Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chicago fallout; Time to get crackin' (M)

First things first.

I am officially pissed off at the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

After a rainy, cold, disasterous day yesterday, a group of five Minnesota Wild fans (myself and my wife included) were waiting for the #19 United Center Express bus yesterday, late in Chicago's hideous rush hour. We waited, and waited, and waited...for the bus that NEVER CAME, even though the schedule (last printed in 2006-07; go to http://www.transitchicago.com/ to see it) says it was supposed to, confirmed by employees at two separate North Michigan Avenue hotels.

Seems that the CTA truncated the route (for budgetary reasons), so that if you are staying in Chicago's Near North hotel district, you take any bus southbound on Michigan to Randolph, and transfer there to the express bus for last night's Wild-Blackhawks tilt at the UC. Of course, no signs at any of the stops no longer served by that route (the bus formerly started southbound on Michigan at Superior) and no way to ask anyone (most of the drivers don't know that schedule, either) to figure that out.

In our case, the CTA lost out on five fares thanks to that momentous decision. I wonder how many other visiting fans are in the same boat? And how many more will be, until the CTA puts out a new schedule with the new, truncated routing on it?

I've officially complained (via e-mail) to the CTA. Let's see what their excuse for not informing anyone (or, updating the schedules) will be.

And now that we've tried to straighten out part of Chicago's transit morass, can we do the same with the Wild?

This team is in deep, serious trouble. Most Wild fans knew that the team would be taking a step backwards this season; who knew, however, that this squad would be on its' way to the worst season (from a wins-losses-points standpoint) in franchise history?

If the current Wild trend continues, the Wild could win a total of 24 games, and maybe come up with 60 points. The current record for fewest points in a season is 68 in 2000-01.

No offense to speak of, precious little defense, no real hitting (except by Clutterbuck and, occasionally, Scott) and no support for the goaltending. This team could be down there in the NY Islanders category of all-time worst NHL teams by the end of the '09-10 season. They are already one road loss from being the second-worst team all-time in road history (only the '92-93 Ottawa Senators, the original expansion year for that club, is worse) and their 356-game sellout steak is in dire jeopardy (It almost ended last Saturday, as less than 100 over seated capacity saw the Wild defeat Carolina 3-2 in OT.)

The management needs to do something soon to at least stabilize the ship of state. Too many players look as if they are going thru the motions out there nowdays. Too many players are acting as if they know more about the game than they really do. Arrogance, dissention, lackadaisical attitudes, lack of effort, all that is rearing its' ugly head amongst those in St. Paul right about now. Even sniping at the press corps is in vogue. Time for a holiday fire sale?

And then, there's the Mikko Koivu bobblehead doll, $25 worth of hockey kitsch that really looks out of place when a team is going this poorly. (BTW: Weren't the Chicago White Sox in last place when 'Disco Demolition Night' took place??) I'm not sure that anyone who really isn't a Mikko fan will buy the thing...

More later.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Did Wild fans really need to worry about...

...Mikko Koivu as the team's first-ever permanent captain?

Nah. No way.

Granted, Andrew Brunette has indeed been the good soldier, and there are others (Owen Nolan, Martin Havlat, Greg Zanon) who have held leadership roles with their former teams (Calgary, Chicago and Nashville, respectively.)

But there really is only one player whom Wild fans recognize as, 'the Franchise', and that is the 27-year-old 'little' brother of Anaheim Duck (and ex-Montreal Canadien) Saku Koivu, himself a former captain of Les Habitants.

The announcement came at a news conference following practice Tuesday. The Wild face the first-place Colorado Avalanche Wednesday night in St. Paul, the first home game in two weeks. The Wild play 4 of their next 6 games at home.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Weller traded; roster remodelling continues (H)

The Minnesota Wild have shed some more dead weight.

The Wild traded under-achieving winger Craig Weller, 2009 fourth-round pick Alexander Fallstrom (now playing at Harvard) and their 2011 second-round draft pick to the Boston Bruins for winger Chuck Kobasew. The Wild also placed Pierre-Marc Bouchard on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) in order to temporarily expand the salary cap, in order to absorb the remainder of Kobasew's $2.33M/year contract. The exception will remain until Bouchard is able to rejoin the active roster, for which no date has been set.

Bouchard is scheduled to receive $4M this season.

The Wild also placed Petr Sykora on IR, retroactive to Oct. 10th's game vs. San Jose, in order to place Kobasew on the active roster; however, Sykora, who suffered a groin pull during the Oct. 8 game at Los Angeles, will be able to return to the lineup following Wednesday night's game vs. Colorado at Xcel Energy Center, necessitating another roster move between Minnesota and their AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros.

Kobasew was originally a first-round draft pick of the Calgary Flames (No. 14 overall) in 2001. Minnesota will be the third NHL organization in his career.

JMO: This is a good trade for the Wild. The upsides of Kobasew is that he is known as a hard-skating, fast, grinding-style forward with a bit of an injury history (due to his aggressiveness). With Calgary, he made players better (e.g., Daymond Langkow). His cap number is a bit high as opposed to, say, Stephane Veilleux (who was not re-signed this past summer, now plays for Tampa Bay) but he also has a knack for scoring 20 goals a season; this is a good thing when 3 of your top 9 forwards are injured in one week.

While some may cry hypocrisy over giving up a draft pick, this is the price you pay for the near-decade of letting UFA's go for nothing from DR. Besides which, this is a 2011 draft pick, not 2010; there will be opportunities (especially around the 2010 trade deadline, March 2) to remedy this, with the number of pending UFA's currently under contract to the Wild.

As I said in my previous post, Wild fans will need lots and lots of patience in order to survive this season of transition. This is part of that transition. Any way you can get tangible assets for players who do not fit the new system, you do it. This move by Chuck Fletcher is one of those moves.

A good trade.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Aftermath (H)

The official 5482-mile Minnesota Wild 'Road Trip from Hell' has finally ended.

Thank God.

Four of the worst road efforts in recent team history were followed up by Saturday night's 2-1 loss, to a Vancouver Canucks club which were missing both their top scorer (Daniel Sedin), and half of their top defensive pairing (Sami Salo) while themselves getting their hats handed to them the night before, in a 5-3 loss at Calgary (yes, the Canucks have already visited Cow-gary twice this season).

So, the Wild re-emerge in Minnesota today, for practice in Mendota Heights on Monday, saddled with the worst record in the Western Conference at 1-6-0, only 1/2 game above the record of the totally hapless Toronto Maple Leafs, whose coach, Ron Wilson, received the 'dreaded vote of confidence' after Saturday night's 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers at the Air Canada Centre.

I hope that you, dear reader, do not believe that Todd Richards needs that 'DVOC' yet. He doesn't.

With four of his top 10 forwards out with injuries (Martin Havlat, Petr Sykora, Cal Clutterbuck, Pierre-Marc Bouchard) and his active roster looking like a dog's breakfast, day in, day out, Richards is learning very quickly what NHL expectations are like when you are running the show. And, quite frankly, so are Wild fans learning, that the early success that the previous regime in St. Paul achieved came at a very, very high price.

This organization has no prospects in the pipeline. None. Most of the current Houston Aeros roster will never see NHL ice, for anything more than the proverbial cup of coffee. The ones who think they are that good are either delusional, in the wrong position or just stuck there (see 'Kalus, Petr').

The one bright spot in an otherwise dismal Aeros picture is former (2007) first round pick Colton Gillies, who really is taking advantage of the regular ice time in the 'A', and already has picked up a broken nose for his efforts.

So what now for the big club? Getting the four forwards healthy would be a nice start, but Clutterbuck's high ankle sprain means it will be about Thanksgiving before he returns to the roster; Bouchard's concussion (originally suffered last March, against the NY Islanders) has been so mis-diagnosed, who knows when he will be back; Havlat and Sykora, both with groin injuries, are day-to-day, but then who knows what ice conditions will be like the rest of the fall?

I cannot believe that the NHL would operate that many poor ice surfaces. Is there no quality control for the surface of where your game is played? Teams cannot rent dehumidifier units to control the humidity of the ice surface? (Yes, it's an additional expense, but when you consider that the name of the game is to win the game, it's cheap insurance against injuries). Granted, the fall weather has been really weird (and, wet) in most of North America, but the number of groin injuries league-wide are alarming. Yes, I know, you could also say that the schedule is a problem, players not properly stretching and/or warming up, but the surface of the ice, especially in Southern markets, is getting to be a real challenge. The ice shown during several Wild games last week was downright slush. You could have scooped it up and sold it at Dairy Queen, just add the flavoring and collect the money at the drive-thru.

We who call ourselves Wild fans (including this blogger) are resigned to the fact that you cannot rebuild the disaster that was the latter stages of the Doug Risebrough regime overnight. The Wild need time to clear another (at least) load of dead weight off the roster. The Wild need to get faster, stronger and bigger up front. And, definitely, they need to get younger. Kim Johnsson, Marek Zidlicky, Eric Belanger, Derek Boogaard, Owen Nolan, Craig Weller, Nathan Smith, Andy Hilbert, and the ever-non-expiring contract of now-current Norfolk Admiral Mark Parrish (which is nearly $1M/year in eaten-up cap space) are just some of the challenges to improving the roster anytime soon.

The main thing will be for Wild fans to have patience. Lots and lots of patience. Fans need to know that the DR 'Five-Year Plan' (which was not fully implemented in eight NHL seasons over nine years) was an abject failure, The old regime could never fully adjust to the new salary cap conscious world, post-lockout/strike in 2004-05. And, to this day, that fact and the style of play prior to this season combined to make Minnesota an extremely toxic situation.

It will be interesting to see how those casual Wild fans respond to the 1-6 start. You can almost see the end of the team's nine-season sell-out streak coming sometime in this next three weeks; it's not a question of 'if', more realistically, it's more a question of 'when'.

Six of the Wild's next nine games are at home, where the ice should not be as much of a problem as at arenas like Honda Center, HP Pavilion at San Jose, and GM Place, whose ice was as bad as had ever been seen in Vancouver on Saturday night. Hopefully the players will improve as well as the ice as the weird fall weather moves on, towards places where other, more League-impactful groin problems await.

Like...midtown Manhattan.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Maybe, the basics aren't all that bad; B-b-b-Benny (H)

The basics. It's the stuff you learn early in any endeavour in life, whether it be dressing one's self, driving your car, or playing hockey.

The Minnesota Wild still need to re-learn some of the basics. Like making sure that when four players are attacking the net, one man has to stay somewhat back and let nothing (puck or player) get by him. Like getting back and helping out your teammate as an opponents' 2-on-1 goes for your fearful goalie. Like taking care of business in your own end before going off on one-man, length-of-rink rushes which result in no shots on goal, time after time.

Some teams, they have learned the basics. Pittsburgh. Washington. San Jose. And, apparently, the Los Angeles Kings, who thumped the Wild 6-3 Thursday night at STAPLES Center. Now, the Kings are still learning, especially on the power play, where the Wild were 3-for-5 Thursday night. But, then again, when defensemen are scoring two of your three goals, 2 of your top 9 forwards are riding the pine after three goals in less than seven minutes, and the defensemen who did score, wind up a sad minus three each, then you still have lots of room to learn how to play the game.

The right way. The way that the coaching staff wants you to, not the way that dug you into this hole in the first place. The Jacques Lemaire days and ways are over. No more Doug Risebrough telling you on the event level of the Xcel Energy Center that you need to do more even though you've been injured for weeks. No more Jacques saying 'Hey, You' because he can't remember your name. Those days are gone for good. Start playing like it, for your own sakes, if not for those of the paying patrons you perform for night after night. Please.


This Wild team has more talent, top-to-bottom, than any other in team history. Yes, they no longer have Marian Gaborik (and his plethora of problems), but Player One (Mikko Koivu) to Player 22 (Jaime Sifers), the Wild have more talent now than at any time in the franchise's nine seasons.

But the truth of the matter is, every other team in the West is that much better, also. Many regular 3rd/4th line players from last season now are either out of the game entirely, playing in the AHL, or playing for reduced pay scales on different teams. The downturn in the North American economy has forced NHL teams to drastically cut pay scales, or risk even more Phoenix Coyote-esque situations across the League.

'Hey, wait a minute! There are 23 players on an NHL roster!!'

There are indeed 23 positions on an NHL roster. One of those on the Wild is currently occupied by a young man who really hasn't shown that he belongs there.

Welcome to Roster Spot number 23, Benoit Pouliot.

Derisively nicknamed 'Pool Boy' on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune 'Russo's Rants' hockey blogs, Pouliot's 'Million Dollar Talent, 10-Cent Head' routine has grown exceedingly stale for Wild fans, who clamor for someone willing to be more aggressive to fill that roster spot. Someone who will use his talents to do something -- indeed, anything -- to help his club out. Marshmallow-soft, 'B-b-b-Benny' will not take on any grinding after pucks in corners, will not stay in the play, cannot even take a man out so that the other forwards can attack the net with the freed puck.

And NBA fans said David Robinson of the Spurs was soft? Pouliot makes Robinson look like Ayres Rock, the Australian monolith which is considered sacred to Aborigine peoples.

The waste of this first-round talent is all too apparent. Time for both sides to say 'Au revoir' to each other, and go their separate ways. Pouliot needs a fresh start to resurrect his failing career, and the Wild need cap space, to fill that 23rd roster spot.

With someone who might actually appreciate it.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ye Olde Prediction Blog -- Western Conference (H)

OK, we did the East yesterday, so today we do the Western Conference. In order of projected finish, with comments:

Western Conference

1. San Jose Sharks. The NHL's most up-and-down team goes thru another rollercoaster season, achieving incredible highs in the regular season, only to get smashed in the playoffs. Again. How long can they keep going with this bunch and not burn everyone out? Evgeni Nabokov and 'Jumbo' Joe Thornton aren't getting any younger, and now with the trade for Dany Heatley, they have the NHL's biggest headcase.

2. Chicago Blackhawks. The NHL's 'Is This the Year? theme might as well be that for the 'Hawks, for after this season they have to re-sign Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, and the Hawks are already cap-screwed after signing Marian Hossa to a 12-year contract, then finding out that Hossa will not even be able to play until December due to shoulder surgery.

3. Calgary Flames. The Flames biggest problem, now that the whole Jay Bouwmeester episode is behind them? GM Darryl Sutter. 'Mr. Warmth' is about as talkative as a corpse. Fortunately, he also has some excellent talent to work with, provided Jarome Iginla doesn't get seriously injured, and they are able to actually spell Mikka Kiprusoff every so often. 73 games in net are too many at today's NHL level. The Flames actually have some decent talent at the 3rd line level; not all teams in the West can say that.

4. Detroit Red Wings. Ah, yes, the team you love to hate, because with all their problems (Goaltending, defections to the KHL, etc.,) the Wings still pose the single biggest night-in, night-out challenge to any other Western Conference team. The talent level may have diminished somewhat, but what they are losing in experience they are more than making up for in drive. And, the Wings have hockey's best scouting staff and upper management.

5. Anaheim Ducks. Despite trading away Chris Pronger (to Philadelphia) last season, despite the impending final Niedermayer retirement, the Ducks are able to hold on to talent and improve on it (Saku Koivu, most notably). If they could finally get the pieces back together again, they might be a sleeper pick to go far in May.

6. St. Louis Blues. If the phrase 'Youth shall be served' applied to hockey, the Blues would be at the top of the list. Returning a healthy Paul Kariya doesn't hurt. Neither does a solid goalie in Chris Mason. And, you have all that young budding talent that John Davidson & Co. has put together. This is a team definitely on the way up.

7. Vancouver Canucks. No Mats Sundin? No problem, as long as the Sedin twins are together. The potential downfall of the Canucks may be on the blueline, where three of their top six 'D' are over age 32. Of course, there always is the 'what if Roberto Luongo gets hurt?' question to deal with. And, since the Olympics will be held in Vancouver, there's that small matter of the 22-game road trip (14 before the Games, and eight after) to deal with, too.

8. Los Angeles Kings. Another young, talented team, ready to get into that elite group called the Western Conference Playoffs. What the Kings need is good, solid goaltending, something there hasn't been much of since the Fabulous Forum days. The Kings might be good enough to do it this season.

9. Minnesota Wild. This team is a team admittedly in transition right now. New GM (Chuck Fletcher), new coach (Todd Richards), new players (Martin Havlat, Petr Sykora, Shane Hnidy, Greg Zanon) and a new, more offense-oriented outlook. Gone are (amongst others) Marian Gaborik (and his groin problems), Martin Skoula (Hallelujah!) and Marc-Andre Bergeron. The Wild may not survive their October from Hell (6 of their first 7, and 8 of their first 11 are on the road) but if they should be anywhere near .500 after the Carolina game at Raleigh on Nov. 15th, look out.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets. Will Steve Mason stand on his head again this season like he did last year? With the first-ever playoff appearance behind them, the Jackets can concentrate on fine-tuning their roster, and finding two linemates that Rick Nash can play with. A lot for the Jackets will depend on not only who they're playing, but when. Especially with Detroit...

11. Dallas Stars. Like the rest of the lower third of the West, the Stars will find themselves in transition, especially as Mike Modano reaches the 40-year-old mark. Marty Turco needs to reduce his workload for the Stars to be competitive, but with the rest of the West getting better, the Stars may not be able to keep up.

12. Edmonton Oilers. Save for signing Nikolai Khabibulin, what did the Oil do this summer? Precious little, unfortunately. The 'Bulin wall' will have to hold up under a lot of pressure this winter.

13. Nashville Predators. Again, what did they do? Yes, the Preds signed Steve Sullivan, but he's getting long in the tooth, and the Preds need more offense, not less. Pekka Rinne will be one busy goalie as the minutes pile up. Time to blow it up and start over?

14. Phoenix Coyotes. It's good to see that the 'Yotes players still think hockey can work in the desert, even if Greater Phoenix cannot get across the Valley to see them. How much will the fallout from all the court proceedings mean to the on-ice product? You have to ask.

15. Colorado Avalanche. Owner Stan Kroneke is determined to cut costs; anyone tell him that cutting costs == losing? The Avs are in rebuild mode; hopefully Paul Stasny and Wojtek Wolski can carry the offensive load while the rebuild is under way.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ye Olde Prediction Blog -- Eastern Conference (H)

Oh, yeah. Time to start looking at the season ahead, and look at who will wind up where. With that, here they are (in order of predicted finish, and a few comments on each):

Update: Western Conference coming Friday evening, Oct. 2nd...

Eastern Conference:

1. Washington Capitals. No other team in the East (maybe the entire NHL) has the firepower and the speed of the Caps. Ovechkin, Semin & Co., will run thru most teams and certainly 3 of the other 4 in the NHL's weakest division, the Southeast. The missing quotient will be goaltending: will Semyon Varlamov be up to last year's playoff standard?

2. Boston Bruins. The best combination of grit, talent and hunger in the conference. Fattening up on Buffalo, Ottawa and Toronto won't hurt, either, as the B's eliminated a major headache by trading Phil Kessel to Toronto for three top draft picks.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins. The defending Eastern Conference champs will have their hands full, especially with everyone gunning for them. The last season at the antiquated Mellon Arena will be another fun one in Western PA.

4. New Jersey Devils. New head coach Jacques Lemaire will not let last season's disasterous Game 7 ending happen again in Newark. The biggest move for the Devils this off-season? Getting Martin Brodeur healthy.

5. Philadelphia Flyers. This is a crapshoot, admittedly, as the positive of having Chris Pronger on the roster, is tempered by the negative of having Ray Emery on the roster. Get ready for lots of long nights in South Philly.

6. Montreal Canadiens. Bob Gainey is betting millions of Molson family dollars on the smallest first line (in size) in the NHL. Hopefully, Scott Gomez and linemates can hold up. More hopefully, Bob Gainey will actually crack a smile sometime this decade.

7. Carolina Hurricanes. Being No. 2 to the Caps' whirlwind isn't really all that bad. They still get to play Atlanta, Florida and Tampa Bay six times each. That's good for something.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs. Never bet against a Brian Burke team. New front office, new talent, new attitude, hopefully won't bring same old results.

9. New York Rangers. The Rangers were one of the biggest free agent dealers (aren't they always?) but the decision to give Marian Gaborik a five-year, $37.5 million deal will come back to haunt them. Too many eggs in a wonky groin basket.

10. Ottawa Senators. The Sens' problems can no longer be blamed on Dany Heatley, who was shipped off to San Jose in September. You just wish the rest of the Sens would suck it up and play. And, get rid of Filip Kuba, the 'Human Off-Ramp'.

11. Buffalo Sabres. Which Sabres team will show up on any given night is anyone's guess. The fans in western NY deserve better than this year's Sabres. Ryan Miller will get tired of carrying this bunch.

12. Tampa Bay Lightning. The 'Bolts would have moved up except for their ongoing ownership squabbles (the two principal owners hate each other). Hopefully, the addition of two ex-Wild players (Kurtis Foster, Stephane Veilleux) will make Tampa Bay fans forget that Kuba was also a 'Bolt.

13. Florida Panthers. The South Florida hockey team will not be in a position to contend, and that's too bad for their young stars, as David Ballard and teammates deserve better than this.

14. Atlanta Thrashers. Another winter, another season of discontent in the Capital of the New South, as Ilya Kovalchuk's impending free agency will be an ongoing sore spot across a shrinking Blueland this winter.

15. New York Islanders. It truly is sad to see the Long Island faithful put up with a crappy team like this. It may turn around someday. Too bad it won't be this season.