The Wild hit the half-way point of their season with a thud on Saturday night in Columbus, largely mailing it in for the last game of a tough four-game roader. That the team was also stricken with a flu bug didn’t help matters. But, as the calendar careens towards the All-Star break, what is now known about the 2008-2009 Minnesota Wild frankly isn’t very encouraging.
To say the team is leaving a bad taste in fans’ mouths right now is both understatement and overstatement at the same time. Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty on this season seems to change by the day. But before we get into specifics, let’s recap what the expectations were for this team coming into the season.
1. Make the playoffs
2. Advance (at least) one round
Yes, the team lost veteran forwards (Rolston, Demitra, Parrish, etc). Yes, they were replaced, by a nearly the same number of goals, with a mix of veteran grit and (relatively) young promise. But, those expectations were borne of General Manager Doug Risebrough’s own set of expectations, dating back to day one of the organization: slow, but steady, improvement with the ultimate goal of perennial, justifiable inclusion in the discussion of Cup challengers. The team won its first division championship last season, but then bowed out of the playoffs in the first round for the second straight year. Therefore, if the stated goal is consistent improvement, then making the playoffs should be a given, and advancing would satisfy the “improvement” criterion.
So, through forty-one games, the Wild is sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference, a mere two points (but two wins) out of the all-important 8th spot. Obviously the team hasn’t not made the playoffs yet. And they also have not failed to advance in the big tournament this season either. So, while we may not be able to decide whether or not they have met those expectations, the question at the midway point of the season is: are they on the right track?
Some, with better and more consistent access to the team than me, aren’t convinced.
“This is going to be a tough second half folks. There’s just not enough scoring on this roster to last.” – Michael Russo*
“The Minnesota Wild are an exact combination of defensive greatness and offensive ineptitude forming perfect mediocrity. That may be a sort of balance, but not the kind the team — or its fans — wanted.” – John Shipley*
And I agree with Messers Russo and Shipley: this team does not appear to be sufficiently offensively skilled to meet either of those aforementioned goals.
But, what of the GM? Risebrough is Dr. Frankenstein, and this roster is his monster, after all. For his part, our beloved GM appears to be either blissfully ignorant or uncouthly arrogant (or perhaps both?) to the realities of the value of success this season.
His justifications seem to waffle between the youthful core having reached a point where it was time to throw them into the pool and see if they can swim, or that there is sufficient talent on the team to do what we want them to do, or that there aren’t enough tradable chips to garner the kind of return needed to fill the holes (that aren’t there, one assumes) – which he further obfuscates by blaming the rest of the league for not putting the “right” players out there. Even more comically, Risebrough is currently trying to deflect blame back on the press and the fans – insinuating that fans, initially so “hockey-savvy,” and the media that represents them either don’t or won’t analyze the team in a “balanced” manner. This is a guy that makes Joe Lieberman look consistent.
And perhaps we don’t; wins, important though they may be, are really only one metric when you get right down to it. But Risebrough wouldn’t have to listen to us. Not when his head coach is echoing the exact same sentiments.
"Last year, you could tell there was offense on our team, there (were) players who could make a difference... Now we know that we don't score a lot of goals. Maybe we don't have the talent to score the same amount of goals as last year.” – Jacques Lemaire*
Clearly all these roads lead back to Risebrough. Either the team isn’t sufficiently skilled (which is his responsibility), or they are but then perhaps it’s the coach that can’t get through to them. Either the trades are there and he’s just afraid to pull the trigger, or he’s too proud to admit that one of the kids isn’t working out. Or they’re not, but then wouldn’t that be because we don’t have anyone interesting enough to other GMs? But, if the kids are working out, then why are they struggling so much on the ice?
Meanwhile, for the first time in team history, there are serious grumblings from the Team of 18,000. Malcontent can become a very impactful entity very quickly with a fan base as used to getting the short end of the stick as Minnesotan sports fans are. There is little doubt the team will be profitable again this year, but is that enough to owner Craig Leipold? Is he a business man first, or a hockey fan first?
So the midway point of the 2008-2009 season brings more discontent and question marks than ever before. On the ice, the team skates with little-to-no margin for error. Off the ice, the margin for error is just as small, the only difference being the General Manager seems oblivious to it.
*The quotes herein are from Russo's Rants, and Shipley's midseason analysis, respectively.