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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.

 

 

Season in Review: The Forwards

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The season has ended and Jacques Lemaire has stepped down as the coach of the Minnesota Wild.  A big weekend in Minnesota hockey, to be sure.  So today, true to my word, I will begin my season review of the team; first, starting with the forwards.

Mikko Koivu – 9 – C | 79 GP, 20 – 47 – 67, +2:In a word, Koivu’s season was okay.  Most likely, more was expected of him both by himself and by the fans, however he showed marked improvement over his last couple seasons and looks as if he will continue to improve towards next season.  He certainly showed flashes of brilliance; however, he was mired by inconsistency late in the season, at one point going eight games without even registering a point in what could have been considered the period of the season where the Wild needed him most.  In all, Koivu had a good season, but was not what was needed by the team.  Grade: B

Andrew Brunette – 15 – L | 80 GP, 22 – 28 – 50, -5: Let’s be fair.  Bruno was exactly what Wild fans expected.  He did everything that the team expected from him and was a true leader on and off the ice.  I don’t think that anyone expected him to be a 80 point scorer, but he was expected to be steady and he was exactly that.  He munches minutes, he controls the puck and he’s solid in his own zone.  I’m sure he would have liked to be more consistent, as there were multiple long stretches where he failed to register a point, but overall he was one of the top players on the team.  Grade: A-

Pierre-Marc Bouchard – 96 – C | 71 GP, 16 – 30 – 46, -5:Fresh off of a new contract, Bouchard struggled for the first half of the season.  He struggled to find his groove in the offensive zone and was tentative for a lot of the season.  Once he hit his stride, however, he was as good as any player in the league.    After the All Star break, Bouchard turned it on and was one of the top players on the team.  As with Bruno and Koivu, however, finding any sort of consistency was a struggle for Bouchard and his season could have been much better than it was with some sort of consistency.  Grade: B-

Owen Nolan – 11 – R | 59 GP, 25 – 20 – 45, +5:I was as thrilled as anybody that the Wild had signed “Cowboy” during the off season.  Nolan has always been one of my favorite players and to see him come to the Wild was something that I absolutely loved.  While injuries slowed his season, Nolan was one of the big reasons why the loss of Marian Gaborik for the majority of the season was not an unmitigated disaster for the Wild.  He came on with a punch that I don’t think anyone expected from him and immediately became a fan favorite.  Despite playing injured for most of the season, Nolan was one of the Wild’s best players and the only thing that holds his final evaluation back is the fact that he was injured for a good chunk of the year.  Grade: B+

Antti Miettinen – 20 – R | 82 GP, 15 – 29 – 44, -1:I think if you asked any Wild fan what they expected from Antti Miettinen, they would have said something like the old Antti that the Wild had (of the Laaksonen variety).  I don’t, however, think that they would have responded by saying that the young Finn would be a 40+ point scorer.  “Mittens,” as he has so lovingly been dubbed by Wild fans, came out like gangbusters and, eventually, cooled off later in the season but his impact on the Wild’s roster was immediate.  He brought a hard-working, defensively sound presence to the team that complemented the line up that they had perfectly.  He meshed well with countryman Mikko Koivu, but also fit into other roles quite easily.  His performance was a pleasant surprise on a team that did not have many this season.  Grade: A-

Eric Belanger – 25 – C | 79GP, 13 – 23 – 36, -5: One thing can be said of Belanger.  He is certainly consistent.  What is frustrating about him, however, is that you occasionally see flashes of brilliance that make it maddening to watch him at times.  There were times this season where Belanger was a magician in the offensive zone and there were times where he was brilliant in the defensive zone.  Belanger is a checking line center that was thrust into a second line center role this season and performed admirably.  He plays with a passion for the game that is hard to miss.  The trouble is that the team didn’t need him to produce like a checking line center this season.  They needed him to step up his game and produce like a second line center; and this, he did not do.  Grade: C

James Sheppard – 51 – C | 82 GP, 5 – 19 – 24, -14: By all accounts, James Sheppard was a massive disappointment this season.  His performance towards the end of last season had Wild fans and management alike optimistic that he might step into the limelight and take over a larger role on the team.  Sheppard failed to step up to the task and was such a disappointment that he even began to see regular shifts with the fourth line or be benched in important moments.  The only thing that salvaged his season was, again, a late season push in which the youngster began to show his true potential, notching 1 goal and 7 assists for 8 points in eleven games and a +6 over this time.  Grade: D

Marian Gaborik – 10 – R | 17 GP, 13 – 10 – 23, +3:In what will likely be Gaborik’s last season with the team, fans are left wondering what could have been.  In just 17 games, Gaborik proved his worth to the team by lighting a fire under himself.  Not only did he lead the team to a 7-3-1 record down the stretch, but also gave Wild fans one of the most electrifying 11-game stretches in recent memory.  This stretch saved Gaborik’s season from being a bitter disappointment; however, 65 games missed cannot be ignored.  Grade: D+

Stephane Veilleux – 19 – L | 81GP, 13 – 10 – 23, -17:Again, in what will likely be Veilleux’s last season with the Wild, the scrappy winger put together a fairly solid campaign.  After his outburst at the end of last season, however, the team was certainly expecting more from him and he simply didn’t deliver on this early in the season.  As he approaches free agency, he may have to reevaluate his standing with the team as he will likely not be back.  Grade: C-

Cal Clutterbuck – 22 – R | 78 GP, 11 – 7 – 18, -5: Cal Clutterbuck came to Minnesota, leaving his car parked in the airport parking lot; thinking that he would be back in a few days.  A couple months later, he was told to find a place to live.  That pretty much sums up the rookie’s first full NHL season that made him a cult hero in Minnesota and even incited a grassroots Calder Trophy campaign.  In his rookie season, he broke the NHL hits record and showed some offensive flair as well, leaving Wild fans hopeful for the years to come.  Grade: A+

Dan Fritsche – 49 – L | 50 GP, 5 – 8 – 13, -5: Fritsche was a press box mainstay in New York, but quickly became a checking and fourth line mainstay for the Wild.  With many fans disappointed that the Wild simply did not claim him off waivers, Fritsche quietly came out and made an impact for the Wild and endeared himself to the fans.  A hard worker and a solid player, Fritsche will be looked towards to play a larger role on the team if he stays in Minnesota.  Grade: C+

Benoit Pouliot – 67 – L | 37 GP, 5 – 6 – 11, +1: Pouliot was another of the Wild’s young disappointments this season.  Expected to come in and help complement Marian Gaborik, Pouliot came out and showed flashes of brilliance during his stay with the Wild.  Unfortunately, these flashes of brilliance were punctuated by stretches of apathy by the youngster.  If he remains with the team, he will likely be on his last shot to make the big show.  Grade: F

Peter Olvecky – 28 – L | 31 GP, 2 – 5 – 7, +1: The young Slovak may have played his way into a short one-way contract for next season with the way that he played in his limited call up.  Solid two-way play and some solid offensive zone play even led to the youngster getting time on special teams as the season wore down.  If he stays in Minnesota, next season he will be looked at to show some more of his offensive talent.  Grade: C

Colton Gillies – 18 – L | 45 GP, 2 – 5 – 7, -2:This season was to be a learning season for young Colton, and learn he did.  A relentlessly hard worker, Gillies was among the last off every practice, even when he was playing and soaked up all he could from the Wild’s extremely experienced coaching staff.  Gillies wasn’t expected to do much this season, but next will be where the rubber meets the road.  Grade: C

Krystofer Kolanos – 39 – C | 21 GP, 3 – 3 – 6, +3: Kolanos showed flashes of why he was a first round pick this season, but was ultimately deemed to inconsistent to remain with the team.  Should he be re-signed, he will likely need to show more consistent offensive production to stick with the team.  Grade: C-

Derek Boogaard – 24 – L | 51 GP, 0 – 3 – 3, +3: Much to the surprise of many, Boogaardcame out this season and actually tried to play hockey.  In fact, the big man didn’t even break 100 PIMs or just the second time in his career.  Hampered by injuries again, this fan favorite didn’t stand out in any way; surprisingly, not even fighting.  Grade: C

Craig Weller – 12 – R | 36 GP, 1 – 2 – 3, -3:Weller was slated to be “Boogaard Lite” for this team; however, he was unable to stick with the team for any extended period of time.  Often scratched, Weller simply did not impress enough to earn consistent ice time and was regularly a mainstay on the bench next to the back up goaltender when he was dressed.  Grade: F

So there you have it.  The season review for the forwards.

Up Next: Defense and Goaltending

Also, keep it tuned here tonight for the premiere of Wild Nation, Hockey Primetime’s official Minnesota Wild radio show!

Wild’s Hopes Dwindling

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The Wild got an all important point last night in their overtime defeat to the Vancouver Canucks.  The problem?  They needed to make it two points badly.

Their desperation certainly showed in the game, as they outshot the Canucks by a margin of 34-19 and held Vancouver to zero shots in the third period.  The Wild were buzzing all night long and peppered Roberto Luongo with shot after shot after shot.  The only problem was that they ran into Roberto Luongo.  Luongo was dazzling last night, stoning the Wild at every turn.  That and some good fortune for the Canucks was the difference in this game.

With the loss, the Wild’s “tragic number” has shrunk to 7 according to nhlplayoffrace.com and the team’s chances at the post season continue to shrink.  According to Hockey Reference’s playoff probability chart, the Wild now have just a 12.8% chance of making the playoffs and are being projected to finish with roughly 86 points.

The advantage for the Wild, however, is that the remainder of the teams directly in front of them play the majority of their remaining games on the road.  While the Wild will need to take care of things on their own end, this certainly bodes well for the team if they can take care of business.  The key part, however, is taking care of business.  Something that this team has not been able to do since the beginning of the season.

To add another wrench into the situation, the St. Louis Blues hold a game in hand over just about everyone around them.

What this equals (other than an enormous headache if you’re trying to figure out every situation) is that the Wild cannot control their own destiny, even if they win out.  It paints a pretty grim picture for the franchise; however, missing the playoffs could be the best thing that could happen for the Wild.  Why you ask?  Well, here’s why:

  • Draft for Success.  The Wild started re-stocking their defensive corps in last season’s draft.  With Anthony Aiello, Tyler Cuma and Justin Falk likely playing in the AHL next season, the Wild’s defensive prospects are looking better than they have in a while.  Meanwhile, however, their forwards are getting thin.  Cal Clutterbuck is the most notable of the forwards that has made the big squad and Peter Olvecky is getting a good, long look as well.  What does this mean?  Well, it means that the Wild doesn’t have a great wealth of top forward prospects.  But, the good news is that this is a draft that is very deep in the first round at forward.  The Wild will certainly end up with a top 15 pick if they miss the playoffs, and it is certainly conceivable that they could end up with a top 10 pick if the lottery goes right.  Two of the three NHL.com mock drafts had the Wild picked to snag the University of Minnesota’s Jordan Schroeder with their first pick if this is the case, while My NHL Draft has the Wild slated to pick Dmitry Kulikov from Drummondville (a defenseman) with their first pick.  Meanwhile, NHL DraftSite has the Wild slated to take Landon Ferraro at 12th.  The bottom line is that the Wild needs some top tier talent at forward.  The picks are at 11th, 10th and 12th respectively; however, if you look at the ISS Rankings, you can see that there are currently only three defensemen slated in the top ten.  If the Wild have the number ten pick, there’s no doubt in my mind that they will use it on a forward.
  • Coaching Turnover.  Mike Russo stated in his blog that he would place the odds at Lemaire returning for next season at about 20-80, meaning 20% that he would return and 80% that he would retire.  I would go even further than that.  Lemaire has seemed frustrated much of this season and no longer appears to be having any sort of fun behind the bench; something that he was even doing through the team’s maddening inconsistency last season.  As much as I love Lemaire, I do think that a coaching change would behoove this team next season.  A change of pace could be exactly what it takes to get this team (which I still believe is a good one) back on track.
  • Do Something, Please.  After two seasons of making the playoffs only to find a first round exit, Doug Risebrough was under immense pressure to round out the team and come back with another contender.  He did not.  After a year of missing the playoffs, he will be under even greater pressure to do something.  He has definite assets that he can barter with at the draft and before free agency; however, he would be best served to make a very large splash and bring some players onto the team that will take this team to the next level.

All in all, the Wild can learn a lot from this season.  If healthy, this team could be a force to be reckoned with.  Unfortunately, they have not been fully healthy all season long.  If the playoffs are missed (which I believe they will be), this team has an interesting off season ahead of them and some big decisions.  They key to how this team comes into next season will be how they respond going forward.

Clutterbuck Breaks Hits Record; Wild Win

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Let’s be honest.  Everyone and their mother knew that Cal Clutterbuck would break the hits record last night.  He’s been averaging at least 6 hits per game over his last few games and needed just two more to eclipse Dustin Brown’s old mark.

Clutterbuck has been a breath of fresh air this season to a Wild team that has lacked energy at times.  He comes out hard every night and he is always moving.  His big hitting style of game has endeared himself to Wild fans the world over and has made him Public Enemy Number One to everyone else.  He has even drawn so much attention to himself through his hard work and energy that a grassroots campaign has started amongst Wild fans for a push for the Calder Trophy, awarded each year to the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.

Clutterbuck has gotten noticed, not only by Wild fans, but by opposing players, fans and hockey pundits around the league.  From Don Cherry’s rant to fans categorizing Cal as a cheapshot artist, he has raised the ire of many a fan and player in his short time in the NHL.  The fact of the matter is, however, that Clutterbuck is a player that plays the game like it was meant to be played.  He skates hard every shift, he works hard every practice and he doesn’t back down from anyone.

The most impressive part of Clutterbuck’s season this year (apart from the hits) has been the offensive upside that he’s flashed.  Let us not forget that Mr. Clutterbuck used to play on John Tavares’s wing in the OHL.  He has offensive instincts; however, he was not quite up to snuff when he came into training camp this season.  He was given things to work on down in the AHL and his wrist shot went from a mediocre one to what Mario Tremblay and Jacques Lemaire have described as the best wrist shot on the team.  This hard work and willingness to be coached will ultimately be what defines Clutterbuck in his career.

What’s more is that Clutterbuck has earned favor with management with his hard-hitting, explosive, energetic playing style and has even found himself playing on the penalty kill and power play this season.  While his rookie campaign has been fantastic, there’s no doubt that he will continue to get even more responsibility in coming seasons with the team and I have no doubt that what we’ve seen this season is only scratching the surface of his overall potential.

317.  It’s not 552, but it’s still a Wild player with his name in the record books.

Game Notes

  • Surprisingly enough, there was a hockey game that occurred last night.  Now I know it’s the Islanders, but a 6-2 victory is still a confidence builder no matter who you play.  The team played with an edge last night; something that I haven’t seen from this team for quite some time.  I don’t know if it’s the attitude that Owen Nolan has instilled with the ‘C’ on his chest for a brief couple games or if it is the desparation of realizing that they may not make the playoffs, but this team played a fantastic, physical game last night; something that they will have to continue to do if they are to make any sort of push.
  • I mentioned to a friend in passing yesterday that, if the Wild wanted to make the playoffs without Mikko Koivu, Marian Gaborik would need to average at leasttwo points per game from here on out.  Apparently he heard me all the way from Long Island.  After playing a fantastic game against the Rangers two nights ago, Gaborik came back last night with a quiet two goal, two assist performance.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am no fan of Marian Gaborik’s, but I cannot deny that he is a potential game breaker in every game he plays in.  Playing most of the game with Nolan, Gaborik showed instant chemistry with the veteran and easily had his best game of the season.  The best part about this?  I hardly even recognized that he was on the ice.  These are the types of games that define what a player is.  Not the five-goal games, but the games where you think to yourself, “He didn’t have an especially impressive game” and you look at the stat sheet and realize that he’d notched four points.
  • Speaking of Owen Nolan, is there anything that this man doesn’t do?  He leads, he scores, he hits, he fights.  Nolan is the type of player that the Wild have been missing for years and that Wild fans have been dreaming about for years.  As far as I’m concerned, he can play for the Wild as long as he wants to and he should have the ‘C’ on his chest for all of that time.
  • After a shameful performance in New Jersey, Niklas Backstrom looks to be back to his old tricks.  He has given up just 4 goals in 3 games and has looked absolutely spectacular at times.  He has proven time and again this season that his shoulders are broad and he could very well will the team into the playoffs.
  • The physical play of the Wild’s blueline last night was something that has been sorely missed this season.  Not necessarily during the whistle, but it seemed as if every single defenseman was playing with a chip on his shoulder last night.  They let absolutely no one get to their goalie and defended him marvelously.
  • In his post game comments, Lemaire mentioned something that I had taken note of throughout the game.  The Islanders were taking runs at anyone wearing a white sweater.  Lemaire was very blunt in saying that he felt their players were being a bit brave out there and that he thought it would be interesting to see what happens when the Isles play the Wild next season.  The Isles thought that they could intimidate the Wild with physical play; but the Wild certainly answered the bell and didn’t allow themselves to be intimidated. 
  • The Wild now travels to Alberta to take on Calgary and then Edmonton.  Needless to say, these are two huge games for Minnesota, as they are still jockeying for playoff position.  A win in one or both of these games could easily slide the Wild back into the playoffs.  The biggest problem, however, is consistency.  If the Wild can build off of this win and take the confidence into Calgary, there’s no doubt in my mind that they may be able to steal a win from the red hot Flames.  The game in Edmonton will be interesting as well, as Niklas Backstrom has even come out and said that he doesn’t play well in that building.  History will have to be put behind him and he will have to come out strong if the Wild are to make up any ground.

Written by bcbenzel

March 26, 2009 at 7:54 am

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!