Monday, March 11, 2013

Don't look now, North America; Wild are in 1st

Yes, it's fleeting, but it's still the truth as shortened schedule passes half-way mark

Sorry, North America, but we really hate to break this news to all of you:

The Minnesota Wild are in third place in the NHL's Western Conference, and lead the Northwest Division this Monday morning. Now, granted, it might not be that way for long, but for now, the Wild have the most wins of any team in the division, and that tie-breaker (with Vancouver) means the Wild are No. 1. For now.

With a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games, the Wild have pretty much proven the naysayers wrong, despite the overwhelming feeling about the offseason signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter by the Wild. Yes, it's taken time, and a lot of Wild fan angst, but it looks like the Wild may -- MAY -- have just possibly found themselves in time to salvage the season and possibly break away from a lot of the 9-team middle-of-Conference pack that currently exists in the West. The Wild may also have a hand in the deciding of the Pacific Division as well; they have 10 games remaining against the Pacific, starting with Tuesday night's season-series finale with the current Pacific Division leaders, the Anaheim Ducks.

In fact, Anaheim will be only the second team in the conference the Wild will finish with (Nashville the other) before the Wild go on their next road trip, a 3-game trek to Colorado, Vancouver and Detroit, starting with the game Saturday afternoon in Denver. On the other hand, the Wild have yet to face either of the other two California teams, the San Jose Sharks and the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings. In fact, on the NHL Trade Deadline day (April 3) the Wild will conveinently be in San Jose, so if Wild GM Chuck Fletcher makes a move, any player that can be moved can be easily dispatched to whatever point on the NHL compass the trade winds take them.

But, between now and then, there's 11 games (6 home, 5 road) to be played, another nearly 1/4 of the season. So there's time for players to play themselves into, or out of, the day-to-day lineup. Or, should the so choose, all the way off the roster. But the fact is starting to stare at all 30 NHL teams, that the last chance to dump salary (of potential UFA's to be), or get anything of value for players whose welcome has worn thin (or totally out) is coming upon them like a bad storm across the prairie.

Especially this season, this shortened season, this last season before divisional re-alignment, the Trade Deadline day should, in my honest opinion, yield a few surprises along with a couple of shocker moves; the number of medium-level free agents-to-be almost demands that some blockbuster trades happen.

The Wild need to dump salary. They would like to do so and actually get something in return. The franchise is finally getting out of the Risebrough era, albeit slower than most Wild fans would like them to; this summer should finally close the books on the DR reign of the Wild. Now, some of that will be tough (how do you give up on Niklas Backstrom, for example, the way he has played for most of the season so far?) and some of it will be easy (Pierre-Marc Bouchard), and some others will be tough to swallow for some (if Matt Cullen is moved, as example) but the fact is that the Wild are positioned to get younger, bigger and even more talented than they are now. And most followers agree, that this is already the most talented Wild roster in their history.

So what to do? This team needs to make the playoffs -- THIS season -- in order to show Minnesota hockey fans progress towards the success that this market has for so long craved. Even if the end result this season is a one-series 'one-and-done', even that would be considered progress. Then, and only then, would this season be worth it for Wild fans.

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