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.

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