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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!

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Playoff Window Closing for Wild

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If I were to tell you that the Wild have gotten points in 9 of their last 15 games, you’d figure that this was a pretty impressive feat, no?

Indeed, getting points in 9 of 15 games looks very nice on the resume.  But when you look at the actual wins and losses, the picture becomes much, much more grim.

The Wild, in need of a late season push to make the playoffs, have just four wins in their last 15 games.  Thank goodness for the consolation points.  In their last 15 games, the Wild are 4-6-5.  Hardly an impressive record; much less a record for a team that is trying to remain in the playoff race.

The good news?  The rest of the bottom half of the Western Conference is just about as inept at winning as the Wild are currently.  The bad news?  The Wild lost its games in hand without coming away with a single victory.

The Wild need a spark, and badly.  A lot has been made of the leadership on the team this season, and this team is showing a distinct lack of leadership with Mikko Koivu at the helm.  He’s had a fantastic season as the captain of this team, but has been near invisible since being named the captain in March.  In the month of March, he has 2 goals, 4 assists and sitting at -4.  Hardly the numbers you want from your team leader in the most important stretch of the year.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think that Mikko has more leadership in his little finger than the majority of the team does.  But it’s time for our best players to be our best players.  The Wild have started the disturbing trend of digging themselves a hole early, and our top players need to step in and put an end to this.  How bad is this trend?  The Wild have scored first in just two of our eight games this month.  They have dug themselves into large holes too often and have had to play catch up too much.  This is not a winning formula.

The bottom line is that, though they are just a point out of a playoff spot, the window in which they can control their own destiny and make some noise in the playoff race is slowly closing.  The Wild play two of their next three games at home before heading on a crucial road trip that starts out east, then heads to Canada.  If this team is to make the playoffs, they need to step their game up, stop playing catch up and win hockey games.

The Picture of Irony
Ironically, the Wild’s troubles in the month of March have not been of the offensive kind.  With the exception of a few games, the team is finding the back of the net.  The problems that the Wild are encountering are not stemming from their offense.  They are stemming directly from a lack of team defense.

It’s amazing to me that Niklas Backstrom even allows Lemaire to put him out on the ice anymore with the distinct lack of help that he is getting.  This team is completely lost in their own zone at the moment.  Opposing teams are allowed to get to Backstrom with frightening consistency and our players are doing little to nothing to stop them.  One of the biggest differences between this team and last season’s team is grit.  While Sean Hill and Keith Carney may not have been the fleetest of foot or have made the best decisions, one thing that they would not stand for were players pushing around our team in front of the crease.  With them gone, this is now met with ambivilence at best and apathy at worst.

This team needs a complete change in mindset going forward and, even if they do make the playoffs, I can’t imagine it would be more than a one and done series as I don’t believe that this team has the fortitude to last an entire playoff series.

The addition of John Scott has added a lot to this blueline and it’s starting to show as well.  Scott is a physical presence and is playing very solid, defensive hockey.  If the Wild is going to do anything in the last weeks of the season, it is going to be on the backs of players willing to get physical and play soundly in their own zone.  If we control our own zone, the offense will follow.  It’s just a matter of keeping the puck on the other end of the ice.

The Walking Wounded
With all signs pointing to this team being one of the softest in team history, it is quite nice to see some players emerging to lead by example.

It started with Owen Nolan, who was tired of watching the team perform poorly and stepped up in practice, letting Lemaire know that he was playing.  It continued to Marc-Andre Bergeron, who exploded upon finding out he was scratched when he felt that he was healthy enough to play.  Nolan once again set the bar high by flying out to Vancouver, broken foot and all, to join the team and now there is news of Andrew Brunette playing with a torn (or at least partially torn) ACL?

This, my friends, is what real hockey players are like.  They don’t pack it in at the slightest sign of discomfort as some “superstars” have done.  They don’t disappear when the going gets tough.  They don’t sit by the wayside and ignore their team.  They do whatever they have to do to help the team win.

Pleasent Surprises
How about Peter Olvecky?  Over the last few games, we have really seen him come into his own.  The youngster has a large frame and a nose for the net and is even showing that he is improving in his own end.  He has began to earn the trust of Lemaire; so much so that, with the game on the line against the San Jose Sharks, Lemaire put Olvecky out on the ice in place of James Sheppard.  From the little we’ve seen of Olvecky, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I defintely like what I see and hope that he can find a permenant place in the Wild’s line up.