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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!

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!