Jason Brough

Julius Honka

Looking to make the leap: Julius Honka


This post is part of Stars Day on PHT…

When the Stars were eliminated by the Blues in Game 6 of their second-round series, Alex Goligoski logged 25:16 of ice time, Jason Demers logged 19:57, and Kris Russell 16:17. The first two are with other teams now, the third still unsigned and not expected back.

So the Dallas defense will look significantly different in 2016-17. There’s still John Klingberg, Johnny Oduya, and Stephen Johns, the three other defenders who played in that elimination game. And Dan Hamhuis was signed in free agency, with GM Jim Nill expecting the veteran to play a big role, possibly even skating with Klingberg on the top pairing.

After those four, though, the competition for minutes should be pretty wide open. Jordie Benn was re-signed for three years, so he’s definitely in the running. Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak both need waivers to go to the AHL, so they’ll be given a good shot to stay up. Esa Lindell got his first taste of the NHL in January, so he’s in the mix as well.

Which brings us, finally, to Julius Honka, the 20-year-old the Stars drafted with the 14th overall pick in 2014. It may take an injury or trade for Honka to get the call next season, but after piling up 44 points (11G, 33A) in 73 games for AHL Texas last season, the Stars have themselves a serious puck-moving threat waiting in the wings.

He’s been compared to Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen.

“Outstanding puck-handling, mobile defenseman,” said TSN’s Bob McKenzie when Honka was drafted. “Loves to shoot the puck, loves to walk the blue line, and he’s a guy that skates pucks out of trouble. Not a big guy (5’11, 185)… some scouts wondered how his game will translate to the next level at that size. But this Finnish player has tremendous wheels, one of the best skaters in the draft.”

As mentioned, it may be tough for Honka to make the Stars out of training camp. He can still be sent to the AHL without waivers, as can Lindell.

But whichever way it all shakes out, Nill is confident that he has the right head coach, Lindy Ruff, to make the decisions.

“Lindy has a history of working with some of the best defensemen in the world at the Olympics, so he knows what he’s doing,” said Nill, per the Dallas Morning News. “We’re in transition and this is a process, but I have full trust in our players and our coaches, and I think we’ll be better moving forward.”

Related: Dallas loves its young defensemen, which could mean goodbye for some vets

Coyotes bring back ‘proven goal scorer’ Vrbata

GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 04:  Radim Vrbata #17 of the Phoenix Coyotes during the NHL game against the Vancouver Canucks at Jobing.com Arena on March 4, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Coyotes defeated the Canucks 1-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The report was accurate. The Arizona Coyotes are indeed bringing back Radim Vrbata.

“We are very pleased to sign Radim to a one-year contract,” said GM John Chayka in a release. “He’s a proven goal scorer who will add skill and smarts to our lineup. We look forward to having him back in a Coyotes uniform this season.”

Vrbata, 35, has already played 428 games for the Coyotes. He had a 35-goal season for them in 2011-12 while skating on a line with Ray Whitney and Martin Hanzal. He left the Coyotes in the summer of 2014, signing a two-year contract with Vancouver. His first season with the Canucks went well and included an All-Star Game appearance; his second season was much more of a struggle and he finished with just 13 goals in 63 games.

“I’m very excited to rejoin the Coyotes,” said Vrbata. “My family and I love living in Arizona and I’m really looking forward to helping this team win.”

The base salary of Vrbata’s new deal reportedly comes with a base salary of just $1 million, but there are apparently bonuses involved. The Coyotes, of course, don’t really have to worry about cap space. They’ve got plenty of that.

Under Pressure: Chuck Fletcher

2012 NHL Entry Draft - Rounds 2-7

This post is part of Wild Day on PHT…

It was just over four years ago that the Minnesota Wild opened their wallets to sign Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but despite that “great day” in franchise history, they haven’t made it past the second round of the playoffs since.

Parise is 32 now. Suter will be 32 in January. They’re each signed through 2024-25, for a combined cap hit of around $15 million. So while there’s still time for them to come through, the general manager that signed them, Chuck Fletcher, surely had higher hopes when he convinced “two marquee players, who are both in the prime of their careers” to come to Minnesota.

The closest the Wild came to a deep playoff run was in 2013-14, when they took out the surprising Avalanche in the first round then lasted six hard-fought games against the Blackhawks. They made it to the second round again in 2014-15, getting the best of a good St. Louis team in the first round, only to be swept in four by those same ‘Hawks.

In 2015-16, the Wild took a decided step back. They still made the playoffs, but they did it with just 87 points, the fewest of any team to qualify for the postseason. They also fired head coach Mike Yeo in February, replacing him with interim bench boss John Torchetti. They lost to Dallas in the first round, to nobody’s surprise.

And not only are Parise and Suter on the wrong side of 30 now, so too are Mikko Koivu (33), Jason Pominville (33), and newly signed center Eric Staal (31).

In spite of the growing skepticism, Fletcher has remained optimistic, buoyed by ownership, which gave him a vote of confidence in April. He likes his young defense a lot, calling it the “strength of our team.” And when it comes to strengths, the blue line is a good one to have.

But there’s no question that the hiring of head coach Bruce Boudreau was a “win now” move. The Wild have some good, young players and prospects (like every team does), but their leading scorers last season were Koivu, Parise and Suter. This is still a team that’s led by its veterans.

“They need a different voice,” Fletcher said, “and Bruce’s experience, as well as his tremendous passion for the game and his hockey IQ, I believe will allow him to push this group to heights they haven’t been to yet.”

Fletcher is one of the longest-serving general managers in the NHL. In fact, only six GMs have held their jobs as long as he has. While he’s managed to build a team that’s made the playoffs the past four years, Wild fans are desperate for more, and they didn’t particularly like what they saw last season.

Perhaps Boudreau put it best.

“Hey, I’m fully aware,” he said. “I’ve been in the business for over 40 years. I know the way this works, and we’re in a winning business so you have to win.”

Down the middle is where questions remain for the Wild

DALLAS, TX - APRIL 22:  Mikko Koivu #9 of the Minnesota Wild skates the puck against Jason Spezza #90 of the Dallas Stars in the first period in Game Five of the Western Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at American Airlines Center on April 22, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
1 Comment

This post is part of Wild Day on PHT…

There’s no exact formula for winning the Stanley Cup, and every team that does win has a perceived roster deficiency that has to be overcome. Just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins and their much-maligned blue line.

That being said, here are some centers that have won the Stanley Cup in the past decade: Sidney Crosby (twice), Jonathan Toews (three times), Anze Kopitar (twice), Patrice Bergeron, and Pavel Datsyuk. All five of those guys will be in the Hall of Fame one day. And we didn’t even mention Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Carter, Henrik Zetterberg, Ryan Getzlaf, and David Krejci. They all won Cups as well. Some of them will be in the Hall of Fame, too.

So while there’s no exact formula, an important element sure seems to be an elite center, or maybe even two.

Which brings us to the Minnesota Wild. According to Sports Illustrated, the Wild’s top center, Mikko Koivu, ranks 28th out of 30 among each NHL team’s top centers. Feel free to disagree with that ranking, but even Thomas Vanek conceded last season that the Wild “maybe don’t have maybe the strongest depth in the middle.”

The Wild aren’t alone in that regard. Good teams like the Blues and Rangers have lacked that Hart/Selke-caliber center. It’s not easy to get one. The Toronto Maple Leafs feel they finally have one again, but they had to finish dead last to get him.

Consider the reason Eric Staal signed with the Wild this summer. He was once considered an elite center. Won a Cup in Carolina back in 2006. Won gold with Canada at the 2010 Olympics.

“He wanted the opportunity to be the Eric Staal that he was in the past,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau. “And I told him he would definitely get that chance here.”

Koivu, 33, and Staal, 31, are expected to start the season as the Wild’s top two centers. Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle are also options, but they’ll likely start on the wing.

“It was funny,” GM Chuck Fletcher told The Star Tribune. “I [asked Granlund], ‘How do you like playing wing?’ He says, ‘God, it’s easy. You don’t have to play defense. All you do is have the puck, you make plays, you get points, everyone thinks you’re great.’ He was laughing.”

Granlund is right; it’s hard to play center. Lots of responsibilities, at both ends of the ice. It’s why Steven Stamkos has at times been moved to the wing in Tampa Bay. Head coach Jon Cooper thinks Stamkos expends too much energy working down low in his own end.

It’s also why Wild fans are excited about prospects Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin. They’re both centers who could one day be in the top six.

And it’s also why there have been trade rumors involving the Wild and Edmonton center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Minnesota has some good, young defenseman that might interest the Oilers, but is Fletcher willing to give up a player like Matt Dumba or Jared Spurgeon? That remains to be seen. Nugent-Hopkins may have been the first overall draft pick in 2011, but he’s had trouble staying healthy and had just 34 points in 55 games last season — hardly elite numbers.

Unfortunately for Fletcher, elite centers just don’t hit the trade market very often. Tyler Seguin was traded, and the Dallas Stars thank the Boston Bruins for doing so. Ryan Johansen was traded, but the price was Seth Jones.

In the meantime, all the Wild can do is their best with what they’ve got.

“The fact that we didn’t have to sacrifice any of our young defensemen to fill these holes is important,” Fletcher told NHL.com. “I think the strength of our team remains the strength of our defense core.”

Poll: Will the Wild make the playoffs?

NASHVILLE, TN - APRIL 25:  Head coach Bruce Boudreau of the Anaheim Ducks speaks to the media after a 3-1 loss to the Nashville Predators in Game Six of the Western Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena on April 25, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

This post is part of Wild Day on PHT…

The Minnesota Wild made the playoffs for a fourth straight time in 2015-16, but they didn’t last long once they got there. Six games against the Dallas Stars and it was over.

True, the Wild were without Zach Parise (back injury) for the entire series, and that was undoubtedly a factor. But even if they’d had him, they would’ve been first-round underdogs. The Wild were healthier than a lot of teams during the regular season and finished just 38-33-11, giving them the fewest points (87) out of all 16 playoff qualifiers.

Suffice to say, teams that are playing well don’t usually fire their coach in February. Minnesota was one of the NHL’s worst at puck possession last season. There was the odd solid stretch, but all too often those stretches were followed by extended slumps.

Roster-wise, the Wild did not make any huge changes this offseason. Eric Staal and Chris Stewart were signed as free agents, while Thomas Vanek was bought out. Perhaps a youngster like Alex Tuch could push for a roster spot next season, but nobody’s really counting on it.

The big move was the hiring of head coach Bruce Boudreau, who before taking the Wild job enjoyed tremendous regular-season success in Washington and Anaheim.

“Bruce has that ability to convince the players, to get the players, to encourage the players, to prod the players to execute on a consistent basis,” said Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. “If we do that, we’re a good hockey team and can even become very good.”

“I think our team has made a lot of improvements and we’re growing, and I think this will be a really big year for us,” Parise told ESPN.com. “I’m not one of the pessimists around. I’m optimistic. I like our team.”

But there are pessimists, to be sure. Much of the Wild’s core is over 30, and non-playoff teams from last season — teams like Winnipeg and Calgary — are young and hungry. The Central Division is a beast, and the Wild are in it.

OK, time to vote:

(Click here if the poll doesn’t show up for you.)