Tim Thomas and the White House

Let me get one thing out of the way here really quick. On a whole, my political views tend to be left of center. I pride myself on being more pragmatic than subscribing to any one ideology, but for the most part, I find myself falling on the left side of the tracks, so to speak.

Tim Thomas does not.

On Monday, the Boston Bruins were invited to the White House for the yearly meet-and-greet with the President of the United States. All of the players from last year’s Stanley Cup squad were invited and all (with the exception of Michael Ryder, whose schedule conflicted  with the visit) showed up.

Tim Thomas did not and, you know what? I think it’s an unbelievably big deal.

Now, I’m sure I’m going to get a fair share of people reading this that are expecting me to roll out a ridiculously long political manifesto about how Thomas is disrespectful and yadda, yadda, yadda. But here’s the thing. I actually applaud his actions.

Sure, the act might have been disrespectful to some degree. The expectation for professional athletes is that you go to these events, smile and shut up.

Instead, Thomas chose not to. He exercised his inalienable right to freedom of expression and, whether or not I agree with his political leanings, I applaud this and I think that the majority of pundits and writers out there should be doing the same.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to make Thomas out to be some great political activist. His actions will be debated over the next couple of days and, likely, left alone after that, but I applaud Tim Thomas for sticking to his convictions and doing something that, quite honestly, is a protest.

Recently, Wild Nation joined the protest against SOPA and PIPA. We went black for 24 hours and our site was, for all intents and purposes, shut down even though you could click through the script and read what you wanted. It would be unbelievably hypocritical of me to cry foul now, when it appears that Thomas is doing basically the same thing.

Bloggers and journalists live and die by the First Amendment. Without it, bloggers aren’t able to do what they do and journalists would certainly have a more restrictive environment. Every time I fire up my lap top and write something for Wild Nation, I’m exercising my First Amendment rights.

So was Tim Thomas.

Regardless of whether or not his actions were respectful or politically motivated, Thomas is afforded the right to express himself how he chooses. You may not like the way he chose to do so, or agree with the political leanings of his actions (if any because, honestly, we don’t know one way or the other yet), but to vilify Thomas for these actions would be one of the highest forms of hypocrisy.

Do I agree with what he did? Absolutely not. Do I think he was right? No, I don’t. But I will fight tooth and nail in defense of him, because he had the right to do it, just as I had the right to shut down Wild Nation for a day in protest and just as I have the right now to write this.

Wild Nation’s Ridiculously Early Season Predictions: Northeast Division

Well, it’s ridiculously early season preview time again.

Last time, we took a look at the Atlantic Division, with many of the teams taking much different approach to the season than they did last season. In other words, spending money and spending money on areas of need, in some cases, and to shore up strengths in others.

This time, though, we’re taking a look at the Nord-east Division, the home of some of the more intriguing teams coming into this season.

Boston Bruins – The Bruins have some work left to do this off season, as they are already about $3.1 million over the salary cap (though that will be temporarily relieved when the team places Marco Sturm on the Injured Reserve).

The good news for the Bruins are that they have just two contracts that are worth $5 million or more (Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara), but the bad news is that one of those contracts is for Thomas, who is both a 35-plus contract (meaning that, if he retires, it counts against the salary cap regardless) and has a No-Movement Clause that prevents him from being traded or moved to the minors prior to July 1, 2012.

In other words, it makes him darn hard to move.

What the Bruins do have, however, is a strong core.

They have Tukka Rask in net, a goalie who you could have made a strong case for the Vezina for last season, and a core of solid young forwards led by David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Tyler Seguin will be on the opening day roster and really, the Bruins are looking pretty good heading into the season despite the questions surrounding whether or not Tim Thomas and Marc Savard will be moved.

Buffalo Sabres – There are many intriguing teams in the Northeast Division this season and many intriguing storylines – unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), none of these involve the Sabres.

The team’s biggest off season acquisition?

Rob Niedermayer.

But, for a team that won the Northeast last season that could be a good thing.

They have eight of their ten top scorers returning and that’s not mentioning Tyler Ennis, who scored at nearly a point-per-game pace in his ten-game cup of coffee last season.

The one area that this team could be lacking in is their defense. They lost a lot of experience and talent in Lydman and Tallinder and I’m not so sure that Leopold and Morrisonn are necessarily an upgrade on defense. If you’re a Sabres fan, this unknown could be a scary proposition. But, with Ryan Miller in net, these losses could go unnoticed, as the Vezina Trophy winner remains one of the top goalies in the league.

The bottom line? The Northeast is Buffalo’s to lose, but if their defense doesn’t live up to what it will need to, you could easily see them do just that.

Montreal Canadiens – So, how do you reward a goalie that many heralded as the revelation of the playoffs?

Trade him, of course.

That is the type of puzzling logic that Canadiens fans saw themselves subjected to over the off season.

Let us not forget that the player that they dubbed their number one immediately following the Halak trade, Carey Price, has yet to be re-signed.

But, it’s not all bad news for the Habs. Price is a restricted free agent and will be back with the team next season, one way or the other. The Halak trade brought in a great young player in Lars Eller and their top forwards still remain.

The team also has one of the most exciting young defensemen in the league in P.K. Subban, who proved himself to be a terrific addition on the blueline and will most certainly be a welcome addition to a defense that is looking better and better as the season nears.

The team’s forwards are set and should prove effective once again as their “big four” of Gomez, Cammalleri, Plekanec and Gionta have another year with one another, which can only mean good things. The biggest question marks at forward are how Andrei Kostitsyn will respond to the trade of his brother as he comes off a sub-par season and whether or not career under-achiever Benoit Pouliot can build on the strong play that he showed last season.

With all of these questions, however, there’s no doubt that their season all hinges on their play in net. If Price is signed and performs up to expectations, there’s no doubt that the Habs could be back in the playoffs. That being said, though…That’s a LARGE if.

Ottawa Senators – Ottawa arguably made the biggest splash this off season in the Northeast, signing Sergei Gonchar to a three-year deal.

Apart from that singular splash, however, Sens chose to maintain the status quo.

Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen, but he does immediately make the Sens a much better team.

Once again, however, the Sens biggest question remains in nets. Whether Brian Elliott or Pascal Leclaire can step up and be the team’s top goalie remains to be seen, but there is some optimism surrounding this team.

Jason Spezza had 38 points in the 30 games after he came back from injury, which lends to the idea that he might be back to his 90-plus point form. Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek will also help spur on an offense that struggled at times last season. The most optimistic showing, however, was the emergence of Peter Regin during the post season as both a scorer and a clutch scorer, at that.

As with Montreal, however, Ottawa’s questions lie in net. If Elliott and Leclaire can hold down the fort in net, Ottawa could be the sleeper team in a division of some of the NHL’s most storied franchises.

Toronto Maple Leafs – This is the part where Toronto fans are hoping that whoever is doing the preview is going to say that they’re the sleeper team in the East and going to win the division and so on, and so on.

Sorry Leafs fans. It’s not going to happen just yet. The operative word, though, is yet.

As it stands now, the Leafs have one of the best defensive units in the East. Phaneuf, Komisarek, Kaberle and Beauchemin could all be top-two defensemen in the right situations, while Schenn and Lebda round out a very impressive top six. Throw in the fact that they have J.S. Giguere in nets who looked much closer to the Giguere of old after being traded to Toronto from Anaheim last season and you’ve got an impressive back end.

The biggest question mark for Toronto, though, is their offense. When your leading scorer has 55 points, there is a big problem. The addition of Kris Versteeg should help this immediately, while Kulemin and Bozak will continue to grow and should put forth more impressive seasons than they did last year.

It’s very apparent that Brian Burke is still trying to mold this team into the one that he wants them to be and it’s apparent that he’s taking steps in that direction, especially after the signing of Colby Armstrong.

The best compliment that a rebuilding franchise can get is that it’s hard to play against and Toronto will definitely be that. They will be difficult to play against and they will be competitive but, at the end of the day, I don’t foresee them making it into the playoffs this season.

Predictions

So, now that the previews are behind us, let’s see how I think the Northeast will break down:

1) Buffalo Sabres
2) Boston Bruins
3) Ottawa Senators
4) Montreal Canadiens
5) Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season four of the five Northeast teams made the playoffs and I don’t see that happening again. I think that the Sabres and the Bruins will be squarely in the midst of the playoff race, while the Senators and Habs will be a bubble team. The Leafs will once again be on the outside looking in.

Up Next: The Southeast Division

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.

Backstrom For Vezina; Aeros Advance

First off, I’d like to thank you all for bearing with me over the last few days.  My seven month old daughter had come down with something which necessitated my being gone for a few days.  But never to fear…It’s the off season, so not a whole heck of a lot occurred over those last few days!

Niklas Backstrom
It’s been a big couple weeks for the Finnish netminder.  First, his surgery was a huge success, leading Dr. Philippon to conclude that Backstrom will be ready to go in full in about 12 weeks.  I don’t know all of the details, but apparently the cartilage damage was much less than the doctor had originally thought and the issues with Backstrom’s hip have been corrected by the surgery.  Keep in mind that this is the same surgery that Marian Gaborik underwent during the season.

In addition to a successful surgery, Niklas Backstrom also became the third member of the Wild’s organization to be named a finalist for a voted-upon NHL end of the year award.  The other two?  Jacques Lemaire and Wes Walz for the Jack Adams and Selke trophies respectively.  This is not the first hardware that Backstrom has won as a member of the Wild.  In the ’06-’07 season, his rookie season, he walked away with the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award for the league’s best save percentage and teamed with Manny Fernandez, winning the William M. Jennings Trophy, for the team with the least goals against.

Backstrom will have a tough time winning this award, however, as he will be going up against Boston’s Tim Thomas and Columbus’s Steve Mason. 

My personal thoughts on this is that Backstrom will come in second in the voting.  Backstrom was certainly the Wild’s best player, and Josh Harding’s 3-9-1 record on the season certainly helps Backstrom’s cause, but let’s not forget that Harding posted extremely impressive stats during those 13 games as well.  The way I look at it is like this:

  • Without Mason, the Jackets miss the playoffs AND are likely to have a lottery pick in the top six.
  • Without Backstrom, the Wild are likely to have a lottery pick in the top ten.
  • Without Thomas, the Bruins probably wouldn’t have won the conference, but still likely would have made the playoffs.

To me, what that equates to is that Mason will get the Calder-Vezina sweep this season (and, honestly, I think there’s a pretty good argument for him getting the Hart as well, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Backstrom had a phenomenal season and, let’s be honest…If the Wild make the playoffs, there’s no question that he’s up there for the frontrunner.  The bottom line is that, as important as he was this season to our team, Mason was just a touch more important in their run.

Aeros Advance to Round Two
Leave it to the farm team of a Minnesota team to take every opportunity to give their fans more hockey.  Houston won game seven against the Peoria Rivermen 5-2 on the strength of goals by Krys Kolanos, Marco Rosa and Maxim Noreau as well as empty netters by Corey Locke and Mitch Love.  Goaltender Anton Khudobin was credited with the win, saving 19 or 21 shots.

Houston advances now to play the first seeded Milwaukee Admirals in what should prove to be an intriguing match up; at least from a front office point of view.  Milwaukee is the farm team for Nashville, making it Craig Leipold’s current farm team vs. his former farm team.  In other words, two candidates for the Minnesota Wild GM position (Tom Lynn and Paul Fenton) fighting it out for GM supremacy, though I doubt this series would be the deciding factor in one or the other getting the job.

Houston has three of the top 20 scoring leaders thus far for the playoffs, with Corey Locke third in scoring (4-5-9), Matt Beaudoin sixth (2-6-8) and Krys Kolanos sixteenth (2-4-6).  Meanwhile, Khudobin is trucking along with a 4-3 record, a 2.45 GAA and a .906 Sv Pct, as well as one shutout.  The most interesting stat?  Corey Lock has 24 penalty minutes.  Anyone care to explain that one to me??

Wild Sign Carson McMillian
The Wild also have signed another of their 2007 draft picks to an entry level deal.  Carson McMillian of the Calgary Hitmen has been signed to a three-year, entry level deal.  McMillian was in his fourth season with the Hitmen this season and recorded career highs in goals (31), assists (41), points (72) and penalty minutes (93).  On top of that, he added seven game winners, five powerplay tallies and four shorties.  It will be interesting to see how McMillian fares in Houston next season, as he is certainly an intriguing player for this organization (one that has rarely seen success at drafting in the later rounds). 

Seventh Heaven
There are two game sevens on the docket tonight and, honestly, does it get ANY better than a Game Seven in the NHL Playoffs?  It’s win or go home for four teams and it’s going to be I-N-T-E-N-S-E!!!  Now I typically shy away from predictions (for those unable to pick up on sarcasm through text, I’ll note it here), but I feel inclined to share my views on these two games.

2) Washington v. 7) NY Rangers - I made the observation a few days ago that, if any team is equipped to come back from a 3-1 defecit, the Capitals were certainly one of them.  It took a few games for the Caps to realize that they can’t shoot at Lundqvist’s mattresses (and for Boudreau to realize that he can’t have Theodore in nets), but once the Caps got it figured out and started executing their gameplan, they started rolling.  Torts will be back on the bench for the Rangers after his Game 5 hissy fit and, if I were a Caps fan, I wouldn’t relish sitting behind him because he’ll likely be packing for this one.

The Rangers Win If: They score first.  If they can do that, they can tighten up around Lundqvist and clog up the neutral zone.  In their three wins, the Rangers have proven that they can give the Caps fits when they do this.  The Caps offensive stars need room to skate in order to be effective, and if the Rangers are protecting a lead, they can afford to tighten up and not give the Caps the space to skate

The Capitals Win If: They get to Lundqvist early and often.  Not necessarily score, but pepper him with shots.  He’s been pulled in two straight games and they can’t afford to let him gain any confidence.  Crash the net, get in his way, do anything and everything they can to disrupt his game.  If that means buzzing him and taking  a goalie interference penalty early on, that’s what they have to do.  Get in his head and this one’s over.

My Prediction: Washington 4 New York 2

(3) New Jersey Devils v. 6) Carolina Hurricanes – This series has been the epitome of even.  Neither team has won more than one game in a row and only two of the six games have been decided by more than one goal.  At the onset of the series, everyone expected this to come down to goaltending and, tonight, it will.  Both Ward and Brodeur will be at their best and this game will be very, very tightly played.

The Devils Win If: Their offense shows up early.  This team has an absolutely explosive offense.  The problem is that they have been extremely inconsistent this series.  One game, they’ll look like absolute world beaters; the next, they look like they couldn’t find the back of the net if it were the size of the broad side of a barn.  If they come out of the gates ready to skate hard and ready to play, they’ll gain the advantage over Carolina.  If they falter, though, Carolina will exploit this.

The ‘Canes Win If: Cam Ward plays like he did in Games 5 and 6.  Ward is the catalyst for this team.  If he’s playing well, this team gains confidence and can steamroll opponents.  This team does not have the defense to protect Ward if he’s playing poorly and that can lead to a collapse if he is.  A couple big saves early and Ward’s confidence will go through the roof.  If this happens, it gets exponentially harder for the Devils to take ahold of this game and get any sort of momentum.

My Prediction: Carolina 3 New Jersey 2 (OT)