Sunday, October 27, 2013

Has Heatley finally received the message? And, do we still believe it?

Did Dany Heatley finally get the message to shape up or get shipped out? Did Coach Mike Yeo finally get his message into Heatley's head?

And, do Minnesota Wild fans believe the message has finally sunk in?

That's the question this blogger poses today, after a week when the Wild went 3-0, outscoring their opponents 10-5 in the process.

The fact that the rest of the team has also stepped it up, following the Wild's 1-2-1 eastern road swing the prior week, hasn't hurt things, either.

It's hard to believe that Heatley has just turned it on, like a light switch. He finally got off the schneid with an empty-net goal in Thursday's 3-1 win vs. Carolina. Since then, at least Saturday night in Chicago, 'Heater' played with a little pep in his step. Perhaps the page has been turned, for a player who sometimes has needed a little extra motivation to succeed on the ice.

But, do Wild fans believe that the page has turned for Heatley? Or is it a combination of bad puck luck, changing on-ice partners and the opponents the Wild have faced so far this season, mostly either Eastern Conference opponents or (in the case of Winnipeg) former temmates of Heatley, who remember how he goes about his business on the ice?

Only time will tell for sure, but of the next eight games (6 of which are in St. Paul), seven are against Eastern Conference teams. The jury is still out for 'Heater'.

OW! Ow! Ow!

This all began on a night when not one, but BOTH starting goalies were pulled due to injury. 'Josh Harding night', featuring his 'Harding's Hope' charity, turned into 'Harding's Hurt' night, when the goalie, and his Carolina counterpart, Cam Ward, both left the game injured after long stretch-needing saves. Ward is out for a reported 3-4 weeks; Harding is reportedly day-to-day.

To see one starting goalie go down during the game is not normal during a NHL game. To see BOTH go down to injury, and not for poor performance, is very unusual indeed. It doesn't happen often, and when it does, you feel for them.

But that's why you carry two goalies, for situations like this. Unfortunately, the stress somethng like this sends shockwaves thru an organization. The fact that the Wild is relatively thin in goal in the minors doesn't help things, as goalies take longer to fully develop than other position players.

The Wild have to start thinking of the future. Think about goaltending. Backstrom is 35, and will not be around much longer; Harding will be 30 in January. Might it be time for the Wild to start ramping up some goaltender development?

Just a thought...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Time to rededicate the Popcorn Machine?

With his diminished play and soon-to-be expiring contract, this blogger asks if it's time to rename the Minnesota Wild press box popcorn machine at Xcel Energy Center after uber-underachiever Dany Heatley

Have we Minnesota Wild fans found the next human stalagmite (a.k.a. Martin Skoula)? Another Filip Kuba stand-around human pylon?

We just may have.

With his woeful offensive output and $7.5M cap hit, Dany Heatley just may be the next Wild player needing to learn how to make popcorn in the Al Shaver press box at Xcel Energy Center. The only bright spot (if it is that) is that his contract expires at the end of this 2013-2014 season, which may make 'Heater' attractive to a team on the rebuild.

Like, maybe the Buffalo Sabres, or Dallas Stars, or any team not based in Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division, or San Jose Sharks (but keep Marty Havlat, will you? Thanks.)

Heatley is a boat anchor on the Wild speedboat, a slow, plodding forward who's best days are well in the rear view mirror, who's attributes are marred by his lack of compete level, inability to find open space, and just flat out bad timing when in the offensive zone.

Saturday night, he was the third best defenseman the Florida Panthers (another team needing a rebuild) had, blocking two shots (one a near-sure-goal) from Mikael Granlund in the third period of the Wild's 2-1 shootout loss to the lowly Panthers, who are still looking up at nearly everyone else in the Eastern Conference.

Heatley has become more of a liability every time he steps onto the ice. A former 50-goal scorer, gifted with great hands, he hasn't used them like he has wanted to in the last two seasons. He should have received a compliance buyout last summer, but since he was injured in an end-of-game scrum in San Jose last April, Heatley ended the season on injured reserve, and according to the terms of the new CBA, compliance buyouts could not be tendered to players on IR.

And now, the Wild are paying for that injury. And how. Talk about paying it forward; the fact that Heatley is not having success to justify that massive contract is hamstringing the Wild, whose anemic offense has only scored 5 goals in the last four games, going 1-2-1 on a four-game Eastern road trip which, based on the current overall talent level of the Wild, they should have gone no worse than 3-1.

So what to do? Heatley has become the single largest liability the Wild have. And one of the toughest to deal with, as his massive contract precludes any type of a major deal. The NHL would immediately throw up red flags at any type of a 'salary dump' deal. The other team in any Heatley trade would as quickly incur the wrath of their own fans, as this albatross of a forward plays the schedule out at half-speed. Or slower.

For all those Ottawa fans who have booed Heatley over the years (he wanted out of Ottawa, and got his wish) for not being a Senator, and the San Jose fans (when they aren't beating each other up) who also boo Heatley when he returns to NorCal, the Wild would probably say 'If you want him, you can HAVE him. Cheap.'

Peyton Place, meet 317 Washington St., St. Paul. As that's what Dany Heatley has made his hockey life in Wild country.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

What Hath Wild Wrought: After one week...

After one week,of the regular season, we know this about the 2013-2014 Wild:

1. They start slow. The Wild definitely need to pick up the pace, before the opponent does. Both LA and Anaheim found that by getting the first goal (or, goals), they could put the Wild behind the proverbial '8-ball' for the rest of the evening. The first ten minutes of the game are as important as the last 10 minutes of the game. Wish some on the roster would remember this.

2. Haven't we seen this before? Two seasons ago, the Wild started the season with a great power play offense, scoring nearly at will when given the man advantage. Of course, the flip side of the coin that season turned out to be a dearth of goals on the power play later in that season. The Wild have scored power play goals in both games played so far (two vs. Anaheim, one vs. LA). They have shown they can score at 5-on-4; now, can they score more at even strength, 5-on-5?

3. OT/Shootout: new season, same old problems. As we have all witnessed the last three days, the same old bugaboos for the Wild that have plagued them since the departure of Jacques Lemaire have reared their ugly heads once again; namely, the inability of this team to figure out how to win in extra time. Thursday, the fact that the game went to a shootout played right into the hands of the LA Kings, as the entire NHL knows that Niklas Backstrom is the NHL's worst goalie in extra time. On Saturday night, the Ducks' Mathieu Perrault made Backstrom look like a midget goalie, floating a backhander thru Backstrom's five-hole as time ran out. Now, maybe that was a blessing in disguise, as now maybe Josh Harding will start in Nashville on Tuesday night, as the Wild play the new divisional rival Preds for the first time under the new divisional format. And speaking of which...

4. You really don't have time to straighten it out. Six of your next 11 games (including the next 3 in a row) are against divisional opponents. If the Wild continue to falter as they have, they definitely will be on the outside, looking in towards those teams they let slip away from them in October as the season progresses. You can work as hard as hell in practice, but it's in the games where you need to improve. You need to start winning. In regulation time.

Yes, I realize that this is a long season, and that it's only 2 games in. But, with the compressed schedule due to the Sochi Olympics, you really don't have the time to stop and rework what is, in order to reclaim points lost due to inattentiveness, and a goaltender who is a world-beater for 60 minutes, then becomes Egg Beaters for the extra 5. I know that this goes against the grain for goalies; 'You're shattering their confidence', and so on, but at some point, you have to try something different, if the rest of your team cannot get the job done in regulation time. The inattentiveness? You need Sigmund Freud himself to explain why the last 10 seconds of OT becomes a tropical vacation for some guys. And, as for the goaltending in OT/SO?

Put in the other guy when OT starts. For the good of all your goalies. Don't let the team waste 60 minutes (or somewhat less) of effort, by staying with a goalie that can't stop a beach ball in extra time.

Fix what you can. Now. Before the snowball starts downhill and you can't stop it. For another last week of the season looms larger every day as this season unfolds.