Sunday, July 25, 2010

So, now what's next?

The hype has died down from the Wild Prospect Camp, the Wild Road tour, the release of the 2010-2011 NHL schedule (three weeks early, thank you NHL) and the Free Agent Frenzy of July 1st. So now, we blithely throw this question out for the multitudes to ponder:

OK, Minnesota Wild. What do you guys do for an encore? What little tidbit do you all dream up now, in order to keep the hockey-starved public happy until the start of Training Camp, scheduled for Sept. 17th?

Yes, we who go online regularly know about the 'State of Jääkiekko' Finnish-based hockey quiz, that those of us who actually do WORK while online at work, cannot ever join in. That we know about. We know the sales staff is busy. It's their time of the year to turn some on-the-fence people into 10-and-20 game ticket holders.

But what about the hockey staff? The rest of the organization? Do they all get the month of August off? Or are things being done to make the organization better, top to bottom?

We know the roster will be greatly improved, as much by subtractions (no more Boogaard, Hnidy, Irmen, Sifers, Dubielewicz, as examples) as by additions made thru free agency and the NHL Draft. We also know that the rest of the coaching staff (that is, what didn't change following the departure of Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire after 2008-09) will also change going into this season. Mind you, we don't exactly agree with all the subtractions (Owen Nolan, for example), but the dead weight on the Wild's roster had to be eliminated. And, not all of them will find NHL jobs for next season. For some of the eliminated, the future in hockey looks, at best, very bleak, indeed.

On the other hand, relative newcomers such as Colton Gillies (coming off his 2009-10 year with the Houston Aeros), Casey Wellman, Nate Prosser, Tyler Cuma and Marco Scandella will all be on hand, pushing the established veterans hard enough so that some of them may just become something the Wild have rarely had, in their 10-year history:

Trade bait.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Wild developmental camp: The Kids are Allright

A few thoughts on the Minnesota Wild developmental camp scrimmage game earlier Sunday...

Colton Gillies really learned a LOT last season in Houston. And it showed in this format. He really was playing like a man amongst boys.

Casey Wellman also played well above what he was last season. Of course, being the fifth oldest player in the camp, that helped, also. But he was moving well.

Nate Prosser looked very good also. Not as well as some (notably Tyler Cuma, more on that later) but he looked confident out there.

Justin Falk showed again the old Jacques Lemaire adage: 'You can't coach size.'

Brett Bulmer may just be thinking that his role in the NHL may be that of 'enforcer'. With all the hitting he did (some of which was really unnecessary), someone may just remember him down the road, especially if that player gets traded away from the Wild organization.

Erik Haula, bound for the University of Minnesota Gopher hockey program, almost pulled off a razzle-dazzle play by skating backwards with the puck, then pulling it back and clanking it off the crossbar in the post-game shootout.

Tyler Cuma showed (again) for the second straight year why he was drafted as high as he was. He was the best puck handler far and away of the defensemen, probably the best of any of the players out there. He's done with juniors now, so hopefully he'll handle one of blogger Ms. Conduct's Key Lime pies in Houston this winter, as well as he handled the puck today.

Marco Scandella did not play in either scrimmage, as he was suffering tendinitis in his ankle, but reports indicate he will be ready to go in September, at the Traverse City (Mich.) Prospects Tournament.

GM Chuck Fletcher and his staff have really had to scramble to fill the cupboard after the policies of ex-GM Doug Risebrough left the organization with a plethora of has-beens and never-will-be's. The future indeed looks bright as these young bucks develop into full-time NHL hockey players. For the Wild, they now have had a fresh look as to who(m) they wish to extend invitations to training camp. The future? Looks good to me.

Now, if we can only do something with James Sheppard...

-- WRT

Friday, July 16, 2010

Wild's 'Ultimate Team Player' gets what's his...paid!

Mikko Koivu, the Minnesota Wild's ultimate team player, has always played with a 'team first' attitude. That attitude which you cannot just bestow on any player, in any sport. It's an attitude which has to be developed, cultivated, and used to the best advantage of the team for which that player plays for.

And sometimes, even in this 'me, Me, ME' age of professional sports, the team actually agrees with the player, when he asks to be paid for his efforts on behalf of that team. It doesn't happen often. Especially in tight-fisted, 'small-market' Minnesota, where top-tier contracts are about as rare as Valentine's Day fireworks displays.

The Wild announced on Thursday that they have come to agreement with the 27-year-old UFA-to-be on a new, 7-year, $67.5-million dollar blockbuster contract, one which will protect both player and team, should a potential work stoppage (possible after 2011-12, due to the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement) interrupt the season.

Some have said that it was too much money. Some have derided the Wild as hamstringing themselves, due to the term and the no-trade clause included in the deal. To that I say:


If you want good players, you have to be willing to PAY for them. Mikko Koivu is a rare talent in today's NHL, a player who has the ability to actually lead his team, no matter what the situation. He consistently performs at the highest level possible (even when the rest of the team seems like they really aren't putting out). No, he doesn't score 50 goals per season, but that has never been his job. Never will be.

If you look at the list of wingers that Koivu has played with the last two seasons, he is always the odd man out, the forward who is responsible to be the first man back on defense. The last guy into the play offensively a good percentage of the time. It also doesn't help that your current two wingers (Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen) are not exactly known as snipers, either.

Some Wild fans can't seem to get it through their tight-fisted heads. If you want to get better as a franchise, you need cornerstones. You need the firepower, granted, but if those stars are not versatile enough to help out the grunts when necessary, the stars need to step in and save the day. Koivu has done this, time and again. (And let's face it: what Wild fan didn't relish every second of when Koivu scored the goal against Vancouver in GM Place, in Koivu's first game against the Canucks, after Mattias Ohlund tried his best Paul Bunyan imitation on Koivu's leg, breaking it?)

Chuck Fletcher knew what he had to do. So did Mikko Koivu. Both sides came to an agreement, and that was it. No trade deadline follies. No free-agency frenzy. Just an agreement which both sides can live with, for years to come.

Just the way they both wanted it.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Centers of attention

Well, folks, Chuck Fletcher and the Minnesota Wild staff said they would go out and get some help at center, the on-ice position of greatest need. The result after two days of free agency:

Mission. Accomplished.

The signing of ex-Ottawa Senator Matt Cullen (who actually won the Stanley Cup when he was with the Carolina Hurricanes, in 2007) and ex-Texas Star Warren Peters (for depth) signify that the further erosion of the center position will not be allowed to happen.

(Sorry about that, Doug Risebrough.)

And for those of you that feel that the Wild lacked 'grit' at the end of last season, let's introduce some second-generation 'grit', namely Eric Nystrom, the son of ex-NY Islander great Bob Nystrom, he of the four Stanley Cup winning Islander teams of the 1970's. Nystrom was signed as a 'depth forward', hopefully to play alongside Cal Clutterbuck and, hopefully, rookie Casey Wellman at fourth line center (although some, including Michael Russo, hockey scribe extraordinaire at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, think that James Sheppard will be the fourth-line center coming out of training camp.)

(And before some of you complain, I do apologize in advance for putting the names of 'Russo' and 'Sheppard' in the same sentence. One is no way in the league of the other. We all know that.)

Granted, some of the best Wild 'additions' were, in fact, 'additions by subtraction', as a good deal of the Wild's accumulated 'dead weight' are no longer on the roster, as Derek Boogaard now can honestly say, 'I am a Ranger', no thanks to his greedy, selfish ol' buddy, Marian Gaborik, who helped lure Boogaard to Manhattan after the Rangers' previous goon, Jody Shelley, signed a multi-year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, who are indeed re-creating the 'Broad Street Bullies' of the mid-1970's at the south end of SEPTA's Broad Street Subway.

For those of you who participated last season in the 'Big John Scott' drinking game, we hope you enjoyed yourselves, as Scott signed a two-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks on Day 1 of free agency.

Owen Nolan? Still out there, but rumor has it he may go to the Washington Capitals or any of the three California teams (Nolan just built a new house near San Jose, where he has business interests; Nolan was a Shark for 11 seasons).

Andrew Ebbett signed with the Phoenix Coyotes, so now Ed Jovanovski now owes Ebbett dinner for butt-ending Ebbett last season during a Wild-Coyotes game in Glendale. Just make sure the dinner isn't at Whataburger, OK?

Robbie Earl? Still available. Don't hesitate, don't everyone push all at once, now...

Granted, most Wild fans are waiting for the first-round draft choice of this season, 18-year-old Finnish SM-liiga wunderkind Mikael Granlund, already playing at the top level of one of Europe's top leagues, to start paying dividends after 2010-11, where he will remain with his Finnish Helsinki team for one more season, then come across the North Atlantic and probably compete right away for the third center position (unless the Wild manage to trade way one or both of their top centers.)

And then, there's the Pierre Marc-Bouchard saga to deal with. Will he be able to return from a severe concussion which has kept him out for all (except one game) of last season and the last three weeks of 2008-09? Even if he comes back, at what level will he be able to safely operate at? He will always have the fear of one more good bell ringing ending certainly his hockey career, and possibly his life. You have to ask yourself: at what point is it really WORTH it to continue playing hockey?

PMB comes with a very hefty $4.08M cap hit. The only way the Wild get out from under that permanently is for PMB to voluntarily retire. We know he really doesn't want to do that. He may, however, have no choice if his concussion symptoms continue. There is a long-term injured reserve exception to the salary cap, but the minute PMB steps back on the ice in a game situation, the LTIR is lifted, and the Wild are that much more over the salary cap.

So how are the Wild doing? Like all NHL teams, July is the time your team gets better. But, so does everyone else. The amount of dead weight around the League in general you would think would push those on the lower end of the scales to get better faster. Some will retire (Keith Tkaczuk, as example); some will play elsewhere (Martin Skoula signing with the KHL Avangard Omsk, for one. There are others. I'm just happy that Skoula will not be over here anymore) and some will just sit at home, waiting for the phone to ring...