Monday, March 24, 2008

Wild Brass Brainy on Brawny?

So the Wild has played the last two games with Derek Boogaard, Chris Simon and Todd Fedoruk all dressed. That's an average height of 6-4 and an average weight of 250 lbs.

Among them, those three gentlemen have accounted for three fighting majors (Boogaard also had one in the Sharks game), four minor penalties, zero goals, zero assists and a cumulative -1 in those two games. And the Wild went 1-1-0.

They were also two of the most physical games of the season, both against division rivals with whom the Wild is in a desperate battle for the division title (and the home ice advantage that comes with it). Further, the division champion will most likely end up playing the division runner-up in the first round of the playoffs.

And it should be said that the Vancouver game was noticeably lacking of the cheap, behind the play, dirty-or-just-on-the-line little touches for which this blossoming rivalry has come to be known of late. The Calgary game had less of that as well, though it had not been as prevalent in games between the Wild and the Flames as it had in games between the Canucks and the Wild.

Much has been written here about the Wild brass addressing the team's shortcomings last playoffs by bringing in all these tough guys (to an extent you can include seldom-used Sean Hill and Aaron Voros on this list as well) and whether or not that is a good strategy.

But now, for the first time, we can look at actual games to see if this works.

While the win over Vancouver was nice, the Wild has not exactly struggled against the Canucks this season. So beating them with our tough guys in the lineup CAN be seen as just an extension of that overall trend. And the Wild has struggled mightily against the Flames this year, and not only did that continue, but the Wild allowed five goals (in regulation, no less!) in the process.

I believe the Wild is just not built for this tough, physical, norte americano style of hockey. To me, the evidence is that, in the instances this season where that kind of game has happened, the Wild has either wilted or gotten into the physical game, but at the expense of the other things (speed, transition, defensive soundness) that they do well - and that have made them successful.

There are many who contend that the presence of the muscle element on the bench alone is enough to protect the skill players from abuse. I tend to think this is folly - especially considering A) it's not much of a deterrant if that tough guy is only going to get a few minutes a game and B) if I'm one of these modern-pests who have no respect for my fellow player and no reason to respect the antiquated "Code" in hockey.

Blame expansion, blame the instigator, blame Bettman, blame the half-shields, whatever...the bottom line to me is that there are too many players in the league whose future as an active NHL player depends on them not heeding the cautionary warning of the hulking figure of another team's goon - standing on the bench - and instead going out and chopping that team's star winger on the ankle, or crushing him into the boards from a dangerous angle.

So the role of the goon is reduced. You need to have some skillz to go along with your ability to punch a guy in the face while standing on ice to garner more than a handful of minutes in a NHL game today. And frankly, that's fine with me. But that means that those guys whose skillsets DON'T include the ability to contribute regularly in other areas of the game will not see the additional ice time. So the chances are that much better that their butt is on the bench when the ankle biters are out their plying their nefarious trade on your star players.

It would be one thing if we were still only talking about one guy per team. But when the Wild dresses THREE such individuals (granted Fridge and, to a lesser extent, Simon do add value in other areas and garner more TOI than Boogey) to me you're effectively reducing the game roster of forwards to three lines of usable players. And that puts additional stress on the other guys, which leads to them being more tired in the key minutes of periods/the game which makes it harder to mount a comeback/protect a lead.

In summary, I continue to think that the Wild brass has not created a team that is tougher (top to bottom) and has actually handicapped the team when it is in tight, physical, playoff-type games - as they will be until the end of their season, whenever that may be.


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