Monday, July 18, 2011

Development Camp: Talent in the Pipeline

Looks like the corner has been turned as far as the lack of talent in the Minnesota Wild pipeline, if Sunday's scrimmage to end the Wild's development camp is any indication.

With over 3,200 in the stands at the Xcel Energy Center, the 40-odd invitees put on a show, as the Wild brass watched and saw first hand the results of the scouting staff and the team's recent 'build with youth' philosophy. Some, such as future star Mikael Granlund and Johan Larsson, showed why they were taken as No. 1 picks the last two seasons. Charlie Coyle, who was the add-on in the Brent Burns-Devin Setoguchi trade, also showed why he is the darling of 'Hockey's Future' and other such sites on the Internet.

While the six-day session for the potental NHL'ers of tomorrow was a lot of drill skating and indctrination, there was also fun, with a paintball session, and an obstacle course with JB Spisso, former US Military officer, and his Elite Leadership Training team doing the honors, as they did last season for the big club.

A lot of these young men will never make an NHL roster; but, in the middle of the summer, on the most uncomfortable day ever in St. Paul, they all looked like they had a future on an NHL roster. Someday. The crowds, prodded by free t-shirts for the first 1,000 each day, were the largest ever for the camp scrimmage sessions, which were free and open to all comers who wished to get out of the mid-summer heat.

Granlund showed both days why he is considered the real deal, as he put on a show both Saturday and Sunday, with highlight-reel goals in the end-of-scrimmage shootout. Sunday he also threaded the needle setting up Josh Phillips for a goal in the second half of the day's scrimmage. Larsson, Granlund's linemate (maybe also his linemate with the big club in 2013?) rounded out the most star-studded line this camp has seen in at least five seasons.

In a time when the level of optimism following the recent trades for Setoguchi and Dany Heatley is high, the prowess shown by this crop of Wild rookies and recent additions just pushes that optimism that much more forward. The fact that the rookies are actually of a talent level rarely seen with this organization just elevates that optimism that much more.

Maybe, just maybe, GM Chuck Fletcher has restocked the larder. Now, how much of that talent will rise to the NHL level, that remains to be seen. But, at least for now, optimism reigns supreme in St. Paul. Only time will tell if the decisions made in the last three weeks turn out to be good decisions. But at least Fletcher is making decisions which should hopefully push the Wild back into the playoff mix. Signing late-blooming college-age free agents is something his predecessor would never think of. His predecessor traded draft picks for meaningless washed-up veterans, who were at the end of their careers. Draft picks which are the way teams keep talent coming in to their system. The Wild are starting to correct those mistakes of the past. Trading for end-of-career vets is the way of the past. The future belongs to the young.

And Wild fans can't wait for the future to begin in September.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Chuck Fletcher: Grenade Launcher

By Wild Road Tripper

When it comes to trading players in North American pro sports, a few names from the past come to mind. 'Trader Jack' McKeon of several MLB clubs, Al Davis of the NFL's Oakland Raiders, Ted Stepien (remember HIM, Cleveland fans??) of the NBA's Cavaliers, just to name a few.

Add Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher to that illustrious list after Sunday night's mammoth trade, which sent Martin Havlat to the San Jose Sharks for Dany Heatley, a player who already comes equipped with enough personal baggage, to fill an Amtrak baggage car.

Havlat, the penultimate 'pass-first' winger, has four years left on his six-season, $30M contract. Heatley has three seasons left on his deal at a cap hit of $7.5M/season. On paper, the trade seems even. On paper. Let's go behind the numbers and see what really precipitated this swap:

Havlat, quite frankly, became more of a liability for the Wild than an asset when his play necessitated less playing time. On several occasions last season, he was flat-out benched. That brought some somewhat cryptic social media action from his agent, Allan Walsh, stating that his client was not receiving enough playing time. A lot of that was directed at then-coach Todd Richards, but I can assure you that the Wild brass (including Fletcher) was receiving every tweet. And, the more they protested, the more the Wild was looking for a way out. Any way they could get out.

Sounds like the Sharks were looking for the same thing, but for different reasons. Accused of being a cancer in the locker room, the oft-maligned Heatley, another Walsh client who does have a bit of a party reputation, has been with three different organizations (Atlanta, Ottawa, San Jose) in his 10 seasons since leaving the Wisconsin Badgers, following the 2000-01 season. The B.C. native has played in at least 71 games each of the last six seasons, as some have called him 'brittle' and 'oft-injured'. And, San Jose was looking for some cap help as well; Havlat only comes with a $5M/season cap hit for the next four years.

So what does one make of all this?

Well, in my opinion this was trading one man's problems for another. In Minnesota, the Wild had to do something to get off the schneid, after missing the playoffs three seasons in a row. Both franchises needed to show their fans that they were committed to winning. The Wild are still building (or rebuilding, depending on your point of view) but the acquisition of Heatley, averaging a +17 since the end of the NHL players' strike/lockout in 2005, means that the offense, long a Wild sore spot, has taken a quantum leap forward. The Wild now have two legitimate scoring lines, when all of their new top 6 forwards (Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen, Guillaume Latendresse) are all healthy.

San Jose needed to shake up its' roster after three successive seasons failing to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. The Sharks, with Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Torrey Mitchell all facing free agency after the upcoming season, need every dollar of cap room they can possibly get as the current CBA runs out after this coming season. Some new blood to team up with returnees Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau is also in the Sharks' favor, as there will be very little room for error, especially after next season when, in divisional realignment, the Sharks and the Vancouver Canucks will more than likely be placed in the same divison. Every bit of experience you can get, when going up against the Sedin twins and the rest of that team is a good thing. As consistently one of the top 4 seeds in the NHL's Western Conference, Sharks fans are growing increasingly frustrated with the Sharks' playoff failures, something that the management is hearing all too well from the Bay Area media.

Conclusion/One Man's opinion: This was a great trade overall. Wild needed scoring punch; Heatley is one of the best finishers of this last decade. Indeed, you don't make him a checking line winger; but playing alongside Mikko Koivu, Heatley can be the 'cherry-picker' that the Wild used to have with Marian Gaborik. Wild can now afford to wait, if some of their up-and-coming 'kiddie korps' doesn't develop as fast as they'd like them to. Sharks need speed forward and someone hungry to be in playoffs. Havlat fills both of those roles. Putting Havlat with Marleau and Thornton would re-dimensionalize the Sharks' No. 1 line, and the Sharks may finally get over the hump, and make that Cup run that Bay Area hockey fans have been wishing about for most of the last 5 seasons.

BTW: Guess which team opens the home season for the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 11th? Yep. The Wild, now featuring Heatley, the man Sens' fans love to hate. Should be 'must-see TV' for Wild followers.