Wild Nation – The Official Blog of the HPT Radio Show

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Posts Tagged ‘Mikko Koivu

The Depth Chart and Other Randomness

leave a comment »

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.

Advertisements

Wild Roster Set?

leave a comment »

By all accounts, the Wild may very well be done in free agency after missing out on coveted free agent center, Saku Koivu. 

Koivu’s spurning of the Wild screamed with a “big brother looking out for little brother” vibe and, honestly, it’s very hard to begrudge the elder Koivu brother for his reasoning.  But, missing out on the elder Koivu has left us with a very gaping hole in the middle of our line up that the Wild may now be filling from within.  Wild General Manager, Chuck Fletcher, has repeatedly stated that he would look within the organization to fill the second line center spot if Koivu was not landed, and he likely will.  You can hardly blame him for doing so either, as the remainder of the free agent crop down the middle is fairly thin.

First, you’ve got the NHL’s answer to Brett Favre in Mats Sundin.  Yes, he showed up looking more like Kyle Wellwood than his former self when he played with Vancouver, but once he got his legs under him, he was very silently effective.  The problem is, that I think he’s still on the phone with Domino’s trying to figure out what toppings he wants on his pizza for dinner last week.  Sundin’s best days are easily behind him and there’s no reason for the Wild to be barking up this tree.  Next, you’ve got the ageless Robert Lang who was quietly having a solid season for Montreal last season when his achilles tendon got sliced up by a skate blade.  Again, there’s no reason to take a waiver on a player who is coming off of an injury that could easily be a career altering injury for a player in his early 20’s, let alone late 30’s.  Following Lang is the enigmatic Mike Duff…I mean, Comrie.  Don’t get me wrong.  I would love to have Hillary Duff present for 41 Wild home games a year…But it’s just not going to happen.  No way, no how.  Fletch has already stated that Comrie wasn’t an option and, honestly, I don’t see the benefit of paying a guy upwards of $3M per year just because he’s got some nice arm candy coming along with him.

That leaves the Wild fairly scant for options on their second line.  Barring a trade, the Wild look more and more like they’re going to be content to go with the cards that they’ve been dealt.  That means one of the following for their second line center.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard – Bouchard will likely get another look at the pivot in Richards’ system.  It likely won’t be nearly as physically demanding as Lemaire’s center position was, so it could be a good fit for Butch.  The problem I have with this is that I very much enjoyed seeing Butch setting up on the sideboards as opposed to down low.  As a center, he would have to play down low much more and, despite having some of the best puck control in the game, I don’t think he’s got the physicality in his game to do so.

James Sheppard – Oh how I would love for this to actually be a working solution.  Of all our first round prospects, Sheppard has flashed the most potential.  Every once in a while, he would forget himself over the last couple seasons and attempt something absolutely brilliant with the puck.  Then, right in the middle of it, he would come to his senses and not finish the move.  Yes…That is a very great deal of snark coming from my direction, but it is well deserved.  Sheppard has the most untapped potential of any player on the Wild’s roster.  You can see that he’s got the talent — he’s just been afraid to use it.  This season could easily be a break out season for Shep and, if that happens, he’ll be squarely in the middle of the second line for us.

Owen Nolan – This one may be thinking outside of the box just a little, but Nolan was one of our most reliable in the face off circle last season.  Not only that…But, come on…He’s Owen Nolan for crying out loud!  If he wants to play center, he’ll play center.  All kidding aside, Nolan brings a lot of things to the ice that other people, quite simply, don’t.  Apart from the amazing amount of talent that he has, his intangibles are absolutely invaluable.  The Wild could certainly do a lot worse than having him anchoring our second line.  Besides…I hear that every night before he goes to bed, the boogyman checks his closet for Owen Nolan.

Kyle Brodziak – This could be a bit of a stretch, but if Brodziak has the upside that Fletcher and Richards seem to think he does, he could turn into a plesant surprise.  Fletcher said in acquiring him that he had an offensive upside, so if he gets with the right people, he could really flourish.

Benoit Pouliot – Good old Benny Poo.  To be honest, I was surprised that the Wild qualified him — but, I suppose he might warrent a chance in a system that allows him to use all of his offensive creativity.  If the Wild signs him to anymore than a 1-year deal, I’ll be very surprised, as it is most definitely put up or shut up time for Pouliot this season.  A solid performance could see him move steadily up the depth chart, while more invisible performances could see him sink slowly into obscurity

Gaborik-Gate 2009
Okay.  Let’s get one thing out here, right off the bat.  I’m glad that Marian Gaborik has taken his services to the Rangers.  I am very much looking forward to not seeing him in Iron Range Red again.  There was no doubt that the team was better with him on the ice than off — but the biggest problem remained that he was rarely on the ice over the past few seasons and, when he was, it was a crapshoot as to whether we’d get the 5-goal game Marian Gaborik or, as some Wild faithful have taken to calling him, Gho$t.

So the current drama of Gaborik (yes, we still are entrenched in drama surrounding him even though he’s gone) is that the Wild never offered him a contract.  Really?  Fans are really upset that Gaborik’s paper towel groin is heading to some of the worst ice in the NHL for 41 games a season?  The bottom line is this: the Wild had holes to fill and Gaborik would have had to take a paycut for them to do so.  That wasn’t going to happen.  Not with Ronnie $alcer running things and certainly not with Marian Gaborik’s inflated sense of self worth pedigree. 

The most important thing in the NHL right now is cap flexibility.  The Wild will have that.  Martin Havlat signed with us for less than he was being offered elsewhere.  That is the type of player we want — one who wants to be here.  Not a player who we have to trade away a top prospect and draft pick for his “best friend” to play here.  Not a player who won’t budge on his contract demands, despite claiming he wants to remain here.  That’s what’s important.

Havlat’s statement on his Twitter account that he won’t let Minnesota fans down is a statement that we as fans aren’t used to hearing from our superstars…And it’s about time the State of Hockey gets a superstar befitting of the State.  It wasn’t Marian Gaborik — but we’ll see if it will be Martin Havlat.

Season in Review: The Forwards

with one comment

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!

Clutterbuck Breaks Hits Record; Wild Win

with 3 comments

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

leave a comment »

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

with 2 comments

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!

Playoff Window Closing for Wild

leave a comment »

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.