Monday, January 12, 2009

Wild at Half-way: Are they Buyers...or Sellers?

At the halfway point, WRT looks at the 2008-09 Season

Half-way. 50 per cent done, 50 per cent to go. Mid-way point. The far turn. (Put your favorite cliche' here.)

And where do the Minnesota Wild stand? And where should they be headed?

Let's see...

Looking back, let's relive some of the better (and, worse) moments of the first half:

Best Home Game: A lot of you blog readers will say the Dec. 31 game vs. San Jose; although that was indeed a good 'un, I thought the best game of the first half was the Dec. 23 game vs. Carolina. This team was THAT desperate that night, and they got the two points in regulation. And, that was the game of 'The Kill II', when the Wild killed off a 5-on-3 for a full 2 minutes. 'Da Boys' sent the pre-Christmas crowd home happy.

Worst Home Game: There are a few...Oct. 23 vs. Buffalo, when the Sabres came back and won in OT after the Wild blew a 3-0 lead; Nov. 20 vs. Vancouver, losing after the Sedins did in the Wild, after the great game vs. Pittsburgh two nights earlier; and, more recently, Dec. 27 vs. Chicago, when the Blackhawks' kids ran all over the Wild and won, 4-1. But the winner is Dec. 17 vs. Calgary, when the Wild had the Flames on the ropes, and let them off the hook, losing 3-2 in OT. The fans went home angry and dismayed after that one, and realistically, they haven't looked the same since then. That loss was the sixth in a row for the Wild at that point.

Best Road Game: This one's easy; a 6-2 thumping of the Florida Panthers at BankAtlantic Center Oct. 16th, when Mikko Koivu registered a 4-point night. The day before, the 'Marian Gaborik saga' began in earnest, as he did not suit up for this game (or for all but one since).

Worst Road Game: A game the Wild should have won, could have won, might have won, but still...a 1-0 game at Nashville Dec. 6th, as Kim Johnsson's questionable penalty late in the third period led to the only goal of the game, with less than 5 minutes left in the contest. That was two points that should have never got away. Others worthy of dis-honorable mention; Oct. 28 at Dallas (4-2 loss with a very shaky Marty Turco in goal); Dec. 11 at Phoenix (a 3-1 loss) and Dec. 13 at Los Angeles (a 3-1 shameful effort which I witnessed in person).

Best player: Mikko Koivu. Fans don't call this guy 'the Franchise' for nothing. Night in, night out, best player on the club. He actually GETS it. Too bad it doesn't rub off on a few others.

Close behind: Niklas Backstrom (another decision of not signing which will come back to haunt this team in the second half); Brent Burns (despite playing forward for most of November and the first half of December, still your best defenseman); Owen Nolan (the 'Irish God of War' is a veteran presence this team has needed since Wes Walz left).

Worst player: Marc-Andre Bergeron. Brought in to help out as an offensive defenseman, he never has lived up to the billing. Granted, two injuries have not helped, but still he is more of a liability than I'm sure they bargained for when they signed him in the off-season.

Close behind: Martin Skoula (although this is actually an acknowledgement of how far he has actually improved this season, since he would have been hands-down the winner in 2007-08); Marek Zidlicky (takes too many of the wrong penalties at the wrong time, despite his booming shot from the point, which he doesn't use often enough); Pierre-Marc Bouchard (way too many 'Spin-O-Turnovers' and not nearly enough shooting, also plays with the puck too much, like it's a game of keepaway, not hockey).

Biggest Surprise: Cal Clutterbuck. If only the rest of the 'grinders' would grind like Cal does, the scoring chances would come in droves. Don't stop hittin' anything in the opponent's sweater that moves, Cal. We likey.

Biggest Disappointment: Andrew Brunette. Brought back in order to do what he did for the Wild prior to signing with Colorado, he has failed to bring that 'Back that big ass up' philosophy back from whence it went. We need garbage goals, Bruno, and you were one of the best at it. Ask Patrick Roy, who you sent into retirement. We need that back, Bruno. The sooner, the better.

And now, that we've looked back, let's look ahead:

Are they really buyers at the trade deadline (Mar, 4, when the Wild are travelling from Vancouver to San Jose), or are they sellers, disposing of tradable assets for future talent (draft picks and/or players) to re-start a building movement?

Depends on where the team is in regards to the standings as we come down to the end of February. A look at the schedule for those last 3 weeks shows 5 home games (Colorado, Ottawa, Calgary, Detroit, LA) and 5 road games (Detroit, Chicago, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver). Two games each with Detroit (probably still fighting with Chicago for the No. 2 spot in the West) and Calgary (the divisional opponent who give the Wild fits). The team will be in the middle of its' season-long six-game Western road trip and will be somewhat insulated from the outside distractions of the media (Michael Russo and John Shipley not withstanding).

For what it's worth, the Wild have an outside shot of actually making it to maybe a No. 6 seed (depending on where Detroit and Chicago land) if they can pull it together and somehow put a few 'biscuits in the basket'. I really don't see them leapfrogging both Vancouver (now the Mats Sundin-improved Canucks) and Calgary to repeat as Northwest Division champions.

On the other hand, with vastly improved teams in Columbus and Los Angeles, and the Edmonton Oilers' youth movement from two seasons ago now starting to take hold, the Wild could very easily be on the outside looking in after the first half of the 6-game road trip. If that happens, throw in the Wild's real wild card:

President/GM Doug Risebrough. Will 'Dougie Ballgame' receieve the edict from majority owner Craig Leipold to spend up to the salary cap, to try and trade someone to juice up the otherwise anemic offense? He could put UFA-to-be Marian Gaborik on long-term injured reserve, retroactive to the day after the last game he played (Dec. 24) to temporarily free up some needed cap space, or he could put some of his less-worthy players (Skoula, Bergeron, Kim Johnsson) up for trade to teams in need of defense. Gaborik is untradable, right up to the July 1 free agency period.

So the question remains? Sellers? Or Buyers?

My best educated guess? The Wild will stand pat, despite getting several offers for various players. Risebrough doesn't have the stones to make the significant acquisitions needed to get this club into the playoffs this season. He never showed it in Calgary, and except for one day in July, 2006, he never has shown it here in Minnesota, either. His lack of conviction, along with a scouting staff which hasn't produced very much in the last four years, combine to hamstring the Wild into doing nothing. Which may, or may not, be their undoing.

After all, this is the Minnesota Wild we're talking about here.

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