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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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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!

Luck ‘o the Irish; Wild Win in OT

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Last night’s game was anything but predictable.  Maybe it was the haze of inebriation that was hanging over the St. Paul crowd, many of whom had been going since 8 am.  Maybe it was a lone home game amongst a streak of road games.  Maybe it was just what comes with a division rivalry.  Any way you slice it, though, it was a very unpredictable game.

The puck was bouncing all over the place last night, for better or worse for both teams.  The puck hopped over sticks, under skates, between legs, off of heads.  In otherwords, the puck hopped everywhere that couldn’t result in a scoring chance.  So bizarre and unpredictable were the bounces that there was even one point in time where Colorado forward Ben Guite was sliding on his backside, trying to touch up on a delayed penalty call and he couldn’t get the stick on the puck, despite the fact that it was right at his feet.

The goals were no different.  With four goals scored in regulation, the hockey gods were certainly toying with goalies Niklas Backstrom and Peter Budaj.  For the first goal of the game, a Cody McLeod shot somehow managed to pop off of the ice, bounce off of defenseman Kurtis Foster’s helmet and land in the net, behind Backstrom.  The second saw a Martin Skoula slapshot get awkwardly re-directed by Stephane Veilleux off of the far post and past a sliding Budaj.  The third saw Ryan Smyth get a deflection past Backstrom; nothing odd until you add in the fact that the puck had already been deflected once; right onto Smyth’s stick by a defender.  The final goal of regulation saw Eric Belanger use absolutely every part of his body to keep the puck in the zone, before poking it to Dan Fritsche, who set up Nick Schultz on the halfboards whose shot got deflected past Budaj by Wojtek Wolski.

A strange game indeed.

No one can say that the Wild didn’t shoot the puck last night, however.  The team took a staggering 66 shots (29 of which made it on net) and controlled play for a good portion of the game (save for an 18 minute stretch where the team was outshot by Colorado 15-1).  The team’s lack of scoring was maddening at times; however, one can’t deny that they were trying their hardest to get pucks on net.  The Avs were simply doing a fantastic job of collapsing around and protecting Budaj and just not letting these shots through.

The win last night was especially inspiring for a few reasons.  First, it was Kurtis Foster’s first game back from injury and, I’ve got to say, he looked rusty by he looked good.  He showed why the team had missed him on the blueline, as he was a solid defensive presence all night long and he continued to fire pucks towards the net (though every single one of his shots ended up blocked).  The team broke a four game skid by coming from behind twice and putting down one of the league’s best shootout teams (the Avs were 9-1 in the shootout coming into this game).  Most importantly, the team did something that they haven’t done much since the beginning of the season.  They gutted out a win in a game that they did not play particularly well in. 

Despite not playing particularly well, the team got two points.  If the team makes the playoffs, one would hope that it would not be on the back of many more performances like this; but, in the grand scheme of things, no one will remember how the team played last night…Just the outcome.

Random Notes

  • Cal Clutterbuck was one of the unsung heros of last night’s game.  He played his usual, high energy game, contributed four hits and had one of the best moves I’ve ever seen a player in a Wild sweater make.
  • Niklas Backstrom looked fantastic in net last night.  Two fluke goals got by him, but otherwise he was spectacular.  He also reversed his shootout fortunes by stopping two of the best shootout men in the league in Milan Hejduk and Marek Svatos.
  • It was great to see Fozzie back on the ice.  He hasn’t played much this season and has been rusty when he has, but I would love to see the Wild take a chance on him for next season with a one year contract.
  • I continue to be impressed by the play of Dan Fritsche and Peter Olvecky.  Unfortunately, Olvecky will likely be a casualty upon the return of Marian Gaborik, but both players are playing absolutely fantastic and both seem primed to try to stick with the team past this season.  The biggest thing that stands out to me with these two is that they are both big, strong and both seem to have a nose for the net.
  • Martin Skoula was quite possibly the Wild’s best defender last night.  He broke up multiple scoring chances by the Avs, played with a physical edge like we’re not used to out of him and created plays in the offensive zone.
  • The Wild now sit just one point out of 8th (which will surely change by Friday) and are going into New Jersey to face one of the hottest teams in the league.  It’s going to be a tough game, but the Wild typically gets up for games against the top teams in the league, so it will be interesting to see how they respond.

Clutter-watch 2009
NHL Hits Record: 311 (Dustin Brown)
Clutterbuck: 290
Games Remaining: 12
Magic Number: 21

And remember…You can’t spell Calder without CAL!