2010-2011 NHL season preview: Minnesota Wild

2 Comments

mikkokoivu2.jpgLast season: (38-36-8, 84 points, 4th in Northwest Division, 13th in Western Conference) The Wild were anything but that last season and while the record is deceptively above .500, the Wild were a mixed-up jumble last season. Playing their first season without Jacques Lemaire at the helm had it’s ups and downs while learning a new system. In the end, the team just wasn’t very good and injuries didn’t help matters much.

Head coach: Todd Richards enters his second season as head coach and he had an uphill climb to begin with. Teaching a new system to a roster full of players that had essentially only known one way of playing under Lemaire takes time to get it working. The Wild were brutal for the first two months last season before things started to get through to them and work. Another slow start this season could be damning of Richards’ ability to prepare a team. Not that the Wild are set up with a killer roster to win lots of games, but the point will be made nonetheless. The preseason hasn’t instilled any hope for the upcoming season, that’s for sure.

Key departures: F Derek Boogaard, D John Scott, F Andrew Ebbett. Boogaard’s intimidating presence and cult-hero status will be missed a bit, but they’ll be OK without him. Scott’s presence on the blue line was physically large but his poor decision making will be a welcome subtraction in St. Paul.

Key arrivals: F Matt Cullen, F John Madden, F Brad Staubitz, F Eric Nystrom. Cullen is an underrated second-line center with good faceoff skills. Madden brings his veteran experience and penalty-killing abilities into town so Mikko Koivu doesn’t need to do absolutely everything for the team. Staubitz is a small-time semi-replacement for Boogaard’s punchy presence while Nystrom is a potential agitator. So these additions aren’t flashy nor are they overly offensively inclined. It’s not as if the Wild were going to go after Ilya Kovalchuk anyhow.

Under pressure: Fans in Minnesota aren’t happy. Unfortunately for them, the people that can still be blamed for the mess the team is in aren’t working there anymore (former GM Doug Risebrough and Lemaire) so there’s no one immediately available to put pressure on. With a brand new large contract extension and a team captaincy, however, Mikko Koivu is the man who will bear the brunt of fan angst. He’s being paid the most and he’s the team’s first-line center. Taking the heat and feeling the pressure are all part of the job description. If he can get the Wild together and make a run at the playoffs, however, he might end up being more famous in Minnesota than Neal Broten.

niklasbackstrom2.jpgProtecting the house: Niklas Backstrom is the man in goal. Flat out, he’s all they’ve got in Minnesota now that Josh Harding is likely out for the year with a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee. AHL stud Anton Khudobin figures to be the backup for the time being but there’s talk of Jose Theodore possibly being brought in to help push Backstrom and give him quality relief. Backstrom is a great goalie, but the transition from being a full-time trap team to a hybrid one seemed to effect his play a bit last year. Perhaps all he needed was his defense to find their comfort zone in the new system.

Defensively, Brent Burns is the top man. He’s solid both moving the puck and playing defense and is the clear leader there. Marek Zidlicky isn’t too bad in this respect either and Cam Barker is a sneaky high-quality guy as well. Greg Zanon provides stellar defense-only work and Nick Schultz does well here too. Clayton Stoner figures to be the sixth defenseman out of camp, but after that things get thin fast. Former St. Lawrence Saint Drew Bagnall could be the first guy out of the AHL in Houston should anyone get hurt. Bagnall has yet to play in an NHL game. The Wild can’t afford to have injuries on defense all season which makes things a bit more daunting than they need to be.

Top line we’d like to see: Guillaume Latendresse-Koivu-Martin Havlat. Latendresse and Havlat worked well last season on a line with Kyle Brodziak at center, so you’d have to think having those two play with the team’s best player would work out even better. Only thing gumming up the works on this possibility is the chemistry that Koivu has with Andrew Brunette. With Pierre-Marc Bouchard set to come back this season, perhaps our dream line can happen as the Wild would have more offensive balance with a potential second line of Brunette-Cullen-Bouchard.

Oh captain, my captain: Koivu is the man now. After years of rotating captaincy, Koivu is the full-time guy and for good reason. He’s come up through their system and he’s got a nice, long contract extension. He’s also a pretty damn good two-way forward as well. If more Wild players followed his example, they might be able to evolve past seemingly permanent mediocrity.

bradstaubitz.jpgStreet fighting man: With the Boogaard now doing his thing in New York with the Rangers and John Scott doing his thing in Chicago, the job for team enforcer is wide open. The leading candidate to fill that role is Brad Staubitz, who  led the Sharks in fighting majors last year with 12 and if he lands in the lineup he will be finding someone to spar with. For all the attention checking forward Cal Clutterbuck gets, he’s not much of a fighter since most of the scraps he ends up in happen because someone’s gotten wrongly upset with a body check he’s delivered. People should lighten up a bit.

Best-case scenario: Latendresse shows that his huge goal-scoring party last year was not a fluke and becomes the Wild’s preeminent power forward punching home 30+ goals. Havlat comes out of his shell a bit more and with Koivu develops one hell of a top scoring line. Bouchard plays, plays often, and plays well while staying healthy showing that he’s the team’s missing piece offensively. Without having a real checking line, the Wild roll four lines of consistent, aggressive play making every game 60 minutes of hell for opponents. They get great play from Backstrom in goal and no injuries to the defense and the Wild make the playoffs. There’s almost one too many qualifiers there just for best-case scenario purposes.

Worst-case scenario: Latendresse reverts back into the moody, inconsistent player he was in Montreal while Koivu and Havlat’s output suffers for it. Bouchard struggles in coming back from post-concussion syndrome and the lack of offensive talent all around on the team makes it impossible for the team to win consistently. Lack of defensive depth becomes a major issue and leads to poor play from Backstrom, thus sinking the Wild to the bottom of the Western Conference.

Keeping it real: The Wild aren’t very likely to be a good team this year. Lots of things have to absolutely go right for them to make the playoffs and just a handful of things have to either go wrong or not happen at all for them to be a miserable team. The talent level is thin and the depth in the minors is worse. The lack of work Risebrough did is criminal because the Wild can’t afford to lose anyone to injury and they can’t afford to add anyone via free agency thanks to lots of really bad, really expensive contracts.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Wild are a definitive 1. They’re no threat to win the Cup. They’re no threat to even win their division. Barring a miracle of smaller proportions, they’re destined to not make the playoffs either.

Jaroslav Halak carried Team Europe to the World Cup Final

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 25:  Jaroslav Halak #41 of Team Europe celebrates a 3-2 overtime victory over Team Sweden at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at the Air Canada Centre on September 25, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

Jaroslav Halak is doing it again.

He is taking an undermanned team, one that doesn’t match up with its opponents on paper, and carrying it to a level nobody expected it to reach.

He did it during the 2010 NHL playoffs as a member of the Montreal Canadiens when he helped a No. 8 seed upset that year’s Presidents’ Trophy winning team in the first round, and then the defending Stanley Cup champions in the second round. The Canadiens were mostly outplayed in each series, but Halak was so good, and so dominant, that it didn’t matter. He was the single biggest reason his team reached the Eastern Conference Final that year.

He showed how much of an impact a hot goalie can make on a team a short series.

He is kind of doing it again this year at the World Cup for Team Europe as it is now in the championship series getting ready to take on Team Canada.

The team in front of him isn’t getting outplayed to the same degree that the 2010 Canadiens were in those playoffs, but Halak has still been his team’s best player and the biggest factor in its current success. His .946 save percentage through four games is among the best in the tournament, while his 37 save effort in the semifinal on Sunday was probably his best one so far (and that includes his opening game shutout against the United States).

The European team has its share of forward talent up front. Anze Kopitar is one of the best two-way players in hockey and has been spectacular in this tournament. Marian Gaborik and Thomas Vanek are former 40-goal scorers in the NHL, while Frans Nielsen has always been one of the more underrated players in the league.

But the defense, even with a great player like Roman Josi, doesn’t really come close to matching some other teams in the tournament.

It has two players that don’t currently have NHL contracts (Dennis Seidenberg and Christian Ehrhoff). Zdeno Chara is 38 years old and has clearly slowed down from where he was a few years ago.

As a team, they have the oldest roster in the tournament, and based on their pre-tournament games it looked like they were going to be nothing more than a minor speed bump for the rest of their teams in their group.

Put all of that together and it put a ton of pressure on Halak to be on top of his game to give his team a chance to even stay competitive, let alone win.

He has done that and more so far in the tournament, and it is the single biggest reason the team that opened the tournament as the biggest long shot to win the whole thing (33/1) is in the final.

From a big picture standpoint Halak is not the best goalie in hockey. But sometimes in a short tournament all you need is a good goalie to get on a hot streak. And he is still capable of putting together those streaks that can carry a team, and he is doing it again in this tournament just as he did in the 2010 playoffs.

Stunner: Team Europe beats Sweden, advances to World Cup Final

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 25:  Marian Gaborik #12 of Team Europe is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a second period goal against Team Sweden at the semifinal game during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at  Air Canada Centre on September 25, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images)
Getty
4 Comments

When the World Cup began earlier this month, Team Europe, a collection of players from eight European countries that did not have their own team in the tournament, was thought to be the weakest team in the field.

Not necessarily a bad team, but one that seemed like it would have trouble keeping up with the hockey superpowers that made up the remainder of the field. That thinking seemed to be confirmed in the pre-tournament games when the North American young stars team skated them out of the building in what the European team admitted was a wakeup call.

All of that is why they still have to actually play the games, and in a short tournament like this anything can happen. 

In this case, anything did happen.

Thanks to their 3-2 overtime win over Team Sweden on Sunday afternoon in the World Cup semifinals, Team Europe has clinched a spot in the World Cup final series and will take on Canada in a best-of-three round that begins on Tuesday night.

It’s been an incredible and almost unbelievable run so far Europe. They frustrated the United States in their opener and shut them out, beat the Czech Republic in overtime, and then on Sunday shut down Sweden to advance to the final. 

The biggest part of their success has to be the play of their goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who has been their best player the entire tournament.

On Sunday, he stopped 37 out of 39 shots and improved his save percentage in the tournament to .946.

The other big star for Team Europe on Sunday was Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar who scored a pair of goals, including the overtime winner.

After Marian Gaborik scored late in the second period to tie the game at one, Tatar opened the third period with a goal just 12 seconds in when he followed up his own shot and beat Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist to give Europe its first lead of the game.

Sweden’s Erik Karlsson scored late in the third period to send the game to overtime.

Europe now haas to get ready to face a Canadian team that is 4-0 in the tournament and outscored its opponents by a 19-6 margin.

Canada beat Europe in the first round 4-1.

Sounds like Blues will be more aggressive

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 06:  Head coach Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues watches from the bench during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on January 6, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Blues defeated the Coyotes 6-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

With their former captain now a member of the Boston Bruins and their coach on year-to-year deals, it’s appropriate to say that the St. Louis Blues are in a period of transitions.

It’s also a convenient choice of words, as it sounds like the Blues are going to change the way they transition on the ice.

That’s the indication given by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and players like Chris Porter approve.

“The play in the neutral zone will fit this team great with the speed and the size that they already have in place,” Porter said. “I don’t think it’s a huge adjustment for the guys, I think it’s just a little tweak here or there.”

Perhaps hiring Mike Yeo had something to do with taking a more modern approach?

Either way, getting more aggressive makes a lot of sense for the Blues, at least on paper.

With David Backes and Troy Brouwer out of town, younger and speedier players get to take more of a role. Some Blues fans will probably view this tweak – big or small – as a long time coming.

Of course, there’s a give-and-take when it comes to situations like these, and becoming more attack-minded sure makes retaining Kevin Shattenkirk that much more important. The underrated blueliner still expects to be moved despite being named an alternate captain, yet you wonder if these changes might prompt GM Doug Armstrong to try to pull some strings to keep him around.

(Giving Alexander Steen a contract extension means that much less room for the likes of Shattenkirk.)

Even if the Blues eventually need to part ways with Shattenkirk, there are some other nice assets who can use this change as a catalyst to push this team up another level.

In an ideal scenario, the Blues would enjoy those improvements and keep Shattenkirk to reap those rewards.

Update: Clarke MacArthur suffers concussion

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 8: Clarke MacArthur #16 of the Ottawa Senators skates with the puck during the game against the Buffalo Sabres at the First Niagara Center on October 8, 2015 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Brenner/ Getty Images)
Getty
3 Comments

Update: As many feared, Clarke MacArthur suffered a concussion. The Ottawa Senators announced that he will be “evaluated daily.”

***

Rough news for the Ottawa Senators on Sunday: forward Clarke MacArthur needed help off the ice following a big hit during a team scrimmage.

The hit was delivered by Patrick Sieloff, prompting an immediate response from Bobby Ryan, according to The Hockey News’ Murray Pam.

MacArthur has been hoping to return to NHL action after some serious concussion issues, so this is a troubling situation. More than a few people wonder if this might end his career.

Update: Here’s a GIF of the hit.