2010-2011 NHL season preview: Minnesota Wild

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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.

DeBoer praises ‘courageous’ Thornton for playing with torn ACL, MCL (Updated)

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In a fairly stunning admission on Monday, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer told reporters that Joe Thornton played in four of San Jose’s six playoff games versus Edmonton with a significant knee injury.

Thornton, who was hurt against Vancouver late in the regular season, suffered tears to both his left MCL and ACL.

“I’ve never seen a guy play with a torn MCL and ACL,” DeBoer said, per the club’s Twitter account. “It’s a courageous effort as I’ve ever seen.”

Thornton, 37, missed the first two games of the series to rest his knee, before suiting up for the final four. He averaged 18:50 TOI per night and finished with a pair of assists, numbers that are pretty remarkable given the severity of his ailment.

Jumbo wasn’t the only unhealthy Shark during the first-round playoff ouster. Logan Couture‘s face/mouth injury was well-documented and, today, DeBoer also revealed that Tomas Hertl was playing with a broken foot, and Patrick Marleau with a broken thumb.

Looking ahead, Thornton’s knee injury might cloud what’s an already murky future. He’s a pending UFA, and there have been no clear signals from the organization on how they’ll address his potential return. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reported in January the Thornton camp was looking for a three-year deal.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Sharks GM Doug Wilson has time on his side. It’s understood the club probably wouldn’t act on an extension for Thornton until after the June expansion draft, which could give the Sharks enough time to better gauge his health.

Update:

Per NBC Sports California, Wilson confirmed Thornton is undergoing surgery today to repair the ligaments.

 

 

Online bookmaker: Caps are Stanley Cup favorites

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The Washington Capitals got a bit of a scare in the first round, but they’ll go into the second round as the Stanley Cup favorites.

Per online bookmaker Bovada, here is the full list of Stanley Cup odds for the eight remaining teams:

Washington Capitals   7/2
Pittsburgh Penguins    17/4
Anaheim Ducks             11/2
Edmonton Oilers          11/2
St. Louis Blues              13/2
Nashville Predators     7/1
New York Rangers       8/1
Ottawa Senators           10/1

The Chicago Blackhawks entered the postseason as 4/1 Cup favorites at Bovada. Of course, the ‘Hawks were then swept by the Preds, who’ve gone from 25/1 long shots to 7/1 heading into their series with the Blues.

The Caps’ odds actually dropped to 13/2 after they fell behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2-1. But three straight wins, two in overtime, clinched them a spot against the Penguins in the second round.

The Ottawa Senators are the long shots of the bunch now, despite having home-ice advantage over the Rangers in the second round.

Isles bring back Seidenberg — one year, $1.25 million

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The Islanders saw enough from Dennis Seidenberg this season to bring him back for another.

On Monday, the club announced it had signed the veteran defenseman to a one-year deal. Per Newsday, it’s for $1.25 million — a slight raise from the $1M he earned this season.

Seidenberg, 35, caught on with the Isles in late September, parlaying a good showing with Team Europe at the World Cup into a contract after going the entire summer unsigned.

For New York, it worked out very well.

Seidenberg was a regular lineup fixture, averaging 19:26 TOI over 73 games. He also provided some good production from the back end, scoring five goals and 22 points — his highest offensive output in five years.

Today’s deal also gives the Isles some flexibility when it comes to the upcoming expansion draft. The club now has six blueliners under contract for next season — Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Travis Hamonic, Thomas Hickey and Scott Mayfield — and a seventh, pending RFA Calvin de Haan, will (presumably) be locked in as well. The same might be said of fellow RFA Adam Pelech.

Young d-man Ryan Pulock, who only appeared in one game this year, locked in through 2018.

Cassidy ‘absolutely’ wants to return as Bruins’ head coach

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To nobody’s surprise, Bruce Cassidy is on board with shedding his interim tag and becoming Boston’s full-time bench boss.

“Absolutely,” Cassidy said of coming back, following the Bruins’ opening-round playoff loss to Ottawa (per CBS Boston). “One hundred percent.”

One would think the 51-year-old did enough to warrant a longer look. After replacing Claude Julien in early February, Cassidy led a team on the fringes of the playoff picture to an 18-8-1 record down the stretch, and a third-place finish in the Atlantic Division.

Yes, the B’s fell short against the Sens, but were hamstrung by a depleted lineup missing the likes of Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo. Top center David Krejci was also extremely limited, missing three of six games to injury.

When further asked about his future, Cassidy tapped the brakes on predicting what will happen, or what changes the team needed for next season.

“Well, now we’re making a lot of assumptions,” he said. “That will be determined going forward by management. It’s a tough question to answer.”

Cassidy’s time with Boston’s AHL affiliate in Providence, and his history working with young players, may certainly help his cause. A few of his guys — Austin Czarnik, Frank Vatrano, Tommy Cross, Noel Acciari — forged out roles with the big club this season, while other youngsters certainly made an impact in the playoffs.

Prized d-man prospect Charlie McAvoy was a central figure on defense, and one of Cassidy’s more notable lineup moves — putting Sean Kuraly in for Games 5 and 6 — gave the club a boost of energy.

That said, the B’s do have options on the coaching front.

There are a number of experienced bench bosses available. Lindy Ruff, Darryl Sutter and Jack Capuano — a former teammate of Sweeney’s, it should be mentioned — are just a few of the higher profile free agents out there. It’s unclear if Boston is interested in going this route, however. Cassidy has been with the organization a long time, going on eight seasons, and has certainly paid his dues.