Jason Brough


Down the middle is where questions remain for the Wild

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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?


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.)

Looking to make the leap: Alex Tuch


This post is part of Wild Day on PHT…

The Minnesota Wild have made the playoffs four straight seasons, meaning they haven’t had access to the top prospects in the NHL draft for a while now. The last time they made a pick in the top 10 was back in 2012, when they selected defenseman Matt Dumba seventh overall.

Still, there are a few intriguing prospects in the system, and that includes forward Alex Tuch, a 20-year-old right winger who signed his entry-level contract in April after two years with Boston College.

Tuch was drafted 18th overall in 2014. He’s a big kid (6-4, 225), and he thinks he’s got a “good chance” of playing in the NHL this coming season.

“I think there are a couple roster spots that are up for grabs right now,” he told the Pioneer Press in July, “and I’m going to be willing to do what it takes to grab one of those spots. … They have a great core group of guys, and I hope to be a part of that group someday soon.”

The most likely scenario has Tuch headed to AHL Iowa to start 2016-17. When the Wild signed Chris Stewart in free agency, it meant one less NHL spot for Tuch to grab.

But with a strong showing at camp and during exhibition play and, well, you never know.

“He seems like a guy that really wants to make the team and really wants to impress,” new head coach Bruce Boudreau said of Tuch, per CBS Minnesota. “So I’m looking forward to seeing him in actual combat.”

Backes and Brouwer may be gone, but Hitch says Blues youngsters still have room to grow


The St. Louis Blues may have lost David Backes and Troy Brouwer to free agency, but head coach Ken Hitchcock is confident that what’s left on the roster is more than enough to keep his team competitive.

“We’ve got experienced players who are just hitting their prime now,” Hitchcock told the Post-Dispatch in a summertime interview. “We have a lot of guys that started young and we’ve grown them into the group. We are a veteran team that has a chance to get even better because they’re just starting to reach maturity.”

Among the forwards, the Blues still have veterans like Paul Stastny, Alex Steen and Patrik Berglund. They also signed David Perron on July 1 and are still expected to get Vladimir Sobotka back (though nothing is official yet).

But what Hitchcock seems to be counting on is getting even from already-accomplished youngsters like Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. Recall that the former went through some struggles in the playoffs, particularly in the Western Conference Final against San Jose, an experience the coach referred to as “learning hard lessons, like any young player.”

Another key forward next season will be Robby Fabbri, the 20-year-old who finished second in Blues playoff scoring with four goals and 11 assists in 20 games. Can he take his game to an even higher level?

Similarly, on defense, what can 23-year-old Colton Parayko do for an encore after his surprising rookie season? If the Blues trade Kevin Shattenkirk, which remains a possibility, that question becomes even bigger.

“We have experienced players who have a lot of growth still in them and that part is exciting,” Hitchcock said. “Everybody is good in the Central (Division), everybody. But who’s going to get better? Well, I look at us and we’ve got a real chance to get better because we’re not bringing in a bunch of first-year players and seeing if they can play.”

That last part sounded a bit like a shot at the Blackhawks, but Hitch would never do that, would he?

Blackhawks could make strong pitch for Vesey


This post is part of Blackhawks Day on PHT…

Artemi Panarin chose Chicago, and it worked out pretty well for him, wouldn’t you say?

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman will no doubt share Panarin’s story with Jimmy Vesey later this week. The ‘Hawks are reportedly among the favorites to land the 23-year-old winger, and the opportunity for Vesey to come in and make an immediate impact, on a team that’s won three Stanley Cups in the last seven years, is a big reason why.

Recall what Bowman was saying about Panarin heading into last season, not long after the cap-strapped ‘Hawks had traded wingers Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp.

“There will be a little adjustment there but he has special ability,” said Bowman. “It’s fun to think of the possibilities there.”

Granted, nobody could’ve possibly expected Panarin to score 30 goals with 47 assists, but that’s exactly what he did on a line with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov. He took the opportunity he was given and made the most of it. And now he’s in line for a big payday.

For Vesey, the opportunity with the ‘Hawks, who once again had to shed forward talent this offseason, could include a shot on a line with Jonathan Toews. At the moment, the top candidate to be skating on the captain’s left side is probably Richard Panik, a good player, but certainly no superstar.

And even if asking Vesey to step into a top-six role is unrealistic — because let’s remember he hasn’t even played a game of pro hockey — there are additional openings in the bottom six, possibly on a third line with Marian Hossa and Marcus Kruger.

Vesey told NHL.com that part of choosing where to sign included “sifting through teams and rosters and prospect pools and stuff like that.” After winning the Hobey Baker in his senior year with Harvard, he clearly believes he’s ready step into an NHL lineup right away, an opportunity he already had with the Predators but chose to turn down.

In making his big decision, Vesey may also want to consider what happened to Justin Schultz, another college player who spurned his draft team to become a free agent. Schultz ended up signing with Edmonton, where there was no shortage of opportunity for the young defenseman. In fact, there may have been too much opportunity. When it proved he still needed time to develop, there wasn’t enough veteran talent around him and he eventually buckled under the weight of expectations, his confidence shot.

According to one report, the three favorites to land Vesey are the Blackhawks, Rangers and Devils. While all three of those teams can promise him an opportunity to be in the NHL next season, possibly even in a top-six role, only the ‘Hawks can offer the chance to join a dynasty, surrounded by a bunch of future Hall of Famers.

That’s a heck of a pitch that Bowman can make to Vesey. We should find out later this week if it’s good enough to get him.