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).

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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Jeanine Leech/Getty Images
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.