Saturday, November 30, 2013

Into the abyss: the dreaded 'Yeo Woe'?

And Minnesota Wild fans wonder why their team gets no love or respect; weeks like the last two are reasons why they will not be eligible for NHL prime events, like the NHL Winter Classic, until they can do one thing consistently: win.

Some things, like the calendar, happen at the same time every year:

The swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
The buzzards return to Hinckley, Ohio.
Macy's Parade happens on Thanksgiving Day in NYC.
The Vikings implode onto police blotters, all over the Twin Cities' west suburbs.
(OK, I went a little too far there. But very little.)

And the Minnesota Wild begin their annual fall out of the top of the NHL Western Conference. OK, it didn't take three full months, like it did in the 'first-to-worst' season of 2011-12; nor did it have a short season to fall down upon, like last season's end-of-season, near-complete crash-and-burn directly out of the NHL playoffs.

But it's happening. Again. And, may I say, as a life-long Minnesotan;

Just like every Minnesota sports team. It happens to all of them.

And Wild owner/CEO Craig Leipold wonders why his team and market get passed over for major NHL events, like the Winter Classic, and the NHL Stadium Series.

Your team can't score right now, Craig. You have a $7.5M human 'boat anchor', Dany Heatley, who can't score unless there's no goalie in the net (unless he gets a bounce of the puck), playing on your 4th line. The center of the 4th line is out because he got a puck inadvertantly in the one of his own players. Your third line is centered by a player who can't seem to play the puck unless it's perfectly placed on his stick just so (don't even think to ask him to look in his skates for the puck.) Your second line center just had his brain injured eight days. Your first line center is deathly afraid to shoot the puck, so much so that he passes up scoring chances, in order to pass the puck away. An assist is worth more to this guy than a goal is. Wide open net? Pass the puck. Breakaway? Pass the puck. Any other decent scoring situation? Pass the puck.

God forbid that you actually shoot at the net. Your countrymen, back in Assist-land, would not be pleased.

And Minnesota fans wonder why the NHL gives them no love whatsoever, why they are always second-to-last on NHL media, like 'NHL Tonight' and other NHL-produced shows.

So, someone (namely, Nick Henry, he of the 'Hitting the Post' blog) coined the phrase which so rightfully fits the Wild's mid-season malaise; namely, the 'Yeo Woe'.

The Wild can't score. The Wild can't shoot. The Wild can't stop other teams from scoring. The Wild can't forecheck, because they're backchecking all the time. Blah, blah, blah...

Wild fans are tired of the excuses. Wild fans are looking for results. Or, do the Wild become the next version of the Buffalo Sabres, who are blowing it up and starting over?

The Wild have lost three straight (and 4 of their last six) while only scoring 12 goals total in that time. Twelve goals. in nearly two weeks. Certainly, that kind of 'production' won't get you far, at least in today's NHL.

So what to do? With the Wild right up against the lowered salary cap, they can't go out and trade for that player(s) they need, unless the net effect is to lower their salary cap number. And, quite frankly, that means moving Heatley, whose contract expires at the end of this season. Due to last season's end-of-season injury, suffered at the end of a 6-1 blowout loss at San Jose April 18, the Wild were prohibited from tendering a buyout of Heatley's massive contract over the summer. Now, the Wild are really paying the price, for carrying 'Heater' on the roster.

No one will take 'Heater' off the Wild's hands for any reason whatsoever. The rest of the NHL knows he is damaged goods; the Wild are stuck with him. Would the Wild be better off just flat-out sending him down to their AHL affiliate in Des Moines? We probably will never know.

But it would be interesting to find out...

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Meaty, meaty, meaty, meaty...

Wild start 16 game-in-30-day marathon tonight vs. Jets: Another goalie in their future?

Venerable Minneapolis Star-Tribune beat writer Michael Russo likes to use the term, 'meaty', when the Minnesota Wild face a particularly tough stretch of their schedule. Now, he's used it for years, and normally, he's pretty much spot on when he's used it.

So, in that respect, the next 30 days are, indeed, four weeks of 'meaty' games for the Wild, as they delve headlong back into Western Conference play after mostly feasting on the weaker Eastern Conference for the last 2 1/2 weeks.

And, they do so, at least for the time being, without one key cog in their lineup; goaltender Niklas Backstrom, whose concussion is the aftermath of Toronto's Nazem Kadri going Hanson brothers on Backstrom during the first period of Wednesday's 3-2 Wild victory, over the otherwise hapless Maple Leafs at Xcel Energy Center. (Nice forearm shiv there, Nazem. I see Colton Orr has taught you well.)

The fact is that as long as Josh Harding can hold up physically, the Wild should at least stay in most games in the next month; after all, they have the fourth best record in the Central division, which has proven to be the NHL's toughest, up to this point. But what recourse do the Wild have should Harding go down again, like he has each of the last two seasons?

They have to sign another goaltender, and soon. They cannot depend on their Iowa Wild tandem (Johan Gustafsson, Darcy Kuemper) to play full-time backup; the revolving door on I-35 between Des Moines and St. Paul can only go so fast. The name most mentioned is ex-Wild (and Canadiens, Avalanche, Capitals, Panthers) keeper Jose Theodore, who reportedly is working out near his South Florida home.

With four back-to-backs in the next four weeks (including two in a nine-day stretch), two home and away, two with both games away, the Wild's schedule gets ridiculously tough going into the next few weeks. Three games vs. Central co-leader Colorado, two games vs. Winnipeg, two vs. San Jose, and single games against Montreal, Ottawa, St. Louis, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Chicago, Columbus, Anaheim, Vancouver, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This is a schedule that would decimate most clubs, especially when 10 of the 16 games are away from St. Paul, where the Wild have become the most dominant team in the NHL. The only home blemish in regulation time is the 'Monday Night Massacre', the Oct. 28 nationally-televised 5-1 drubbing by the Chicago Blackhawks, the game after the Wild went into Chicago's United Center and routed the 'Hawks 5-2 two nights earlier.

It will be a real test for the Wild to go from a speed game (vs. Colorado), to an almost brutal game vs. Philadelphia, back to a speed game vs. Chicago, to a control game vs. Columbus, and so on. Different teams will present different challenges for the Wild, be it P.K. Subban, Eric Karlsson, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, Mike Smith, or 'Jumbo Joe' (Thornton) and 'Little Joe' (Pavelski) with San Jose.

As versatile as the Wild have had to become so far, they bettter start honing their game. Very much so, and quickly. As the Western Conference is prepping to leave the Wild in their dust, the Wild need to amass a large number of victories in this next 16 games -- in my opinion, nothing less than 11-5-0  (22 points) will do -- which means they need to win all their home games during this stretch, and be at least .500 on the road.

Should the Wild still be in contention by the Christmas three-day holiday break, four of the first five games after the break will be in the 'friendly confines' of the 'X' -- and a good way to start the New Year.

But, until that time, the schedule is, indeed, 'meaty'. So enjoy the banquet, Wild fans. Or at least try to.