2010-2011 NHL season preview: Minnesota Wild


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.

Oilers get Kronwall’d – in more ways than one

Niklas Kronwall
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When someone gets clobbered by Niklas Kronwall, they get Kronwall’d.

(His detractors may insist that the definition require the words “dirty” or “illegal,” but that’s a debate for another day.)

It’s easy to get lost in those thunderous hits and forget that the  Swedish defenseman also brings some skill to the table.

He made a big impact – literally and figuratively – in Detroit’s 4-3 overtime win against the Edmonton Oilers on Friday.

First, the Kronwalling:

Next, Kronwall’s overtime-winner:

It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Red Wings are leaning on guys like Kronwall and Dylan Larkin to stick with it.

Tonight’s win extends their point streak to six games (4-0-2), with five of those contests going to overtime.

Dubinsky – Crosby’s nemesis – gets the last laugh on Friday

Sidney Crosby, Brandon Dubinsky

Brandon Dubinsky isn’t a household name like Sidney Crosby is, yet for all the hype that Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin gets, Dubinsky is the sort of guy who truly rankles No. 87.

It’s been getting that spotlight since the Columbus Blue Jackets faced off against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a brisk playoff series, though it wouldn’t be surprising if the bad blood stemmed to Dubinsky’s days with New York.

To some, Dubinsky’s cross-check on Crosby will resonate far more than the end result of this game:

The bottom line is that he’ll get the last laugh, at least for now. (In-game, that moment merely drew a minor penalty.)

That’s because Dubinsky set up the overtime game-winner, and the cherry on the top of that spite sundae came with Crosby being on the ice when it happened:

They’re not just rubbing the Penguins the wrong way.

Even Dubinsky kind of sort of admits that he may have been in the wrong.


More and more, the Blue Jackets are looking like a nuisance … possibly one that will grind their way to an unlikely playoff berth. They improved to 8-4-0 in November after a disastrous 2-10-0 October.

In other words, there’s at least a chance that we may see these increasingly bitter rivals butt heads in another playoff series.

Eichel’s sweet snipe helps Sabres snap six-game skid

Jack Eichel
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The Buffalo Sabres probably deserved better during at least some chunks of their six-game skid, yet Jack Eichel swooped in on Friday to remind fans that there’s a light shining at the end of the tunnel.

You can watch his goal from tonight’s eventual 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes in the video above.

That’s not necessarily the absolute height of his on-ice magic, yet it clearly gave his team a lift:

Call this a healthy reminder that Eichel has the ability to change games, something Buffalo fans hope to get used to.

Report: Likely no suspension for Matt Beleskey’s hit on Derek Stepan


Alain Vigneault went there in comparing Matt Beleskey‘s hit on Derek Stepan to the notorious check Aaron Rome delivered on Nathan Horton many moons ago, but the league seems to disagree.

While Rome sat through that memorable Stanley Cup Final between Boston and Vancouver, it sounds like Beleskey won’t face any further discipline, according to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun.

In the unlikely event that anything changes, PHT will make note.

The next game between the Rangers and Bruins takes place at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 11. Will these bad feelings linger?