Jason Pominville

Risk Factors: Minnesota Wild edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Minnesota Wild

1. Goaltending. Obviously. When the dust settled on a dysfunctional offseason — one that included Darcy Kuemper’s lengthy contractual impasse, Josh Harding busting his foot kicking a wall, and Ilya Bryzgalov — the Wild emerged with an unexpected tandem to start the regular season: Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom, with no clear message on who’s the No. 1.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Wild had hoped that Kuemper, still just 24 years old with 32 games of NHL experience, would be in AHL Iowa while veterans Harding and Backstrom backstopped the parent club. Granted, the Harding-Backstrom punch was far from a sure thing — both have a history of health concerns — but it gave Minnesota, at the very least, some depth and experience… not to mention the option of calling up Kuemper if things went sideways.

Now, that security blanket is gone.

And it’s left the Wild with a series of unknowns. Can Backstrom stay injury-free? Is Kuemper ready to play more than the 26 games he got last year? Will either emerge as the clear-cut starter? If not, can the Wild get consistent enough goaltending from a platoon situation?

Not even head coach Mike Yeo knows. Following a year in which five different goalies got games — Harding, Kuemper, Backstrom, Bryzgalov and John Curry — Yeo just wants some semblance of consistency in net.

“I would enjoy that a lot, that’s for sure,” Yeo said, per the Pioneer Press. “The one part I wouldn’t mind is if we have competition. If we have two guys — and we have had that in the past — pushing each other and both guys are performing at a high level where it’s a difficult decision as far as who you’re going to put in the net.

“If one guy were to really step up and win that position, there’s no question that makes our job a lot easier. But what I’m hoping for is that both guys are performing at a high level.”

2. Exhausted Ryan Suter. Earlier this summer, Brough asked if the Wild played Suter too much. It was a good and legitimate query; Suter, who turns 30 in January, averaged a league-high 29:24 TOI last season — overall he skated almost 200 more minutes than the second-most-deployed skater, Erik Karlsson, did for the Ottawa Senators.

It’s been this way since Suter landed in Minnesota two years ago. The organization seems to constantly teeter between two schools of thought: 1) We need to monitor his minutes and keep him from getting burnt out, and 2) We need him out there because he’s our No. 1 d-man and at his best when he plays a tonne.

Yeo adhered to the latter during last year’s playoffs.

“This is a guy that we’ve seen when he plays more, he plays better,” the head coach explained, per the Pioneer Press. “We’ll be aware of the schedule and we’ll make sure we’re managing him and his ice time how we need to in the games, but let’s not kid ourselves, he’s a great player.

“And when he’s fresh and we can have him on the ice, we want him there.”

There are inherent risks with playing Suter this much, of course. Fatigue is an obvious one, and so is injury — prior to starting last year’s opening-round series, the Avalanche made a point of saying they wanted to hit Suter as much and often as possible. During Game 3 of the Chicago series, Suter appeared to hurt his arm/shoulder in a tangle with Marian Hossa and while his minutes didn’t decrease in the following games, his performance did; Suter went minus-2 over the final two games of the series, recording just one hit and two blocked shots in the Game 6 OT loss.

3. Thomas Vanek’s bust potential. The former Golden Gopher did what everybody expected this summer by coming home to Minnesota, thanks to a three-year, $19.5 million deal signed on the opening day of free agency.

But is the homecoming a little too late?

Vanek is not, and I hate myself for using this term, a spring chicken. He turns 31 in January and is now five years removed from his last 40-goal campaign. The decline of goalscoring wingers as they get older is well documented, especially in Minnesota; Dany Heatley, who’s departure freed up the money to sign Vanek, experienced a sharp decline once he got on the wrong side of 30:

source:

At this point, it’s worth mentioning Vanek’s lacklustre playoff with Montreal. While some were quick to offer the Austrian a mulligan for last season given its volatile and unpredictable nature — he was traded twice and played for three different teams — that didn’t take away from the fact Vanek was average at the most crucial time of the season. Michel Therrien benched and called him out during the second-round series against Boston and after Montreal was eliminated by New York in the Eastern Conference Final, Hockey Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur blasted Vanek for disappearing under adversity.

The Wild can’t afford for Vanek to underwhelm. Aside from committing a significant amount of cap space to him, the team really needs someone to step up and score — Minnesota finished 23rd in the NHL in goals last season, with 207, and 59 of those came from two players (Jason Pominville and Zach Parise).

Sabres to name captain following training camp

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On Tuesday, Buffalo head coach Ted Nolan informed reporters he’d name his new captain at the commencement of training camp.

The Sabres have been without a captain since March, when Steve Ott was dealt to St. Louis as part of the Ryan Miller deal. Ott had previously served as a co-captain with Thomas Vanek, who wore the “C” for less than a month before getting shipped off to the Islanders.

It’ll be interesting to see what direction Nolan takes with his new leadership group. Historically speaking, the Sabres have often utilized a rotating staff — under Lindy Ruff, the club used Michael Peca, Stu Barnes, Miroslav Satan, Chris Drury, James Patrick, J.P. Dumont, Daniel Briere, Jochen Hecht, Toni Lydman, Brian Campbell, Jaroslav Spacek, Jason Pominville and Craig Rivet. But it’s possible they could go with a more traditional format under Nolan.

In what might be a glimpse into the head coach’s thinking, three veterans will serve as alternates for Tuesday’s preseason home opener against the Hurricanes: Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges and Matt Moulson.

Wild’s Yeo is already getting excited about Vanek

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It’s easy to focus on Thomas Vanek’s late-playoff struggles and forget that the Minnesota Wild added one of the league’s most dangerous snipers this offseason. Wild head coach Mike Yeo sounded borderline giddy talking to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about Vanek’s potential impact and his early chemistry with Mikko Koivu.

“We’ve really started to see some chemistry between Mikko and Vanek that’s been fun to watch,” Yeo said. “It’s been exciting. I’ve been really pleased with Thomas so far. I have a whole new appreciation for his skill level and how smart he is. I mean, he’s thinking usually two or three plays ahead. So that’s been fun, and he’s been working.”

Yeo also joked that Vanek “reminds him of himself.” One assumes a joking Yeo is a happier Yeo, as opposed to the frustrated fellow grumbling about goaltending or his team being described as boring.

As excited as the Wild might be about Koivu – Vanek, there’s always the chance that the team will see different amalgamations. That’s the kind of rare luxury Yeo faces with Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and a growing number of promising young forwards to choose from.

(One other interesting note in that regard: Charlie Coyle’s apparently getting a chance to prove that he can stick at center.)

With Vanek added to a group of increasing star power, many joke that the Wild have little excuse to “be boring” any longer, whether that label was fair or not in recent years. Perhaps the 30-year-old winger’s creativity might inspire his teammates much like he managed to do in just a short time in Montreal, as Elliotte Friedman discussed in late April for the CBC?

15. Pretty interesting hearing David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty talk about how much they had to adjust their games to play with Thomas Vanek. Desharnais said that when he played with Brendan Gallagher, you had to go support him when the winger got the puck in the corner. Vanek wants the opposite. “The farther we can spread teams out,” he said, “The more success we will have.” Desharnais also had to get used to carrying the puck less and driving to the net more, because Vanek likes to carry it, too.

16. “I’ve never seen anyone make the decisions [Vanek] makes,” Pacioretty added. “He’s basically thinking, ‘What do guys think I’m going to do with the puck right now?’ and he does the opposite of it.” Pacioretty said Vanek is making him re-think how he plays the game. “One thing that really sticks out is he said to never have your stick on the ice in front of the net, because the d-man can tie it up. He’s always hanging around with his stick in the air, and instead of putting it on the ice and waiting for a tip, he kind of slaps at it when the puck comes…You get more speed on it.”

Snipers in Vanek’s age range tend to dip a bit in their early 30’s, yet he could even make a positive impact on the team merely in impacting the on-ice philosophy of youngsters such as Mikael Granlund.

Heightened pressures tend to come with climbing expectations, yet it’s difficult to blame the Wild for their excitement right now.

The KHL’s really trying to mow Minnesota’s lawn

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Yesterday, the agent for unsigned Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper said rumblings of a move to the KHL “could happen.”

Today, there’s another report of a Minnesota youngster receiving overtures from Russia. From the Pioneer Press:

Niederreiter, 22, is coming off a breakout campaign in which he scored 14 goals and 36 points in 81 games, then scored one of the biggest goals in Wild franchise history:

He’s a blossoming talent and, per the Pioneer Press, progress has been made recently with regards to a new deal. But the Wild know signing Niederreiter will have implications further down the road — most notably next summer, when a slew of key RFAs are up for new deals: Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella.

(Which is why Fletcher keeps stressing the importance of finding “the right deal.”)

The Kuemper and Niederreiter deals have been a thorn in Minnesota’s side all season, so it’s not surprising to learn that the KHL has thrown its hat in the ring. Fletcher has a lot of money tied up in recently-signed veterans — Jason Pominville turns 32 in November and is on the books ’til 2019; Thomas Vanek’s now on the wrong side of 30 and will make $6.5M annually for the next three years — and it makes sense that someone’s trying to put the financial squeeze on by offering the youngsters (Niederreiter specifically) a big chunk of change.

With Ott gone, who will be Buffalo’s next captain?

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Since the start of 2013, three different players have worn the ‘C’ in Buffalo — Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, and Steve Ott — and they have all been traded. That’s created something of a leadership vacuum for the Sabres going into the 2014-15 campaign.

Fortunately, there have some candidates to fill that void.

Perhaps the most obvious player is Brian Gionta, who inked a three-year, $12.75 million contract with Buffalo over the summer. The 35-year-old doesn’t have experience within the Sabres’ organization, but he has a strong resume after serving as the Montreal Canadiens’ captain and winning the Stanley Cup.

He could prove to be a mentor for the young Sabres and aide them in their rebuilding efforts. After his tenure with Buffalo ends, the team could then hand the captaincy to one of the young forwards that’s established himself and symbolically complete the transitional period at that time.

The Sabres might also opt to go with a younger option to put the focus more squarely on their future. Tyler Ennis, for example, is an interesting choice. He’s just 24 years old (25 in October), but already has 267 NHL games under his belt. On top of that, he’s starting a five-year, $23 million contract this season, so he’s someone that will be around for the rest of Buffalo’s rebuild and then still be young enough to lead them once the Sabres are on the other side of it.

Ennis plans to learn from Gionta and the other veterans on the team, but he also recognizes that at this point he should take on more responsibilities in the locker room.

“It’s time for us (Ennis and Tyler Myers) to take over now,” Ennis said, per team’s website. “It’s a good balance of older guys, middle guys ready to take over and lot of great young kids coming up.”

Another option is for the team to pass on naming a captain this season. As a rookie, Sam Reinhart isn’t expected to take on that role, but the 18-year-old is, as Flames president Brian Burke put it, an “Einstein on the ice” and might be a serious candidate in a year or two if everything goes right. On top of that, if Buffalo has a bad season, it could end up drafting a potential superstar in Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

Would it make sense for the Sabres to leave the position vacant for now in the hopes that one of their promising young players will claim it? That’s up to head coach Ted Nolan, but he certainly has a few interesting paths he could take.