Tag Archives: nhl

Nothing Wildly Different

8 May

The Minnesota Wild have perfected the art of losing to the Chicago Blackhawks, with Chelsea Dagger serenading the boys in Christmas colors on their trip to the exits for a third straight year. This one, however, has a different flavor. The first year they were happy to be there, and last year they gave the Hawks a real fight, seeming to show their arrival on the stage of hockey relevance. This year, they went out with a whimper, a crisp sweep in which they were outgunned, outplayed, outcoached, and outdone in every facet of the game. The Chicago juggernaut, perhaps on the verge of the best claim to dynasty in recent NHL history, made sure Minnesota will once again be haunted of visions of Patrick Kane shredding the defense.

It was a frustrating year on many levels for the Wild. Last season’s momentum went utterly flat over the first half of the season, and they very nearly played themselves out of a playoff spot by January. The Devan Dubnyk trade turned the season around, but they spent five whole months in an exhausting desperation mode, trying to make up for an early hole dug with goalies who had been, at the very least, passable up until this season. The second half run was remarkable, and the win over St. Louis in the first round was a solid showing, whatever the Blues’ playoff woes may entail. But there was an ongoing worry that yet another Dubnyk start, and yet another Ryan Suter thirty-minute game, might come back to bite them in the end. The Wild spent most of the season getting back to where they should have been all along.

And once they finally did make it there, they reverted to earlier form. It was no secret the Wild were less talented than the Blackhawks, but the relentless work rate that made last year’s series interesting wasn’t there. Nor were there any real adjustments, or any serious tweaks made to rectify the obvious mismatch. With a litany of neutral zone turnovers and the Hawks sailing into the offensive zone with ease, Dubnyk suddenly looked all too mortal. If last season showed the best of Mike Yeo’s system-based hockey, this season brought out the worst: inane cycling, timid passes in place of shots, and the third forechecker consistently caught out in no-man’s land. They were tactically incoherent, never getting to their game, and making no adjustments once this was readily obvious. Again and again, the square peg met the round hole.

I was always a bit leery of Thomas Vanek, the Wild’s big offseason signing. I thought it might be overpayment; what wasn’t expected was the sheer mediocrity and lack of effort. He brought no added life to an anemic Wild power play, and they are now saddled with two more years of sporadic production and disinterested backchecking. The Wild soft spot for players with Minnesota ties reared its ugly head yet again, and Vanek is the poster child for the decline in the work ethic that had made this team so fun to watch in recent memory.

Vanek is hardly the lone scapegoat, though. Suter looked far too human for a $98 million man late in the season, and Jason Pominville’s finishing still leaves something to be desired. The Darcy Kuemper era came to an abrupt and sorry end, and throughout, Yeo showed a preference to fill holes with mediocre veterans in place of kids with promise, and was never terribly decisive in making any changes. (Oh, that power play.) Yes, they were in a desperate race for the playoffs, but it’s no good sacrificing the future to get there.

After last season, I sounded a cautionary note about some of the kids; they weren’t all going to pan out as brilliantly as they looked last postseason. There were a couple of bright spots, as Matt Dumba showed his dynamism in winning a job, and Marco Scandella’s heavy shot started to find the back of the net. But beyond that, there wasn’t enough growth. Kuemper flopped, Jared Spurgeon and Mikael Granlund (however you pronounce it) treaded water, Nino Niederreiter’s point totals dropped off, Charlie Coyle never seemed to be used quite right, and Erik Haula wound up riding the bench. On the whole, it’s a depressing player development record. A handful of these players probably won’t pan out—that’s just the nature of young prospects—but the Wild need to do better than this.

Dubnyk has done more than enough to earn a contract, though not so much that he’s utterly indispensable. One great half season is lovely, but it’s also just a half season, and when the defense was overexposed, he started to concede some fairly routine goals. The Wild need to find him a genuine backup, too, so that he doesn’t have to play every single night. Beyond that, there’s no single glaring hole, but a lot of room for improvement. In fact, that might be the Wild’s biggest conundrum: there’s no silver bullet here, no obvious hole that Chuck Fletcher has to plug. The kids just have to get better, the veterans have to stay at a productive level, and the coaching needs to get more creative or hear the music. The quickest path to offseason improvement involves flushing out some of the mediocre role players that see too much ice time and committing to further player development.

It’s going to be a long summer; hopefully, it will be long enough to wash away the memories of this turbulent season. The Wild need to rediscover that energy and faith in the future that animated last season’s run. How long till October?

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Puck Drop 2014-2015

10 Oct

Hockey season is officially underway, and the Minnesota Wild has Minnesotans salivating with their performance on Thursday night. The 5-0 demolition of defending division champ Colorado was the most thorough performance imaginable, with the whole team looking like a well-oiled machine. This was the cycle as an art form, and pure puck possession hockey at its highest level. The top line of Zach Parisé, Mikael Granlund, and Jason Pominville led the charge with a big night, but every line was in on the act. Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter both scored from the blue line, showing just how seamlessly fluid the Wild was. There should be no need for Suter to log absurd ice times this season now that the second defensive pair is a bit more mature, and Spurgeon offers a second legitimate offensive threat from the point. The penalty kill, a serious weakness last season, was more active and thoroughly neutralized the Colorado power play. This is the way hockey is meant to be played.

It would be a mistake to get too high off one game, and this version of the Avalanche was probably far from their best. While they’re unlikely to repeat their surprise run to the top of the Central from a year ago, they’ll still be a tough team in an incredibly tough division. If the Wild really is anywhere near as good as they looked on Thursday night, it may not be a stretch to say that three of the five best teams in the NHL—Chicago and St. Louis being the other two—are all in the same division. The future of Minnesota professional hockey has perhaps never looked so bright.

Friday saw the start of the NCAA hockey season with a game between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, an enticing opening matchup that was made much less enticing by a 1:00 start time at an arena in Indiana with 54 people in it. The top-ranked Gophers return nearly everyone from last season’s national runner-up squad, and they looked very much the team to beat in the first five minutes of the game, poaching a pair of goals off bad UMD turnovers. After that it was a relatively flat game until a 3rd period UMD comeback made things interesting. The early lead had set the tone, with UMD trying to walk that awkward line between mounting a comeback and not exposing their weakness in back any more than it already was, and the Gophers largely content to sit back and rely on the transition game. Unlike the Wild game, this one definitely looked like a season-opener, with rust and sloppiness among the major themes.

The stars of the game were the two top-line centers, Kyle Rau and Dom Toninato. Rau had a hand in three of the four Gopher goals and was his usual antagonistic self all afternoon, winning battles all over the ice. While there’s a lot of talent around him, this is clearly Rau’s team. He, Sam Warning, and Hudson Fasching make for a lethal top unit. When the secondary scoring comes–and it will–this team will be very hard to stop.

Toninato, meanwhile, looks poised for a breakout year. He didn’t get quite as much attention as some of UMD’s other freshmen forwards last season, largely due to a lower point total, but he did a lot of things that don’t show up on the scoresheet with his strong defense, penalty-killing, faceoff wins, and presence in front of the net. Now, the Duluth East alum looks ready to become a force for the Bulldogs. (All 3 UMD goals were by former Greyhounds.) To really maximize the offensive potential that he and linemate Alex Iafallo bring to the table, they may want to move a playmaking forward to the top line in place of Adam Krause, whose grinding abilities may help out one of the lower lines that were occasionally caught too deep.

The Gophers may be #1, but there is work to be done. Two of their lines were largely invisible over the course of the game, and the defense had a few lapses as well. They also looked to be coasting some after grabbing the early lead, and the midseason energy wasn’t quite there yet. There’s no reason to suspect that they’re not the best team in the nation after this win, but the gap is probably not a large one. Don Lucia has a lot of bodies to sort through as he works out his lower lines and third defensive pair, so it may take a while before they really look championship caliber. With the length of the college hockey season, that’s no big issue.

UMD got better as the game went along, generating the majority of the zone time. That’s important, given their freshman goaltender and somewhat spotty defense; even the veteran defenders had some forgettable moments on Friday afternoon. Despite the loss, it was largely an encouraging performance from the Bulldogs, who enter the season one spot out of the USCHO preseason rankings. As they work things out over the course of a long season, it’s easy to see them moving up the ladder.

We’re a month away from the start of high school practices, and the Elite League season is nearing its end. While there’s usually some sort of October surprise to throw things off, I’ve started scratching out some early thoughts on preseason rankings, and will have plenty more work to do before they come out in about 5 weeks. Start the countdown…

Six Wild Myths

15 May

The Minnesota Wild’s season is over, with a funny bounce and that platonic ideal of the hockey bro, Patrick Kane, spelling its doom in the sixth game of the Western Conference semifinals. While it was a second straight defeat at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, it was also the second-best finish in franchise history, and a clear improvement on the team that got steamrolled by Chicago in the first round a year ago. To wrap it all up, here are six things that were said about this Wild team or the players on it that were either proven false, or should not be taken as gospel:

Mike Yeo is in over his head.

This might be the most obvious one: any midseason worries about the Wild’s young head coach were overwrought, and he deserves some time to see what he can do with this equally young, exciting core of emerging players. He had them playing a style that matched their skill set, and for the most part it was positive, possession-focused hockey, not the endless traps of the Lemaire Era. The “same old Wild” storyline from some in the national media was laughable; Colorado trapped more than the Wild did, and even the Blackhawks did so with some regularity. The Wild’s cycles aren’t exactly up-tempo hockey, and can sometimes lend themselves to inane passing, but they usually did a good job of generating chances for a team not blessed with an overload of offensive firepower.

Yeo can go a bit overboard with his line shuffling, and it was aggravating to see Dany Healtey oozing about the ice in game situations while the likes of Erik Haula rode the bench. Like his young players, he has some learning to do. But he has shown he can learn from mistakes, and there’s no reason to think he can’t be this team’s coach for years to come.

The Wild couldn’t win with Ilya Bryzgalov in net.

Bryz is no star, and his playoff stats are nothing to write home about. He is also definitely not the Wild’s future. But for a fourth-string goalie pressed into a very difficult situation, he wasn’t half bad: on the list of things that went wrong in the postseason, Bryzgalov’s performance is not near the top. Competent coaches can design game plans that lighten the burden on questionable netminders, and Mike Yeo did just that this postseason. The most you can ask of a goalie in Bryz’s situation is to give the team a chance to win, and he did just that.

It would be great for the Wild to have a goalie who can legitimately steal a game, as Corey Crawford did for Chicago in Game 6. They just don’t right now. Darcy Kuemper has probably done enough to earn a chance to be that man, though they need to have a realistic Plan B going forward, too.

Zach Parisé had a poor postseason.

As of this writing, Parisé’s 14 points in 13 games are tied for second-most of anyone in the playoffs. That’s more points than Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, and several other players who Parisé’s equals or superiors. That’s also a higher rate of points per game than he had during the regular season, and also comes in higher than most of his seasons in the NHL. True, his performance wasn’t incredibly consistent, and only 4 of those 14 points were goals. But, as with Bryzgalov, this is not among the major reasons the Wild lost. Parisé’s work ethic was superb as always, and his line was always the focus of the opposition’s most intense attention. No, he didn’t put the team on his back, but he was good enough.

Of bigger concern was the performance of Mikko Koivu. Sure, he was hurt, but it showed in his play, and he’s on the wrong side of 30. That’s not to say he can’t continue to be a productive player for the Wild, but his days as a top line center are probably in the past. It sure didn’t seem to help much when Yeo did put him on a line with Parisé.

There is an easy narrative about Matt Cooke.

After Cooke took out Tyson Barrie’s knee in the first round, people outside Minnesota were quick to label him a goon, this incident only being the latest in a long history of indefensible play. Wild fans, on the other hand, tended to see a player who’d made a serious dent in his penalty minutes, and for the most part cleaned up his act; the 7-game suspension, they argued, was an unfair punishment for a distant past. There’s some truth to both stories.

Cooke is tough to handle because he is more than a simple goon; he really is a productive player who brought excellent energy to the Wild third line. But no matter how much he seems to have left that past behind, there will always be that risk, and any team that signs him (and its fan base) will have to understand that. Such is life with Matt Cooke.

With all of their youth, the Wild are guaranteed a bright future.

Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Wild over the next few years. Mikael Granlund looks like a star in the making, and Erik Haula was arguably the Wild’s best player in the Chicago series. Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Justin Fontaine…the list of youngsters with serious potential goes on and on. The three young members of the defensive corps, while wobbly at times, held its own against the much more experienced Blackhawks and contributed some to the offense, usually in the form of Jared Spurgeon.

Still, there’s room for some cautionary notes. Many of these players only played a fraction of a long season, and a couple of flashes in the playoffs shouldn’t be taken as signs of future stardom. Reality is that a few of them probably won’t pan out, and there will be further growing pains and a need for patience. There is a Minnesota sports tendency to fetishize some of these homegrown kids, too (the flip side of this being the excessive expectations directed at the few high-priced free agents they do bring in, like Parisé). The Wild can’t let that cloud its judgment of these players’ progression, and they need to keep on bringing in quality youngsters if they want this to be more than a small window of contention.

The Wild MUST Get Thomas Vanek.

Vanek is a great player who would liven up a rather paltry power play, and might be enough to make the Wild’s offense truly formidable. The Wild does need another top-flight forward or two, and shouldn’t rely solely on the young stars’ progression to find them. I’ve got nothing against him. But the moment a team starts to convince itself that it has to have a certain player, they usually end up overpaying or otherwise behaving rashly. This team has needs beyond its top two lines, most notably on defense: I dream of a team on which Ryan Suter doesn’t have to play absurd minutes for the team to win. Again, the improving kids can help, but defensive depth was a weakness this past season. If they waste too much on one player, the trickle-down effects on depth could prove more of a hindrance than a help.

Another thing to understand about Vanek: he’s 30. If there’s a time to splurge on a free agent in his prime, it’s now: the Wild has every reason to load up for a run over the next few years, with Parisé and Suter in their primes and all the kids growing up. But fans also need to realize that he’s not going to get any better than he is now, and will almost certainly be overpaid by the end of his contract. It’ll all be worth it if he helps get the Wild to the promised land, but it can’t let other needs slide if they want to build a complete, championship team. Vanek, or a comparable forward, is just one piece of the puzzle.

***

The road to success is slow and long, but the Wild look to be on it, and had this otherwise erstwhile NHL fan glued to every game over the past month. There’s a lot of potential here, and this franchise finally looks to be coming into its own. The future is now, and it’s time for the Wild brain trust to seize this opportunity and run with it.

Yeo-man’s Work

1 May

The Minnesota Wild is headed to the second round of the playoffs, drifting in after a thrilling Game 7 overtime victory over the favored Colorado Avalanche. The man orchestrating this run from behind the bench is Mike Yeo, a sprightly 40-year-old with an unfortunate look of uncertainty seemingly stuck on his face. (I suspect it’s the glasses.) He’s had his ups and downs, and there were cries for his head during some of the team’s in-season slumps.  Still, it’s hard to fight the sense that he’s on to something. After the second half collapse in his first season, the Wild have twice improved their playoff result, and this is already the second-best finish in the Wild’s short and not-so-illustrious history. Three years in, he has them looking like a real contender.

I know, I know: all that improvement also traces back to July 4, 2012, the day the Wild opened the checkbook and brought in two legitimate stars, Ryan Suter and Zach Parisé. The front office has made a pair of trades to bring in two more top-six forwards, and for the first time in a while, the young talent really is flowing in. 21-year-old Charlie Coyle has established himself as a top-six forward, and two of the other young guns, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, were the overtime heroes of the series with the Avs. This team has a solid veteran core and a good group of rising young talent, and they have a window for serious contention over the next few years. Any coach should be able to show some improvement now that the Wild actually have good players.

Still, the shortcomings aren’t hard to find. Only one of their top four defensemen (Suter) is over 23, and while they all have their flashes—Jared Spurgeon in particular—they are not yet a real strength. Sure, the forward corps is deep; Granlund and Niederreiter look like stars in the making, and of course Parisé’s work rate is second to none. But it’s hard to pretend the Wild belong in a category with Chicago or Pittsburgh and their ilk when it comes to skill, and the lower lines never were—and still really aren’t—settled. The Wild’s goaltending odyssey, meanwhile, has been the stuff of nightmares. Can someone actually keep the job for more than two weeks?

And yet here they are, in the second round for the first time in eleven years. The credit goes to the gameplan, which was ideal for this series with the Avs, and for the Wild’s skill set: possess the puck. The Wild held it for long stretches, putting up lopsided shot counts in a number of games, giving that decent collection of forwards as many cracks at Semyon Varlamov as it could, while keeping the action away from the question marks on the back end. When a team plays like that, they don’t need their goalie to be, well, Patrick Roy; they just need him to make the saves they need to make. While there were a few breakdowns and maddening stretches of failed clearances, the Wild tenders didn’t break, and the team managed to control the flow of play more often than not. If you don’t let the other team dictate the pace and go to work in the offensive zone, the results will usually follow.

The Wild were once again Patrick Roy’s bête noire, as they repeated the 7th-game overtime knockout that ended his storied playing career in 2003. The rookie Avs coach deserves much of the praise he’s had this season for turning a floundering franchise into a division winner, but there is a learning curve here, especially in the playoffs. In Game 7 he played into the Wild’s hands by switching to a passive forecheck after grabbing the early lead, and while good defensive hockey is obviously a must in the playoffs, it should never come at the expense of a team’s real strengths. The Avs are at their best when flying up and down the rink, and when they made their concession to the trap, they let the Wild set the pace. Minnesota’s growing confidence was evident from there, and they came from behind four times before pulling off the win. The heroes were on the re-worked third line, which was on the ice for the last three goals, plus chipped in another just after a power play by the oft-maligned Dany Heatley. Unable to use that line to match with Colorado’s best as he had in the home games, Yeo instead went with three guys who could generate some offensive pressure, and they did just that.

It was a real triumph for Minnesota, both in the final results and in the style column, with Yeo’s patient cycles eclipsing the Avs’ trap. Moreover, one gets the sense that this franchise, now in its 14th season, is finally coming into its own. While Jacques Lemaire will always have a well-deserved place in Wild history for his early efforts, his imported, dull style and (mostly) ragtag collection of players never had the verve of this group. This Wild team has a couple of stars as its faces, a rising group of homegrown youngsters, and some hard-working depth players whose efforts keep the team on the attack and able to recover from short-term setbacks. It’s a fitting formula for a Minnesota team, and one its fans should have no trouble embracing: it’s not flashy, but it can still be very pretty, and with enough work thrown in, it produces results. After decades of wandering in the wilderness in the pros while the amateurs carry the load, the self-proclaimed State of Hockey may finally have an NHL team worthy of the title.

Of course, it could easily come to a crashing halt in the next round. Some have contended that the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t as good as they were a year ago, when they disposed of the Wild in five tidy games. I’m not buying it. It’s the exact same group, most of them are still in their primes, and they’re all playoff-tested; when they turned it on after going down 2-0 to St. Louis, they looked just like their old selves. The Hawks are the Avalanche on steroids, with depth, experience, and some overwhelming elite talent.

This Wild is certainly better than last year’s Wild, though, and they’ll have a fighting chance if they can continue to limit the burden on their goalies and defensemen not named Suter. Yeo will need to find a comfort zone with his line-juggling act, and perhaps add a few wrinkles in his chess match with Joel Quenneville. He’s not the second coming of Scotty Bowman; he has his flaws, and though he had some experience on Roy, he’s still a kid in the game. But he does have his team moving in the right direction, and when his back’s been up to the wall, he’s found a way. By Minnesota Wild standards, that’s a real achievement, and he’s done enough to earn some time to prove what he can do.