Sunday, February 10, 2013

What to think?

Minnesota Wild delve back into division play as team continues to struggle

Make no mistake about it. Saturday night's 2-1 OT win over Nashville, was the hockey equivalent of hitting the relief valve on a pressure cooker.

With the Wild finally winning in February (1-3 since Feb. 1, folks) the Wild now take to the Northwest Division, for their longest stretch of the season (6 of their next 8) against the likes of Vancouver (who handled the Wild easily on Thursday night), uber-speedy Edmonton with all that young talent, an improving Colorado team, and Calgary, whom the Wild will be classified with -- IF they don't get this funk turned around, and start putting biscuits in baskets.

Despite the goal by Devin Setoguchi last game, the fact is that the Wild need scoring for the nights when the likes of Parise, Koivu and Heatley just cannot get the job done. It was nice that Clutterbuck got his 2nd goal of the season, but that's also part of the problem; he only HAS 2 goals this season. Granlund is now finding out that playing in the NHL is markedly different than the SM-Liiga, the league that made him the heartthrob of Helsinki.

The fact that Kyle Brodziak has been so missing in action, that they may want to start putting up posters around the 'X' ("Have you Seen Me?"), hasn't helped his linemates. The fourth line, not expected to score bountiful goals, is almost as good as the second line.

The next seven games -- with three games vs. Calgary, and single games vs. Edmonton, Vancouver, Colorado, and the Detroit Red Wings -- will be a make-or-break point for this roster, as everyone knows that the Wild are about 4 or 5 consecutive losses from being on life support. No team can afford three-game losing streaks, and the Wild just went thru their second one already. One 3-game skid in this short season sets teams into panic mode. Two? Welcome aboard, Wild.

Almost unbelievably, the Wild are still only two points out of a playoff spot, despite the seeming inability to win games, especially away from home, where the Wild are an embarrassing 0-3-1 so far in this season. Now, would this be a 41-game full road schedule, 0-3-1 would be a spot for concern, but not the outright panic which the team management has conceded. But, with a condensed, 24-game road schedule, with 6 of their next 9 (and 8 of the next 12) away from St. Paul, the fact is that this Wild team needs to get better in hostile environments. Especially in the Saddledome (it has improved over the last two seasons), and Rexall Place (it's gotten worse, since all those speedy kids showed up on the Oilers roster).

So, we send the Wild off on their first western Canada trip of the season, buoyed with some hope that the season can hold up until the Wild get back home. And the second western Canada trip. And the second West Coast trip. And...and...and...

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Back to earth...sort of...

February rough start vs. Anaheim believed no reason to panic; Coyle gets his shot at Wild roster

It hasn't been the best of times for the Minnesota Wild lately.

After the Anaheim Ducks did what they normally do to the Wild at Honda Center -- namely, beat them into submission, then turn those mistakes caused by the opposition into goals -- the Wild arrived into Phoenix early Saturday looking at a few days in the Arizona desert, with only practice staring them in the face.

And, according to most observers, including the coaching staff, practice is what they really NEED right now. As the 4-3-1 Wild prepare to face the 3-4-2 Phoenix Coyotes -- soon to be the NHL's version of Nomads, if what is being said around the game is to be believed -- on Monday night at Arena in near-bankrupt Glendale, they have help coming to replace the injured Matt Cullen, who crashed (with help) into the boards on Friday night.

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the real reason they traded Brent Burns in 2011. Charlie Coyle, welcome to Minnesota. Coyle, who lit up the QMJHL in the half-season he was there after he left Boston College, was called up by the Wild on Saturday afternoon following their off-day practice, to replace the injured Cullen in the line-up for Monday night's tilt. Coyle, who has 14 goals, 10 assists for AHL Houston this season, is called a 'power forward' by the Wild, and his 6-foot-2, 222-lb frame has been called the prototypical size for that position.

Coyle was included with Devin Setoguchi in the NHL Draft night trade in 2011, when the draft was at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Traded for defenseman Burns, who has been in-and-out of the Sharks' lineup since then, Coyle is in his first full season as a pro, and has played 44 games for the Aeros this season.

Power forward, you say?

The position of power forward -- the guy who is not afraid to mix it up in front of the net, to create as much havoc as possible, in order to get nice juicy rebounds and deflections -- is somewhat a novel concept for the Wild. But, it hasn't been like it hasn't been tried before.

Andrew Brunette, slow as he was, is probably the best example of a power forward the Wild has ever had on their roster. Guillaume Latendresse was supposed to be that next version of that, but his concussion problems last season, and his contract status did not allow that to succeed. Zach Parise has some of that in him, but the fact is, he's better than that (we've already seen it). Others that you could put in that category are LA's Dustin Brown, Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, St. Louis' David Backes, Boston's Milan Lucic, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, and when healthy, Ryan Kesler of Vancouver.

The combination is one that is tough to get, and one that is even tougher to keep up, as the number of players that who have tried to play the position and have failed are many. Teams that have a good power forward are normally teams that go relatively far in the playoffs. And that is where the Wild want to be on the evening of April 27th. Going relatively far. In the playoffs.

Next 5 games: Key Stretch?

Are the next 5 games a key stretch of the season? With three of those five games on the road -- where the Wild only have one point after three games so far -- the next nine days will tell much about the Wild's real chances to not only make the playoffs, but to gain home ice advantage in the first round.

Two games vs. Vancouver (home and away), and games at Phoenix, at Calgary, and the second (of two) games vs. Nashville at the 'X' round out the next five games on the schedule. Do the Wild have a chance to put some points in their column before the season gets too out of hand? Or will the combination of their brutal travel schedule and the shortened season get the better of the roster?

Will Chuck Fletcher have to pull the trigger on a trade, in order to infuse more offense into what has been an underperforming bottom 2/3rds of the roster? Can the roster even respond without a trade being made? And what would be the best trade to make? Do you look towards the future and effectively 'salary dump' UFA's to be before the April 4 trade deadline? Or is 'the future is now' the prevailing view at 317 Washington St., St. Paul, MN? Do you keep the two primary future UFA's (Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard) or do you move them? Does UFA-to-be goalie Niklas Backstrom remain to see the playoffs, should the Wild make it into the post-season? Or do you 'let it ride', like a shaky poker bet, past the trade deadline?

Like the rest of us fans, I just wait and see what will develop. And worry, like some of you do.