Monday, March 28, 2011

Wild about...apathy

Indifference from players, fans of Minnesota Wild alike as April looms

You know it's bad when...your home fans even stop booing. When the paying customers see that the team has given up. Waived the flag of surrender. Quit. (Sorry, Andrew Brunette, but they have.)Stopped playing like these same fans saw they could just a few short weeks ago. When the Wild were in fifth place in the NHL's Western Conference, one point from a home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And then, and then...

...they rolled over, and they died.

The Wild are 0-7-1 in their last eight games, following an 0-4 road trip and an 0-3-1 home stand where they were out-scored 22-8 in the four games, puncuated by a blowout (8-1 to Montreal, who hasn't won since, BTW), a shut-out (3-0 to Toronto), and by flatout giving up (an embarrassing 6-3 loss to St. Louis, a team which the Wild put out of playoff contention last month on Hockey Day Minnesota).

Wretched doesn't begin to describe the type of play the Wild are exhibiting in front of their fan base right now. The indifference that this team is showing their followers is indeed epic. No jump whatsoever. No pride in receiving an NHL paycheck every two weeks. Not even caring enough to play for each other, even when the head coach, the embattled Todd Richards, is screaming at you during a time-out on the Wild bench.

Even when the puck lay 8 feet from the St. Louis goal, and three Wild players surrounded the puck, NO ONE went for the puck. That is what the Wild have become; the de facto laughingstock of the NHL. Indeed, the Wild are so up against the salary cap, that they will have to jettison some of their current players to have any salary-cap room for next fall. But who will they be playing in front of next September when pre-season begins?

The season-ticket fanbase, the cornerstone of any pro sports franchise, is tired of the blowouts, shut outs, and projects (like James Sheppard) who never seem to pan out. They are fed up with the losing, the lack of progress, and the flat-out giving up. The Wild need an infusion of talent -- real, honest-to-God talent, not more 'character guys' who are 'good in the room'. They need to shed themselves of the 5 unrestricted free agents, and a good amount of the other 'dead weight' this team currently houses on their roster, and get some real talent in here. Talent that can finish. Talent that can score. Talent that can step in and play at the NHL level. Not more third-and-fourth line 'grinders' who are bargain-basement 'projects', who may (or, may not) wind up becoming 'lifers' in the AHL, occasionally coming up for a 'cuppa coffee' in the big leagues.

If the Wild fail to blow it up, and do relatively little between the end of the season (April 10th, sadly) and next September's start of the pre-season, the fans will stay away from the Xcel Energy Center in droves. The Wild sales and marketiung staff will have their hands more than full, trying to get discretionary entertainment dollars out of an already skeptical fan base. And no amount of 'free food' offers, arena give-aways or 'special nights' will help change their minds.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Minnesota Wild: Poultry Farm

Laying more eggs than a poultry operation, Wild back out of playoff contention

It's true, blogosphere. You really won't have the Minnesota Wild to kick around this spring in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They'll all be out on golf courses across North America, enjoying the sun, thinking 'what might have been', had they just gone out in March and played like they actually wanted to be participating in the NHL's post-season. Because, with 10 games left in the season of 2010-2011, this team has spit the bit more than a $10 claimer at the horse track.

Since we last got together, the Wild have been outscored 12-8 in losing three straight (two in regulation) to Vancouver, San Jose and the previously-thought-hapless Columbus Blue Jackets. After yesterday's embarrassing 5-4 OT loss at home, however, the Wild are no better than some of the NHL's worst, as their 2-6-2 record in their last 10 games would imply. In fact, that embarrassing record is the second-worst in the League, only ahead of the already-imploded Colorado Avalanche, who wrote the season off weeks ago. Even the Edmonton Oilers, the team who everyone saw as two easy points thru most of the season, are better than the Wild as the season wanes.

Yes, the Wild need scoring. Desperately. Their lack of offensive punch is something the team's management and staff will have to address throughout the off-season. As cash-strapped against the cap as the Wild are, however, some familiar names on the current Wild roster will have to pack up and move on come the summertime.

A lot of people are targeting the Wild's top two defensemen, Brent Burns and Nick Schultz, as candidates for relocation in the summer of 2011. But, as valuable an asset that these two are together, might it be better for the success of the club, long-term, to break them up and get some offense in to take the pressure off them this summer?

The obvious answer is to not sign any of your unrestricted free agents this summer, namely forwards Antti Miettinen, Chuck Kobasew, and Andrew Brunette, goaltender Josh Harding, and the ultimate first-round-bust, James Sheppard. These five players must be shown the door (you could bring Brunette back if the price is right, tho) in no uncertain terms. Cam Barker must find a new home.

The roster must be overhauled. NOW. This off-season. The current make-up of the Wild roster is unworkable, as this team has lost its' way so bad, they'll never see the forest for the trees. Their 1-7-2 record so far this season against the bottom eight teams in the Eastern Conference, is proof positive that the Wild are just like every other Minnesota sports team; that is, they play up -- or, down -- to the level of their opposition (except, of course, when they face Detroit or Dallas, where they almost always lose).

So, while the rest of the NHL goes onto the post-season, the Wild get ready for the next thing on the team's agenda: tee times.

Because, for this bunch of turkeys, the season is indeed over.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Wild playoff chances in meltdown mode?

Behind Japanese disaster, Minnesota Wild perfecting world's second-biggest current meltdown

Well, since we last spent time together, Japan has been hit with a disaster of near-Biblical proportions, a civil war has broken out in Libya, the Detroit Red Wings have become merely a mortal hockey team, and the Minnesota Wild have learned how much they depend on two injured players: Mikko Koivu and Cal Clutterbuck.

As predicted by many people last week, the death watch for the Wild's playoff chances has begun in earnest. Following a week where the Wild threw away a home win against the Buffalo Sabres, followed by an unbelieveably hard win against the otherwise hapless Colorado Avalanche, the Wild then went out to where they do their best work -- away from home -- and promptly played two of the worst games of the entire 2010-2011 season in successive nights, giving away free points to both Nashville and Dallas with back-to-back 4-0 shutout losses, and starting the death watch in earnest.

Koivu was held out of the Friday game in Dallas, due to the broken finger suffered while blocking a Todd Marchant shot Feb. 18 vs. Anaheim, while Clutterbuck is slowly coming back from the injury that CBC's Don Cherry, he of 'Hockey Night in Canada', said never happened, due to the head shot hit suffered March 2 by the Islanders' Clark Gillies -- which also made him not available so far on the second-longest road trip of the season.

The Wild are in deep, deep trouble. The biggest difference between the Wild meltdown and the Japanese nuclear power meltdown is that unlike Japan, no one will die from the Wild missing the playoffs. (We sincerely hope.)

The other big difference: No help is forthcoming for the Wild, unlike the international effort to save lives in Japan. Other teams WANT the Wild to fail. They LOVE to see the Wild, as their 1-3-0 record on the road in March (along with the pathetic 1-0-1 home record in March) would attest, most other NHL teams see the Wild as 'Free Lunch' right now.

Too bad the Wild can't say the same thing about other teams. Their pathetic 1-5-2 record against the bottom eight teams in the Eastern Conference (win at New Jersey; OT/SO losses against Carolina and Buffalo; regulation losses against Carolina, Atlanta, Florida, the Islanders, and Ottawa; remember, in Helsinki, the Wild and Carolina played twice) with one game to play (vs. Toronto, at the 'X' March 22nd). By contrast, the Wild are 5-2 against the top seven teams in the east, with two games (vs. Montreal next Sunday, and vs. Tampa Bay April 2, both at home) to play. Those are free points that this team GAVE AWAY throughout the season.

So, if the Wild do miss the playoffs by less than seven points this season, don't turn your eyes to the West. Because that's not where the problem was. The problem is to the East. Again, not as far East as Japan. But, for Wild hockey fans, just as troublesome.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

No more room for error

OK, Minnesota Wild. You wanted to fight your way into the playoffs. You wanted the pressure to be on you. Well, be careful what you wish for. Because, sometimes it just might come true.

Like, now.

Entering this evening's 5:00 PM (Central Time) game vs. the Buffalo Sabres, the Wild need 22 points in their last 17 games in order to reach 96 points -- the generally agreed-to 'magic number' in order to qualify for the NHL's post-season.

With those 17 games remaining, are some that the Wild should -- should -- win, and some which, by all accounts, they will have next to no chance at. They will be competitive in almost all of them...

...but, hey, wait a minute: we said that about the game last Wednesday night against the hapless NY Islanders, didn't we? And look how that disaster turned out! In fact, the whole trip to New York turned out backwards for the boys in Iron Range Red, as they got destroyed by the Isles, then went into Madison Square Garden and took care of the NY Rangers, winning 3-1 to salvage two points out of the road trip -- a trip which, in hindsight, they should have swept.

The Wild must now face up to some of their worst road demons, starting Thursday on their longest road trip since the All-Star break, a four-game marathon with games in Nashville (an arena where they rarely win), Dallas (an arena where they almost NEVER win), Vancouver (the Wild do well there, occasionally) and San Jose (where they win sometimes). Not exactly the greatest road trip the Wild could go out on in the middle of the stretch drive.

But the biggest demon the Wild face, is the one that they face in front of their own fans. This team just can't stand winning at home, as their 2-2-1 home record in their last five games at Xcel Energy Center can attest to. You can say what you want, as this team is a good team on the road -- they have won this season at MSG, Vancouver, Anaheim, and in Detroit -- but their road success does not carry over in front of the home folks. And that, dear reader, is the crux of the problem.

With nine home games, the Wild basically need to sweep the season at home. Whomever the Wild have remaining on their schedule -- Buffalo, Colorado, Columbus, Montreal, Toronto, St. Louis, Edmonton, or the Dallas Stars (in the last game on the NHL schedule) -- the Wild must find a way to win all their remaining home games. And, they must win them, IN REGULATION TIME. The Wild cannot afford the 'luxury' of the overtime (or, God help us, the shootout) win. As a matter of fact, shootout wins may just be the saving grace for the Wild, as they will be tossed out in determining who will qualify for the playoffs, and their seeding once they qualify, should two (or more) teams qualify with the same number of points. Among Western Conference teams, the Wild are tied (with Edmonton) for the fewest number of shootout wins (2). By contrast, two teams the Wild are trying to catch, Calgary and Los Angeles, have 7 shootout wins each. If they are tied at the end of the season, the shootout wins are then thrown out, hence the need for the Wild to win in the regulation 60 minutes.

Sounds like another team which squeaked into the playoffs, didn't play a game at home in the post-season, and then went all the way:

The Green Bay Packers.