Almond Recalled; Earl Demoted

Veeeeeeerrrrrrrrrry interesting. 

The Wild have sent Robbie Earl down to Houston, recalling Cody Almond.  This is Almond’s first call up to the big show and, as Brian Stensaas said over at Russo’s Rants, there’s a chance that he cracks the lineup tomorrow against the Atlanta TrashOurYoungGuys (in all seriousness, the Thrashers are my favorite team not named the Minnesota Wild…I just thought that the name given by Razor was funny). 

Almond is having a decent season with Houston, despite having struggled after an early injury.  He has four goals and ten points in his last nine games with Houston and has been one of the team’s more intriguing prospects over the last year or two. 

As for Earl, Richards said that he “has slipped a little.” 

It will probably be determined tomorrow whether or not Almond debuts, but I’d say there’s a good chance.

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.

The Depth Chart and Other Randomness

Depth Chart
Earlier today, Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune posted what will be the Wild’s depth chart if it starts the season with the way the roster is now:

Goalie
Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding
Barry Brust
Anton Khudobin

LD-RD
Kim Johnsson-Brent Burns
Nick Schultz-Marek Zidlicky
Greg Zanon-Shane Hnidy
John Scott-Jaime Sifers
Tyler Cuma-Justin Falk
Clayton Stoner-Jamie Fraser
Marco Scandella-Maxim Noreau

LW-C-RW
Andrew Brunette-Mikko Koivu-Martin Havlat
Owen Nolan-James Sheppard-Pierre-Marc Bouchard (RW until training camp)
Antti Miettinen-Eric Belanger-Cal Clutterbuck
Colton Gillies-Kyle Brodziak-Derek Boogaard
Petr Kalus-Benoit Pouliot-Craig Weller
Robbie Earl-Morten Madsen-Danny Irmen
Matt Kassian-Cody Almond-Carson McMillan

First of all, if you haven’t checked out Mike Russo’s blog and you’re a Wild fan, shame on you.  It’s one of the best resources for all things Wild out there.  Click here to go there.  Bookmark it, scour it daily and above all thank him for his amazing coverage of the Wild!

Anyway, off my soapbox for the moment.

Looking at this depth chart, the thing that immediately jumps out at me is not the center position.  A lot has been made of our depth (or lack thereof) down the middle.  In looking at the team, however, we’ve got five potential pivots on our roster, and that’s not including Colton Gillies, Owen Nolan or Benoit Pouliot.  Throw those two into the mix and we could have as many as eight players on the opening day that could be capable of anchoring a line in the middle.

The thing that really jumps out at me is our lack of depth at left wing.  After Nolan, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen, the talent level really drops off.  This isn’t a knock on Gillies; however, we have a serious lack of skill and depth on the left side and, honestly, on the wing in general.

To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, is our talent on defense and in nets.  Our top-six defensemen could be the best top-six that the team has had.  The additions of Zanon and Hnidy give the team two reliable, physical anchors on the blueline and will force opposing teams to keep their heads up.  Meanwhile, expect Scott and Sifers to compete for the seventh spot in camp, most likely with Scott winning the battle.  That’s not to say, however, that our youth could not come in and surprise.  With Cuma, Falk, Stoner and Scandella in the wings, there is a good chance that Scott and Sifers may not be foregone conclusions at the 7 and 8 slot.  It will take a lot for any of these four to make the squad, however.  Of the four, Stoner probably has the best shot as this could be his make it or break it year, but make no mistake — the Wild’s top 7 are pretty much set.

Olvecky Signs in Nashville
Joel Ward, Ryan Jones and now Olvecky?  Those Tennessee boys sure do like Wild prospects.

In all honesty, I think that Olvecky has a fantastic chance to make the Nashville squad next season right out of camp.  Olvecky is a big body with a lot of untapped talent to boot, and he performed admirably for the Wild in a limited role with the team in the handful of games he played for us last season.

He really started to come into his own last season and seems like he could be the type of player that Barry Trotz will really love.  For $600K and a two-way contract, I’d take Olvecky any day of the week.  A good depth pick up by the Preds.

Qualifying Offers Signed
The Wild had a few players of their own signed as well.

Restricted free agents Benoit Pouliot, Clayton Stoner, Danny Irmen and Robbie Earl all signed their qualifying offers and it seems as if the lot of them (with the exception of Pouliot) could see another year playing in the minors.  Earl and Irmen both have too many players in front of them to have a shot at making the squad (that is, barring a spectacular camp from either) and Stoner will have to do some serious damage in camp to work his way up the depth chart.

Injuries do happen, though, and we could very easily see one of them get a cup of coffee in the NHL and do what Cal Clutterbuck did last season and not let go.

In addition, Russo reports that the Wild could be close to signing Duncan Milroy and Joe DiSalvatore to plug some holes in their minor league system.

Fletcher Working Trade Market
There are a lot of people who are getting scared by the Wild’s seeming lack of movement this off season.

Those fans are the Chicken Littles of the fanbase.

While there are some quality players out there, there really aren’t any players that would meet any immediate needs for us.  I mentioned Mats Sundin, Robert Lang and Mike Comrie previously, but Sundin likely doesn’t have much more tread on his tires, Lang is rumored (or already has) to jump ship to the KHL and Comrie, well, let’s just say I don’t want to sign a player for his girlfriend.  In addition to those players, there are players such as Alex Tanguay and Petr Sykora left over.  Undoubtedly, these players could make an impact on the Wild roster, but would they really fit?

In the case of Tanguay, he’s a tremendous talent, but he’s also been pigeonholed as a playmaker — of which, the Wild have many.  Sykora would be a cheap, effective sniper, but do the Wild want to sink the money it would take to get him on an aging player?

Bottom line is that the best route for the team to improve, at this point, is the route that Fletcher is taking — trades.

There are many top flight forwards that have been presumed available via trade.  Phil Kessel of the Boston Bruins, Dany Heatley of the Ottawa Senators, Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks, even Chicago’s Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane have always been rumored to be available.

To be honest, the names remaining in free agency don’t even hold a candle to a lot of these names.  I’d much rather have a Kessel, Heatley, Sharp or Kane over any of those available — regardless of the assets we have to give up for them.

The bottom line is that the Wild are far from done, in my opinion.  But Fletcher has said all along that he’s not afraid to go late into the summer with a less than full roster to give himself the flexibility that he needs to get the players it takes to make this a winning team.

So…

Fear not Chicken Little.  The sky is not falling.  With a little patience, we could have a playoff team yet.