Bruce Boudreau

These are Wild times in Minnesota

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Expectations surrounding the Minnesota Wild were pretty low heading into this year. They were old, fired general manager Paul Fenton after he was allowed to sign players last summer, and they missed the playoffs by seven points in 2018-19. So, forgive the hockey world if they didn’t expect them to play much of a role in this year’s playoff chase.

The season started off the way everyone expected. Minnesota dropped their first four games to Nashville, Colorado, Winnipeg and Pittsburgh. They also lost six of their first seven games. During that opening seven-game segment of the season, they allowed at least four goals in all six of their losses.

They managed to tighten up a little bit after that point, but their season really took off when they returned home from their West Coast road trip on Nov. 14. That day, they beat the Arizona Coyotes, 3-2. They followed that up by losing to Carolina in overtime, beating Buffalo and Colorado and losing to Boston in overtime. They suffered an OT loss to the Rangers in New York, beat the Devils in New Jersey and took down the Senators and Stars in Minnesota. They’ve hit the road for back-to-back games in Florida and managed to beat the Panthers and Lightning on Tuesday and Thursday of this week.

Add it all up and the Wild have won five games in a row and they’ve collected a point in the standings in 11 consecutive contests. Yeah, that’s an impressive accomplishment for any group, especially this one.

A lot has gone right during this 8-0-3 run. Their big free-agent signing, Mats Zuccarello, has started producing with a lot more regularity. The veteran had a three-point effort in last night’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning and he’s picked up nine points in his last nine contests.

Who saw Alex Stalock emerging as a quality starting goalie for the Wild? Since starter Devan Dubnyk has been away from the team for personal reasons, Stalock has gone 5-0-2 and he’s held the opposition to two goals or fewer in four of those outings.

And it’s not like the Wild haven’t had to overcome even more adversity throughout this streak. For example, on Tuesday night against Florida, they were down 2-0 in the first period and lost both Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon to injury. Instead of folding, they came back and won the game in regulation.

Last night, they were down 1-0 in the first period and they blew 3-1 and 4-3 leads, but still managed to take down the Bolts in the regulation.

This team clearly believes in itself right now.

“You haven’t seen that with this team for a while, but I think it’s the belief in them right at this point,” Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau said after the win over Tampa, per NHL.com. “Instead of saying, ‘Oh, woe is me,’ they’re saying, ‘Let’s go, let’s get these guys right away.’ It doesn’t work all the time. When you’re winning and things are going good, it works. They’ve dug deep and [are] really playing for each other. When you do that, good things happen.”

This lengthy unbeaten streak has allowed the Wild to climb back into a playoff spot, as they’re currently in the second Wild Card position. Sure, Vancouver, San Jose and Calgary are all breathing down their neck, but they shouldn’t care about that. They need to keep this run going for as long as they can.

One thing that jumps out when looking at Minnesota’s home and road splits, is the amount of games they’ve played away from Xcel Energy Center. The Wild have an awesome 7-1-2 record at home. They’ve also won seven games on the road, but their record away from home is 7-10-2. We’re less than three months into the season and they’ve already played nine more road games than home games. The fact that they’re in such a good position is even more remarkable when you consider all that.

After Sunday’s road game in Carolina, the Wild will get to enjoy a week at home, as they’ll take on Anaheim, Edmonton and Philadelphia before embarking on another three-game road trip.

If they can stay within striking distance of a playoff spot, does new GM Bill Guerin pull the trigger on a trade for a rental?

This will be an intriguing situation to follow.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Sabres’ hot start; Coaches on hot seat

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Matt Dumba and Haydn Fleury got a tattoo to honor a friend that committed suicide. (NHL.com)

• Players and coaches deserve credit for the Buffalo Sabres hot start. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Former NHLer Chris Joseph is still fighting for the victims of the Humboldt bus crash. (The Hockey News)

Ryan O'Reilly will need to be more selfish if he wants to find the back of the net more often. (In the Slot)

• Seattle hockey fans will have to pay a high price to watch their team play in person. (Seattle Times)

• Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog sat down for a Q & A with ESPN.com. (ESPN)

Patrick Kane believes, Kirby Dach and Dylan Strome can build chemistry together. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent Nicklas Backstrom still feels young. (Nova Caps Fans)

• Sam Gagner is still trying to stick in the NHL. (Sportsnet)

• Canadian NHL markets have seen their attendance numbers drop early on this season. (Sporting News)

• How long can the Penguins continue playing the way they’re currently playing and how will they integrate their injured players back into the lineup? (Pensburgh)

• Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted that he steals from each one of the coaches in the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Here’s how the zamboni changed the game for ice rinks all over the world. (Smothsonianmag.com)

• Which coaches are on the hot seat right now? (Scotty Wazz)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Wild’s Jason Zucker apologizes to Bruce Boudreau for post-game comment

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The Minnesota Wild are off to an absolutely brutal start to the 2019-20 season having won just one of their first seven games.

Following their most recent defeat, a shutout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, Jason Zucker vented some frustration and said that everyone on the team needed to be better. Not exactly an earth-shattering comment for a 1-6 team, but what made it into a story was that he specifically mentioned coach Bruce Boudreau by name.

The exact comment: “I think more than (a meeting’s) going to have to jumpstart us, to be honest with you. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”

Anytime one of the top player’s on a team mentions the coach by name as someone that needs to be better — especially one that is seemingly already on the hot seat — it is going to get some attention. In Zucker’s case, it got a little more attention than he wanted, and after apologizing to Boudreau on the team plane after the game on Thursday, publicly apologized on Saturday.

“I’ll start by first apologizing to Bruce,” Zucker told Wild reporters on Saturday, via Michael Russo of The Athletic. “There was no reason for me to use his name in that quote in any way. That’s completely on me. My intention with the quote was to state that everybody needs to be better and needs to do more and pull more weight, and 99.9 percent of that is on the players.”

He went on to call it a poor choice of words on his part and again reiterated the fact that everyone needs to be better.

Zucker has two goals for the Wild through the first seven games of the season.

He has been one of the Wild’s best players for a few years now but still found himself as the centerpiece in two different trades that fell through by former general manager Paul Fenton.

The Wild are back in action at home on Sunday against Canadiens before playing seven of their next 10 games on the road.

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.

Things are so bad for Wild, even Bruce 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.

Nightmare of Niederreiter trade lingers as Rask struggles to earn Wild spot

The 2018-19 season ended up being a disaster both for Victor Rask and the Minnesota Wild, with the Rask – Nino Niederreiter trade being one of the main catalysts for the lightning-quick firing of Paul Fenton. It also seems like that nightmare will linger for Rask heading into 2019-20, at least to start.

Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau indicates that Rask finds himself behind four other centers on the depth chart, and thus might not begin the season as one of 12 forwards expected to dress for regular-season games, as Sarah McLellan reports for the Star-Tribune.

“At this moment, I would say that there are four centers ahead of him now that we’ve seen that [captain Mikko Koivu’s knee] is fine and he can play,” Boudreau said. “It makes it difficult. But this is where you become mentally strong. You wait for your chance, whether it’s Sunday in [the] preseason game and you score two or three, or the first chance you get into a game prove that you can’t be taken out of the game. That’s what it’s about.”

Boudreau added that “I gotta believe his confidence is sagging,” so at least the Wild aren’t trying to deny the obvious.

While this first serves, to some, as another victory lap for the Hurricanes’ side of the trade, and more pie on the face for Fenton, the situation is interesting for a few other reasons.

One that stands out to me is that it’s another reminder that the Wild are focused more on the absolute present than anything else.

I mention that because, from a team-building standpoint, there would be some logic in trying to goose up Rask’s value for an eventual “pump and dump” trade. Even if Rask’s less in a rut and more just a mediocre player going forward, the bottom line is that the 26-year-old carries a $4 million AAV through 2021-22. As horrendous as Rask looked at times this season in only managing nine points in 49 games between the Wild and Hurricanes, it’s not impossible for there to be some bounce-back, particularly if you put him in a position to succeed.

After all, Rask generated seasons of 48 (2015-16) and 45 (2016-17) points, and there were certain circumstantial elements that dragged his numbers down. The Swedish forward dealt with nagging injuries for significant stretches of the season, and only averaged 12:06 TOI, a massive drop from 2017-18, when he averaged 15:23 per night (which itself was a plummet from 2016-17’s career-high average of 17:18).

Now, those numbers don’t make the Rask – Niederreiter trade any easier to stomach, as there really wasn’t much pointing to Rask standing a great chance of hanging with Niederreiter, especially when you expand your view from sheer goals and assists to a player’s all-around impact, as Niederreiter has long been known as a strong play-driver, while Rask … not so much.

But if the Wild were looking more toward trying to optimize for the future, they might want to boost Rask’s numbers to make it possible to trade him for something, rather than having him be a potential $4M black hole and healthy scratch.

That risk is much higher in this current alignment, but that doesn’t mean the Wild are totally in the wrong. Frankly, with the way Rask played in 2018-19, there’s evidence that the team might have 12 better forward options. That’s relevant for a team that still seems eager to try to compete, whether you agree with that stance, lean toward the belief that a more fully-formed rebuild would be the smarter course, or not.

The Wild are continuing to choose “or not,” which means that Rask will need to make a convincing argument to get reps. Apparently Rask still has some convincing to do.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.