The ball keeps rolling down hill; Wild lose to Leafs

Honestly, I don’t know what more to say than what has already been said by every other person covering the Wild out there.

For the first time this season, I truly feel like the Wild have nothing good that they can take away from last night’s loss to the Maple Leafs. In other games, they struggled and it was their struggles that really turned the game on its ear for them, but last night they just didn’t do anything right.

They were down 1-0 50 seconds in and 2-0 5:11 in on two plays that were easily avoidable. The defense was horrific, the offense was non-existent. In fact, I would venture that the Wild’s goaltending was the best part about their performance last night – and they gave up four goals.

To briefly defend that assertion, yes, Backstrom could have been better last night. At some point, he’s got to take it upon himself and make a big save to keep the Wild in the game when they’re playing bad. That said, the Wild simply cannot rely on him to do it all himself.

On the Leafs’ first goal, sure, Backstrom probably should have frozen the puck instead of playing it to the corner. But look at this picture:

Let’s break this down for a moment, shall we? (I know I said it would be brief. I lied.)

First, Backstrom directed the puck to the corner instead of freezing it. Mistake number one. Gotcha.

In the above picture, Lundin is chasing Lupul. Why? Because he got REALLY excited about the puck and over pursued. Wellman is standing, staring, presumably because he likes Lupul’s skates and wants to know where he got them. Zidlicky is actually doing what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s a bit high because of how the play developed, but he’s trusting that the center, Peters, is covering low (which he is) and playing the pass out to Kadri at that point in time. Peters is seeing the play develop and happens to be the only Wild player on the ice not looking at the puck and Heatley is doing…something…over by the hashmarks.

When the play develops, and watch this on NHL.com, because it is a truly spectacular display of what not to do in this situation. Lupul forces the issue, attacking the center of the ice. Wellman, Lundin and Zidlicky converge on him, Peters kind of, sort of makes an attempt to drift towards Kadri and Heatley just kind of stays where he is because, once Backstrom makes the save, he’ll be able to release and…Oops.

I could do this with all four Maple Leafs goals but I’ll spare all of you (and myself) the pain involved in it. Suffice it to say that yes, Backstrom wasn’t great, but the Wild’s defense was much, much worse.

So what’s the fix?

At this point, if I’m Mike Yeo, I’d recommend to Chuck Fletcher that every single player on the Wild’s roster be fair game for a trade and let your entire team know that this is what you’re recommending because this team needs a kick where the sun don’t shine.

Right now, they’re not exploding – they’re imploding. They’re frustrated and they’re no longer even keeping up the pretense that they’re playing within their system and they’re starting to turn on one another.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Fletcher knows something needs to change and he’s working hard to change it. As Mike Russo said, a trade is looking imminent. Something – anything – to wake this team up and give them some sort of spark.

I’m sure that many are hoping that the trade will involve a top-six forward *cough*Zach Parise*cough* coming to the Wild and, while I’d like to hope that is the case, I don’t see that happening unless Fletcher has some sort of assurance that Parise will sign a long-term extension with the Wild. Otherwise, giving up the prospects and picks it would take to get someone like Zach Parise wouldn’t be worth it.

You could look at Columbus (one of the few teams that may, legitimately, be out of the playoff race) but, if they go into “sell” mode, it’s going to be for prospects and picks and I don’t see the Wild giving up either to get someone like Vinny Prospal or Antoine Vermette, though either player may help the Wild this season.

I don’t want to speculate who the Wild might try to move because, really, I don’t know that there’s a player on their roster (other than the three that are on IR) that is safe. Moving a key piece like Heatley or Backstrom or Matt Cullen is a very high-risk move that could reap a high-reward, not necessarily just in the return, but in the fact that it might give the team that kick in the rear that they need.

I don’t know, though. If I had the answers, I’d be an NHL general manager. I don’t have the answers and, at this point, I’m really at a loss for any sort of solution.

Yes, the three players that are arguably the Wild’s three best players are hurt. There is most certainly that to take into account. But, at the same time, isn’t that why we picked up Heatley and Devin Setoguchi?

Players need to start stepping up. Heatley and Setoguchi have combined for 22 goals so far this season. If they were one person, that would get them in the top-ten for goal scoring. That’s just not good enough.

The Wild brought them in to score. They brought them in to change the mentality of the team and, instead, the team seems to have changed the mentality of the players.

I would be very surprised if a move isn’t made before Hockey Day in Minnesota on Saturday but, that’s not to say that I think Fletcher is going to make a knee-jerk reaction and make a trade just for the sake of making a trade. He’s learned from his mistakes in trading for Kobasew (which, in my opinion, still wasn’t a horrible trade) and Barker (which was a horrible trade). If there’s a good trade to be had, he’s going to make it.

But something has to give soon. Otherwise, we might be talking about how great it will be to see Yakupov play with Granlund next season (which, truth be told, would be pretty cool).

Why Matt Kassian needs to stay in the lineup

Last night, against the Oilers, Matt Kassian was on the ice for 2:12, in the penalty box for 20 minutes and ended up as the first star.

On the surface, that’s an absolutely ridiculous stat line to end up as a first star. But, in those 2 minutes and 12 seconds, though, Kassian had as much of an impact on the outcome of the game, if not more, than the majority of his teammates.

The score was 3-1 when Kassian opted to drop the gloves with Darcy Hordichuk. On the surface, for Kassian, it’s a horrible fight to take. You’re an NHL rookie, your team has a 3-1 lead (with the two goal lead, generally, being thought of as the worst lead in hockey) and you’re facing off against a veteran NHL enforcer in Hordichuk. To boot, at this point, the Wild were dominating the Oilers. They had scored three straight goals and were rolling.

Kassian, though, saw the opportunity to turn the screws on the Oilers a little more and he took it to the tune of a dominating victory over Hordichuk.

Any momentum Edmonton might have gained from the fight was, for all intents and purposes, gone.

Now, to the Oilers’ credit, they responded quite well and were able to stem the Wild’s momentum a bit, scoring just a few minutes later, but it certainly wasn’t from anything Kassian did.

At the start of the third period, the situation was the same and, again Kassian dropped the gloves and exerted his dominance over Hordichuk once more.

Again, nothing came from the momentum gained, but it again took a situation that would have given the Oilers a lot of wind in their sails and pushed the advantage back to the Wild.

What’s more, the line of Kassian, Warren Peters and Brad Staubitz may not have done much on paper, but their presence undoubtedly kept Edmonton’s dirtier players (we’re looking at you, Theo Peckham and Ben Eager) at bay, which leads me to wonder – should this line be a staple for the Wild going forward? More to the point, should Matt Kassian become a staple for the Wild going forward?

No one’s ever going to mistake Kassian for a scorer. His career high in points is 18 in his final season in the WHL. But Kassian gives the Wild an added level of protection for their stars.

On top of that, having a line like Kassian, Peters and Staubitz gives the Wild the option to send out a line that can just flat out hit – something that they don’t necessarily have, otherwise, and also something that can change the momentum of a game in a heartbeat.

It’s for that reason that, at least until the Wild are fully healthy, Kassian needs to stay in the line up. He brings an intensity and an edge that others (even Staubitz) on the Wild roster simply don’t have.

So, a note to Mike Yeo. Keep playing Matt Kassian his two minutes per night. You’ll be pleased at the results.

Baby Wild down St. Louis 1-0

Hackett makes a save on Jonathan Cheechoo

Well, I don’t want to say that was unexpected but…Okay…That was unexpected.

The Baby Wild came out last night and took on a St. Louis Blues team that was mostly comprised of their NHL regulars, and looked pretty darn good in the process.

Peters scored the lone goal for Minnesota

Niklas Backstrom and Matthew Hackett combined for the shutout, while Warren Peters got the lone goal, beating Jaroslav Halak witha nifty little backhand. Incidentally, Backstrom got an assist on the play too, making him not only their top goalie, but one of their top offensive players also.

So, some thoughts on the game:

  • I was impressed with the defensive responsibility of the team on Thursday. The Wild needed to have a performance like this in order to compete with a more experienced, more talented Blues squad and they did just that. For three periods, they did everything they were supposed to do and it showed in the results.
  • The Wild’s AHL veterans (Jed Ortmeyer, Warren Peters) both looked good again. Unless one of the youngsters really blows Mike Yeo away, I think that 13th forward position could go to one of those two.
  • Of the four defensemen that played last night that are vying for a roster spot, Scandella probably looked the best out of everyone. Prosser and Hendry looked good, but Falk was just terrible for most of the game.
  • Zack Phillips was good, but he was trying to do too much for most of the game. It’s a definite learning curve, and he needs to learn that he won’t be able to dance around the ice in the NHL like he does in the Q. He showed signs of what could be in store, though. He could be a dandy.
  • Both Backstrom and Hackett were tremendous against the Blues. Backstrom made a handful of spectacular saves, as did Hackett who withstood a 14-1 barrage in the third.

But what of my questions? Well, let’s take a look.

Nate Prosser checks Alex Steen

How will the Wild’s youth fare tonight against a fairly experienced roster? Well, given that they won and shut out a team full of regulars, I’d say they fared pretty darn good.

Will Niklas Backstrom look like the Backstrom who was a Vezina Trophy finalist, or the Backstrom who has struggled at times the past two seasons? It’s a limited sample size, but he definitely looked good. We’ll see how he fares the rest of the pre-season, but it’s definitely an encouraging sign.

Where will the Wild’s scoring come tonight, with mostly youth and fringe players playing? Well, the answer to this question, obviously, was Warren Peters.

Can Minnesota’s inexperienced defensive unit hold their own against a fairly experienced stable of forwards? Yes, and yes. This defensive unit was great for the duration of the game. They helped prevent any major scoring chances and gave the goaltenders the opportunity to see the puck.

Will Zack Phillips (my dark horse roster pick), Kris Foucault, Brett Bulmer or Jarod Palmer emerge as surprise front runners to make the roster on opening day? No. The youngsters didn’t have bad games, but none of them blew anyone away. All showed that they’ve got the tools to be good down the road, but right now none looked quite ready to be a full-time NHLer.

Will Jordan Hendry rebound from a less than stellar performance last game? Yes. He wasn’t the team’s best defenseman, but he had a very good game save for a mistake here and there.

Check back later today for our gameday thread. Otherwise, enjoy the weather today…It’s only going to get colder!

Photos courtesy of Getty Images

Wild Loses Almond, Recalls Peters

Looks like the Wild have lost another centerman, as the team has recalled Warren Peters after Cody Almond was the recipient of the ever elusive “lower body injury” last night.

Bad news for the Wild, who are already paper thin at the position, with John Madden playing injured as well.

Peters will play tonight, for sure, and likely will center Brad Staubitz and Jed Ortmeyer or, in other words, will help them open the bench gate for players as Todd Richards will likely cut it down to three lines very quickly.

Peters has a grand total of 29 NHL games to his name, including two with the Wild, and two goals in his career.

The good news is that Brodziak should be available for the Wild in Monday’s game against the Blackhawks, but this has definitely been an eyeopener for how thin this squad is at center. At this point, even James Sheppard would be a welcome addition to the squad.

But, who do you go after? Like I said before, a lot of the teams in the playoff race are pretty unwilling to part with players. The Wild could maybe go after Tim Connolly, but I don’t see the Wild going after a fragile forward having a down year. Stephen Weiss would be a very good option — he’s young and under contract for two more seasons — but the Wild will likely have to give up a lot to get him. Likely a roster player and probably a prospect and draft pick (especially since Cory Stillman was had for a player and a pick), but you never know what ace Fletcher might have up his sleeve.

Otherwise, there are always players like Dustin Penner available but that doesn’t necessarily fill an immediate need, though it would be a helpful addition.

In any event, this isn’t a primer for the trade deadline, so we’ll save that one for later. Enjoy the game tonight and I’ll be back tomorrow unless any breaking news happens!

Prospect Profile: Carson McMillan

I’ll just give it to you straight: The Houston Aeros lack a certain offensive sparkle this season. Not quite the Bondo gray of last year, but not much better. It’s clear, anyway, that scoring will have to come from everyone for the team to even have a prayer of moving out of the division basement.

Carson McMillan - Photo by Chris Jerina (click photo for more from Chris)

And one guy who has stepped it up so far this season is sophomore winger Carson McMillan. He’s racked up 2 goals and 3 assists in 10 games, which maybe isn’t all that mind-blowing until you realize he only had 8 points in 56 games last year.

Can I get an ‘AMEN’?

Carson was in the same draft class (but 2 rounds behind) Cody Almond, who looked great almost from the start last season and earned a call-up to Minnesota as a result. Even when Almond wasn’t getting on the score sheet, his hockey sense was evident, and in comparison, McMillan seemed a little lackluster.

He often struck me as being a half-step behind at times, aggressive but not particularly smart about it, and prone to the occasional bad penalty. He had come out of Juniors so highly touted, earning more than a point per game in his final year with the Calgary Hitmen, what I was seeing each night for the Aeros just didn’t jive.

But it’s amazing what a year can do for a guy. His positioning is good, he’s not taking untimely penalties, he’s faster and more in-the-play. And it’s showing on the stats sheet as he is in a three-way tie for leading scorer on the team (which, admittedly, isn’t saying a whole lot).

He’s scored in the last two Aeros games and I got to see the most recent one. It was a 2 on 1 with center Warren Peters, who carried the puck in and dished it at the last second over to McMillan, who one-timed it in the net before Texas Stars goalie Richard Bachman could make it across.

After the game, he was quick to deflect credit:

“The goal tonight was all Warren Peters. He made a heck of a fake on the defense and on the goalie and gave me a wide open net, and I thanked him about a hundred times after the goal.”

Sure, but if I had a dollar for every time a couple of Aeros have been in that same situation and the pass was mishandled or overskated or otherwise not capitalized on, I could buy myself some seats on the glass at the X.

So credit where it’s due. The Aeros need someone who can finish, and McMillan finished. Here’s to a lot more of that this season, because this team is going to need it.

And if the Wild can get some decent production out of him, along with the toughness he’s already brought, that’s a big win for a 7th rounder.