Gameday Thread – Game 59 – ‘Yotes @ Wild

It seems like forever since I’ve written one of these, so I may be a bit rusty, but bear with me — this could be a game that you’re going to want to watch if you’re a Wild fan. 

Over the last couple years the Wild have, to use a Mike Milbury-ism, been the Coyotes’ daddy.  Prior to this season, the Wild were a stunning 9-1-0 against the Glendale Canines, and were firmly in control of the match up. 

Funny how an off season can change things. 

With new coaches, the two teams began to take on different styles of play and the Coyotes were no longer the doormat that the Wild were used to. 

Long story short, this season has been a largely different story in the series, with the Coyotes taking the first three games of the season series by a combined score of 11-6. 

Soooooooo, what does this mean exactly? 

Well, this means one of two things.  Either the Coyotes will continue their dominance of the boys in Iron Range Red tonight or, gosh darnit, the Wild are due. 

The Wild come into this game five points out of playoff contention with 24 games to play.  Not insurmountable odds, but a harrowing task indeed. They also come into this game having gotten 42 of their 62 points at the Xcel Energy Center—where tonight’s game is being played. 

A look in the infirmary shows that the Wild are slowly but surely starting to get healthy again.  Niklas Backstrom could return to action tonight and Andrew Brunette, who has sat out the team’s last two practices for maintenance issues, will be a go tonight.  “Sherriff” Shane Hnidy is going to be a game time decision tonight, as he missed practice yesterday with an illness, and Anton Khudobin will likely be the second goaltender in place of Josh Harding. 

Lineup(s) 

With the M*A*S*H unit that has been the Wild’s lineup this season, it’s hard to tell who might be in, but after last game’s physical tone I would expect Richards to counter with a physical lineup tonight. 

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

The physical lineup means that James Sheppard will again be sitting up in the press box, observing.  

Now I don’t like to speculate too often, but one has got to wonder if Sheppard will be shopped around much like Benoit Pouliot was.  Contrary to his stats, Sheppard is a talented player—he just seems to need a fresh start.  I doubt that the return for Shep would be all that great right now, but he could be a useful piece to add on to a deal. 

On defense, I’m guessing that Hnidy will be ready to go, as he’s what is commonly referred to as a warrior, so our defense shouldn’t change. 

Zanon-Zidlicky
Johnsson-Schultz
Burns-Hnidy 

And finally, the six-million dollar question.  Who starts in net? 

I’m gonna go with my gut on this one and say that Khudobin starts with Backstrom backing up.  I say this for two reasons.  One, Backstrom has sit out the last six games and should get a little more than just a few practices before he is tossed to the wolves and two, why not ride the hot hand?  Khudobin has two wins (one in relief) in his NHL career and has given up just one goal.  That could earn him another shot. 

What to Watch For 

The last meeting between these two teams ended with some fairly heated exchanges and what looked to be some bad blood. 

Now, with Minnesota on the outside looking in and Phoenix playing extremely good hockey right now, I’d look for this to carry over.  The Wild will need a spark at the start of this game and will look to come out with energy and with physical play and, let’s be honest, in terms of this stuff a lot of hockey player have long memories. 

As far as Phoenix is concerned, keep an eye on Matthew Lombardi. 

Lombardi had his first career five-point game on Monday night and is riding high after being moved from center to wing.  Playing with Robert Lang and Shane Doan, look for him to continue to be an integral part of their offense. 

For Minnesota, they need to find a way to get to Ilya Bryzgalov.  Bryz has historically not had a whole lot of success against Minnesota, but this season has played lights out against the Wild. 

Minnesota needs to figure out how to recapture their success against Bryz and against the Coyotes to gain any sort of momentum.  These last three games of their homestand are incredibly crucial to the direction of the team after the Olympic break, as they will have exactly two days to decide which direction they will take in regards to the trade deadline. 

Minnesota has not seriously flirted with the playoffs yet this season, but a strong last three games could put them in the position to do so and influence general manager Chuck Fletcher’s moves going forward. 

Key(s) to the Game 

Honestly?  Open the scoring before the second period.  If Minnesota can do that, they’re already part-way towards success against Phoenix. 

Getting on the board early and getting their confidence will be key against a Phoenix team that has not given them much to be confident about this season. 

Past that, just coming out and playing a solid, physical game. 

Minnesota is proving this season that they have a team that is capable of throwing their bodies around and are starting to turn into a very difficult team to play against. 

They’re playing against a Coyotes team that is riding high, and they need to be that difficult team to play against.  Play physical, send a message to Phoenix that they won’t be pushed around. 

It’s that simple.  If they can dictate the tempo by playing physical, they can come away with a victory in this one. 

The puck drops at 7pm CST and is broadcast on Fox Sports North.

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.

Wild Roster Set?

By all accounts, the Wild may very well be done in free agency after missing out on coveted free agent center, Saku Koivu. 

Koivu’s spurning of the Wild screamed with a “big brother looking out for little brother” vibe and, honestly, it’s very hard to begrudge the elder Koivu brother for his reasoning.  But, missing out on the elder Koivu has left us with a very gaping hole in the middle of our line up that the Wild may now be filling from within.  Wild General Manager, Chuck Fletcher, has repeatedly stated that he would look within the organization to fill the second line center spot if Koivu was not landed, and he likely will.  You can hardly blame him for doing so either, as the remainder of the free agent crop down the middle is fairly thin.

First, you’ve got the NHL’s answer to Brett Favre in Mats Sundin.  Yes, he showed up looking more like Kyle Wellwood than his former self when he played with Vancouver, but once he got his legs under him, he was very silently effective.  The problem is, that I think he’s still on the phone with Domino’s trying to figure out what toppings he wants on his pizza for dinner last week.  Sundin’s best days are easily behind him and there’s no reason for the Wild to be barking up this tree.  Next, you’ve got the ageless Robert Lang who was quietly having a solid season for Montreal last season when his achilles tendon got sliced up by a skate blade.  Again, there’s no reason to take a waiver on a player who is coming off of an injury that could easily be a career altering injury for a player in his early 20′s, let alone late 30′s.  Following Lang is the enigmatic Mike Duff…I mean, Comrie.  Don’t get me wrong.  I would love to have Hillary Duff present for 41 Wild home games a year…But it’s just not going to happen.  No way, no how.  Fletch has already stated that Comrie wasn’t an option and, honestly, I don’t see the benefit of paying a guy upwards of $3M per year just because he’s got some nice arm candy coming along with him.

That leaves the Wild fairly scant for options on their second line.  Barring a trade, the Wild look more and more like they’re going to be content to go with the cards that they’ve been dealt.  That means one of the following for their second line center.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard - Bouchard will likely get another look at the pivot in Richards’ system.  It likely won’t be nearly as physically demanding as Lemaire’s center position was, so it could be a good fit for Butch.  The problem I have with this is that I very much enjoyed seeing Butch setting up on the sideboards as opposed to down low.  As a center, he would have to play down low much more and, despite having some of the best puck control in the game, I don’t think he’s got the physicality in his game to do so.

James Sheppard - Oh how I would love for this to actually be a working solution.  Of all our first round prospects, Sheppard has flashed the most potential.  Every once in a while, he would forget himself over the last couple seasons and attempt something absolutely brilliant with the puck.  Then, right in the middle of it, he would come to his senses and not finish the move.  Yes…That is a very great deal of snark coming from my direction, but it is well deserved.  Sheppard has the most untapped potential of any player on the Wild’s roster.  You can see that he’s got the talent — he’s just been afraid to use it.  This season could easily be a break out season for Shep and, if that happens, he’ll be squarely in the middle of the second line for us.

Owen Nolan - This one may be thinking outside of the box just a little, but Nolan was one of our most reliable in the face off circle last season.  Not only that…But, come on…He’s Owen Nolan for crying out loud!  If he wants to play center, he’ll play center.  All kidding aside, Nolan brings a lot of things to the ice that other people, quite simply, don’t.  Apart from the amazing amount of talent that he has, his intangibles are absolutely invaluable.  The Wild could certainly do a lot worse than having him anchoring our second line.  Besides…I hear that every night before he goes to bed, the boogyman checks his closet for Owen Nolan.

Kyle Brodziak – This could be a bit of a stretch, but if Brodziak has the upside that Fletcher and Richards seem to think he does, he could turn into a plesant surprise.  Fletcher said in acquiring him that he had an offensive upside, so if he gets with the right people, he could really flourish.

Benoit Pouliot - Good old Benny Poo.  To be honest, I was surprised that the Wild qualified him — but, I suppose he might warrent a chance in a system that allows him to use all of his offensive creativity.  If the Wild signs him to anymore than a 1-year deal, I’ll be very surprised, as it is most definitely put up or shut up time for Pouliot this season.  A solid performance could see him move steadily up the depth chart, while more invisible performances could see him sink slowly into obscurity

Gaborik-Gate 2009
Okay.  Let’s get one thing out here, right off the bat.  I’m glad that Marian Gaborik has taken his services to the Rangers.  I am very much looking forward to not seeing him in Iron Range Red again.  There was no doubt that the team was better with him on the ice than off — but the biggest problem remained that he was rarely on the ice over the past few seasons and, when he was, it was a crapshoot as to whether we’d get the 5-goal game Marian Gaborik or, as some Wild faithful have taken to calling him, Gho$t.

So the current drama of Gaborik (yes, we still are entrenched in drama surrounding him even though he’s gone) is that the Wild never offered him a contract.  Really?  Fans are really upset that Gaborik’s paper towel groin is heading to some of the worst ice in the NHL for 41 games a season?  The bottom line is this: the Wild had holes to fill and Gaborik would have had to take a paycut for them to do so.  That wasn’t going to happen.  Not with Ronnie $alcer running things and certainly not with Marian Gaborik’s inflated sense of self worth pedigree. 

The most important thing in the NHL right now is cap flexibility.  The Wild will have that.  Martin Havlat signed with us for less than he was being offered elsewhere.  That is the type of player we want — one who wants to be here.  Not a player who we have to trade away a top prospect and draft pick for his “best friend” to play here.  Not a player who won’t budge on his contract demands, despite claiming he wants to remain here.  That’s what’s important.

Havlat’s statement on his Twitter account that he won’t let Minnesota fans down is a statement that we as fans aren’t used to hearing from our superstars…And it’s about time the State of Hockey gets a superstar befitting of the State.  It wasn’t Marian Gaborik — but we’ll see if it will be Martin Havlat.