being said, as the season progressed, Richards seemed to control the bench much better and get much more comfortable both being vocal with his players on the bench as well as with the referees.

As the team progressed and got more comfortable with Richards and his system, Richards got more comfortable behind the bench and it showed.

The biggest moment that, in my opinion, defined the beginning of his season was the Petr Sykora debacle.

Sykora came to Minnesota on the hopes that he would provide both goal scoring and a player to mix with newly acquired Martin Havlat but, for whatever reason, Sykora never really got that chance.

Now, to be fair to Richards, I don’t know the behind the scenes goings on of the team. Sykora could have been dragging down the locker room with his attitude or he could have not been putting forth the effort—I just don’t know. But, from my view point, Sykora was never given an ample chance to succeed with the Wild and it ended up costing the team a player that could have been a valuable goal scorer.

In all, Richards season was a fair representation of the Wild’s—a maddeningly inconsistent one. He improved as the season went on, which gives me hope for his future with the team, but he certainly needed to be better this season for the Wild to both understand and execute his system to the fullest.

Grade: C+

General Manager
The opposite of Richards, if you’ve read anything I’ve written this season you’ll know my opinion of Fletcher.

In short, he did a marvelous job with not a whole lot of assets to work with.

It started at the 2009 Entry Draft, where he wheeled and dealed, picking up more picks and also center Kyle Brodziak, who would turn into one of the team’s most reliable checkers and players this season.

Fletcher has been derided by many Wild fans for some of his moves (trading down to pick Nick Leddy, giving up too much for Chuck Kobasew) and, to their credit, the moves are moves that could easily be classified as questionable. Overall, however, Fletcher did a fantastic job.

While I won’t look at all of his moves this season, let’s look at a few.

Alexander Fallstrom, Craig Weller and a 2nd Round Choice in the 2011 NHL Draft for Chuck Kobasew

This is one of the more questionable trades that Fletcher made this season and the biggest thing that stands out in this one was the inclusion of either the 2nd round pick or Fallstrom.

Many thought that the inclusion of one or the other would have been enough, but the Wild were not dealing from a position of strength and were desperate to find another NHL-level player.

It remains to be seen what Fallstrom will develop into, or who the draft pick will turn into, but for what the team needed at that point in time it was a calculated risk, though not one I necessarily agree with.

Benoit Pouliot for Guillaume Latendresse

This trade could easily be one of the best trades of the season for both squads.

Both Pouliot and Latendresse were supremely talented players that desperately needed a change of scenery. Both were being knocked for having the same downfalls and both went to their new teams for a fresh start.

While I won’t speak of what Pouliot brought to Montreal, I will say that Latendresse flourished under his fresh start to the tune of 25 goals in 55 games.

While Latendresse’s season with Minnesota was far from perfect, he turned into an instant fan favorite and became the hard-hitting power forward that Minnesota had always lacked.

In other words, this trade was a tremendous coup for Fletcher and the Wild.

Kim Johnsson and Nick Leddy for Cam Barker

This trade is one that many people were concerned about, especially given that Leddy was just selected in this past draft in the first round.

Many thought that the trade of Leddy stunk of hypocrisy because of the high value that Fletcher placed both on draft picks as well as developing from within their own system, but the reality of the situation is that you have to give in order to get.

While the Blackhawks were able to shed Barker’s salary by taking on the expiring contract of Johnsson, they weren’t willing to just give Barker up for just that.

The reality of this, however, is the same as with the Kobasew trade. Fletcher gave up a valuable asset, Leddy, who is at least two or three years away from being a potential contributor on the team for one who is ready now.

On top of that, Barker’s youth is something that will be extremely useful for the Wild. At 23, he still has his best years ahead of him. He’s big, he’s physical and he has offensive tools and, while he isn’t the best skater, that can be taught.

The bottom line is that Fletcher gave up a player who is still three years away from being an NHL player for one who can help the team immediately.

The bottom line for Fletcher here is that his first season as a General Manager was a bit of a mixed bag.

He made some good trades and signings and he made some that might not have panned out as he would have liked.

In the end, however, his season was one that should give Wild fans a lot of hope. Unlike his predecessor, he is not content to sit around and maintain the status quo. He is going to do whatever he has to do to try to improve the team and that in and of itself is a welcome change for those used to the mindset of Doug Risebrough.

Grade: A-

Up Next: A look to the future

Gameday Thread – Game 53 – Wings @ Wild

UPDATE: So the blogosphere is flip-flopping as much as John Kerry on tonight’s starting goalie.  First it was Backstrom, then it was Harding, then it was Backstrom again, now it might be Harding.  I’m just going to go ahead and say that no one but the coach has any stinking idea who will start tonight (but, between the two, my guess will be Backstrom).  Also, the Wild assigned Petr Sykora to Houston and have reportedly reached an agreement with his agent to mutually terminate his contract, pending league approval.

There’s no doubt that the Wild this season have been about as consistent as a schizophrenic on speed and have left many of their loyal fanbase in desperate need of some sort of emotional therapy. 

Bearing that in mind, consider this blog right here your own personal “truth zone.”  I promise that I won’t try to sugarcoat things for you and I promise that I’ll try to remain optimistic about the Wild’s chances this season. 

Realistically, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. 

Martin Havlat has finally caught fire and is playing like the player we thought we were getting at the season’s onset.  Mikko Koivu is on pace for yet another career season.  Guillaume Latendresse is playing like a man possessed for the Wild, having scored 13 goals and 19 points in just 27 games with the team. 

Have I mentioned that we’ve gotten Brent Burns back, and he’s actually playing Brent Burns hockey?  Or that Robbie Earl is scoring a goal in about every third game and truly looking like he belongs?  Or that this could quite possibly be the most closely knit Wild team that I’ve seen in quite some time? 

There is, indeed, light on the horizon for the boys in Iron Range Red. 

The problem is that we’re not on the horizon yet.  We’re in the here and now. 

It would be easy to go into some long rant about how this game is a must win, how it would do wonders for the team’s confidence, how a solid game from Backstrom would be great for his confidence. 

All of the above holds true. 

But we’ll just put it this way. 

We’re sitting in 12th place in the Western Conference, just five points from the final playoff spot.  Just five points behind the very team that we play tonight. 

A regulation win tonight puts us three points behind them (for those who, like myself, are mathematically challenged). 

Right now, Hockey Reference has the Wild listed as having a 14% chance of making the playoffs.  Hardly a foregone conclusion, but also there is hope. 

The problem, for the Wild, lies behind the fact that they are having to play catch up. 

The teams that they’re chasing? 

Well, the Sharks have won five straight, the Avs six, the Kings three – you get the point. 

The good news is that the teams that they are most likely to catch are either struggling or in a flat-out free fall. 

The team tonight gets lumped in with the former. 

While everyone in Detroit is remaining optimistic that this is a team that could do damage in the playoffs, if healthy (and let’s be honest, they really could), the fact is that they are currently decimated by injuries – something that the Wild need to take advantage of tonight. 

Lineup(s) 

To be honest, I’m not quite sure how the lines will roll out for the Wild past the top two, but here’s my best guess, otherwise known what I would do were I the one making the lineups: 

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

Now, I know what you’re asking.  Clutterbuck on the fourth line?  You’re demoting Cal for Robbie Earl?  WTF mate!? 

Am I crazy?  There’s a good chance.  But here’s my thoughts.  Robbie Earl has five goals this season.  Hardly Ovechkin-esque numbers, right?  But his shooting percentage?  41.7%.  He has five goals on 12 shots.  To me, that deserves a shot at playing with the big boys. 

Meanwhile, Clutterbuck has not been playing his best over the last few games.  By no means do I think he deserves a demotion to the eight minutes a game that Earl has been averaging, but I do think that Earl deserves a promotion to more than eight minutes per-game, to see what he can do. 

On defense, it’s likely going to be more of the same: 

Zidlicky-Zanon
Johnsson-Schultz
Burns-Hnidy 

Look for Burns’s icetime to start increasing, however.  He’s going to start getting more and more icetime as his level of conditioning continues to improve and the Wild need him to do just that, especially in a game like tonight’s against an extremely tough opponent. 

In net, we’ll get Backstrom despite him getting his “maintenance” day yesterday.  Don’t kid yourselves.  He’s struggling, but he’s still our number one and he needs to play his way out of this slump, no matter how painful it is to watch. 

What to Watch For 

Seriously.  Robbie Earl. 

Why?  The Wild is 10-3-2 with him in the lineup and 9-0-1 in his last ten. 

Whatever it is that Robbie brings to this team when he’s suited up, it’s infectious.  The team has, on a whole, played better with him in the lineup.  His speed and grit help this team a great deal and he’s just the type of sparkplug that the Wild need in their lineup. 

Also, keep an eye on Guillaume Latendresse. 

After his hot streak got him named the third star of the week a couple weeks ago, he has been silent in his last three games. 

The good news with G-Lat is twofold.  

First, he usually comes out of his shell quite nicely after a scoreless streak.  (Six game scoreless streak, followed by four goals in four games.  Four game scoreless streak, followed by seven goals and 12 points in seven games.)  

Second, even when he’s not scoring he can be an energizer and a difference maker.  How?  He’s averaging 2.5 shots per game since joining the Wild and 3.5 in his last ten games, and he has turned into a forechecking and checking machine since joining the Wild. 

Finally, Niklas Backstrom. 

Namely, which Nik will we get?  Will we get the one who stoned Columbus for 59:30?  Or will we get the one that saw a bad bounce break his shutout and get flustered into giving up one more. 

My guess is that he will come out like a man possessed as he did against Columbus.  He knows that the hasn’t been playing his best and he knows that the team needs him desperately.  Backs will be ready tonight. 

But will the Wild? 

Key(s) to the Game 

The Wild need to come out strong early. 

They simply cannot afford to fall into another hole against a good team. 

Jimmy Howard is proving that he is the man in net for Detroit and the Wild need to get to him early, as much for their confidence as his. 

The Wild tend to score in bunches, so if they can get an early goal, there’s a good chance that their jump will continue and they might be able to extend their lead. 

But they cannot afford to fall behind.  If they fall behind to Detroit, especially by more than one goal, they will be in deep, deep trouble. 

The Wild also NEED to limit the Wings’ scoring chances. 

Detroit likes to shoot.  Scratch that.  They LOVE to shoot. 

The Wild have got to protect Backstrom and get in shooting lanes.  If they can prevent the Wings from getting a dearth of solid scoring opportunities, they will be able to stay in the game.  But another shooting gallery, like happened in the teams’ last meeting?  

It could be a long game. 

Finally, the Wild need to, need to, need to stop the Wings’ top line.  Let Dan Cleary beat you.  Let Drew Miller beat you.  Let Ville Leino beat you.  But, for the love of God, do NOT let Bertuzzi or Datsyuk or Zetterberg beat you.  The three of them account for 28% of Detroit’s points and 30% of Detroit’s goal production. 

This isn’t saying that the three players I mentioned, or any of the Wings’ other players can’t beat you.  But shutting down the Berzettersyuk line gives you a much better chance. 

The puck drops tonight at 7pm and it is televised on FSN!  For those following me on Twitter, I’ll hopefully be posting updates on there as we go (though they will definitely not rival those of Mike Russo).  You can follow me on Twitter at @WildNation!

Gameday Thread – Game 51 – Red Wings @ Wild

Well, here we are.  The first game of a three-game homestand – possibly the most important homestand of the season…Or, at least, since the last one. 

I’ve got a few housekeeping matters to talk about before I get to the preview…But I promise, its coming. 

First off, thanks to everyone who sent mailbag questions in.  It got a pretty good response for a first time and I swear the answers are forthcoming.  I’m still working on the responses, but it will be up early next week for sure and my Early Off Season preview of the defensemen will be as well. 

Now…On to the shameless plugging (then I swear, to the preview.) 

Shameless Plug #1: Check out my article on what I think the Wild’s trade deadline strategy should be, leading up to March 3.  It’s on Bleacher Report and I think you’ll like it, or at least appreciate the commentary. 

Shameless Plug #2: As always, Hockey Primetime will be offering Trade Deadline coverage on the day of.  We’ll be starting our coverage at about 8:30 am CST, and hope to have our regulars (J.P. Hoornstra, Sam P. Woo and Justin Bourne), as well as a guest or two.  It will be on Hockey Primetime, but you will also be able to see feeds of it here and at Bourne’s Blog, most likely. 

Shameless Plug #3: Finally, check out one of the new Friends of Wild Nation, Stadium Journey.  Along with it being a website reviewing sports stadiums and their surrounding areas, it will feature my review of the Xcel Energy Center (SPOILER ALERT: I really like it) soon. 

Alright.  Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, it’s down to business. 

I’ve got good news and bad news. 

First, the good news.  The Wild’s Great Eight will be hitting the ice tonight for the first time since Nov. 18. 

That’s right folks.  Burnsie is back. 

Mike Russo reported that, in his first practice back with the team, he could be heard just about everywhere in the arena and let me tell you, that’s a good sign. 

Burns has struggled this season and struggled in a large, large way.  In 21 games, he had just two goals and ten points and was a staggering minus-11. 

But, during that time, Burnsie just didn’t look like himself.  Most notably, he just didn’t look like he was having any fun. (Thanks to Wild Nationite Rick for that insight, which I completely agree with.)

I know what you’re thinking right now.  Brent Burns?  Not having fun?  Get out of town! 

The fact is, though, that it was true and it was very evident in his play.  The question tonight, however, is which Brent Burns do we get back?  The Brent Burns that tried to do absolutely everything on the ice and, as such, was one of our worst players?  Or the Brent Burns that caught the eye of Team Canada over the last two seasons? 

Based off of the accounts of his practices back, I’m betting on the latter. 

Now, onto the bad news.  I don’t want to alarm anyone, but we’re playing the Detroit Red Wings tonight. 

Sure, they’re riddled with injuries.  But they’re still the Red Wings.  You remember them.  The team that sports a 21-5-5 record against our Minnesota Wild all time. 

But, there is good news in the bad news.  This is a wholly different Wild team than the Wings have ever faced.  A different system, a different tempo…Different everything.  Also, the Wings are struggling through injuries.  Not to say that I’m glad these players are injured (I’d never wish harm to any player not named Matt Cooke), just to say that this is a Red Wings team that isn’t at full strength. 

Oh yeah.  And both teams are looking to break three-game losing streaks. 

Lineup(s)

Well, you all heard the news over the last few days.  We said bye-bye to Sykora and Earl has remained with the team thus far, so we’ll likely see the same lineup that we’ve seen over the past few games. (Unless Fletcher decides to make a trade with Detroit.  Sykora for Zetterberg?  I like it!) 

I would expect that Derek Boogaard will be a casualty, though, against a not-so-pugilistic, quick Detroit squad. 

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

On defense, he’s back, he’s back, Lord Almighty he’s back!  The return of Brent Burns essentially means that John Scott is back sitting next to Pierre-Marc Bouchard in the press box and Clayton Stoner will likely be moved to the IR. 

Schultz-Johnsson
Zanon-Zidlicky
Burns-Hnidy 

And, drumroll please, between the pipes for the Wild will be Josh Harding.  Whether it’s a message being sent to Niklas Backstrom that he needs to play better or it’s giving him a rest or even rewarding Harding for his solid play, the youngster will get the nod in the crease tonight. 

What to Watch For

Let’s just put it this way.  Whenever the Wild play the Red Wings, I’m not optimistic about our chances. 

Bearing that in mind, the Wild are now running a system that is strikingly similar to Detroit’s and, if they’re going to win tonight, need to beat the Wings at their own game – namely, shoot, shoot, shoot. 

The Red Wings pepper goalies.  They are averaging almost 33 shots per game, almost five shots more than the Wild, and even put up a 40-spot on the Capitals in their last game, despite losing 3-2. 

With Minnesota’s defensive struggles of late, it seems to me that the best defense would be a good offense. 

The key to that good offense will start with the team’s top two lines.  There is no doubt that the offensive catalyst for this team has been the line of Latendresse, Brodziak and Havlat.  The three-headed beast of HavLatziak (Cut me some slack.  It’s easier than typing all three names.) has been one of the team’s top lines over the last handful of games. 

The line that really needs to get into the game early, however, is the AMA line of Koivu, Brunette and Miettinen.  These three have struggled together of late, and it took moving Mittens to the third line to spark him into action. 

The biggest problem with this line, however, is that they are as defensively proficient as they are offensively.  This means that, essentially, they will likely draw the brunt of the matchup against Detroit’s top line of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Bertuzzi.  (Rest assured, you will know when Big Bert is on the ice.  We Minnesotans may move on, but we never forget.  The boo birds will be out in force.) 

Also, keep an eye on Brent Burns.  Since his injury, the Wild’s powerplay has been absolutely dreadful.  While Burns likely won’t log a great deal of minutes tonight, (I’d wager between 15-17), you can bet your sweet bippy that he’ll be at the point of every single one of the Wild’s powerplay. 

Key(s) to the Game

First and foremost, defense. 

Josh Harding is going to get peppered tonight.  He’s going to see a black piece of vulcanized rubber tossed at him so much that he might have nightmares about it. 

The key to this, however, is the quality of these shots.  The Wild did a great job of limiting the quality shots against the Blues and Harding rewarded them with a spectacular performance.  Conversely, the Wild did a terrible job of limiting the quality shots against the Coyotes and Stars and Backstrom was hung out to dry more often than a fifteen-year-old dress shirt. 

If the Wild can limit the quality shots that the Red Wings get, they’ll have a very good chance at stopping a struggling Red Wing team.  If they can’t, however, it’s going to be a long, long night for Harding and a long, long night for the fans in attendance. 

Also, for the love of God…Can we please score first?  Is that really too much to ask? 

I would almost sacrifice a win just to see the Wild ahead 1-0 at some point during this game.  Almost. 

The fact is that the Wild have come out flat more times than not.  In their past three games, they have not scored a single goal before the five minute mark of the second period. 

That simply is not the hallmark of winning hockey. 

Heck.  I’d even settle for not falling into a two-goal deficit. 

We’ve proven that we can finish the game with energy.  Now it’s time to prove that we can start the game with energy. 

The puck drops tonight at 7pm CST and is televised on KSTC, Channel 45. 

Also, if you’re going to the Wild’s skills competition on Sunday, keep an eye out for me.  I’ll be the bearded guy wearing the white Wild jersey autographed by Doc Emerick and possibly an Atlanta Thrashers hat. (No…I haven’t planned my wardrobe out that far in advance.  I swear.)  

In any event, feel free to stop and say hi if you see me.

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.

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 28 – Ducks @ Wild

The good news has been few and far between this season for the Wild; however, they will try to make it four wins in a row tonight as the Anaheim Ducks roll into town for the third meeting between the two teams. 

Each team has won on their home ice thus far in the season series, with the Wild taking the first game in dramatic fashion, coming from three goals behind in the third period to win the game in overtime and the Ducks returning the favor with a 3-2 victory in Anaheim just eight days later.     

The Water Fowl are just one point behind the Wild in the Western Conference standings, but have dropped their last two games and have struggled for most of this season. 

Part of those struggles have been because of their goaltending.  The usually spectacular tandem of Jonas Hiller and Jean-Sebastian Giguere have both been putting up pedestrian numbers this season—Giguere with a .918 save percentage and a 2.61 goals-against average and Hiller with .909 and 3.09 respectively. 

The Wild, meanwhile, are riding a three game winning streak and are 4-0-1 in their last five games, with their current winning ways pulling them to a 12-12-3 record after starting the season 3-9-0. 

A large part of the Wild’s new winning ways is the fresh lease on life that new acquisitions Andrew Ebbett and Guillaume Latendresse have.  Ebbett and G-Lat were both castoffs from their prior teams and have found stability with the Wild, each playing a humungous part in the team’s five-game point streak.  On top of that, captain Mikko Koivu has five points in his last three games. 

Probable Lineup(s)
While I have no information for the Ducklings, the Wild should be rolling the same offensive lines as they did against Nashville: 

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

The fact that Martin Havlat has been shifted to the team’s fourth line speaks to just how well this team is playing right now.  If he wants to move up, he’s going to need to start showing something to the coaching staff.  His assist in Wednesday’s game is a good start, but he needs to start showing that he can be the Martin Havlat that led the Blackhawks in points despite playing second-line minutes last season before he can expect to start being shifted up the lineup again. 

On defense, the Wild will again look much the same with the exception of John Scott being shifted in for Jamie Sifers against a big, physical team of Duckies. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Schultz-Johnsson
Hnidy-Scott 

That Zanon and Zidlicky are the team’s first defensive pairing speaks to just how well these two are playing right now.  Despite his blunder in the first period against Nashville, which led to a Jason Arnott goal, Zidlicky is playing some of the best hockey of his career right now.  He’s becoming more responsible on defense, along with being encouraged to jump up into the play on offense.  He still has one of the best shots on the Wild and is now feeling comfortable enough to be able to pinch up to use it, but still be able to maintain his defensive responsibilities. 

In nets, it looks like we’ll be seeing Niklas Backstrom again, thought it wouldn’t surprise me if the team opted for Harding as a late switch. 

What to Watch For
Keep an eye out for Corey Perry in this one.  Perry is always dangerous but should be even more so tonight as he will be looking to get back on the scoresheet after having his 19-game point streak snapped last night against Dallas. 

Despite being shutout in the game last night, Perry has 12 points in his last ten games. 

The Quackers will need Perry in this one, as they have dropped seven straight on the road and I would just like to mention that, by pointing that seemingly inane statistic out, I have just doomed the Wild to a night of failure. 

Also, keep an eye out for the Wild’s special teams—most notably, if you can spot them. 

The Wild’s powerplay started out strong this season, but with the losses of Brent Burns, Petr Sykora and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, as well as absences from Martin Havlat and Antti Miettinen, their powerplay has fizzled as of late, dropping to 19.3%. 

The Mallards are an aggressive team and prone to taking penalties, so don’t be surprised if the Wild’s powerplay unit gets their fair share of action in tonight’s game. 

Hopefully, however, that is a good thing for the Wild. 

Keys to the Game
The Wild need to stay out of the box. 

Against a team as aggressive as the Web-Footed Birds (give me a break…I’m running out of fresh names to call the Ducks) are, it is easy to let yourself fall into the same trap and take retaliation penalties.  The Wild need to avoid this at all costs. 

More penalties means more time that the Wild can expect to see the unit of Perry, Getzlaf and Ryan and the less time they spend on the ice, the better for the Wild. 

Injuries will also play a part. 

The Ducks are missing Teemu Selanne, Kyle Calder, Joffrey Lupul and Ryan Carter, while the Wild are still missing Burns, Bouchard and Sykora. 

My Predictions
And now I’ll make a few predictions destined to be very, very far from the mark. 

First, the Wild will continue their win streak with a 4-3 victory (strike number two against the team in this blog alone). 

Second, the newcomers will continue their strong play.  Both Latendresse and Ebbett have provided some much needed scoring punch to the lineup and will continue to do so. 

Third, Martin Havlat will start getting back on track.  I know this one might be a stretch but, come on…The guy’s due.

There you have it, folks.  My extremely unscientific and possibly biased view of tonight’s game. 

The puck drops at the X tonight at 7 pm CST.

Wild Newcomers Are Starting to Pay Dividends

Right now, it’s looking like Chuck Fletcher might deserve to be locked away for robbery. 

Why, you ask? 

Because, at this point, that’s what his additions of Chuck Kobasew, Guillaume Latendresse and Andrew Ebbett look like. 

Okay.  So maybe I’m going a touch strong on the hyperbole, but you can’t deny that the Wild’s newcomers have given the team quite the boost in the last few games. 

Chuck Kobasew? 

Well, the man with an uncanny resemblance to Brad Pitt got off to a slow start for the Wild with just a goal and two assists in his first nine games, not to mention a minus-2 rating.  Since returning from his injury, however, Kobasew has three goals, all of which came as a hat-trick in the Wild’s post-turkey day feast against the Colorado Avalanche, a minus-1 rating and 15 shots.  15 shots in just four games, from a checker? 

That sounds like someone who’s making a difference to me. 

Then you’ve got G-Lat.  Dubbed as such by Wild.com scribe Glen Andresen, I’ve decided to adopt the nickname for my own purposes because, quite honestly, just thinking about typing his name gives me carpal tunnel syndrome. 

G-Lat was cast off from Montreal after tallying two goals and an assist in 23 games, including a minus-4 rating.  For Minnesota?  He’s equaled that output in just three games, with a plus-1 rating. 

Not only that, but G-Lat has seemingly transformed from a lazy, uninspired shadow of a power forward to the energetic, physical mountain of a man that he was billed as coming into Montreal his rookie season.  Not only that, but somewhere on the road between here and Montreal, he learned how to play defense. 

And then there’s Andrew Ebbett.  Mighty Mouse himself. 

Proving that it is indeed possible to be smaller than Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Ebbett has provided an instant offensive spark to whatever line he’s been put on.  

In his first game for the Wild, against Boston?  Game-tying goal. 

In the second of back-to-back games against Colorado?  Game-winning shootout goal. 

In Wednesday’s game against Nashville?  Game-winning overtime goal. 

Now that’s what I call coming through in the clutch. 

Now I know what a lot of you are thinking.  

For Kobasew, it was likely an aberration, right? 

But consider that he has scored 20+ goals in three of the last four seasons.  You simply just don’t forget how to score just because you come to a new team.  He is capable of putting up goals—it’s just a matter of finding players that he meshes with. 

For G-Lat, he’s just trying to impress his new team. 

Maybe.  I’m still going to hold my judgment on this one until his body of work is a little bigger.  But honestly, everyone knew that he had talent.  Everyone knew that he was capable of being a solid player in this league. 

Consider his circumstances in Montreal.  A Quebecois player, playing in Montreal?  It takes a special kind of good to be able to withstand the pressure that comes with that.  It takes a Maurice Richard-type of talent to be able to withstand that and, no matter how good G-Lat might be for Minnesota, no one will ever mistake him for The Rocket. 

So maybe, just maybe he’s playing this way because the pressure is no longer on.  His every move isn’t going to be critiqued in Minnesota (just every other move).  Maybe, now that he’s free of the expectations that come along with a French-Canadian player in Montreal, he’ll emerge into the player he is capable of being. 

But again, I’m going to hold my judgment until he has a larger body of work. 

As for Ebbett? 

Honestly, I can’t find any reason why anyone should be weary of his performance.  Despite his size, the man has put up points at every single level.  His last season at the University of Michigan?  14 goals, 42 points in 41 games.  His last full season in the AHL?  18 goals, 72 poitns in 74 games.  His first season with the Ducks?  8 goals, 32 points in 48 games. 

He’s capable of scoring and, honestly, has seemed to be a cap casualty in both Anaheim and Chicago this season.  But if he keeps playing this way, there’s no way he’s going to be one in Minnesota. 

But to be honest, the biggest contribution that these players have brought to the team isn’t necessarily on the ice. 

Yes, they’re helping the Wild win games.  But what their additions have done is juiced the locker room, so to speak. 

The Wild are 4-0-1 in their last five games and are playing their best hockey of the season.  The energy that is flowing through this locker room right now is absolutely amazing. 

The additions do two things. 

First, it shows players in the locker room that they need to perform, otherwise they might be on their way out. 

I can tell you that I was quite surprised when I pulled up TSN’s website and saw the article saying that Pouliot had been shipped off to Montreal. 

Pouliot was playing the best hockey of his career and was starting to show signs of improvement on the ice.  But it wasn’t enough for Fletcher.  He saw an opportunity and took it and now Benny Pooh is a Canadien. 

Second, it forces players to actually earn their jobs. 

In Wednesday’s game, James Sheppard was scratched and not necessarily because of his play.  Sheppard has been a force in the last couple games since he’s been slid over to the wing, but the Wild simply do not have the room for him in their lineup—especially not if they feel that it is necessary to skate Derek Boogaard. 

The Wild have a full roster right now, and still have Petr Sykora and Pierre-Marc Bouchard on the IR.  When those two players get healthy, who knows what’s going to happen. 

Players are certainly going to have to start earning their keep. 

Players like Sheppard and Boogaard, whose spots on the roster were once assured?  They might not be any more.  Or players like Martin Havlat who have been under-performing?  They might not be assured a spot in the lineup on a nightly basis anymore. 

The bottom line is that Chuck Fletcher is putting his stamp on this team and it’s already starting to pay dividends.  As it stands now, not only are the Wild out of the cellar in the division and the conference—they’re just six points back from the seventh seed in the playoffs. 

What this has done is sent a shot across the bow of all of the Nervous Nellies in the State of Hockey.  It’s sent a message to all of the fans deriding Fletcher, claiming that he hasn’t done a good enough job of setting the team up for success. 

It’s told them one thing: Patience is a virtue.

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.

Walking a Mile in Coach Richards’ Shoes

In a few days (hopefully), Coach Todd Richards will have a little thinking to do and maybe a little tinkering to do. 

Why? 

In a few days (again, hopefully), both Martin Havlat and Petr Sykora will be back from injury and ready to go.  Richards will then have to tinker with the lineup in order to put his best foot forward and try to turn this early season slide around. 

So, when they come back, here is what I would be looking at for line combinations: 

Brunette-Koivu-Pouliot
Pouliot has played his way onto this line over the past couple games, quite frankly.  With Clutterbuck and Bouchard both out, we really don’t have any other options for a first line forward and, if he plays like he has been, Pouliot certainly has first line skills.  Do I think there are better options for this first line?  Absolutely.  But those better options aren’t available to us until Clutz and/or Butch are back in the lineup. 

Sykora-Belanger-Havlat
During its brief time together, this line was one of the best the Wild had.  With Bella centering the two snipers, he finally got his opportunity to shine and did just that.  It’s now just a matter of Sykora and Havlat picking up their game and burying the puck—something that has eluded the two top snipers for the Wild this season.  They had good chemistry and keeping them together is the right move. 

Nolan-Sheppard-Kobasew
Someone needs to teach Sheppard how to play with an edge, and if anyone can do that it’s Nolan.  Sheppard has played soft all season long and putting him between Nolan and Kobasew will not only mitigate his soft play with two players very capable of hitting and grinding, but will give him a good example to follow.  Not to mention that this line could have a great deal of offensive potential if they got going. 

Boogaard/Scott/Hilbert-Brodziak-Miettinen
Honestly, with the addition of Kobasew, I almost don’t see where Mittens fits into this lineup anymore, but having him on the ice with Brodziak and the token enforcer or Hilbert could pay dividends for the team.  Miettinen has struggled to get going so far, but is a very talented defensive forward.  Foregoing the enforcer route and playing Brodziak and Mittens with Hilbert could give the Wild a very formidable checking line. 

Schultz-Burns
In all honesty, it’s time for our top two defensemen to be our top two defensemen.  No more excuses for either.  Putting Burns with Schultz would give Burnsie a player that he knows well alongside him as his partner.  This could put a stop to his “I have to do everything” attitude.  In addition, pairing Schultz with Burns might be good to get Schultz back to the steady game that he is known for. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
These two are familiar with one another from their Nashville days and it makes a lot of sense to pair Zidlicky with a solid defensive d-man.  So far this season, you can give Zanon the best complement that you can give a defensive d-man—that you don’t notice him on the ice.  With that being the case, Zanon is more than capable of making up for the mild aneurysms that Zidlicky is prone to give the coaching staff and fans in trying to be the “fourth forward.” 

Hnidy-Johnsson
Honestly, I’m a big Johnsson supporter.  Yes, he hasn’t produced offense like we all had hoped he would, but he has turned into a very solid defensive d-man.  This season he has experienced some growing pains in trying to get back in the offensive frame of mind and has struggled.  Putting him with Hnidy, a very steady d-man, will help turn his season around. 

The bottom line is that this season is not only still salvageable, but is still very promising if we can get healthy.  The addition of Kobasew makes us a better team and can give us a legitimate third line that can score, as well as another example for Sheppard of how the game should be played. 

I know I’ve been very pointed in my criticism of Pouliot, but in the last couple games he has done a complete 180 from the player that he was at the beginning of the season—something that tells me that he very well could be ready for the test of playing with the big boys.

The Injury Bug Strikes Again

This has become a common theme. 

The injury bug has hit the Wild yet again.  This time, with three of the anointed top-six forwards of the team going down. 

First, there was Pierre-Marc Bouchard.  Anyone who saw Columbus’s game could have told you that he just wasn’t himself.  Turns out, Butch has a concussion and, based off of what happened to Brent Burns last season, management is going to take it nice and slow. 

Then, there was Derek Boogaard.  Not a top-six forward by any means, Boogaard was sidelined with, wait for it, a concussion.  Boogaard has since been cleared to play and may yet play on this road trip.  While it certainly helps the depth of the squad, it doesn’t give them the top-six scoring threat that they desperately need. 

Coming next, there was freshly signed Petr Sykora with the dreaded sore Gaborik. {Author’s Note: For those new readers, we here at Wild Nation describe groin as Gaborik…And no, we’re not bitter.}  Sykora was a new signing that was supposed to infuse a secondary scoring threat to this offense.  Instead, he’ll be infusing a secondary scoring threat to the press box — at least for the next game or two. 

Finally, there is the cult hero — the indestructible Cal Clutterbuck.  The reigning hit champion’s title defense took a hit (no pun intended) on Saturday night when he suffered an ankle sprain.  He’s been contained to a walking boot and crutches since the game and has since flown back to Minnesota, pending an MRI.  The hope is that it is no a high ankle sprain — an injury that typically takes 6-8 weeks to recover from. 

What this boils down to is that the team now has significant gaps on their top two lines to fill.

The Wild will have to rely upon the enigmatic James Sheppard and Benoit Pouliot to step up and fill the void left by Sykora, Clutterbuck and Bouchard.  A very scary proposition. 

Or… 

A golden opportunity. 

While I am slowly giving up on Pouliot again, I am still dead set that James Sheppard can be a top-six forward.  He has again shown flashes of what he is capable of.  He has driven to the net, he has forechecked his backside off, he has been a somewhat reliable center.  But none of this has translated over to the scoresheet — something that is vitally important if he is to have any sort of future with the team. 

Meanwhile, while Pouliot and Sheppard try desperately to elevate their game, General Manager Cliff Fletcher is left looking at a roster that is severely depleted from the roster that he felt could be successful this season. 

Certainly, he is exploring the team’s trade options.  Unfortunately, those options are very slim pickings.  He could part with some draft picks for a player from a cap strapped team, or find a team to pawn off a prospect or two on.  

But therein lies the rub.  

Our cupboard is bare.  Barer than most.  

We start trading away prospects and draft picks now, we shoot Fletcher’s strategy of restocking our system in the foot. 

But, if we’re unwilling to part with any draft picks, we now have a strategy for the season that sees inexperienced or ineffective players having to fill in for players like Clutterbuck, Sykora and Bouchard. 

Who’s to say which is better?  I, myself, prefer the idea of restocking our system. 

We all knew it was going to be a rebuilding year, and most of us were hopeful that we could win while rebuilding.  

The more injuries strike us, however, the more desperate the situation becomes, and we all know that desperation can be the downfall of many an organization. 

Just ask Toronto.

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