Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Things to be thankful for...and, not so much...

Five things to be thankful for this Minnesota Wild season...and a couple that we're having second thoughts about...

Let us try and be thankful for what NHL hockey fans in Minnesota have right now. Because, it could be much, much worse...

1. The play of Zach Parise is certainly worth the price of admission, if you're a Wild fan. He actually gets it, that it's the play EVERY night that determines how a team does. Practices the same way as he plays. Overcomes adversity like few the game has seen in a long, long time.

2. Ryan Suter has actually become a better player with less overall time on ice this season. Until recently, when 3 of the top 4 defensemen went out with injury and/or illness at the same time, Suter was on his way to less time on ice on a game-by-game basis. And, he was becoming a better defenseman for it. But, help is on the way, as his 'little buddy', Jonas Brodin, seems to have overcome the mumps and may be back for duty this weekend, vs. St. Louis on Saturday night.

3. The offense that is coming from the second line, with Nino Niederreiter as the team's leading scorer, is a welcome relief for what could have been a really stagnant line otherwise. Nino, indeed, knows how to put the 'biscuit in the basket'. Now, if he could only get Charlie Coyle going again...

4. Marco Scandella's maturation and development is a sight to behold. The No. 3 defenseman for the Wild right now, the fact that he is moving the puck and not just playing steady defense right now, speaks volumes as to his versatility and development. Scandella's play has inspired others to do the same, also.

5. The two-headed goalie tandem is back. Niklas Backstrom rolled over the Florida Panthers like a storm front Monday night; the only goal scored was a disputed high-stick call. Darcy Kuemper came back from a disastrous game on Nov. 16 vs. Winnipeg, to shut down the Philadelphia Flyers in Philly on Thursday night.

OK. That was the good stuff. Now, the bad stuff:

1. The power play is as abysmal as ever. If ever there was an option for not accepting a penalty against your opponent, the Wild could use that option about now. A wretched 1-for the season power play on the road does not make for happy coaches, players, or fans. Which leads me to Item No. 2...

2. Thomas Vanek. This isn't snakebit, folks. The snake would die of embarrassment if he bit Vanek, whose steadfast refusal to skate, hit or (especially) shoot the puck makes his $6.5M contract even a bigger albatross for Wild management than the two contracts that were vanquished from the books (Dany Heatley, Robert Parrish) and the one who got away (Clayton Stoner) who were cleared out to sign the ex-Gopher. Vanek thinks that every goal he scores should be a tip-in from in front of the net. Sadly, not every goal will be that way. But, don't tell Vanek that.

I'd rather have Jason Zucker and Erik Haula on the power play than Vanek, which makes the last 1:17 of Saturday night's 2-1 loss at Tampa even more puzzling. The coaching staff knows how little Vanek produces, yet they still put him out there. Anyone else would have been more productive.

Oh, yes, we'll still see Vanek out there, trying to cherry-pick at the red line, unable to help out on defense or the power play. And, he's into the Wild for about $19 million more the next three seasons. Happy, happy, joy, joy.

Let's see what happens the next five games, with four of the five teams in last season's playoffs. Then we'll be past the quarter mark, and four of the next five games at home. Let's all see what happens.

Together.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

More Borscht, Comrade Kuemper?

Taking dangerous paths in a negotiation, and angering Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, is not the way for 24-year-old, third-year-pro goalies to endear themselves to an organization. Or its' fans.

You think that Darcy Kuemper's representation would have figured that out by now. Fletcher knows that there are a lot of goalies out there, goalies that would jump at the chance to play one year (if that) in the AHL, in order to get a shot at an NHL job next summer. Or, sooner, given the health histories of both Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding.

But, Kuemper's representation has been adamant on getting Kuemper an NHL salary for playing in the AHL. Frankly, Kuemper probably wouldn't be spending the holidays in Des Moines; but with the Wild up against the salary cap, Fletcher is trying to save every dollar of cap room possible. With Kuemper on a one-way (NHL salary only, regardless of where he plays) contract, the Wild wastes salary cap room every day that Kuemper is down 'on the farm'. With a two-way contract, Kuemper gets a lower (maybe 1/3rd of his NHL salary) rate of pay, but at least he plays here.

And, did I say, that this two-way is for this coming season only? The second year, under Fletcher's offer, was at the NHL rate, regardless of where he plays. So, we are only talking about ONE SEASON.

Kuemper's agent, Jeff Helperl, has threatened to take his client's talents to the KHL, where 'he can play every day', as his agent has been quoted locally as saying. Oh, he'd play every day, alright. But if he gets injured (as goalies frequently do: remember last season's two concussions, Darcy?), good luck getting decent medical care 6-9,000 miles away from home. Not to mention the travel arrangements (ask the widows of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv tragedy). And the food (Russian). And the bleak, Russian winter existence.

Kuemper's home town of Saskatoon would look like Nirvana, compared to some of the stops on the KHL's circuit. The fact that Kuemper at worst is a year away from a full-time NHL gig, you would think, would be more than enough to keep him in the organization which, up to this point, has nurtured him and developed him to the point where he is a serviciable NHL goaltender.

Fletcher is perceived as playing hardball by Kuemper's camp. Hardly. These are the rules that both sides have agreed (through the CBA) to live by. The fact that the Wild did not negotiale earlier (at least publically) is partly their own fault; but, due to the continuing shedding of the dead weight on the Wild roster (Dany Heatley, Clayton Stoner), the roster is in flux virtually right up to the home opener Oct. 9 vs. Colorado. With that as a background, Kuemper is now the single biggest roster problem on the Wild, now that Nino Niederreiter has agreed to a 3-year, $8M contract.

So, the question is now this: What does Kuemper do? Does he tell Helperl to accept Fletcher's offer, and report to camp this coming week? Or, does he pack his bags, get a Russian visa, and head out for the Wild, Wild East?

Which Admirals team do you want to see in October, Darcy? Milwaukee? Or Vladivostok?

It's your choice, Darcy Kuemper.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Calm before the storm...sort of...

Free Agency looms as Minnesota Wild ponder their options in short, long term

It's June 30th. The last day before the start of NHL Free Agency, also known as 'Silly Season', where teams outbid each other for the services of veterans whose contracts expired the previous day (i.e., today).

So, what are the Wild going to do to improve their roster, without breaking the bank, or worse than that, trading away their prized young players, whom GM Chuck Fletcher has stockpiled over the last four seasons, while trying to resurrect the franchise after the disaster left behind by Doug Risebrough left the cupboards bare after years of trading away second-and-third round draft picks for the likes of Bill Muckalt and Chris Simon?

For once, fiscal restraint during the previous season proves fruitful, as the Wild have nearly $17 million to spend on free agents (including five of their own restricted free agents). The fact that they can get in the free agent sweepstakes at ALL is proof that what Fletcher is doing -- selective shopping for the right type of player, one that will fit the system that Coach Mike Yeo has instilled in the Wild, during the end of last season and last season's two-round playoff run -- is actually working.

It definitely is at the box office, where about 3,000 fewer seats for each game will be available when individual regular-season tickets go on sale in late August or early September. This means several million dollars in the Wild's bank, even before the first pre-season game is played in Winnipeg on Sept. 22.

Nobody knows what is going thru the collective mind at 317 Washington St., St. Paul. Both sides -- owners AND players -- are sworn to secrecy, written into the latest CBA. They can talk generalities, all right, but not numbers or specifics -- supposedly. But do you, dear Wild fan, actually BELIEVE that numbers haven't been passed across a table or two?

Me neither. Let's all see tomorrow, starting at 11:00 AM, Central time. Together.

Friday, May 23, 2014

'The Six-Pack of Suck', Volume VII: Six that got away (literally)

I know, Minnesota Wild faithful. I'm looking at the glass and saying it's half-empty. But, in the words of the bard himself, William Shakespeare, 'Those who do not remember from history, are thereby doomed to repeat it.'

And so it goes for the seventh edition of 'The Six-Pack of Suck', six games that really should have gone the Wild's way, but the hockey gods (along with some really bad defense from the local six,) conspired to think otherwise. The lack of offense didn't help things, especially in the crucial holiday period, where visions of sugarplums danced in their heads, instead of visions of victories.

Oh, well...here we go...

1. October 5, 2013. Anaheim 4 at Minnesota 3 (OT). In this, Anaheim's only regular-season appearance in St. Paul, the Wild managed to lose in the last five seconds of the OT period after Mathieu Perrault (who the Ducks had just acquired from Washington) went in on Niklas Backstrom, and just like in the (supposedly) upcoming shootout, five-holed Minnesota's opening-season starter after both Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon failed to stop the Anaheim rush. Not even the lack of Teemu Selanne (held out by Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau, as the next night Selanne would be feted in Winnpeg, where Selanne started his career) held back the Ducks, who started their season on a 3-game road trip.

2. November 27, 2013. Phoenix 3 at Minnesota 1. The Thanksgiving season has traditionally not been a good one for the Wild, and 2013's Thanksgiving Eve game was yet another served-up turkey, as the Wild basically stopped skating against the hungrier Coyotes. Zach Parise had been injured the previous game in St. Louis, taking a shot off his left instep; Mikael Granlund joined him on the IR after the first shift of the game, when he took a head shot and gained a concussion. This really started the Wild's downward spiral, which lasted most of the next six weeks.

3. November 29, 2013. Colorado 3 at Minnesota 1. 'Black Friday' took on a whole new meaning for the Wild, as the hottest team in the NHL in the first 60 days of the season -- the Avs -- rolled into the 'X' and basically laid down the law, as old Wild nemesis J. S. Giguere moved onto an easy victory, as the Wild went 2-2 on Black Friday in the last 4 full seasons. Matt Duchene, Nathan McKinnon, and an empty-net goal made sure the Wild would have rather gone shopping, than play hockey.

4. December 29, 2013. NY Islanders 5 at Minnesota 4. The Wild jumped out to a 3-goal lead on the Islanders, then sat back and watched as Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Okposo (two goals) and Thomas Vanek (two assists) brought the Isles all the way back, in this Sunday night stinker. Wasted in this snooze-fest was Mikko Koivu's two-assist night and Nino Niederreiter's goal and assist. The Isles would win their third straight in a eight-win-in-nine-game stretch, to propel themselves onto the cusp of the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Wild, at this point, lost their fifth straight, and the future of Mike Yeo as Wild head coach was in jeopardy after this one.

5. January 14, 2014. Ottawa 3 at Minnesota 0. Following the Islanders game (listed above), the Wild went out and won five of the first six in 2014, and then were soundly brought back to Mother Earth, by a Senators' squad in a game which was exciting as watching paint dry. The Wild only managed three shots on goal in the first period, allowing Ottawa goalie Robin Lehner a virtual night off as the Sens went home victorious. 'We weren't moving our feet', said Mike Yeo after the game. No kidding, Mike.

6. March 11, 2014. Edmonton 4 at Minnesota 3 (SO). In the midst of a four-game homestand, with every point crucial in the Western Conference playoff race, one would think that a three-goal lead after 16 minutes would be a good thing for the home team, right? Think again, as the Oilers came back to tie the game, then win it in the shootout as the Oilers went 3-for-4 in the deciding session, sending Darcy Kuemper and the Wild off with an in-your-face, four round shootout loss. Despite Edmonton drawing a penalty with :09 left in regulation, the Wild fumbled, bumbled and blew a 2-goal lead in the last 8:54 of regulation time. Ugly loss, especially after blowing the big lead.

So, there it is. Six games, 10 points blown, and all home games! If the Wild want more noise and more fans in the seats, they cannot come up with games like these against inferior quality opponents. Only two of the six opponents listed even made the Stanley Cup Playoffs; and, no thanks to this group of lousy games, the Wild were relegated to wild-card status. If the Wild wish to take their coming of age seriously, they cannot have games like this affect their season. Two points are two points, regardless of when you get them. November points are just as good as March points.

I really hope the Wild gets the point when it comes to letting inferior teams off the hook. Next season, you can't do that. Just play better. Every night.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Decompression...and remorse...after a Wild playoff run

By Wild Road Tripper

Well, folks. Even I finally have to admit it.

It's Over.

The Minnesota Wild season is over. Shoulda been a Game 7 last night, at the United Center in Chicago. But, alas, such was not to be. The fact of the matter turned out to be, though, that good teams generate their own puck luck. And, the talented, uber-successful Chicago Blackhawks are that good. They generated the luck to get that OT goal in Game 6, to end the Wild's season after two rounds.

But what about the season that just ended? What about the 2013-14 campaign, one that came to the precipice of utter disaster, following a Dec. 29 Sunday night disaster at home against the lowly New York Islanders, where the Wild came out, and utterly stunk out the Xcel Energy Center?

But that's for another time, another column. (Don't worry, I'll still provide the 'Six-Pack of Suck' in a few weeks. Need to get over our playoff run first.)

But think back and remember fondly what the Wild did accomplish this seaosn:

1. Going thru goaltenders faster than commercial jets go thru tires. Seven different goaltenders started at least one game for the Wild this past season. Seven. Had you told me that was going to happen last October, I'd have said you need your head examined. But, alas, that's exactly what happened. Thru Niklas Backstrom's 'core muscle' injury, Josh Harding's battle with Multiple Sclerosis, Darcy Kuemper's 'Bells of St. Mary's' routine, both in the regular season and in Game 5 in Denver; the emergence (and demi-lucidity) of Ilya Bryzgalov; John Curry's twirling to a win in the stretch drive, just to name a few.

2. They won and thrived, despite Dany Heatley's lack of contribution as he muddled his way thru the last season of his $7.5M contract; Kyle Brodziak reverting to form after his 'contract drive' of late last season; and so much lack of contrbution from virtually every other player on the roster at one time or another. The fact is that the Wild won at times in spite of themselves, as much as their efforts had any effect on the outcomes.

3. The emergence of so many of the young guns that GM Chuck Fletcher has assembled over the past 4 years. Mikael Granlund, Jared Spurgeon, Charlie Coyle, Eric Haula, Justin Fontaine, just to name a few. And you have Matt Dumba and Christian Folin waiting in the wings, as well as Raphael Bussieres, the injured Jason Zucker, and so many other talent 'in the larder', as it were, that the Wild are now in a position of strength, where they can afford to trade for top talent, and actually have players that other teams want, for one of the few times in franchise history.

4. I tweeted just before the first Wild home playoff game (Game 3, vs. Colorado) that the Wild need to give the fans something to cheer for, and they will cheer. Loudly. And, they did. I was among them, for all six home playoff games. Yes, the Wild wish you could get this kind of response on a mid-January night vs. Edmonton, Calgary, or Carolina, but with 41 home games in the regular season (and 2 or 3 pre-season games), you're just not going to get that response every night. Meanwhile, the fact that the Wild can fill the building as they have, despite stretches like the holiday period of 2013, is a continuing testament to the faithfulness of the fanbase.

5. The national media finally admitted that the Wild are not the only NHL team playing 'the trap' anymore. Begrudgingly, the Wild have earned the respect of the national hockey media (E. J. Hradek, and Sirius XM NHL Radio notwithstanding) thru their two-round playoff run. The fact of the matter is that the Wild franchise is finally coming of age...again. The only other team from the '99-00 class of teams that has gone beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, more than once, is still only one: the Minnesota Wild.

So, with all that behind us, Wild fans turn to the future. And it's a very bright future, indeed. With all the talent assembled, and the position of where the Wild is as an organization, the future is where the Wild are at. You still have a little dead weight on the team (Brodziak, Stoner) to get rid of; some of the rest of it (Heatley, Matt Moulson, Prosser) will become UFA's by themselves. Other than at the goaltender position, you got to like where the Wild are at, talent-wise.

Mike Yeo's future as the head coach of this franchise was assured by their playoff run; I would, however, do some kind of an audit on your training and medical staffs, as there were too many injuries, at too many of the wrong times, by too many of the wrong players. Some of it was, yes, game-related; but a lot of it were developing injuries, over time, while the medical staff waited for the inevitable to occur. A little more proactive effort is what's needed, IMO, to stem the tide of injuries.

Next up: NHL Draft, June 27-28, at 'The Rock' in Newark. Go for it, Chuck Fletcher.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Wow. Just Wow.

Minnesota Wild defeat Colorado, go on to face Blackhawks in playoff round two

Well, that was a fun ride, wasn't it?

The Minnesota Wild, after their Game 7, 5-4 OT win last night over the Colorado Avalanche at Denver's Pepsi Center, now face even a more formidable task in the Second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs: the defending Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. Fact of the matter is, the only time the Wild were ahead all night, was the one time when it counted: at the end.

Despite the Avalanche racing off to an amazing start in their first 20 games, despite the divisional championship the Avs won this season, none of that carried over into the 'second season'. The Avs, and the Wild, won all their home games. Until last night, that is.

So, with that as a background, how do the Wild take on Chicago, who's basically been on cruise control for the last 2-3 weeks? Does the Wild take on the Hawks, head-on? Or do they go after the Hawks, the same way they dispatched Colorado in the just-completed last round?

And what am I saying, anyhow?

I really kind of wonder at times. Now, after this point, there is no local TV of Wild playof games; all games will be on the networks of NBCUniversal (NBCSN for Game 1 on Friday night; the mothership, NBC, on Sunday afternoon; then sent off to CNBC, for Tuesday's Game 3, an 8 PM CDT start).

Beyond that? Even the networks don't know for sure.

So a little friendly advice from your Road Tripper; sit back, relax for a day, and enjoy the ride. The heavy traffic will begin again, soon enough. Enjoy what already has happened. Minnesota hockey fans have earned this.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Titanic syndrome on the Wild?

Is re-arranging the deck chairs (or the roster) enough to avoid the iceberg ahead (or the April abyss)?

Well, so this is what the 2013-14 season for the Minnesota Wild has degenerated into.

Happened yesterday, after the Wild managed to lose a 3-2 home game to the Detroit Griffins -- er, Red Wings -- a team so decimated by injury, that eight regulars were out of the starting lineup as the Wild played the first game of a weekend home-and-home, versus their old Western Conference rivals.

The post-game Mike Yeo press conference was delayed (enough so that the presser, normally in the team-produced radio post-game, was not on fans' radios as they sulkenly drove home afterwards, or even on the outstate feed provided by Clear Channel Minnesota). What they missed, or what they didn't, was this:

The start of the third straight Wild end-of-season meltdown. You heard it here, folks. It's begun. Officially. Yeo even defacto declared it yesterday, by trudging out a sheaf of notes, saying that the Wild have points in 10 of 11 games at home (the Detroit loss was the first regulation loss at home, since a 3-0 drubbing by Ottawa on Jan. 14), and that they have a point in 9 of the last 11 overall.

Two seasons ago, it was the 'first-to-worst' total implosion, as the Wild went from No. 1 in the NHL to completely eliminated from playoff contention in just 52 games' time. Last season, it was the final day back-in to the playoffs, as only a late comeback vs. the Colorado Avalanche, coupled with the end of the season troubles of the Columbus Blue Jackets, allowed the Wild to be cannon fodder for the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs.

This season? How about a 2-3-4 record since the trade deadline? How about 3 of the 4 games going to OT, finding the Wild having to come back from multi-goal deficits late in the 3rd period, only to 'achieve' the 'loser point'? And how about who(m) you've managed to do this against?

Things were looking pretty good after the Wild came off the Olympic break. A two-game road winning streak, with back-to-back victories at Edmonton and Vancouver, looking at 5 of their next 6 at home, time to fatten up for the end of the month, right?

Oh, hell no. Not with this bunch.

The month of March started good enough, with a less-than-stunning 3-2 win at home against Calgary. Then, March 5, the trade deadline, and the addition of Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick in the deadline deal which sent Torrey Mitchell to Buffalo. Since then?

Loss to Dallas on 'Mike Modano Night'. (And, yes, Norm Green STILL sucks.)

The next night began a crucial 4-game homestand for the Wild. Result? A shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues, the likely President's Cup winner for this season. Two nights later, Wild take a 3-0 lead after 16 minutes against the Edmonton Oilers, the worst team in the Conference, and proceed to pee it away, losing in the shootout 4-3. After beating the NY Rangers 2-1 on Thursday, the Wild then get 'BOB'ed by Sergei Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets, 2-1, in another shootout, one in which the Wild had a 2-0 lead in the shootout before the Jackets solved Darcy Kuemper three straight times to win.

A three-game road trip ensued; first, at Boston, the Bruins finally figured out how to beat the Wild, as the B's snapped their 6-game losing streak at TD Garden against Minnesota 4-2. The next night, as tens of thousands of fans back in Minnesota said, 'Where has this team been?', the Wild disposed of the lowly Islanders 6-0. Two nights later, as the hatred of Zach Parise overflowed at the Prudential Center in 'beautiful' Downtown Newark, the Wild came from two goals down in the last 10 minutes to force overtime, only to forget that someone has to take the man on the other side, as Matt Greene gave the New Jersey Devils a 4-3 win, which stole yet another point from the Wild.

Then, there was the home game vs. Detroit, a team so banged up, there is a sudden glut of short-term housing in Grand Rapids, as most of the Griffins' top players are up with the big club, as the Red Wings 'Lite' managed to beat the Wild (as they so often do in Minnesota), 3-2. Since the trade deadline, the Wild is now 1-1-3 at home.

The second half of the home-and-home is tonight, at the venerable Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Same conditions apply: Detroit is just as desperate; Minnesota is just as perplexed as they were into the first Detroit game.

And the head coach? Still refuses to see the forest; too many trees in the way.

The apoplexy that would ensue if, say, Dany Heatley were to sit out a couple games in the press box would reverberate throughout Minnesota. Heatley has managed to endear Minnesotans to his 'stand around and wait for something to happen his way' philosophy of offense, instead of using his 6'3" frame to create havoc around the net, using the Andrew Brunette model of 'Back that big ass up' to score goals with his hands (Heatley's stickwork is still good, even if his feet aren't motivated to move as fast as they used to.)

And, after yesterday (especially), would it hurt if Kyle Brodziak joined Heatley next to the popcorn maker in the press box? 'Brodz' was on the ice for ALL 3 Detroit goals yesterday. Great -3 there, Brodz. Work on your defense. Or your shot. Or your footwork. Or anything that won't cost the Wild another goal.

Now, that would mean you would have $10.33 million in salary cap serving up corn in the press box. At that rate, maybe they could even afford real butter.