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Why Wild are better off being terrible next season

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When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem is that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who are more or less in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

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.

The Buzzer: Hutton shuts door for Sabres; Pastrnak’s pasta day

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Three Stars

1. Carter Hutton, Buffalo Sabres

Are the Sabres for real? Time will tell, but it’s clear that Hutton is on fire.

Buffalo fattened its lead to 3-0 just a few minutes into the second period, and were able to sit on that edge, even as the Kings fired a lot of biscuits at Hutton. The 33-year-old goalie generated a 47-save shutout on Thursday, giving him a two-game shutout streak after he stopped all 25 shots against the Stars on Oct. 14.

Hutton’s now 5-0-0 on the season, and only allowed seven goals so far.

There are some Sabres who are inevitably going to cool down. That’s not meant to be an insult; instead, it’s pretty much unavoidable because they’re playing at such a high level. Hutton is up there with the hottest skaters on that team.

2. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

It honestly might be a little on-the-nose for Pastrnak to have such a great “National Pasta Day” by scoring two goals and one assist for Boston on Thursday.

Then again, it’s really just another day for Pastrnak.

After a quiet start to 2019-20 where he didn’t score any points in two games, Pastrnak’s been boiling lately, with 13 points in his last five contests, and seven points over his last two games.

The only thing that went a little stale for the 23-year-old was that the Bruins couldn’t win, as the Lightning ended up winning via a shootout.

3. Casey Mittelstadt, Buffalo Sabres

Normally, tiebreakers would go to players who are on different teams, but while there were plenty of other strong performances on Thursday, Mittelstadt and Pastrnak were the top scorers with three points.

Like Pastrnak, Mittelstadt managed two goals and one assist. You could definitely make a case that Mittelstadt deserves the second star, as one of his goals ended up being the game-winner for Buffalo.

Either way, it was quite the way for Mittelstadt to make the most of his modest ice time of 12:19 on Thursday. The sophomore has been a feast-or-famine scorer so far in 2019-20, collecting two assists to start the season, going six games without a point, and then managing three points on Thursday.

Most painful moment of the night

The Wild are a mess, but Joel Eriksson Ek showed that they’re still able to show courage. He blocked three shots from Shea Weber, which left Ek in a walking boot, but gained Weber’s respect, according to The Athletic’s Michael Russo.

Those moments were even more painful that these GIFs of unintentional comedy from the Kings.

Highlight of the Night

Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck robbed Islanders rookie Oliver Wahlstrom:

Factoids

 

Scores

TBL 4 – BOS 3 (SO)
MTL 4 – MIN 0
NJD 5 – NYR 2
VAN 4 – STL 3 (SO)
NYI 3 – WPG 1
CGY 5 – DET 1
ARI 5 – NSH 2
VGK 3 – OTT 2 (SO)
BUF 3 – LAK 0

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.

Things are so bad for Wild, even Boudreau’s getting called out

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The Minnesota Wild suffered through a miserable and embarrassing offseason, and things really haven’t gotten much better through the first two weeks of 2019-20.

Thursday presented a buffet table of badness for the Wild:

  • They fell 4-0 to the Montreal Canadiens, and didn’t muster much of a fight. Carey Price only needed to make 17 saves for the shutout. You’d think there would have been more of a pushback being that Montreal went up 3-0 during the first period, yet the Habs generated an 18-11 SOG advantage through the final 40 minutes despite holding a chunky lead.
  • Minnesota is now 1-6-0. The Wild’s only win was a 2-0 snoozer against the lowly Ottawa Senators.
  • The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that the Wild held a 10-minute players-only meeting, often a telltale sign that tensions are mounting.
  • In a truly rare and juicy moment, Russo points out Jason Zucker is asking more from everyone … including head coach Bruce Boudreau.

“I think more than (a meeting’s) going to have to jumpstart us, to be honest with you,” Zucker said. “It’s going to be each individual guy from Bruce on down. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”

Walking off the ledge in a few ways

So, yeah, the Wild are pretty miserable right now. In falling to 1-6-0, the Wild have been outscored by 15 goals through this young season.

But it is early. The Wild have 74 games remaining on their regular season schedule. They’re not even really alone in the Central Division, either, as the Dallas Stars came into 2019-20 with bigger expectations (and more dollars spent) and find themselves sputtering to a 1-6-1 start.

There’s also the matter of it possibly being better, in the long-term, for the Wild to be really bad in the short-term.

You can also consider context. The Wild have played six of their first seven games on the road, and while they beat a bad team for their lone win, Minnesota’s faced stiff competition overall. Five of their sixth losses came against teams that made the playoffs in 2018-19, and the Canadiens weren’t that far from doing the same.

Those excuses might not do much for a team with frayed emotions. Boudreau and his players would probably roll their eyes at such comments.

Yet, for a team who would probably need some luck to be more than a bubble team, factors like quality of opponents and tough road trips could really make the difference. Especially when you stagger into the season after a bewildering and humiliating summer, and didn’t exactly gain a lot of confidence in the way 2018-19 ended, either.

Things are bleak for the Wild, and it’s possible that they stay that way.

It’s also early, though, so this is a good time for the Wild to gather themselves, and maybe get back on track.

There also still could be a lot of nights like these, although you won’t see Boudreau’s name mentioned like this very often — assuming he can survive the peaks and valleys of this season as Wild head coach, in general. In other words, feel free to break out your cringe-inducing puns about this being a “wild” ride.

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.

Rangers point to power play struggles after loss to Devils

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The Rangers were ecstatic to get back on the ice after a four-day hiatus from game action, but the result was not what they had in mind.

Jack Hughes recorded his first point, P.K. Subban netted his first goal for the Devils and New Jersey snapped several droughts in its 5-2 victory over the Rangers on Thursday.

Tony DeAngelo and Jesper Fast both scored while Alexandar Georgiev made 33 saves in the Rangers’ second consecutive loss.

Rangers power play woes

The Rangers will need their power play to fire on all cylinders if they expect to contend for a playoff spot this season.

Over the past two games, the Rangers have failed on 10 consecutive man-advantage opportunities, including six missed chances against the Devils.

“That’s probably as sluggish as we looked on the power play all year,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “You can’t alter your approach when you don’t score a goal. You can build momentum off a good power play if you don’t score. I just thought we started getting away from the things we have been doing during the exhibition season and the three games we played.”

Seemingly, the momentum can swing the other way, too. The Rangers’ power play failures began to pile up through the course of 60 minutes.

“As the game goes on, the more chances there are, the more the opponent knows what you are trying to do,” defenseman Jacob Trouba said after playing over seven minutes on the PP. It almost gets a little tougher as the game goes on and you have that many power plays.”

Four games and a handful of opportunities provide a small sample size in terms of power play production. But, without consistent offensive production on special teams, the Rangers are going to struggle to win games.

DeAngelo aims to carve out role

DeAngelo notched his first goal of the season to open the scoring at 6:02 of the first period. The offensive-minded defenseman sensed a scoring opportunity and cashed in on the rebound.

This past summer, DeAngelo was forced to sign a one-year contract due to lack of leverage during negotiations. The 23-year-old began the season knowing he would have to prove himself on a daily basis.

A right-handed defenseman with the ability to move the puck and potential to run a power play is a sought-after commodity in the NHL. Teams are often scrambling to fill that need or rearranging other pieces throughout their lineup to cover up an obvious hole.

However, DeAngelo is on a team that has multiple options at the position due to a busy summer. The Rangers acquired Jacob Trouba and added another offensive-minded defenseman in Adam Fox, essentially filling the role DeAngelo was supposed to play.

But the Rangers are doing their part to give DeAngelo an opportunity to dress consistently. In order to make it work, Brendan Smith has been playing as a fourth line forward to give the backend an extra penalty killer.

For DeAngelo, a goal is a step in the right direction, but he will need to continue to demonstrate to David Quinn and the coaching staff that he is worthy of a spot in the Rangers everyday lineup.

Strange schedule

In a game built off rhythm and tendencies, the Rangers have had to overcome a few strange schedule quirks to open up the 2019-20 NHL season.

The Blueshirts have only played in four games over the past 16 days and have had trouble fine-tuning the specific nuances of the sport.

“We have to understand situational hockey. The good news is we get to play more hockey and understand it better, Quinn said. “It’s tough to emulate it in practice. We are going to be able to draw from what happened today and be better for it tomorrow.”

It is not often a team looks forward to a back-to-back, but the Rangers are eager to play with more regularity. On Friday, they play against the Washington Capitals before beginning a five-game homestand.

“We want to play hockey games, it’s the only way you can really get better in this league,” Quinn said.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

A night of ‘Finally’ for Devils in win vs. Rangers

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It wasn’t always pretty for the New Jersey Devils against the New York Rangers on Thursday night.

The Devils’ first win of 2019-20 wasn’t a work of art. Jack Hughes‘ first NHL point wasn’t all that aesthetically pleasing, either. But the Devils will take it. And being that this came against the Rangers, the sweet will outweigh the bitter even more.

After falling behind 1-0 early, New Jersey fired off three consecutive goals to eventually secure a 5-2 win in front of a mixture of Rangers and Devils fans in Newark. The “workmanlike” nature of the victory really could be summarized by Hughes’ first point not exactly coming as you’d draw it up: an assist that deflected off of Miles Wood‘s backside, essentially.

Let’s work through some of the storylines in this one.

Breaking some droughts, but still some work to do.

Again, the Devils really needed this win, as they came into Thursday at 0-4-2 (now 1-4-2). The Rangers likely felt a little rusty, as they last played on Saturday, and have only appeared in four games, slipping to 2-2-0.

Along with finally getting that first win, and Hughes getting his first point, the Devils finally scored on the power play. New Jersey went 0-for-18 through their first six games, so Kyle Palmieri‘s power-play marker is another source of relief.

Heck, with a long-distance empty-net goal, P.K. Subban also scored his first goal with the Devils.

A pessimist would argue that an empty-net goal only counts for so much, and that Hughes’ assist wasn’t impressive, but those also mean fewer annoying questions during interviews. Like Victor Mete after scoring his first NHL goal, the Devils can just play.

But, yeah, they need to be better. Sure, they finally scored on the power play, but they only went 1-for-7 on Thursday, so they still need to find some answers.

(I hate to say it, but they really need to explore the question of whether Wayne Simmonds is still a top power-play unit guy. He’s struggled in recent years, and while the effort still seems to be there, the “finish” might not be. He has zero goals and one assist through seven games. Maybe it would be better to replace him with Nikita Gusev, who didn’t need much space to score after Artemi Panarin broke a stick on Thursday? A group including Gusev, Hughes, Subban, Palmieri, and Taylor Hall could be lethal.)

An answer in net?

It’s nice to see Cory Schneider possibly being healthy, or healthier, as his free-fall from elite to poor goalie is likely due in part to injuries. The bottom line is that Schneider might just be a backup (or worse) at this point in his career, though. Schneider’s 0-3-0 record and putrid .876 save percentage provide little hope that he’s just going to turn back the clock.

So the Devils really don’t have much of a choice: they need to see how far Mackenzie Blackwood can bring them.

The 22-year-old was off to a rocky start of his own this season, but was sharp on Thursday, stopping 29 out of 31 shots, including six SOG from a Rangers PP that went 0-for-6. After one great stop via the scary one-timer combination of Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, Subban gave Blackwood a tap on the head in appreciation. Rightfully so, I’d say.

Last season, Blackwood generated a .918 save percentage over 23 games (21 of which were starts). That’s not a huge sample size, but being that he was a second-rounder (42nd overall in 2015) and Schneider looks shaky-at-best, the Devils have every incentive to send him out there and see if he can give them at least league-average goaltending.

No.1 vs. No. 2 isn’t there yet

There are moments where it’s already captivating to watch Hughes, right down to nerding out when he does some simple-but-impressive skating, such as using his edges or accelerating with impressive speed.

But if we want Hughes vs. Kaapo Kakko to become a rivalry worth watching, we will have to lean on stronger sequels.

Both the Rangers and Devils seem like works in progress, yet with all of the talent they’ve added, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more fireworks in future meetings.

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.