Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deal ...or No Deal?

Wild not in mood for wheeling and dealing as trade deadline looms

Satisfied with the direction the Minnesota Wild are headed as February turns into the Stretch Drive month of March, GM Chuck Fletcher has downplayed any possible moves to further infuse talent in the club, according to published reports.

Fletcher told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that unless the player traded for can quickly mesh with the team's current high-level character, that player would not be added by Monday's 2:00 PM (CST) trade deadline.

"These players deserve a chance to stay together and see this thing through. This group deserves that chance; they want that chance, and it's hard to argue with them."

The Wild currently are in 6th place in the NHL's Western Conference with 72 points, two behind 5th place Los Angeles, and three behind 4th place Phoenix, who currently holds the last spot for first-round home ice advantage. The Wild have completed their season series with both clubs.

With Mikko Koivu out for two to three more weeks (broken index finger, left hand) the Wild could use another center. But until (and unless) the rest of the team could buy into a new face near them, Fletcher does not want to mess with the good chemistry in the dressing room. "...we like this team, we're competitive every night and we're winning more games than we're losing. We're content with our group."

Now...the next five games

The next five games (3 at Xcel Energy Center, 2 on the road) are vs. Chicago, two in New York (at the Islanders and Rangers, in that order), then home games against Buffalo and Colorado. Is it too much to expect to win four of those five? Yes, Chicago is a mess right now, and Stan Kroneke is trying to out-cheapen Charles Wang (if that's even possible?) with the Avs current dismantling, but the Wild are in a position to really put some distance between themselves, and the rest of the West contenders this coming week.

Monday's nationally-cablecast game (Versus, 7:00 PM) vs. the Chicago Blackhawks is the final meeting between the two teams this season, and with each game between the two teams having more meaning than the last one, this game should be a fun evening of puck. The Wild are 1-2 in their first three meetings; the Blackhawks winning October 30th at the 'X', and Feb. 16 in Chicago, both games by 3-1 scores; the Wild defeated the 'Hawks 4-2 at the United Center on January 25th, in the last game before the All-Star Break for both franchises. Chicago, although not the star-studded, fully-loaded Blackhawks of last season, are still capable of running up the score should they get going offensively. The Wild will indeed have their hands full Monday night, but so may the 'Hawks, especially if they make a trade deadline deal earlier on Monday.

Before getting back into the meat grinder of the stretch drive, the Wild get a few games which they should actually win. The New York Islanders are, well, the Islanders; all the 'goons' who tried to single-handedly drag the NHL back into the 'Slap Shot' era, will be returning to the Isles' roster in time for Wednesday night's 6:00 PM start. Even with the 'slugfest' against the Penguins two weeks ago, the Isles are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games, better than the 4-6-0 record of the Rangers going into Sunday afternoon's game vs. Tampa Bay at Madison Square Garden.

The New York Rangers are almost as banged up as the Wild are, with five front-line Blueshirts (Marian Gaborik, Marc Staal, Alexander Frolov, Chris Drury, and Derek Boogaard) all out of the line-up. This is the game, I think, that may be a loss for the Wild. The Wild never play that well in Manhattan (1-4-0 all time at MSG), and the Wild will be on the second night of yet another back-to-back on the road.

After three days off (and the state high school wrestling tournament at the 'X'), the Wild will face a Buffalo Sabres' team which is very much hot and cold. On the cusp of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Sabres will roll into St. Paul on the second game of a back-to-back of their own, and their 4th road game in six nights, the middle game of a 7-game, two-week road trip where, after which, the Sabres play only two more games away from HSBC Arena the rest of March.

What will be left of the Colorado Avalanche will make their last visit into St. Paul on March 8th, a team which is a shadow of what they were at this time last season, when they out-lasted the Calgary Flames to qualify for last season's playoffs. This is not last season's Avs by any stretch, as the team has gone on an economy kick, and is trying desperately to shed payroll, by any means possible.

So, is 4-1 in the next five games realistic? Is it the time for the Wild to show that they really ARE a team worthy of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Guess we'll just have to see for ourselves, huh?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jed returns to Beverly Hills! (sorta)

Ortmeyer temporary solution at center, as Wild begin two-game SoCal swing; Barker claiming injury, so he doesn't become considered as trade bait?

Yeah, so I'm reaching. Sue me.

OK, so since we last sat down with each other, the following has occurred:

The Wild, achieved a 2-2-1 record in the last five games, five games where they really NEEDED to achieve points in the standings. They even managed to stay even with the Detroit Red Wings in front of a regional (wasn't national, folks; that comes later) NBC TV audience.

Vancouver showed the Wild why they were leading the NHL's Western Conference with a 4-1 thrashing at the Xcel Energy Center, in only the second loss by three goals since the New Year.

Chicago's United Center provided the setting for a bobblehead giveaway (Tony Esposito) but little else, as the Wild basically failed to show up for a 3-1 Blackhawks' loss in the Hawks' first home game in three weeks,

Mikko Koivu managed to break his left index finger while blocking a Todd Marchant shot in last Friday's game against the Anaheim Ducks. The Wild won, 5-1, despite playing one forward short for the final 52 minutes of the game.

Sunday, Todd Bertuzzi, reviled winger and scourge of Wild fans of all ages, played in his 1,000th NHL game, and absolutely NO acknowledgement of that fact to the crowd at the 'X' during the game whatsoever. 'Big Bert', the evil-doer of note, fired the game winner in the shootout, but the fact that the game actually WENT to a shootout gave hope to Wild fans, despite the 2-1 Detroit win.

Tuesday was 'defenseman's offense night', as six separate defensemen accounted for two goals and four assists in the Wild's 4-1 thumping of the Edmonton Oilers, the 15th straight time the Wild has defeated the Grease in St. Paul. Included in the blue line salvos was a rare goal by ex-Wild defenseman Kurtis Foster, with his first goal since Dec. 1, and the first goal for the 'Minnow', diminutive rookie Jared Spurgeon, playing against the team the Edmonton native idolized growing up as a child.

So now what? Do they stay with bringing up kids, such as Cody Almond, current call-up from the Houston Aeros? So now what do they do, after the Koivu injury?

One does not think that journeyman center Jed Ortmeyer is the answer, but the ex-Shark, Pred and Ranger will get more ice time with a big NHL club, but for how long? Who knows? Ortmeyer was signed earlier this month to a two-way contract, so he gets one pay rate at the NHL level, and another, lower pay rate at the AHL level. The Wild need centers, as they will criss-cross Southern California in the next three days, with only two of their normal four centers (John Madden, Mark Cullen) available, as they take on as vicious a road trip as the NHL can dream up, with back-to-back games at STAPLES Center vs. the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, and the Ducks at Honda Center on Friday night.

Now, will the Wild have Cam Barker to kick around after Monday's trade deadline? That's yet another question facing the Wild, as the return to the ice of Marek Zidlicky has created a temporary 'glut' of defensemen, as Barker has now become the odd man out, with the solid play of Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner, another Houston call-up who doesn't miss the seafood and sun of South Texas. Barker now claims an injury, and yes, indeed he was NOT on the ice for most of last night's Edmonton game; but with all the defensive shuffling and high level of play that the Wild defense has become noted for lately, the fact that Barker has played himself into the 'odd man out' role, speaks volumes for what Barker has done...also for what he HAS NOT done.

Now, we all realize that GM Chuck Fletcher is absolutely loathe to trade away draft picks and/or prospects for basically 'rent-a-players', but will his hand be forced to do at least a little of that as the Trade Deadline, of Monday Feb. 28, 3 PM Eastern Time approaches?

Trade speculation: that's why the hockey media exists, isn't it, folks?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Are better times really ahead?

As February rolls on, things looking up for Wild, fans

With half of February gone, the Minnesota Wild go into the last 26 games of their regular season in better shape than many people -- this blogger included -- thought they would have been at this point. We all were hoping that they'd have the second-best record in the NHL since January 1 (only Philadelphia, leading the Eastern Conference, currently has a better record) but let's face facts, folks:

Did anyone expect this team to be this good in the stretch drive?

With two key members of the line-up (Guillaume Latendresse, Marek Zidlicky) out with fairly severe injuries the entire month of January, the kids brought up to replace them (Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner, and before Stoner, Marco Scandella, still out with a concussion) have performed better than even the hockey operations staff had probably thought possible.

Spurgeon, a prospect released by the New York Islanders after last season, was signed out of the Traverse City Pre-Season prospects tournament before the season started. Like Stoner and Scandella, Spurgeon started the season with the Wild's AHL Houston Aeros affiliate, and was called up to the Wild on Nov. 29th. Unlike Stoner and Scandella, however, the diminutive Spurgeon (all 5' 9" of him), who has earned the nickname 'Minnow' by some Wild fans, has answered the challenge of being a rookie at the world's top level of professional hockey well, with timely play, a knack for moving the puck from the blue line, and fearless defensive play in his own zone. He may not be the biggest fish in the pond, but he probably is the most determined to stay on the roster into the playoffs.

Stoner, on the other hand, is a rugged, 6' 3" native of Port McNeill, BC (same home town as ex-Wild and current LA King, Willie Mitchell) who has also stepped in and stepped up this season to stay on the roster, after five seasons in Houston. One of the few third round draft picks the Wild has ever actually held on to, Stoner recently endeared himself to hockey fight fans, with his end-of-game beat down of St. Louis' David Backes, the Spring Lake Park, MN native, on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center, following the final horn of the Wild's 3-1 sweep of the home-and-home series with the Blues, a sweep which started to put the nails into the coffin of playoff chances in the Mound City for this spring.

Scandella, the Wild's second round selection from the 2008 draft, was being groomed to be the Wild's sixth/seventh defenseman when he suffered a concussion, interrupting his season, on January 14 (vs. the Colorado Avalanche). Scandella had played in 11 of the previous 13 games before his injury. The Montreal native, a 6' 2" blueliner with a knack for forcing play, is expected back in early March, as is Latendresse.

Now, Zidlicky will probably be back before any of the other walking wounded will return. (Update 3:00 PM Monday: Zidlicky practiced with the team today, in full pads, available to take hits and participate in battle drills.) The next question then will be: Who goes back to Houston? Who stays for the playoff drive? Who (if anyone) may become trade bait, as the Feb. 28 trade deadline approaches?

These are the questions on the minds of Wild fans as February wanes on. With eight games left in the month (five of which are at home), can the Wild get to the Trade Deadline in position to deal if they really feel a need to? Yes, we all know, GM Chuck Fletcher won't trade anyone on the roster. But, if the right trade comes along, do you let it go by? NHL GM's don't stay employed for long by being stubborn (Toronto's Brian Burke notwithstanding). The fact of the matter is that if you can get better, you do it. The Wild have assets (mainly, defensemen) that they can deal. For the first time in years, the Wild could very much be a player in the Trade Frenzy on Feb. 28th.

If they want to be.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

'...'cuz Two out of Three ain't bad...'

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The refrain line from the Meat Loaf single kind of summarizes the week for the Minnesota Wild, doesn't it?

With two wins in their first three post-All-Star games, the Wild find themselves still on the precipice of falling out of playoff contention...or falling into as high as 5th place in the NHL's Western Conference.

It all depends on your point of view, I guess.

As the Wild trudge thru the mire that is the February schedule, the lack of scoring by the Wild in Saturday's game here in the desert, against the formerly-hapless Phoenix Coyotes, a game where one mistake (an early third-period turnover by Martin Havlat), an illness (Jared Spurgeon was scratched, account being sick), combined with the continued inability of Cam Barker to be anything other than a human stalagmite, allowed ex-Vancouver Canuck Taylor Pyatt to score the game's only goal. The miscues in front of the Wild net wiped out yet another stand-on-his-head performance by Niklas Backstrom, who stopped 40 of the 41 shots sent his way by a Coyotes team who, quite frankly, saw this game as an opportunity to get back into the Western Conference race, having lost three in a row prior to last night.

So the Wild move on to a stretch where they now play 5 of the next 7 at home, a place which has not exactly been the 'friendly confines' for the Wild this season. With a less-than-scintillating 12-11-2 home record at Xcel Energy Center, should this team wish to qualify for the post-season, they need to get that number of wins up -- in regulation time, no overtimes, no shootouts (like last Tuesday's game vs. LA) -- and quickly, because the next three weeks will determine the Wild's fate for this season, as well as probably next season also, due to the number of impending free agents the team has, after this season ends.

Three weeks from tomorrow -- Feb. 28th -- is the NHL Trade Deadline, as teams try to pick up that missing 'piece of the puzzle' in order to bolster their rosters for the playoff push. My question, despite what Wild GM Chuck Fletcher says, is still the same one I've had for most of the regular season:

Will the Wild be buyers at the trade deadline? Or, will they be sellers?

As even though the Wild will get some of their 'walking wounded' off of injured reserve (most notably Guillaume Latendresse, out since late October, and Marek Zidlicky, out since Dec. 29) they will have some assets which they could actually get something for, even though that 'something' may just be draft picks. The fact of the matter is, for the first time in years, younger players are pushing established members of the roster for spots. And, that really IS a good thing, because then there is hope that the team will be that much better overall.

But for now, we fans just wait. And hope that this team can actually do something. We hope that this team can actually be consistent in their efforts and in their overall play.

In short, for the rest of this season, we don't need games like last night's disaster in the desert anymore.