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The Depth Chart and Other Randomness

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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.

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Wild’s Most “Rugged” and other News

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SI has recently posted a list of the NHL’s “Most Rugged” players and one of Wild Nation’s personal favorite hockey blogs, Puck Daddy, has responded with their revised list, of which Wild winger Owen Nolan was one.

All of this got me thinking.  The Wild has never really been the epitome of a “rugged” team, save for the playoffs two years ago when they had the Four Horsemen (Derek Boogaard, Aaron Voros, Todd Fedoruk and Chris Simon) on their roster.  But last season, who could have been considered the Wild’s “Most Rugged” players?  After some serious thought, here’s what I came up with:

5) Brent Burns – From his gap-toothed smile to his perpetual almost-beard, rugged is certainly a word that is befitting of the Wild’s brightest star on the blueline.  Burnsie does it all.  He hits, he scores, he plays good defense; and let’s be honest.  The man played the last six weeks of his season with a concussion.  That’s rugged.

4) Stephane Veilleux – The reisdent red-headed stepchild of the Wild has always been one to mix it up with anyone at any time.  He’s played through broken bones on his face on multiple occasions and is always front and center when the Wild’s checking line comes into the discussion.  One of the best checking line players the Wild has had, Veilleux will try to cash in on this ruggedness this summer.

3) Cal Clutterbuck – The new face of the Wild’s checking line certainly put on a show this last season.  Clutterbuck gained noteriety from his big hits, despite his small stature.  Throw in another perpetual chin growth and you’ve got one rugged player.  Besides…Anytime you anger Don Cherry to the point where he gives you a derogatory nickname, you must be doing something right.

2) Andrew Brunette – Truth be told, Brunette has never been known for his physical play, but he gets the nod over Clutterbuck here due to the fact that a) he looks like he’s one day of forgetting to shave away from joining Han Solo aboard the Millenium Falcon and b) he played the last three months of this season with a torn ACL.  Now that’s rugged.

1) Owen Nolan – We’ve got to give the nod to the Wild’s resident badass on this one.  You know a player commands fear and respect when he’s allowed to screen the goalie pretty much unimpeded, which Nolan did all season long.  On top of that, he is the only player on the Wild’s team that is allowed to break the gameday dress code because, quite simply, no one wants to tell him that he can’t; not to mention that he penciled himself into the line up this season, coming back early from an injury.  As Burns said about him in a session of Hockey Unplugged; you don’t want to mess with him.  He could firebomb your car.

Other News

  • Wild prospect Cody Almond is playing in the Memorial Cup with the Kelowna Rockets.  Almond has been signed to an entry level deal and will play with the Aeros next season.  Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune also pointed out that Almond takes nearly all of the big faceoffs for Kelowna, not to mention has got some great wheels on him and is a solid penalty killer.  Almond was second in playoff scoring in the WHL with 27 points in 22 games.
  • The search for the next GM of the Wild continues.  For what it’s worth, my prediction for this is Pierre McGuire as GM and Pat Quinn as coach.  Second interviews should be wrapping up shortly, however, and we may have a new GM as soon as next week.
  • The Aeros avoided elminiation by downing the Manitoba Moose in OT, 5-4.  The Aeros now trail 3-1 and will face elimination again in Game 5 in Houston.

 

 

The Walking Wounded and other Wild Updates

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Per Russo,

Goalie Niklas Backstrom will indeed have left hip surgery Friday in Vail. Brian Stensaas was on a conference call with acting GM Tom Lynn. He reports he has two cysts on the bony part of his hip.

Lynn says they won’t know how long he’ll be out until they operate. Worst case scenario, Stensaas says, could be four to six months!

But Lynn said the doctor cautions they can’t give a timetable yet. More from Stensaas in Wednesday’s paper.

Also, I hear Brent Burns is having shoulder surgery probably on Thursday.

This is in addition to Andrew Brunette having reconstructive knee surgery this off season and Derek Boogaard having shoulder surgery.

So what does this mean for the Wild?  Well, if the prognosis for Backstrom truly is 4-6 months, that puts Backstrom back at the earliest, August 24th and at the latest October 24th.  Knowing Backstrom, he will work his hardest to rehab and be back sooner, but this essentially makes the top priority for the new GM hammering out a deal for back up goalie Josh Harding.

If this is indeed the case, you can take Harding off of the table as a bargaining chip.  That is, unless the new GM is suddenly stricken by Barry Brust-mania and believes that Brust can shoulder the load as an NHL starter.  What this could do, however, is drive Harding’s stock through the roof.  If Harding can perform like Backstrom did when he wrested the starting job away from Manny Fernandez a few years back, Harding could easily become a hot commodity among NHL teams.

The Search Begins
After being denied permission by Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs to speak with Dave Nonis, Wild owner Craig Leipold recieved permission from the Nashville Predators to speak with a couple of his old employees; Director of Hockey Operations Mike Santos and assistant GM Paul Fenton.

From Russo,

Leipold declined comment on them, ”just like I won’t comment on any of the other candidates.” 

There are lots of candidates that have surfaced. These are just two that so far I know he’ll be allowed to talk with. I’m sure there are others. I’m working the phones.

Santos is in his third year in Nashville and is responsible in negotiating player contracts and preparing for salary arbitrations. He served as assistant GM for the New York Islanders from 1997-2002 and director of hockey operations for the Florida Panthers from 2002-03.

He was Commissioner and President of the North American Hockey League from 2003-06. He’s worked for USA Hockey and the NHL.

Fenton is in his third year as Nashville’s assistant GM after eight as the director of player personnel. He oversees the Predators’ amateur player development and managers the team’s pro and amateur scouting staffs. He’s also GM of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals.

Fenton, who played eight years in the NHL for seven teams and was a former Boston University standout, also spent five seasons working for the Anaheim Ducks. 

It hasn’t happened yet, but another person I’d assume Leipold would request permission to speak with his Pittsburgh assistant GM Chuck Fletcher. He’s 41 with 16 years of experience. He’s immensely respected after years in Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

Remember, Leipold has a fabulous relationship with Penguins GM Ray Shero, who used to be assistant GM in Nashville.

In addition, the Wild have been denied permission to speak with Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill.  Nill is under contract until 2010-11 and has a commitment in his contract to stay in Detroit.  In fact, this quote was run in the Windsor Star when Toronto was inquiring about Nill’s availability.

The way we do things here, I’ve already got most of the responsibilities and input that a general manager would have. Ken [Holland] and I work really well together.

I’m comfortable, I’m well-compensated and I like the organization. I know which side my bread is buttered on.

Risebrough Presser
You’ve got to love hockey guys.  Doug Risebrough held his “exit presser” yesterday and held it at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub.  Gotta love it.

Anyway, Russo had some snippets in his blog regarding the players and it just shows how well respected Risebrough was by his own players.  Derek Boogaard had his fiancee drive to the pub after he literally just woke up from having shoulder surgery, just so that he could thank Risebrough for the opportunity and have a chance to say goodbye.  Risebrough also spent some quality time with Marian Gaborik at the arena and went to Brent Burns’ home to meet with the youngster after the new broke regarding his concussion problems.

Again, on a personal level, I’m sad to see Risebrough go.  He was a great guy, probably the nicest associated with the NHL that I’ve had the pleasure to meet.  Part of me feels that he deserved a bit better treatment than he received from Leipold; however, that’s also Leipold’s perogative as the owner.  It’s his team and he can run it as he sees fit.

On a business level, however, it was time for a change.  Risebrough had become increasingly defensive about his decisions over the past few seasons and it seemed as if fans, management and players alike were all growing tired of his smug, “I know best” attitude.  As disappointed as I am that it had to end like this, it certainly had to end.

In the transcript of the presser, however, there was one quote from Risebrough that really rings true to me.

I think the club, I believe the club is in really good shape, and I’ll tell you why. I think it’s got a good core of players. It’s got good youth. I think it’s got great flexibility in terms of the salary cap. It’s got lots of room this year, it’s got lots of room next year. So whether that means what do you want to do immediate signings or future signings, it’s all there. It’s got a great fan base that’s still in love with this team. So it’s going to be energized. I believe players that had poor years will rebound. I’m pretty comfortable to say the injuries aren’t going to be the same magnitude. So I think it’s a great opportunity for a manager and I think it’s a great opportunity for a coach. And I feel good about that. I made decisions on a regular basis for the right  reasons, and the right reasons never included me. They never included me, they were always for the franchise. Now I can say, I didn’t always make the right decisions, but I did them for the right reasons. And I feel good about that.

That right there, to me, says it all.  Whoever it is has a good base, but also has his work cut out for him.  This is a solid team in need of a few key components to become a serious contender.  I don’t think this team needs to be blown up and start from scratch again, but at the same time I don’t think that this team is ready to contend next season after all of this going on this off season.  One thing’s for sure, though.  It’s still an exciting time to be a Wild fan!

Season in Review: Defensemen and Goaltenders

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A few days prior, I outlined the season in review for the Wild’s forwards.

Now, it’s time for the back end of the team.  Defense and goaltending.  By all accounts, this was a Wild team whose defense had to be bailed out by their goaltender far, far too often.  But this was also the first time that the Wild had multiple defensemen capable of putting points up on the board, so here we go with the review.

Marek Zidlicky – 3 – D | 76 GP, 12 – 30 – 42, -12: There are a couple things that are telling about Zidlicky’s first season in Minnesota.  First, the man is a powerplay machine.  Ten of his twelve goals game with the man advantage and, for the first time, gave the Wild a real, genuine threat with his shot from the point.  The second, however, is that Zidlicky is also not known for his defense.  He showed flashes of what he could do in the defensive end, but he is primarily known and kept for his abilities moving the puck and in the offensive zone.  Zidlicky’s lack of size and his propensity to turnovers aggrivated Wild fans to no end, but there’s no denying the fact that he provided the Wild with a fantastic threat from the point.  Grade: B

Marc-Andre Bergeron – 47 – D | 73 GP, 14 – 18 – 32, +5: When I look at Bergeron’s season, there’s one thing that pops to mind that really sums it all up.  He was a plus?!?  Look, Bergeron has a lot of skills that can be/are useful to an NHL team.  It’s just that his defensive prowess is certainly not chief among them.  While a force on the powerplay, Bergeron’s play in his own zone was inconsistent at best.  He was often the victim of poor decision making and mistakes with the puck that caused the coaching staff and the fans to get a bit more grey hair on their heads.  Overall, though, his offensive skill was something that we definitely needed from the blueline and he was one of the big reasons why our powerplay was as good as it was this season.  Grade: B-

Brent Burns – 8 – D | 59 GP, 8 – 19 – 27, -7: It’s very hard to categorize Burns’s season, especially due to the fact that he was bounced around so much and because of the most recent news that he played his last six weeks of the season with a concussion.  That said, Burns regressed a bit this season and the Wild management is largely the reason why.  Everyone came into the season expecting a Mike Green-esque outburst from the young defenseman, but the flip flopping between forward and defense early in the season led to what could be called a mediocre season at best for the youngster.  Grade: C

Kim Johnsson – 5 – D | 81 GP, 2 – 22 – 24, -3: Johnsson has his share of detractors in Minnesota, largely due to his contract and lack of offensive production.  But looking at the current landscape for defensemen, his contract is not so outrageous in comparison to what other defensive defensemen are making; especially considering the fact that Johnsson has the ability to skate his way out of trouble and can provide some solid puck movement.  Johnsson played in all situations for the Wild and was oftentimes matched up against teams’ top lines which makes his season all the more impressive.  Grade: B+

Martin Skoula – 41 – D | 81 GP, 4 – 12 – 16, -12: Let’s just get the shocker out of the way right now.  Martin Skoula was the Wild’s most dependable and most consistend defenseman all year.  I know, I know what you’re thinking.  “Human Sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…Mass hysteria!”  (Author’s Note: A shiny penny for anyone who can name that movie.)  Anyway, the bottom line is that Skoula had a very un-Skoula-like season on defense.  He did not make the catastrophic mistakes that he had previously been known for and he made sound decisions with the puck and actually used his size.  Grade: A-

Nick Schultz – 55 – D | 79 GP, 2 – 9 – 11, -4: Let’s get one thing out of the way here first.  Nick Schultz will never be known for his offensive output.  He’s never going to be a powerplay specialist.  But what he does do is play against teams’ top lines night in and night out and shut them down more often than not.  He’s not flashy, but he rarely makes mistakes and has become a staple on the Wild’s blueline.  One area where I think he could excel a bit more, however, is his physical play.  He’s not a small guy by any means, but he relies predominantly on his positioning to take players out of the play.  While this is extremely effective, the Wild’s blueline has been severely lacking in its physicality in recent seasons.  Schultz is one of those players that I would love to see step up that part of his game.  Grade: B

Kurtis Foster – 26 – D | 10 GP, 1 – 5 – 6, +7: Okay.  I’m going to be honest here.  I was going to give Foster a “passing” grade, simply because he was out for the vast majority of the season and came back from a pretty harrowing injury.  But that was before I actually looked at his stats.  6 points and plus-7 in 10 games is pretty darn impressive, let alone for someone returning from a serious injury.  Let’s clear one thing up right away.  Foster is never going to be a top-pairing, or even second-pairing defenseman.  Quite simply, he’s a solid d-man who can play 15-17 minutes a night and contribute offensively.  But that stat line at least gives him a little bump in his grade.  Grade: B-

John Scott – 36 – D | 20 GP, 0 – 1 – 1, -1: Scott was recently rewarded for his solid play for the team with a one-year contract and, quite honestly, he deserved it.  He came in and provided a physical presence on our blueline that we have never had and played quite admirably for us.  His skating needs to improve for next season if he’s going to have a shot of playing any sort of regular minutes and he may be looked at to be Boogaard-Lite for us next season.  Grade: C

Niklas Backstrom – 32 – G | 71 GP, 37-24-8, 2.33 GAA, .923 Sv %: Quite simply, on most nights Backstrom was the reason that we either a) won the game or b) were in the game.  He was spectacular this season and played his way into a handsome contract extension.  He also proved that he was one of the elite goalies in the league and should likely be in the running for the Vezina trophy.  There’s not much more that you can say about his season apart from this, as he was the reason we were as close to the playoffs as we were.  Grade: A

Josh Harding – 29 – G | 19 GP, 3-9-1, 2.21 GAA, .929 Sv %: You’ve got to feel for Harding.  On any other team he’d likely be starting by now, but he just happens to be stuck behind Backstrom.  Harding performed marvelously as the back up to Backstrom, though his wins and losses don’t necessarily reflect it.  He is still growing in his game, but looks as if he could easily step up and be a starting goaltender if need be.  Grade: B

So there you have it.  The season grades for the defense and goaltenders.  Check back here as I will have a season recap and my thoughts on this season in coming days!

Gameday: Wild @ Islanders – 3/25/09

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Sans Brent Burns and Mikko Koivu, the Wild rolled into the Big Apple last night and left with a demoralizing loss despite a fantastic game by Niklas Backstrom.  The team dropped from 10th in the West down to 11th, chasing 8th place Anaheim who is two points ahead of them, and two points back from 9th place Nashville.

Ok.  That was the bad news.

The good news?  Tonight we roll into the island to play the league’s bottom team in the New York Islanders.

This is not to say that the Isles should be taken lightly, as they have been hot as of late; however, if there is any team that the Wild could use as a “slump-buster,” this is certainly it.

When you look at the two teams, they have similar stats on paper.  The Wild have only scored a paltry 184 goals this season (good for second last in the West) while the Isles are just two behind them (good for last in the East).  The difference between the two teams, however, has been their defense and goaltending.  The Wild have given up just 180 goals this season (good for third best in the league) while the Isles have given up 234 goals this season (good for eleventh in the East).  The Isles are also having similar problems to the Wild on the blueline; namely, not enough grit.  If the Wild are to be successful against this team tonight, they will need to get into the high traffic areas on the ice and push around an Isles defense that is extremely undersized.  This means that players that like to get their noses dirty in front of and behind the net, such as Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette, will be key to the Wild’s hopes of victory tonight.

Defensively, the Wild will need to focus on stopping the Isles offensive weapons.  Though young, the Isles still boast some players that have the talent to put the puck in the net; most notably Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and Sean Bergenheim, not to mention their leading scorer, Mark Streit.  The biggest key to the resurgence of the Islanders over the last few weeks has been their balanced attack.  They have been given the freedom to play spoiler and have taken to it quite nicely and the Wild will have to focus on their entire line up in order to keep the team down.

Goaltending has been a concern for the Isles since the injury of franchise goalie Rick Dipietro; however, Yann Danis has stepped up in his absence and performed marvelously.  A little confidence can go a long way with Danis, and the Wild need to avoid giving him any at all, getting to him early and often.  This will involve shooting the puck and getting it on net; the latter of which the Wild have struggled with all season long.

In the previous meeting this season, the Wild cruised to a 4-1 victory over the Isles, outshooting them 39-16 and dominating for most of the game.  A repeat performance of this would be key to getting the Wild back on track and giving the team confidence heading into a crucial two game swing in Canada against the Flames and the Oilers.

Keys to the Game

  1. Shoot the Puck.  It seems to be common sense, but the Wild have gotten behind in the shots early in too many of their games this season and, as a result, have had to fight back in too many of their games.  Especially with an inexperienced goalie in net, the key to the Wild’s game should be to get traffic in front of him and get the puck on net.  If they can do this, there’s no reason that they can’t have an offensive outburst and win this game walking away.
  2. Be Physical.  The Wild are a team that have been pushed around a little more than they would like this season and it needs to stop.  The blueline especially has been a weak point for the Wild this season in terms of physicality and the Isles are a small team.  The Wild came out with a physical game last night against the Rangers and any carry over from this would be a huge help for the team.
  3. Establish Consistency.  The Wild have lacked consistency all season long, both in the micro and macro views.  In games they often go stretches without pressuring their opponent and oftentimes dig themselves holes during these periods.  If the Wild are able to maintain consistency during the games, this will translate over to the macro view and consistency will begin to be established from game-to-game as well.  This is key for the Wild to win games down the stretch and make a push for the playoffs.

This is a Wild team that can be good.  They just need to find the consistency to do so.  If they’re able to shorten their memories and put their loss last night behind them, they should have no problem handling the Isles.  The question will be if they are able to do just that.

Clutter-Watch 2009: For all intents and purposes, tonight will be the game that Cal Clutterbuck breaks the NHL Record for hits in a season, set by Dustin Brown.  Needing just two more hits to do so, it is very likely that this could be accomplished by the end of the first period, or even his first shift.  As Mike Russo mentioned in his blog, however, I wouldn’t expect much of a fanfare for this.  After all, the statistic has only been around for a few short years.  We could very well be watching young Cal’s statistics next season as well, as he’ll likely be given more responsibility, more ice time and more opportunities to do what he loves to do: hit.

The Road Trip and Wild Notes

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Finally, after delays and sleeping in airports, back home.

The site has been vacant as of late and there is most certainly a reason for this.  The past few days, I have been in New Jersey being hosted by the venerable owner of Hockey Primetime, Sam Woo.  A friend and I flew out for the Devils/Wild game on Friday night and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised.

All of the buzz that I have heard about Devils fans was, quite frankly, that they were some of the worst fans in the NHL.  I had heard to no end that they were dispassionate about their team and that when they did get riled up enough to actually go to the games that they were rude, loud mouthed and quite inconsiderate to visiting fans.

What I found, however, was that this was a group of fans that were passionate to no end about their team.  The arena, while not filled, was not as empty as you are always led to believe.  The upper areas of the arena were full, for the most part, and the majority of the seats open in the lower bowl were open in the Fire and Ice Lounge sections.  Why?  I can think of about 250 reasons why, as the price for those seats is astronomical.

As far as the characterization of the fans?  Absolutely untrue.  Yes, all fans have their bad apples, but the New Jersey fans I ran into were extremely friendly and extremely considerate.  I was wearing my Wild gear, as I do to every game, and I got fans walking up to me asking questions about the team to no end.  Asking about Gaborik’s return, about the team in general, everything.  On top of that, any cheers that were focused at the Wild fans there were all done in good fun.  There was no animosity towards the fans in the least.

There were also people telling me about the town of Newark and about the area surrounding the arena.  I was hearing that the town and area around the arena was extremely dangerous.  Again,  I did not see that one bit.  The area around the arena was no worse than in downtown Minneapolis or downtown St. Paul.  Common sense should be exhibited but I, for one, never felt in danger in the least.

The bottom line is this.  New Jersey fans are getting a bad rap.  The team is a fantastic team with fans that are passionate about them.  I was wearing my colors proudly and cheering on my team proudly (though there wasn’t too terribly much to cheer for in the 4-0 loss) and was met with nothing but the acceptance of knowledgable, friendly hockey fans.  There is no doubt in my mind that I will return to Newark in the future to catch another hockey game and to spend some more time amongst some of the best fans in the NHL.

Wild Notes

  • The injury to Mikko Koivu has definitely thrown a wrench in the Wild’s postseason plans.  With the loss of Koivu, the Wild’s season’s hopes lie squarely on the fragile “lower body” of Marian Gaborik.  With Koivu out, Gaborik will be looked towards to replace him offensively.  Whether or not this is something that he can do remains to be seen, but the hope for now is that he can return as soon as possible to help this team make a push for the playoffs.
  • More news on the injury front for the Wild; Brent Burns is still sidelined with concussion-like symptoms.  It’s hard enough when one of your top players is out, but having multiple star players on the shelf is just flat out demoralizing and could be the kiss of death for this team.
  • On the up side, these injuries are giving us good, long looks at players that could be in the line up next season.  Peter Olvecky has performed well in the absence of Gaborik and will need to continue to do so in the absence of Koivu.  He has gotten time on the power play (which, in Lemaire’s book, means he’s doing something right) and has been placed on the ice in increasingly more important situations.  John Scott is another that is slowly working his way up the depth chart.  While not as offensively skilled as the other Wild defensemen, Scott is a fantastic physical presence on the blueline and is playing fantastic hockey at the moment.
  • The Wild have a crucial road trip coming up this week.  They have back-to-back games in New York (of the Rangers and Islanders variety) followed by back-to-back games in Calgary and Edmonton.  This road trip will likely be the determining factor as to whether or not this team makes the playoffs.  If they can come away with 5 or 6 points on this trip, they will be sitting pretty.  Less than 4 points on this trip and I would wager that the playoffs aren’t anything more than a pipedream.
  • Finally, as you can see on the side bar, the Clutter-Watch 2009 is getting close.  Cal Clutterbuck, the Wild’s resident bowling ball, is just ten hits away from breaking the NHL hits record in his rookie season.  While his stats may not be as impressive as other rookies, there are few other rookies this season that have made the impact that Clutterbuck has.  So remember…You can’t spell Calder without Cal!

Five For Fighting

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Let me clarify one thing right off the bat.  This will not be a long diatribe condemning fighting, nor will this be a thesis on how the NHL should let players police themselves.  Like Fox News, I will attempt to be “fair and balanced” in my views (and likely have much greater success at doing so).

I’m not going to mince words.  I enjoy fighting in the NHL.  I certainly do think it has a place and I most definitely do not think that it is a distraction from the game; at least not all of the time.  In the right context, fights can change the momentum of a game or limit the effectiveness of a player.  At the same time, however, I appreciate the fact that the Board of Governors is attempting to get a handle on fighting in the NHL.

Let’s face it.  As entertaining as the occasional “enforcer” fight may be, it adds little to nothing to the game itself.  I would imagine that seven or eight times out of ten, these fights between heavyweights involve the two bruisers lining up next to each other on the face off, chirping at one another, then dropping the gloves in an attempt to make their paltry five minutes or less of ice time memorable.  The simple fact is that the role of enforcer on an NHL team is as antiquated as players not wearing helmets. 

What exactly do these enforcers bring to the game?  It’s certainly not protection, as there are now many players on teams that are not considered to be enforcers but drop the gloves when need be.  On most teams, the enforcers are relegated to a few minutes of ice time that will likely be eclipsed by their penalty minutes in that game.

Derek Boogaard (F Min) – 50 GP, 0 G, 3 A, 87 PIM, 5:03 TOI
Donald Brashear (F Was) – 63 GP, 1 G, 3 A, 121 PIM, 8:14 TOI
Wade Belak (F Nas) – 53 GP, 0 G, 2 A, 79 PIM, 5:15 TOI
Georges Laraque (F Mon) – 28 GP, 0 G, 2 A, 52 PIM, 7:35 TOI
Eric Godard (F Pit) – 65 GP, 2 G, 1 A, 159 PIM, 4:02 TOI
David Koci (F TB) – 27 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 99 PIM, 5:31 TOI

There you have it.  Six of the more “notorious” fighters in the game today.  Not one topping ten minutes in ice time and not one topping more than four points.  Can you honestly tell me that these players have an impact on their team or on the game?  Yes, there are certainly players that can have an impact on the game in eight minutes of ice time.  Those players are also the ones that are atop the leaders in points or even in hits or even in plus/minus rating.  But the honest truth is that the majority of enforcers in the NHL are nothing more than liabilities on the ice.

But fighting does have a place in the NHL.  Looking at the new rule changes that the Board of Governors are thinking about instituting, I whole-heartedly agree with the decision to give anything that could be construed as a “staged fight” a 10-minute game misconduct.  What I do not agree with, however, is the NHL’s decision to attempt to negate fights after a big, clean hit.

Think about it.  Hockey is an emotional game and the majority of fights in hockey are spurred on by emotion.  Some of the most memorable are as well.  But what the NHL is trying to do here is nothing more than a token attempt to “clean up” fighting, and a poor one at that.  If a player gets caught by a big, clean hit, he should certainly have to answer for it.  Now I’m not talking about those big hits where the player gets knocked over the boards or gets plowed behind the net or anything where the player gets hit and pops back up.  I’m talking the Brandon Sutter type hits, where the players gets run through cleanly and, consequently, is not able to get back up immediately and return the favor.

There are players on all teams whose job description, quite frankly, is to check.  Some have talent past that, some are solely used for checking purposes.  Just like fighting, hitting is part of the game.  The problem I have with the NHL’s proposed rule change is that the team has no recourse in these situations.  The opposing player does not have to pay any price for running around, hitting anything that moves.  Clean or not, it is a dangerous precedent to allow players to run around, hitting anything and everything and not have to answer for doing so.

Look at the fights that are spurred on by emotion.  Jarome Iginla vs. Vincent Lecavalier?  The Buffalo Sabres vs. the Ottawa Senators?  Brent Burns vs. Chris Kunitz?  Emotion can make a fight, just as lack of emotion can break it…Just as with hockey.  Animosity in a fight can lead to an absolutely brilliant brawl; not two heavyweights who can barely skate holding each other up for 30 seconds.

My thought?  Take the staged stuff out of the game.  Force those players to evolve or be forced out of the NHL.  Let emotion rule the fights; not two players just trying to get their minute in the spotlight for the game.