Thursday, June 21, 2012

New schedule, new problems

Release of 2012-13 schedule belies labor strife, NHL indifference to Wild

By Wild Road Tripper

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- They still just don't get it.

With their season possibly headed for shortening due to labor strife, the NHL released their 2012-2013 schedule Thursday morning, to a round of 'Huh?' from fans of the Minnesota Wild.

The League did the Wild absolutely NO favors, as not only did they fail to appreciate the instant interest that two games vs. the Winnipeg Jets had last season, they stuck the Wild with two games vs. the lowly New York Islanders, for the second straight season. (They might have actually felt sorry for Charles Wang's forlorn hockey club, as the Isles beat the Wild twice last season.)

Yes, they scheduled two games (home and home) also with the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Pittsburgh Penguins (the game at the 'X' in St. Paul, January 19, probably to be proclaimed 'Hockey Day Minnesota') but to leave the Jets off the schedule in St. Paul, does take a bit of explaining from the head office in Manhattan.

Other than that, the annual visit of the Disney on Ice troupe in early December will once again leave the Wild traversing the Southwest, just as winter begins its' grip on the Upper Midwest. But, even worse than that is the 12-day, 6-city marathon beginning in Tampa Bay on Nov. 3 (leaving Minnesota the previous day) and ending in Philadelphia on Nov. 12. They play in Tampa, Boston, the Rangers, Detroit, Newark (vs. the NJ Devils), and Philly before heading for home.

As for the 'traditional' games, other than the HDM game noted above, the other dates to note are:

Home Opener -- Oct. 13 (Colorado)
'Black Friday' -- Nov. 23 (Toronto)
New Years' Eve -- Dec. 31 (Edmonton)
'Hockey Day America' -- Feb. 17 (Detroit)
Last Home Game -- Apr. 13 (Columbus)

33 of the 41 home games are 7:00 PM starts. Of the other eight games, four are 5:00 PM starts, two games at 8:00 PM, and one each at 6:30 PM (Detroit, Feb. 17) and one lone afternoon game (Saturday, March 23, vs. San Jose).

Other points of note: One game of the 12 against the two Alberta teams (Calgary and Edmonton) is played prior to the New Year, as are two of the 6 games against Vancouver. By contrast, the six games vs. Colorado are fairly spread out throughout the schedule. The Wild have only one inter-conference game after Feb. 6, so if they are going to actually make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013, they will have to do it on their own, by beating the other teams in their own conference again, and again.

And, unlike last season, when the Wild played most of their last two weeks at home, this season the Wild play five of their last seven on the road, in a final 5-game, 9-day gasser, with games in all four time zones. And, the final game of that stretch is their second game at Detroit, who never treat the Wild well, no matter how well the Red Wings are doing otherwise.

But, the reality is that until the NHL and the Players' Association can come to agreement on how to slice up that revenue souffle' that's being served up, there may not even BE a season to complain about a schedule over. The fact of the matter remains, that if Don Fehr and Gary Bettman can't get along, we'll all be sitting home, wondering what would have really happened in those two games against the lowly Islanders.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Calm before the Storm

Final weekend before draft, summer tour, free agency day allows Wild, fans to think of 'what if?'

Well, folks, we're almost there.

Next week at this time, there will be new players for the Minnesota Wild, courtesy of the NHL Draft being held this coming Friday and Saturday in Pittsburgh. There will be limo buses being gassed up and inspected, for the Wild Summer Tour starting the following Monday. And, as we have all had drilled into us for months, the start of Free Agency on Sunday, July 1st.

Now, I'll digress at this point, as we all know which free agents that the Wild covet, and which ones they don't. We all know that the Wild have carloads of cash and cap space to spend; but so do others, others who are closer to the Stanley Cup Finals than the rebuilding Wild are.

There are also issues with the current roster, as well, as there is the Guillaume Latendresse question to answer: Will he return to the Wild roster, after basically two seasons of suffering concussions? Will Latendresse sign a lesser contract, one that will be incentive-laden, to remain on the roster? Or will GM Chuck Fletcher say that enough is, indeed, enough, and that the coming influx of new talent will be enough, to allow a potential 30-plus goal scorer in Latendresse to get away? Even Gui knows he won't be getting the $2.5M qualifying offer that, as a restricted free agent, he would be eligible for. But the fact that this Wild team was 30th in the NHL last season in scoring, is a statistic that screams out at everyone involved -- management, players, and fans alike.

There is the also continuing Pierre-Marc Bouchard issue as well. Three seasons when he has had his season cut short with head issues. Again, the question is: How long do you hang onto the talent, knowing that you've seen what he can do, but not knowing when -- or, if -- you can depend on him to play a regular spot?

There are issues surfacing at a spot -- defense -- which Wild fans are not used to dealing with, either, with the departure (via trade) of Nick Schultz and the arrival (in the same trade) of Tom Gilbert, Bloomington native and defensive liability, IMO. Whomever pairs with him had better be fast, as Gilbert's lack of speed and unfamiliarity with the ways of Mike Yeo, and the rest of the roster, were very apparent as the season's final weeks played out this past season.

As offensively challenged as Schultz was, his defensive work more than made up for his lack of point punch. The replacement? Who knows? That will be decided in training camp, as one of the six (or more) spots on the roster to be filled, by the load of newbies coming down the restocked pipeline.

And what of the new blood? We all know about Mikael Granlund, he will be on the roster on Opening Day; but what of the other youngsters? Who will make the cut? Who goes to Houston for Gulf Coast seafood and hockey seasoning? And who gets traded (if anyone) for 'NHL talent'?

Does 'trader Chuck' make an appearance in Pittsburgh during the draft? Or do the Wild, with extra picks from trades made during the past season, stand pat and continue to restock the larder following the end of the Risebrough era?

And then, there is the Free Agency scenarios, many of whom have hit the light of day in the last few weeks as the date approaches. Parise, Suter, Joe Corvo, the list goes on and on. I won't bore you with all the various details, but suffice it to say, that the end results will more help the Wild, than hurt it, again IMO. (And don't ask me who or how...)

Yes, the schedule also comes out this week as well. But, until there is agreement between owners and players on a new collective bargaining agreement, any schedule will not be worth the paper (or, bandwidth) that it's printed on. Labor peace must be obtained before the puck is dropped again. The Phoenix Coyotes situation must be dealt with (again), as any sale must have the de facto approval of the Goldwater Institute ("In defense of Liberty") before the sale is finalized. Then there is Quebec City, who is building a new arena (in the parking lot of the current Colisee Pepsi), hoping to land an NHL franchise. But which franchise will it be? Phoenix? Or, another franchise of the six NHL teams in financial trouble?

Only the NHL knows for sure, And, no one in Gary Bettman's office is talking.