Saturday, February 21, 2015

Since we've last met...

Minnesota Wild finally find their goaltender, game, and get back in playoff hunt


'O, the times, they are a-changin'...'

Remember that old 60's song? That phrase could also apply to the Minnesota Wild, as they are rising from the ashes of the NHL Western Conference playoff race, to get back to at least respectability as the 2014-15 season comes into the final 20-22 games of the regular season.

The trade for Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona (nee-Phoenix) Coyotes has been a Godsend for the beleaguered Wild goaltending corps. Not having to depend on second-year Darcy Kuemper, or 37-year-old and physically beat up Niklas Backstrom has steadied the Wild defense, despite injuries to Jared Spurgeon (concussion) and Marco Scandella (cut) in back-to-back games.

On the offensive side, the step-up of Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Schroeder and Justin Fontaine makes up for the unfortunate loss of Jason Zucker (collarbone), Ryan Carter (lower body) and Matt Cooke (sports hernia) in the last 30 days.

The Wild also got a break from the schedule makers, as well: with 9 games in the last 4 weeks against Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, the Wild went 8-1 against their former Northwest Division rivals.

The next four weeks are not as kind to the Wild. Two games vs. Colorado, Nashville and St. Louis, all Western Conference rivals. The Washington Capitals also show up twice in the next 4 weeks. Single games against Ottawa, Carolina, New Jersey, and Anaheim should spice things up a bit as well. Hopefully by the time Anaheim shows up (Mar. 13, a Friday night) the Ducks will have solidified a playoff spot, and will be ready to lighten up a bit. For now, at least.

The schedule has 8 home games and 6 games on the road between now and March 21 (a 1:00 PM start) vs. St. Louis. In my opinion, the Wild needs to sweep the home games and go at least .500 on the road. That would bring the Wild to 89 points, within striking distance of clinching a playoff spot.

As of now (yes, shameless optimism), the Wild are:

* 2 points behind Winnipeg, with 3 games in hand (again) after Winnipeg plays tonight at (really) lowly Toronto.

* One point behind San Jose, again with three games in hand after tonight's game vs. the LA Kings at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara (NHL Stadium Series). Should the Kings win in regulation, the Sharks would drop to 9th place, one point ahead of the Wild. (LA and the Wild will have played the same number of games after tonight).

*The Wild can basically make the Dallas Stars irrelevant if they win in regulation tomorrow night. The Stars will be either five or seven points (depending on tonight's Detroit at Dallas game) behind the Wild, and will have played one more game.

*Calgary, Vancouver, San Jose and LA are four teams playing for basically three spots. Which team throws in the towel first?

And, one last tidbit, which should be interesting for Wild fans:

*The Wild are eight points behind Chicago for third place in the Central Division. The Wild have one game in hand on the Blackhawks. And, one game against each other (Apr. 7, at the United Center.)

Just sayin'....

Friday, January 23, 2015

All-Star Break: For fans and players alike

In this season of almost unbelievable swings of fate, do the Hockey Gods have more woe in store for Minnesota Wild fans? Or, does the pendulum begin swinging the other way, towards the miracle of a playoff spot?

To be honest, I'm not too optimistic that the Wild overtake no less than four teams (three of which were in the playoffs in 2014) and make the playoffs. that's not opinion; that's supported by fact. Teams in the NHL that would not qualify in December, generally don't if they are still out in January. And let's be honest: the way the Wild have played since the middle of December, the Wild have not deserved to be even in the hunt for the playoffs. Eight times since Dec. 15, the Wild gave up 5 goals or more. Eight. Of 18 total games played. That's 44.44% of the time.

You just don't make the playoffs with your goal filling up like that. It just doesn't happen.

Now, supposedly (although it didn't look that way vs. the retooling Detroit Red Wings) the team's goaltending woes were taken care of, with the trade for Devan Dubnyk from Arizona. Dubnyk came in, pitched a 7-0 shutout of the Buffalo Sabres, and the Wild were on their way.

Am I right?

Then they came home, and the jinx which has been the 2014-15 Wild season reared its' ugly head after the Hockey Day Minnesota game vs. the Coyotes, who are also in a rebuild mode. Then, a beleaguered Columbus Blue Jackets team came in, and showed the Wild up. Then, on to Detroit.

Now, the future: After the All-Star break, 7 of the next 12 games are against former Northwest Division foes Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. If the Wild can't squeeze at least 10 points from the seven games, even the most die-hard fan will sit back, and say:

It's over.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Been there, done that. Doing them all...

As the song says...'I've been everywhere, man...'

That's right. I've done all 30 NHL arenas currently in use by member clubs. And all of them to see the Minnesota Wild play.

There have been great games (the first two, a 3-0 shutout of Ottawa, followed by a 6-3 win at Montreal), fantastic finishes (a 5-3 win at Colorado, a 7-6 come from behind shootout win, after bring down 6-3 starting the 3rd period), memorable weeks (2 wins at Chicago five days apart, in 2006-07; the Western Canadian swing in 2008; the New York turn in 2009; NHL Premiere 2010 in Helsinki, Finland; the Florida turn from this past November.)

And then, there was this past week. Yeah. It was absolutely yucky. And I'm not talking weather.

Two back-to-back games where the Wild failed to complete 60 minutes of hockey. Two back-to-back thumpings, at the hands of two of the NHL's best teams (Chicago and Pittsburgh). Two more losses on my record (3-4-3 in my last 10; 24-27-6-1 all-time overall).

But, it wasn't all bad. Lou Molnati's pizza in Chicago, and the massive Veal Parmesan from Big Jim's in the Run in Pittsburgh (it filled a platter!) really made sure we were well-fortified for our evenings ahead. And, the local fans around us were nothing short of fantastic (as they usually are. Hockey fans are cool that way.)

It's been fun, and very educational as well. Every hockey fan should see their team on the road at least once. Get out there and represent your team.

Enough of my soap box, though. The Wild game is on soon from Buffalo. Gotta get going...

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Woe that is Yeo

Goaltending woes, lazy play doom Minnesota Wild to hockey's scrap heap, as season drags on

By Wild Road Tripper

Let's all face the reality of the situation, folks. The Minnesota Wild probably will not make the NHL playoffs this season.

Currently mired in 12th place in the Western Conference, this ragtag group of middling hockey players -- who showed such promise when the season started four months ago -- have fallen thru the bottom of the playoff standings and are headlong destined for the Conor McDavid sweepstakes, if they can't pull their collective head out and play like they did in the first 20 games of the season.

In the last 11 games, the Wild are a maudlin 2-5-4, which, in baseball terms, is a .364 percentage. With a payroll approaching the salary cap of $60 Million, to get this kind of mediocrity from this group of players is flat out unacceptable.

The problems, in my humble opinion, are:

1. Goaltending. Between the two current goalies (Darcy Kuemper, Niklas Backstrom) they have the second-worst save percentage in the NHL. These two cannot stop the proverbial beach ball right now. The Wild need a proven No. 1 goaltender while Kuemper gets his act together; the fact that his confidence has been shattered, as bad as a bull in the china shop, makes the need for a proven No. 1 goaltender that much more urgent. The Wild's ownership cannot afford to have the Xcel Energy Center without its' prime occupant, after the last regular-season game on April 6th. The difference between profit and loss is between the pipes, literally and figuratively.

2. Beat-up Defense. The defensive corps, thin to begin with after years of neglect, became thinner due to illness, injury and Dustin Byfuglien's last two games vs. the Wild. The fact that one team (Winnipeg Jets) is continually allowed to beat up the defense without impunity speaks volumes as to how fragile the Wild's defensive corps really is. And, with next to no help available from within the organization, it looks like the Wild need to trade for a left-shot, right-side defenseman who can play on the Wild's third pairing.

3. Vanek, the ImpalerThomas Vanek has single-handedly impaled the Wild's playoff chances. Between the lack of shooting, the poor passes when he is actually able to get to the puck, Vanek's inability to handle breakaways, and his general disdain for using his size to his team's advantage, Vanek has virtually done everything possible to sink the Wild's playoff chances. While his linemates try to play defense, Vanek does figure skating compulsory figure 8's at center ice, waiting for the puck that will rarely get his way, and when it does, he can't finish the play, as he is too slow to avoid the rush of the defenseman coming up from behind him. While the coaching staff continues to coddle Vanek, the fans sit in awe...of his inability to justify his $6.5 Million annual salary.

He is untradeable, unwatchable...and unbelievable.

4. Medical Woes. First, the mumps. Then, norovirus (possibly spread at a Chuck E. Cheese pizza outlet in a Twin Cities suburb). Whatever the reasons, the fact that this team is always in a bad medical state, leads one to believe that there must be more to it, than just the 'team is always together' theory. Does the entire medical staff need to be relieved of duties, in order to keep the Wild healthy thru the holiday period? Does the team need to 'fort up' in the St. Paul Hotel over the holidays? Or can another way to keep the team healthy be found?

Whatever the reasons, the Wild's season now hangs in the balance. The half-way point for the Wild will come next week on the 3-game road trip, starting Sunday night in Chicago. Changing the coaching staff won't help. Changing the player attitudes, however, is much easier said than done.

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.