Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rarified Air: Wild now 1st in entire NHL as quarter-post nears

In first place and loving it, workman-like Wild keep proving naysayers, NHL scribes wrong

Look at your favorite source for NHL standings, be it,,, wherever. The Vancouver Canucks are not atop the Northwest Division this Sunday morning. The Chicago Blackhawks are not leading the Western Conference this morning. The Philadephia Flyers are not atop the NHL league standings this morning.

In fact, there is another team, a team very few chose to even make the playoffs, a team which has gone through three years of upheaval and roster overhaul, in first place in all three categories this Sunday morning.

That team? The Minnesota Wild.

It took time. It took a lot of effort. It took talent, patience and a will to win, no matter what the circumstances. But, the boys in Iron Range Red have once again proved the naysayers and the NHL's media elite (read: anyone based in Toronto, the 'Center of the Hockey Universe') wrong. The Wild have indeed gone 'all in' on Head Coach Mike Yeo's system of play, and they are being rewarded for it. And how.

Yeo's continued emphasis on 'effort' and 'battle zone' has bolstered the talent of this group of mostly kids, kids who came into the season fron the Houston Aeros, where Yeo shaped and molded this team, then drove them to the Calder Cup finals despite being a No. 3 seed in the West going into the post-season.

The Wild's 'kiddie corps' defense -- 4 of their top 6 who played vs. St. Louis Saturday night were under age 25 -- was soundly getting ripped by most media outlets prior to the season's start. The goaltending, considered good, but not great, has been nothing less than spectacular in November, leading the Wild to an 8-2 record since November 1st. The second and third offensive lines have been carrying this team, as the first line has struggled to find itself, most notably captain Mikko Koivu, who got off the schneid Saturday night, with two goals in regulation, and one of the two goals in the shootout to win the game.

Yes, it's a lot easier to cheer when they win like they have. This is a return to the close, low-scoring Wild of years gone by. The Wild still haven't had the offensive explosion that some fans really think this team needs; by contrast, the lack of goals against keeps the Wild in games until the offense gets an opportunity to catch up. Unlike in the Jacques Lemaire era, however, when you lose a player to an injury or a bad night, there is depth in the system to replace the injured/ineffective player, depth that this franchise has never been able to avail itself of.

And, with the future of the franchise looming for the likes of Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Brett Bulmer, all blue-chip prospects who will be with this team at the NHL level within 2-3 years, the future of the Wild has never looked this bright.

So, a little friendly advice from your Road Tripper. Save some vacation days. Got any PTO you can use? Save it. You'll need it for a playoff run. Real soon.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Can we REALLY talk re-alignment?

Eastern NHL teams hem, haw, stammer against making re-alignment really happen 

Reportedly, 12 of the 15 NHL Eastern Conference teams do not want any form of re-alignment to occur after this season. They want to protect their little 'cliques' of local teams, where divisional games are no more than a one-hour plane ride away. The fact that by simple geography and franchise stability, that the NHL is a Northeast-based league. Always has been. Always will be. (Despite Commissioner Gary Bettman's 'Southern Strategy'.)

I can imagine the teams that don't want it, so let's project the three, in my own opinion, who might actually consider it. They're all in the same division:

1. Tampa Bay. The Lightning have no reason not to let the Western teams re-align, especially when they bring fans (and money) into the St. Pete Times Forum. To have an annual visit guaranteed by cold weather Western teams like Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis, Detroit (if they don't move to the East), Columbus, and the three western Canadian clubs (Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver) is like free money rolling in. You're not taking away from the existing 'Cash Cows' (the 3 NYC-area teams, Boston, Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia), you're enhancing them.

2. Florida. Same as Tampa. In fact, the Panthers now charge premium rates for games against the Cash Cows; why not extend that to Detroit (if they stay in the west), Chicago, Minnesota, Winnipeg and the three Western Canadian teams? You could, if you could be guaranteed an annual visit.

3. Carolina. Same rules apply, but for a different reason; there are so many transplants into the Triangle from western states (California, Minnesota, Illinois) that the 'Canes are looking squarely into their own pocketbooks. And, they're liking what they are seeing on the horizon.

Will it cost the NHL more money in the long run? Yes. After all, the Eastern teams' (soon to be) annual California golf outings have to be paid for by someone. Not to mention the off nights in Vancouver (when the city isn't in riot mode), and the extra cold weather gear Western teams will need for trips to Winnipeg. Yes, it will cost more overall. But at some point, don't you just have to say 'STOP! We need to do this for the good of the game, so let's do this now.' 

But - and this is a major BUT - none of this can or will happen, until the continuing situation with the Phoenix Coyotes has been resolved. The NHL's other franchises cannot go on forever propping up a franchise, in a metro area in which the interest is clearly NOT THERE. The League and the City of Glendale have secured enough funding to operate the franchise this season. But there will be no local funding beyond this spring, and without that, there is no reason for the 'Yotes to remain in the Valley of the Sun.

So, what do we assume? Can we assume anything at all when it comes to re-alignment?

Re-alignment needs to placate at least 20 different team agendas (of the 29 NHL teams who count, discounting League-operated and subsidized Phoenix). The most pressing needs seem to be in the Midwest, where teams are spread in three different divisions, two of which have teams (Dallas and Minnesota) where divisional games are played in three different time zones. So then, what to do?

One thing we CAN assume in any re-alignment scenario is that the playoff format will stay the same, that the top 8 teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. So for those teams that don't want to change, let's leave them alone, AS IS, in a 3-division, five-teams-each Eastern Conference. In fact, the only change in the East should be the removal of Winnipeg, replacing them with long-suffering Detroit, which would then become the newest Cash Cow. And then, if Phoenix does move to Quebec City, all the better!

In the West, where the geography does not allow for five-team 'cliques' simply due to distance, there should be two divisions; one primarily of the seven Western-most remaining franchises (Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, San Jose, Vancouver); the other the remaining seven teams (Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg). The playoffs would be the top eight qualifying, just like they are now. 

So, if the Eastern teams want their way, they can HAVE it. If the Western teams want their way, they can HAVE it, too. A 'hybrid' NHL, such as this would become, really is the way to go in order to keep everyone happy, and the $$ flowing in, even in this bad economy. Not everyone will be happy for this. I'm sure that there will be limitations to even this system. But the current system is flawed, and someone needs to fix it. And, soon.

The latest CBA, with its' hard salary cap, allowed 'cost certainty' to the point that small-market teams like Winnipeg, Buffalo, Carolina and Minnesota (yes, Wild fans, we're considered a small market) can compete with the New Yorks, Torontos and the Vancouvers of the world. Keeping cost certainty at the forefront, by re-aligning the conferences to better represent geographical reality is the way the NHL should head.

The Wild will not play a game away from home in the Central Time Zone until Dec. 13 at Winnipeg. How are you supposed to draw TV viewers with that kind of schedule? 14 of the first 20 road games are at least partially played after 10:00 PM Central Time. Not good for advertisers; not good for fans; and certainly not good for the game itself.

But they don't care about that in Midtown Manhattan or on Bloor Street in Toronto, do they?