What’s in store for Wild after disappointing season?

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The Minnesota Wild need a miracle.

Without one over the next five days, their season is going to come to a bitterly disappointing end that not only snaps the team’s six-year run of consecutive postseason appearances, but also spoils the guarantee from coach Bruce Boudreau that the team would, in fact, make the playoffs.

What has to make this season so disappointing for Minnesota is where the team was coming from the previous two years, and just how wide open the playoff race in the Western Conference turned out to be.

You may not have looked at the Wild as one league’s top teams before this season, but keep in mind only three teams in the NHL recorded more points than Minnesota’s 207 during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, while they topped the 100-point mark in three of the past four individual seasons. It may have never resulted in a meaningful playoff run, but the Wild were always good enough to matter, even if they weren’t quite good enough to actually do anything that would make them stand out come playoff time.

Add in the fact that the second wild card team in the West is likely to finish with one of the lowest point totals any playoff team has had in the salary cap era and it is kind of stunning that this team is almost certainly going to fall short, even when you take into account the injuries that have sidelined Mathew Dumba and Mikko Koivu for most of the season.

They should still be better than this.

That is almost certainly going to lead to more changes for an organization that has already undergone significant change over the past year.

The first big question is probably going to be the fate of Boudreau, and given the circumstances it is worth wondering if he is coaching his final games in Minnesota this week.

Anytime you have a team that will (again, barring a miracle) be now going four consecutive years without a postseason series win, and is likely to miss the playoffs by regressing by nearly 20 points in the standings, the job security of that coach, no matter their credentials in the league, is going to be in question. That is especially true when the team in question has a new general manager (Paul Fenton) that is almost certainly going to be looking for an excuse to bring in their own coach.

Realistically speaking, it is going to be awfully difficult for the Wild to find a better coach than the one they have now (unless they can convince Joel Quenneville to take their job, if it becomes available) so there is definitely going to be a risk there if that is the direction they go. And that is a concern.

But no matter who the coach is the future of the franchise is going to come down to the players Fenton and his staff are able to assemble.

And that is where the real red flag should be for Wild fans.

In his first full season as general manager Fenton dramatically overhauled the core of the team by trading Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund in an effort to get younger. That also seems to have been the only primary objective because there is not much to suggest the team got better as a result of that sequence of trades.

The early returns, especially in the case of Niederreiter (traded straight up to Carolina for Victor Rask), are looking … poor.

It is not necessarily the results of the trades that is most concerning right now, but the process behind them.

In all three trades the Wild were trading core players, all of whom still had term remaining on their contracts beyond this season (meaning the Wild shouldn’t have felt pressure to trade them when they did), at what was arguably their lowest possible values.

If you are going to trade such significant players you need to make sure you are maximizing the return of that asset as best you can, and there is plenty of objective evidence to argue that the Wild did no such thing.

You don’t need to dig very far to see just how concerning the thought process was in these moves.

At the time of their trades, all of Niederreiter, Coyle and Granlund were stuck in down years that could probably best be described as unlucky.

Niederreiter, a proven 25-goal scorer that plays a heck of a two-way game and can drive possession, was getting just 14 minutes of ice-time and had what was the second-lowest PDO of his career (PDO simply being the sum of a player’s on-ice shooting percentage and save-percentage during 5-on-5 play). Everything about his season and his career should have indicated that he was due to bounce back at some point, whether it was this season or next season. The bounce back began almost as soon as he arrived in Carolina where he has been one of the Hurricanes’ best and most productive players. He looks like the player he has always been, and one that the Wild could absolutely use both this season and in future seasons.

In return for that, the Wild received Victor Rask  who is roughly the same age as Niederreiter, with a lesser resume in the NHL, and a career that seems to be trending in the wrong direction.

It was the same situation for Granlund, a forward that scored at a 70-point pace over the previous two seasons and was one of the few difference-makers the team had at forward.

And while the return for Granlund (Kevin Fiala, a long-time favorite of Fenton going back to his days as Nashville’s assistant general manager) looks better than the return for Niederreiter, it’s still worth wondering how much better it makes the team in the long-run.

The only trade that is looking overly promising at the moment and could be a decent upgrade is the Coyle for Ryan Donato swap.

Given that almost all of the Wild’s roster is still under team control for the foreseeable future (Koivu, Eric Fehr, Brad Hunt, Anthony Bitetto, J.T. Brown, and Jared Spurgeon are the only players eligible for unrestricted free agency over the next two years) it is almost a given that any other significant overhaul of the roster is going to have to come through trades, and the early look into his process there is, again, concerning.

If the Wild are going to turn things around in the short-term they are going to need to see significant steps from young players like Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek, while also hoping that Fenton and his staff gambled correctly on the likes of Fiala and Donato and don’t continue to sell core players at their lowest value.

Without any of that that it’s hard to see better days being on the horizon for the Wild.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg being limited to a single point.

Things should regress in a positive way, even in the highly likely instance that neither Bishop nor Khudobin will rekindle that 2018-19 magic. Much like the slow-starting Wild, the Stars have played most of their games on the road (six of nine away from home) so far. After Saturday’s trip to Philly to play the Flyers, the Stars play six of seven games in Dallas from Oct. 21 through Nov. 5. The outlook could look quite a bit rosier by the end of that stretch.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Stars dug themselves a formidable hole. While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Nationals’ Scherzer drops ceremonial baseball before Capitals game

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The Washington Nationals have some time to kill before the 2019 World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, so why not take in a Washington Capitals game … and maybe put a new knuckleball-like spin on a common hockey photo-op?

Instead of dropping the ceremonial first puck before Friday’s Capitals – Rangers contest, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer elected to drop a baseball instead. You can watch video of that fun ceremony (which vaguely reminded me of Auston Matthews doing a little Globetrotter spin with a Raptors basketball) in the video above. Sports city synergy is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

As a baseball not-knower, this brings up a lot of questions — some I can answer, some not so much.

  • Was it one of those new-fangled “juiced” baseballs? Scherzer probably doesn’t like those, if they’re really a thing.
  • I was wondering about Scherzer’s (maybe somewhat intimidating) different-colored eyes. Apparently Scherzer was born that way, although one eye was blue and the other was green, originally. (The blue eye turned bluer, while the green one turned brown.) Dany Heatley is a hockey player who comes to mind with that, but his story is less fun and more upsetting.
  • CNN clears up the Nationals’ connection to “Baby Shark,” which I wondered about thanks to this:

(Even Capitals fans would probably admit that this is swimming a bit close to San Jose’s waters.)

  • In case you were wondering, that sports city synergy went both ways, as you can see from Alex Ovechkin hugging Scherzer before a Nationals game in June 2018 (via Getty):
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

As of this writing, the Capitals lead the Rangers 3-2 and the New York Yankees are trying to protect a 4-1 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. If the Astros win, they’ll face Scherzer’s Nationals.

… And that about concludes my baseball-knowing.

/chews imaginary tobacco/Major League Chew

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.