(In this seventh installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at the season ahead, and also a few updates on other items, from earlier installments of this series.)
Well, folks, in less than three weeks the Great Adventure will indeed begin. And, there is a calm optimism in the WRT household. I am optimistic that all the planning, the research, the investigating, the hours at the computer will have all been worth it. My wife continues to say that she hopes her husband will come back to her, after the Great Adventure is over.
Her husband does, too, let me tell you. After this, all other road trips will seem extremely tame. Even the one to Detroit later this season. Tame, tame, tame, almost to the point of being boring. But, let's look ahead to the question of the day:
Where will the Minnesota Wild end up this season?
Wild fans are a hopelessly optimistic bunch, especially after the free agent signings of Moorhead native Matt Cullen, ex-Blackhawk (and NJ Devil) John Madden, and the second-generation grit of Eric Nystrom show the way to an upgraded roster, where a lot of the dead weight that ex-GM Doug Risebrough saddled the franchise with has now been swept away, and shown the door.
Granted, two fan favorites -- Owen Nolan, a.k.a. 'Cowboy' and 'the Irish God of War', or 'IGoW', and enforcer extraordinare Derek Boogaard -- were released; Boogaard winding up with DR in Gotham with the NY Rangers, Nolan still waiting for a call from one of the California clubs (he lives in San Jose, where he co-owns a restaurant) as his career winds down. Ex-SJ Shark Brad Staubitz now fills the 'enforcer' role with the Wild, but at least he can score a goal now and then, something which finally caught up with the likeable Boogaard, as no one was willing to even fight him, making his roster spot even more vulnerable. Boogaard's new $1.65M/season contract was too much for the Wild, who are now within $2.9 million of the NHL's salary cap, and that's including the contract of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who will attempt to return from his concussion first suffered March 25, 2009 at Nassau Coliseum, in a 6-3 victory against the lowly Islanders.
The right shoulder and right knee of captain Mikko Koivu, both of which required surgery following the season are both at 100%, and the young man who some Wild fans have dubbed, 'the Franchise', is ready for a return to his homeland next month, with about 23 of his closest friends, including new Wild assistant coach Darby Hendrickson, who leaves the Fox Sports North studios (where he was in-studio co-host, on Wild and Gopher hockey telecasts) for the bench, where he will be a 'younger influence' on the roster, a different voice that has recently played the game in this modern era. How this will sit with some of the more tenured players on the Wild roster, such as Andrew Brunette, Nick Schultz and Brent Burns, who actually played with Darby when he was a grinder with the Wild, is yet to be determined.
Optimism runs high amongst Minnesota hockey fans right now, But there has yet to be played even a pre-season game, and not even an official practice has been held. Of course, optimism runs high...as nothing has been decided, save for the fact that James Sheppard, the favorite whipping boy for many Wild fans, will not be playing hockey until after the New Year, due to an ill-advised turn on an ATV in Colorado, during a break in pre-season workouts. Most Wild fans see this unfortunate turn of events for the former first-round pick, as another reason he should be shown the door, as soon as they can find a taker for his 'services'.
My view: After the Finland trip, 8 of their next 10 games will be at home. They must rack up regulation-time wins early, to get a leg up on the rest of the West, as 13 of the following 21 (and 22 of the following 37 games) will be on the road.
This team cannot afford another disasterous start, like last season's losing eight of their first nine debacle. Should they survive the first half of the season, the second half should be an easier half, with all but 5 games played after the All-Star game being within the Western Conference.
This team cannot afford to have long losing streaks. Their talent level is not that of even the now-gutted Chicago Blackhawks, nor San Jose, nor even Detroit, as elderly as that roster looks on paper. Vancouver, everyone's darling pick for the top spot in the West? Nah. Not even close. Maybe not even Calgary or Colorado, who surprised many in hockey and made the playoffs last season, a season which was supposedly a 'rebuilding' year.
They need to score more, especially in regulation. They need to not give up multiple goals in short defensive lapses, especially on the road against divisional opponents (games in Calgary come to mind when I say that). The synergy that was the Guillaume Latendresse-Martin Havlat pairing from last season, needs to be fed from the center position this season. Often. And in bunches.
Had the Wild been able to start the season in December last season, instead of October, they might have just made the playoffs, as banged up as the roster was going into the last weeks of the season, had they not had the disasterous start that this team did last year. This cannot happen again, and the club's hierarchy KNOWS it. The hockey minds know it.
Again, optimism reigns supreme. With that, in my opinion, the Wild will wind up as a playoff team in April. Probably no better than a No. 7 seed, which will probably mean a first round match-up against either of the top two teams in the West (San Jose or Vancouver), neither of which will allow the Wild to go farther than the first round in the playoffs.
But, considering the fact that less than two years ago, this team was totally in shambles, the first round is an achieveable goal, I believe, for this group of Wild players. You have to walk before you can run, and running with the big boys in the West is the immediate goal of this franchise. Reserving the right to change my mind...
...let's see what they can do.
As promised, some updates from earlier in the series:
Seems we've booked onto the 'party cruise' from Stockholm to Turku. The Viking Line ferry boat is known throughout Scandinavia as a 'booze cruise' (those of you who've sailed on the Duluth harbor tours know what I speak of; only this one is a LOT longer). The competing Silja Line ferry, as I said in Part IV of this series, is booked out on a charter that night, as a fund-raiser (presumably) for the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra. Several people have come to me telling me they can't even remember their crossing, due to all the liquor consumed on the ships.
(And, of course, there will be us, still trying to get over jet lag...)
Laundry update: There is no guest laundry at the hotel in Helsinki, so now our question is: Do we get laundry done professionally in Helsinki, Russo-style, by sending out the wet wash? Or, do we ship a box of clean clothes over to Finland, and that same box (with dirty clothes and some papers) back to the USA? Or, do we take some laundry soap with us, and rinse the stuff out in the bathroom sink? What do we do? (We don't want to offend anyone while in Europe...)
(to be continued)