Monday, April 19, 2010

Where do the Wild go from here?

A look at what should be this summer's 'to-do' list for Minnesota's NHL team

Well, we're all still here, one week after the end of the Minnesota Wild 2009-10 season. And, as the roster goes off into the four winds for the next five months, can we stop for a minute and look at what should be the course this team needs to take throughout the summer?

I'd like to think that the rebuilding that started with absolutely nothing last summer continues this summer, as the Wild team management takes yet another look at the roster, in order to find places where to improve.

In my opinion (only, since no one else writes here) this is what the Wild need to do in order to consider the summer successful:

1. Get James Sheppard off the roster -- by any means necessary to do so.

The fact of the matter is that Shep has more than worn out his welcome with the Wild, and the Wild cannot afford a roster spot for as woefully-underachieving a forward as the enigmatic Sheppard, who is the latest poster child for the 'I'll play when I want to play' attitude. He doesn't even attempt to hide his disdain anymore. He doesn't make his linemates better; on the contrary, his linemates are frequently changed, so as to not influence them with his bad habits and attitude.

The second-worst first-round draft choice ever by the Wild (only A.J. Thelen, who never played one minute in a Minnesota uniform, was worse) Sheppard, a restricted free agent this summer, will be available to anyone once the Wild make a qualifying offer to him (10% over last year's contract), but in my own opinion (again) I wouldn't even go that far. With a $1.4M cap hit in '09-10, it's time to cut the cord and say 'buh-bye' to the biggest drain on cap space this team has.

At this juncture, I wouldn't care that the Wild even get anything back in return for Shep. Any draft pick or player (preferably an UFA which we could get rid of July 1st) would definitely be a bonus. Just move Shep off the roster.

2. How 'bout a center?

The Wild definitely need additional help at center, a point which was frequently driven home when Martin Havlat and Guillaume Latendresse did not have a third man to play along side them. A good quality center will probably come at a fairly high cost -- either current players, draft picks, or probably both -- but what will GM Chuck Fletcher be willing to part with to improve the team's scoring punch? Will Fletcher do what his counterpart in Calgary, Darryl Sutter, did and trade his best young defenseman (Dion Phaneuf) away for what was supposed to be more scoring punch in the big swap with Toronto? Will Fletcher do that with, say, Brent Burns or Nick Schultz?

I don't know how long you can continue to depend on the likes of Andrew Ebbett and Kyle Brodziak to play minutes one line combination above their skill level. Give them credit, they both tried valiantly, both of them playing thru injuries at one time or another in January and February. But the fact is that Ebbett is too small in the center position, and Brodziak just doesn't have a lot of puck luck. The Wild need another big-time center, and quickly, as the window for this group could open very soon. They need to be ready when it does.

As for the rookies, like Casey Wellman, who were centers in college? They can have their shot in camp, but to stay up with the 'big club', they have to display talent. And, keep away from Shep.

3. Re-sign Guillaume Latendresse and Mikko Koivu.

Latendresse, a RFA this summer, deserves another contract in Minnesota, but which way to take it? Short-term, so as to see if last season's goal total was indeed a fluke? Or long-term, so the Wild can take advantage of a lower cap number over a longer term? Whatever way the organization and the winger agree to take it, the career of Latendresse rejuvenated itself in Minnesota, after he languished on the fourth line or pulled press box duty in Montreal. The trade of Benoit Pouliot for Latendresse was widely regarded as one of the best trades of last season. Time to reinforce that view with a new contract.

Koivu, named the full-time team captain a few weeks after the start of the season, is one of the 'face of the franchise' figures of the Wild. He has tried -- sometimes, tried too valiantly -- to strap the team onto his back. Sadly, with all the dead weight the former management of the Wild saddled this year's team with, it was frequently too much for him to deal with. The best all-around forward currently on the roster, Koivu will be an UFA after the 2010-2011 season. July 1, 2010, is the CBA-agreed to date for pending UFA's to begin negotiations with their current clubs. I wouldn't wait too long after that to begin negotiating his new deal.

4. Should they stay, or should they go?

The Wild have a number of decisions to make for the 2010-2011 season regarding player personnel, as they have 4 UFA's to be on the roster now, and another four after next season. Here's what they (again, in my own opinion) should do?

Stay: Boogaard, Brunette, Earl or Ebbett (not both).

Stay (if HE wants to): Nolan

Go: Hnidy, Scott, Sifers, Miettinen, whomever does not stay between Earl and Ebbett.

The Wild can do better than those who would not return, and those that do will be asked to do more than they did last season. Boogaard needs to be used more than 4-6 minutes a game; he could be a major disrupter in front of the opponent's net if he is parked in front of the crease. Who knows, he may even score a goal.

Brunette still has value, especially in the garbage-goal category he has become famous for.

Earl and Ebbett, are essentially two of the same; smallish, 3rd/4th-line forwards who you should be able to keep but for contract purposes.

Hnidy and Scott were fill-ins for the defense while Tyler Cuma and Marco Scandella were finishing their careers in Junior 'A'. They will compete for ice time come September. Sifers, although somewhat impressive, pales in comparison to the new kids.

Miettinen, although reaching a career high in goals, could have had 15-20 more had he only had better aim. Do we need to put a barn picture in the net for him to aim at? His contract is $2.5M in 2010-11, and he will be an UFA after that. Get value for him while you can. His is not as vital as Koivu by a long shot, but the fact is that you need to get younger as well as more talent up front.

5. Review the medical policies and procedures.

Part of the problem with the myriad of injuries this past season is the under-reporting of their severity. Burns was 'day-to-day' with his concussion, as an example. Better medical procedures and better reporting may -- MAY -- equal fewer and lesser injuries. And when severe injuries do happen, have a plan for calling up players from Houston, please. And, get them there the shortest possible route (Houston to Edmonton -- via Toronto -- is not exactly the most direct path, as a late-season example).

Now I could go on, and on, about 'they did this wrong' and so on, but this organization is still just going into their first full off-season together, having been put together in the Spring of 2009. That fact is conveinently forgotten by Wild fans who criticized Fletcher and his staff for moves made during this season. They may not be all on the same page yet -- but they're getting there.

And we hope it continues.

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