Sunday, April 22, 2012

Away from the Action

With playoffs in full swing, Wild take opportunity to assess season, make changes

As April drags on, and the number of NHL concussions grows with every day of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Minnesota Wild, who weren't even close to the playoffs as the season ended, wound up the 2011-12 season and looked ahead to the three things on the team's 'to-do' list:

1. The NHL Draft, June 22-23, at CONSOL Energy Center, Pittsburgh. The draft used to be the Wild's version of a vast wasteland, as the Doug Risebrough regime would either trade away draft picks for middling, lower-level, past-their-prime veterans, or would choose so poorly, that the pick was almost immediately considered a bust.

No more. The current, Chuck Fletcher-led Wild regime has a track record of drafting talent fairly well, and that talent is just coming over the rise, to save the Wild from long-term mediocrity (e.g., 'Columbus Blue Jackets', 'Toronto Maple Leafs', 'New York Islanders', et. al.,) and return Minnesota NHL hockey to relevance.

2. Free Agency Day, July 1. Will Fletcher and his staff be able to lure the top-quality help to improve the Wild's roster? Will some of the big names, whose availability have been thrown about in local media the last three months, actually sign here? Or will the most talented players in the sport continue to not sign in Minnesota? Is the continuation of the 'Marian Gaborik syndrome' still in play, long after all of the principals in that one-act saga have moved on (most of whom to the same team, the NY Rangers?) What will the future of the Wild say to the prospective free agent(s) that Fletcher & Co. pursue? What will the cap room that Fletcher has to work with allow him to sign? Which leads me to Item No. 3...

3. Collective Bargaining Agreement Expiration Day, Sept. 15. Will the owners agree to a 50/50 revenue split for the players? Or will the owners insist on a 57/43 owner/player spilt? What will be the future of re-alignment? Free agency? Rookie contracts? Free Agency tiers? Will the NHLPA leadership, led by ex-MLBPA chief Donald Fehr, who was partially responsible for turning Mendoza-line (.200, for those of you who didn't know) pop-fly banjo hitters, into multi-millionaires, go 'hard-line' on the negotiations? Or will cooler heads prevail, as 4-5 teams lose over $10 million annually? How long does the NHLPA allow the league to prop up the Phoenix Coyotes franchise, now that the City of Glendale will be out of the picture after this season's playoffs?

There may not even BE a 2012-13 season, if some of these issues are not ironed out by mid-September. At which point, the season for the Wild, as exciting as might be when it is played, would just becomes one giant moot point.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

At long last...'The Six-Pack of Suck', Volume IV

The fourth season of the worst of the Wild features too many 'targets of opportunity', tough to choose

By Wild Road Tripper

For the fourth season, I am only somewhat proud to present 'The Six-Pack of Suck', six games which defined the Minnesota Wild's 2011-2012 season. There were a LOT of choices to choose from this season, with the 5-23-7 stretch between Dec. 13 and March 27, there were too many games for my selection. Way-y-y too many.

But, with that said, let's get to the worst of the worst. The six games which just flat out defined the haplessness of the Minnesota Wild this past season:

1. November 25, 2011. Edmonton 5, Minnesota 2. The traditional 'Black Friday' game really WAS a black friday for the Wild, as the young and speedy Oilers blew the doors off the older, slower Wild as the Oilers ended their 14-game loss skein at the 'X' by crushing the Wild, as the entire Wild first line (Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi) wound up a -3 for the afternoon. This must have been the game where the seed was planted for Wild GM Chuck Fletcher to trade Nick Schultz for Tom Gilbert, as the ex-Jefferson star defenseman was one of two Oilers to be a +3 for the afternoon.

2. December 31, 2011. Phoenix 4, Minnesota 2. New Year's Eve, 2011 should have been re-named 'Vrbata's Revenge', as Radim Vrbata scored two goals on consecutive shifts, as the Coyotes proved that they were going to be a playoff team, and the Wild weren't. Despite the penalty shot goal of Matt Cullen, the last 17 minutes of this contest was pretty much all 'Yotes, punctuated by the empty-net goal by the ancient dog, Ray Whitney, with 19 seconds left in the game. Nice way to send your fans out for New Years, boys.

3. January 31, 2012. Nashville 5, Minnesota 4. This game pretty much summed up the Wild season, all in less than one evening, as the Predators scored 4 goals in 10 minutes, 13 seconds, as the Wild watched as their dwindling playoff chances crash and burn, as the season from Hell descended into February, no thanks to the Wild themselves, who forgot in the last 11 minutes of the game what offense even was. The third period of this game was like watching a constant Nashville power play, as the Wild just stopped even trying to shoot against Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, and the resulting comeback, topped off by two Mike Fisher goals 2:39 apart in the last three minutes of the game, was the most disgusting period of hockey Wild fans had seen in years. Even Josh Harding, the tough-luck losing goalie said, "No way in 100 years we should have lost that game." We agree.

4. February 11, 2012. Columbus 3, Minnesota 1. The theme of this game would become 'play 20 minutes every period, boys.' The Wild didn't, and once again they paid for it, as the lowly Blue Jackets saw that the Wild penchant for taking the last minute of the period off, presented scoring opportunities that even they could take advantage of. With their roster (and their season) in freefall, the Jackets, the worst team in the NHL, with ex-Wild coach Todd Richards running the show, took two R. J. Umberger goals and made them count, as the hapless, offensively-challenged Wild could not get anything going, blowing a 1-0 lead at home with three straight Columbus goals, including yet another empty-net goal in the last minute of the game.

5. Detroit 6, Minnesota 0. Now, we know that traditionally, Joe Louis Arena in Detroit is a house of horrors (6-15-1 all time) for the Wild. Despite winning the first game played in Motown in November, the Wild could have just stopped at Metro Airport, said 'we forfeit', and kept on going. That's how bad this game was. Valteri Flippula made the Wild his personal punching bag, scoring twice and adding an assist as the Wings annhilated the hapless Wild, one night after the Wild put on one of their best periods of the season the previous night in Montreal. Ian White (Detroit defenseman) was a +4, while Dany Heatley was a -4. To make matters worse, the Red Wings drove Josh Harding from the net, as Matt Hackett relieved him for the last 14:30 of the game. Said Wild head coach Mike Yeo: 'We didn't respond well.' No kidding.

6. Colorado 7, Minnesota 1. The Wild, playing the Avs for the second time in three nights, were as flat as Pepsi in a week-old-opened bottle, as the home team scored three times in a 1:56 span, in the second period to drive Hackett from the nets, as the Wild might have hit rock bottom in Denver, in their second-to-last game west of St. Paul. The Avs had seven different scorers, as the lone bright spot for the Wild was a Devin Setoguchi penalty shot, awarded in the third period. The Wild had no way to stop the Avs, who were in their zenith as to their playoff chances that Tuesday evening; the Avs would then fall off the playoff radar soon afterwards.

So, that's it. Six games which defined the haplessness, the hopelessness which was the Wild's season. Will this team improve enough to make the playoffs by next April? We can only hope.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

It's back! The 'Six-Pack of Suck' returns

Nominations are now being accepted from M&G readers: what were the worst games of the Wild season?

It's that time of year again. Like the tax deadline, and the annual migration north of our fine feathered friends, it's time to look back on yet another failed Minnesota Wild season. So, we unapologetically announce the fourth annual 'Six-Pack of Suck', where we nominate six games from throughout the season, now done like dinner, for special 'recognition'.

It's time to look back and ask: what were the worst of the worst in 2011-2012? Our list is set, but I want to know what YOUR worst Wild game (or, games) was in 2011-2012. Let's see if we agree, or if we agree to disagree.

Use the comments section for your nominations! Deadline is a short one (because there are too many targets of opportunity this season); have your comments on here by Noon on Monday, April 9 (told you it was short!)

Let's hear from you, Wild fans. Let it all out...

Friday, April 6, 2012

Last Lap in this race might just be Coyotes' last howl in Arizona

Final game in disheartening Wild season may double as last gasp for NHL in Arizona
By Wild Road Tripper

Well, the three-season-plus saga of the ownership problems of the Phoenix Coyotes may just finally end -- at least in the regular-season sense -- Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center, as the beat-up and bloodied Minnesota Wild, still having to make multiple roster moves in order to field a competitive team, plays their last game of the 2011-2012 season.

For the Wild, the end of this 'tale of two seasons' season cannot come soon enough. The dividing point, the Dec. 13 game at Winnipeg's MTS Centre, stands out like the Grand Canyon does, dividing a 19-game stretch of unparalled success and a 41-game stretch of absolutely miserable failure, injury, and despair. The fact that the end of the season is coming at the end of a six-game stretch, the first five games where the Wild have 'amassed' a somewhat respectable (for a team out of the playoffs, that is) 4-0-1 record provides a ray of hope, while the rest of March was a series of drubbings, the likes of which Wild fans had not seen since...last March, when the Wild were throttled by Montreal, Toronto and St. Louis in four nights, after losing in overtime to the lowly (then, as now) Columbus Blue Jackets.

The fact that the Wild's roster has had to have basically been reconstructed, more than Todd Fedoruk's face following the Boogaard fight, says a lot about this organization's resiliency. The fact that the Houston Aeros are still doing anything at all in the AHL's Western Conference shows that the 'build from within' policy, adopted when Wild GM Chuck Fletcher tried to make chicken salad from the leavings of the Doug Risebrough administration, despite the club record number of callups to the 'big club' this season (47 players will have worn Iron Range Red by the end of Saturday night's game), shows promise for the near future.

And then, there's the draft picks, many of whom (maybe as many as six) will make the 'big club' roster by the time the puck drops for real again in October (assuming, of course, the NHL and its' players don't make the same mistake the NBA and its' players did this past fall, and stage a labor dispute, with millionaires and billionaires bickering about salaries, while the fans watch NFL and CFL football, and don't even care about missing hockey).

Sign a free agent (especially, say, one who is building a new home less than an hour's drive west of the 'X') or two (a certain offensive defenseman, currently playing South of the Mason-Dixon Line, would be nice, too) and you might be ready to rise from the ashes... a Phoenix. But this will happen in Minnesota, and not in Phoenix, where the Coyotes are standing on the precipice between staying and moving, with one foot on the proverbial banana peel, and the other on a base of very loose rock. Since the City of Glendale will not be allowed to further subsidize the operation of the Coyotes franchise, no thanks to the butt-inski attitude of the Goldwater Institute ("In defense of liberty"), whose current chair is none other than the wife of the majority owner of MLB's Arizona Diamondbacks, another Arizona sports team which hasn't exactly fared well in the last few seasons.

For all the complaining about the NHL Players Association that we as fans of hockey do, in my opinion, this time the NHLPA does have a valid point: the Coyotes are losing copious amounts of cash, upwards of $45-50 Million annually, with the NHL (read: every other team) and the City splitting the losses. The NHLPA is saying 'hey, wait a minute: if this team is losing that much money, where's our cut of the profits?'

They have a valid point. Any other team that loses $50 million dollars annually for more than three seasons in any other sport would either be moved or disbanded. But the NHL hierarchy refuses to give in (so far) to the calls to do something with the Coyotes franchise, as no one has an additional $140 million laying around right now with nothing else to do in this recession-ravaged economy, especially in ultra-conservative Arizona, where every little issue seems to set off major consternation.

Yes, the Coyotes have made the playoffs, something this franchise didn't do often when they were the original Winnipeg Jets. More than likely, the Coyotes will face off against either Chicago or Detroit (should they win Saturday versus the Wild), Vancouver (should they lose in regulation Saturday night), or St. Louis (should they lose in overtime or shootout, and San Jose wins at home vs. LA Saturday night). Yes, there will be a few more 'white-outs' in Arena next week. But the prospects for the Coyotes playing beyond the first round are very slim at best. And their prospects for playing beyond this year's playoffs in Arizona?

Even worse.