Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Western Conference breakdown, Part 2


Starting with the 8th-place team, ending with the conference champion (regular season):

Anaheim Ducks

Key forwards: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Teemu Selanne, Joffrey Lupul, Saku Koivu

Key defensemen: Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Whitney

Goaltending: Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Jonas Hiller

Outlook: The big news in Anaheim's offseason was the trade of Chris Pronger to Philadelphia for Lupul, Luca Sbisa, the Liberty Bell, the "Rocky" statue and the rights to the Philadelphia cheesesteak, now to be known as the Anaheim cheesesteak.

The move both hurts and helps the Ducks. Their top two lines are now very good, with the signing of Koivu to center countryman and BFF Selanne. Ryan, Perry and Getzlaf (one of my favorite players) are going to be nightmares for teams. But the defense is weaker. The ageless Niedermayer is still manning the blue line, the goal line, the faceoff dots, basically wherever he wants to go. How much does he have left? Then there's Whitney, who had a 60-point season not long ago. He has a lot of offensive potential and will be relied upon to make up for the loss of Pronger.

In goal, there's some drama. No one knows who the starter is. Giguere has a Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup to his name. Hiller has "I almost beat the Red Wings in the second round" going for him. Neither goalie established himself in the preseason. Expect a near 50-50 split until one goalie falters and/or one goalie grabs the reins.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Key forwards: Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Derick Brassard, Kristian Huselius

Key defensemen: Fedor Tyutin

Goaltending: Steve Mason, Mathieu Garon

Outlook: No soap opera here, as Nash, a previously impending free agent, signed a hefty extension before the season began. He'll be bolstered by the return of Brassard, who had season-ending surgery after just 31 games. Brassard was the early front-runner for the Calder Trophy, won by teammate Mason. Vermette, a mid-season acquisition from Ottawa, flourished in Ohio.

The blue line is one of the least imposing in the league. Only Tyutin scored over 30 points. Jan Hejda and Mike Commodore provide physical presences and help Mason protect his net. But the team will be like last year, reliant on Mason not having a sophomore slump and for Nash to take over games.

St. Louis Blues

Key forwards: Almost too many to name. Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya, Brad Boyes, Patrik Berglund, Andy McDonald, David Backes and we'll stop there.

Key defensemen: Erik Johnson, Carlo Colaiacovo

Goaltending: Chris Mason, Ty Conklin

Outlook: Not many teams can boast the amount of young talent up front than the Blues. I didn't even mention David Perron or T.J. Oshie up above. And when you can put a 40-goal scorer from just two years ago who is still only 27 on your second line (Boyes), you're in pretty good shape. The Blues should only get better, plus they get Kariya and McDonald back from injuries. McDonald missed time in the middle of the season but came back for the end and the postseason and had 44 points in 46 games. Getting a full season from him will be a big help.

Kariya remains a talented player who is only 34 years old (seriously? I would've taken the over. He's been in the league forever.) He played 82 games in five out of six seasons before missing nearly all of 2008-09. Johnson is also expected to be back after missing all of the season. He had 33 points in 69 games as a rookie and has loads of potential.

The concern will be goaltending. Despite being one of the top goalies in the league in the second half and a key reason why the Blues made the playoffs, Mason still has to prove himself. The signing of Conklin, who proved the last two seasons with Pittsburgh and Detroit that he's more than capable of carrying a team, doesn't seem to inspire confidence in Mason.

Calgary Flames

Key forwards: Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Daymond Langkow

Key defensemen: Dion Phaneuf, Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr

Goaltending: Miikka Kiprusoff, Masked Man (known in other parts of the world as Curtis McElhinney)

Outlook: Would you trade Michael Cammalleri for Jay Bouwmeester? Essentially that's what the Flames did. The man known as Squid signed in Montreal as a free agent. Calgary acquired Bouwmeester's rights and paid him more than they're paying Phaneuf. Which leads to the question of, is Bouwmeester going to score 40 goals? He'll kind of have to, because apart from Iginla and Jokinen, there isn't a great deal of proven goal scorers on the roster.

And even then, Jokinen struggled mightily down the stretch. He started receiving insults rather than autograph requests when little kids saw him in the streets. Langkow had back-to-back 30-goal seasons but dipped down to 21. Rene Bourque and David Moss could provide the support Iginla needs, if Bourque can stay healthy and Moss takes the next step.

J-Bo and Phaneuf are a dangerous 1-2 punch, literally. Regehr provides a steady defensive presence for Kiprusoff, who apparently won't be used as much as in previous seasons. So we'll see more of the Great Unknown, McElhinney. Kiprusoff is a solid goalie, but I had to question those people who said he should've won the Vezina last year when his peripherals (2.84 GAA and .904%) didn't exactly impress. He tired down the stretch as well, which helped lead to Calgary's collapse. A lighter workload is probably a good thing.

Chicago Blackhawks

Key forwards: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Kris Versteeg

Key defensemen: Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, Cam Barker

Goaltending: Cristobal Huet, Antti Niemi

Outlook: Once you pop bad karma, it doesn't stop, does it? The Blackhawks recently lost to ZSC Zurich overseas. This on the heels of RFA-gate, Cab-gate, and Hossa-injury-gate. But they look good on paper, don't they?

Toews and Kane are widely considered the West's version of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Add Hossa to the mix once he returns in November or December and that's a dangerous top line. Sharp, Versteeg and Dave Bolland will provide additional offense. The defense overall is one of the better ones in the league, even if some members are being paid 20 cents or so too much (yes, I'm looking at you, Soup.)

I should just copy and paste this next part, but again, goaltending is the question. Personally, I think Huet gets a little too much of a bad rap. His 2008-09 season wasn't as bad as I think some people make it out to be. But he is the weak link on an otherwise very good Chicago team. If he finds the form that blessed Washington for 13 games at the end of 2007-08, when Huet posted a 1.63 GAA and a .936%, good things can come to the Windy City. With Nikolai Khabibulin gone and a rookie behind him, the possibility is there for Huet to become complacent. That must be avoided if Chicago wants to advance far in the playoffs.

Vancouver Canucks

Key forwards: Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler

Key defensemen: Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler, Sami Salo, Christian Ehrhoff, Mathieu Schneider

Goaltending: Roberto Luongo, Andrew Raycroft

Outlook: I don't think any team was hotter down the stretch than the Canucks, maybe the Penguins or the Blues. A late-season charge, coupled with Calgary's collapse, vaulted Vancouver to the Northwest Division title.

The biggest loss from that team was Mats Sundin, who announced his retirement this week. Defenseman Mattias Ohlund also departed but was replaced by Schneider and Ehrhoff. Vancouver's defense is one to be reckoned with, though Schneider is currently on injured reserve.

Offensively, the addition of Mikael Samuelsson was expected to bolster the Sedins on the top line, but Samuelsson didn't out-perform Burrows and appears slated for the second line, at least to start. If he plays with Kesler, he'll still provide offense.

One popular topic around the Canucks is people asking, "What has Luongo won?" I happen to be one of the people who thinks he's an extremely talented goalie, but the point raised by his detractors is valid. Last year's Vancouver team is perhaps the best Luongo has been on, and he couldn't take them to even the conference finals. In fact, he had a pretty woeful series against Chicago. Giving up seven goals in your final game isn't the way to establish yourself as a go-to netminder. Posting excellent numbers in the regular season is all well and good, but Luongo has to carry that into the postseason for his team to go far.

Detroit Red Wings

Key forwards: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen

Key defensemen: Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall

Goaltending: Chris Osgood, Jimmy Howard

Outlook: That list of key forwards isn't as large as it would've been if I had done this last season, but that doesn't mean there's all there is to this team. The Wings have taken on a couple of reclamation projects in Jason Williams and Todd Bertuzzi, and these may work out, but there are also high hopes for youngsters like Ville Leino, Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader. Daniel Cleary is capable of scoring and Tomas Holmstrom is still in the mix, though he seems to be running on fumes at this point.

The defense remains impressive. The three I listed are among the most talented in the game. Nothing needs to be said about Lidstrom, Rafalski always produces points, and Kronwall combines a strong offensive game (51 points a year ago) with one of the more dangerous physical aspects. Jonathan Ericsson had a strong postseason and could be Detroit's next talented blue liner.

As for the goaltending, Osgood remains one of the most underrated and disrespected goalies in league history. Although he had a 2008-09 regular season to forget, he was stellar in the playoffs. He's won two Stanley Cups as a starter and took another team to Game 7 of the Final. He doesn't have the safety net of Ty Conklin this season, but Detroit will not miss the playoffs. And once there, Osgood should not be underestimated.

San Jose Sharks

Key forwards: Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe

Key defensemen: Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Goaltending: Evgeni Nabokov, TBD

Outlook: What I haven't been able to figure out is why people can only talk about Heatley's trade requests. They just ignore the 180 goals he's scored the last four seasons. Think about that: 180 goals in four seasons. Heatley is a premier goal scorer. Now, though, he's just a me-first, locker room cancer who can't possibly help his team win. News flash: People who aren't all that friendly have won championships before, because they're damn good at what they do.

His new linemate is Joe Thornton, one of the top setup men in the league. Talk about potent potential. Is it going to be enough to push the Sharks out of "Perennial contender who chokes" territory? Could be. Like with other teams, San Jose has more balance now. Marleau likely shifts to the second line, with Pavelski, an emerging talent. Setoguchi scored 30 goals a year ago and Clowe is a solid power forward who can provide both grit and goals.

The finger to point at as to why the Sharks might not win much is the man between the pipes. The 2008-09 season was a down year for Nabokov, which for him means his GAA was 2.44 with a .910%. Not his typical dominance but still decent numbers. Unfortunately for him, that's where he peaked. He allowed 17 goals in six playoff games to the Ducks. Yes, Thornton and Marleau didn't exactly dominate, but Nabokov can't have that kind of postseason if San Jose wants to finally make it to the Final.

Coming tomorrow, Part 1 of the Eastern Conference breakdown.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Western Conference breakdown, Part 1


A look at the non-playoff teams in the Western Conference and their outlook for the 2009-10 season, in reverse order of their finish last year, so I'm starting with the last place team first. These are not predictions on how teams will finish. Coming Wednesday, a look at last season's top eight from the West. The Eastern teams to come later in the week.

Colorado Avalanche

Key forwards: Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Milan Hejduk, Marek Svatos, Wojtek Wolski

Key defensemen: Kyle Quincey, John-Michael Liles, Adam Foote, Tom Preissing

Goaltending: Craig Anderson, Peter Budaj

Outlook: Growing pains are still in order for the Avalanche, who finished third-worst in the NHL last season. Stastny is a near point-a-game player but has had injury problems since his rookie year. His health and further development are key for Colorado. Hejduk continues to get things done, scoring 27 goals last season.

The Avalanche goaltending situation was one of the worst in the league last season. Andrew Raycroft is gone and Anderson steps in as the likely No. 1 netminder. He has the potential to be a No. 1 but things are going to be tougher in the mountains compared to the beach.

Los Angeles Kings

Key forwards: Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth, Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov, Justin Williams

Key defensemen: Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson

Goaltending: Jon Quick, Erik Ersberg or Jonathan Bernier

Outlook: The darling of many experts. The next "it" team. And there is a lot of talent on the club. Kopitar is a stud in the making, and along with Smyth and Williams could form a potent line. Frolov (90 goals the last three seasons) and Brown, an emerging power forward and team captain, could be bumped to the second line.

The defense, with all-around talents in Doughty and Johnson and defensive defensemen Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene, could be one of the more well-rounded in the league. Quick came out of nowhere last year to win 21 games with solid peripherals in 44 appearances (2.48 GAA, .914%) but will need to show he's the real deal.

Frolov, Williams and Johnson must stay healthy.

Phoenix Coyotes

Key forwards: Shane Doan, Peter Mueller, Radim Vrbata

Key defensemen: Ed Jovanovski, Adrian Aucoin, Keith Yandle

Goaltending: Ilya Bryzgalov, Jason LaBarbera

Outlook: Other than Doan and maybe Jovanovski, there's not much here that many mainstream fans might know. There are some talented youngsters in Mueller, Mikkel Boedker and Kyle Turris, and Vrbata's last full season resulted in 27 goals in Phoenix, but this team is a number of pieces and years away from competition. Bryzgalov took a step back, maybe two, last season after a solid 07-08 campaign. He must get back to his previous form and show consistency to become a legitimate No. 1 goalie.

Oh, and then there's all that off-ice drama that will continue to hang a cloud over the team all season.

Dallas Stars

Key forwards: Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson, Brad Richards

Key defensemen: Stephane Robidas, Matt Niskanen

Goaltending: Marty Turco, Alex Auld

Outlook: This is the team in the West I think is most poised to make a big jump in the standings. The Stars were just eight points out of a playoff spot but played almost the entire season without captain Brenden Morrow. They dealt with the Sean Avery soap opera for longer than they should've (which is a period of about five minutes.) Richards had a disastrous season with health issues. Turco had his worst season since 2005-06, when, ironically, he set a career-high in wins.

The goaltending should be better. Turco won't be as bad, and if he is, Auld is a backup capable of carrying a team for brief stretches, unlike Tobias Stephen. Morrow and Richards need to be healthy and return to form. If they don't, there will be more misery in Big D. The blue line isn't very imposing, but Niskanen is an emerging talent.

Edmonton Oilers

Key forwards: Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner

Key defensemen: Sheldon Souray, Lubomir Visnovsky, Tom Gilbert

Goaltending: Nikolai Khabibulin, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers

Outlook: Word is Penner is finding the new coaching staff to be to his liking. He'll need to start producing and soon if Edmonton wants to go anywhere. The new coaching staff will also raise questions as to what this team will look like.

With Khabibulin in the fold, the goaltending is a little more stable than with Dwayne Roloson. Oh, and Khabibulin is better. The Oilers have one of the deeper blue lines, where even No. 4 Denis Grebeshkov scored 39 points.

Nashville Predators

Key forwards: Jason Arnott, J.P. Dumont, Steve Sullivan, Martin Erat

Key defensemen: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter

Goaltending: Pekka Rinne, Dan Ellis

Outlook: On paper, this team did not do very much, at all, to improve itself. In fact, the Preds took a hit when Greg Zanon signed in Minnesota, taking away one of their more reliable defensive figures. Weber emerged as one of the top offensive defensemen and Suter might not be far behind.

Otherwise, this team is going to rely on the old and the young. The old: Arnott and Sullivan, both 35 (Arnott will turn 35 on Oct. 11) and both dealt with injuries last season. If healthy, the two players will lead Nashville's offensive attack, along with Dumont. Sullivan in particular must avoid the injury bug. The last time Sullivan played 70 games in a season? 2003-04. When he's played the last four seasons, he produced at near point-a-game rate.

The young will be netminders Rinne and Ellis. Rinne will enter as the No. 1 but Ellis has also shown glimpses of being a capable starting goalie. Plus there's a tradition in Nashville that the backup overtakes the starter (Chris Mason, Ellis himself and even Rinne.) If the netminding falters, so will the team.

Minnesota Wild

Key forwards: Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Petr Sykora, Pierre-Marc Bouchard

Key defensemen: Brent Burns, Marek Zidlicky, Kim Johnsson

Goaltending: Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding

Outlook: Overall, there is more goal scoring ability on the roster compared to last year. A year ago, the Wild looked to the likes of Antti Miettinen and Owen Nolan - whose best years are behind him - to score, given the injury to Marian Gaborik. Now, a seemingly-healthy Martin Havlat and Petr Sykora come to the rescue.

Backstrom will be fine even with the shift from a defensive style to an aggressive, more open game. Assuming Burns is healthy, he could be in for an explosive season, and even Johnsson could flourish, or at least produce, under Todd Richards.

The Wild are certainly capable of being a playoff team, or they could find themselves on the bubble again. Koivu needs to step up his game, especially if he's named permanent captain.

The other eight teams will come later.

Left-field, end-of-camp signing


I wanted to keep this as something of a surprise, thus a strange sounding title. It will amuse many a Wild fan.

This afternoon, the Penguins announced they signed, to a one-year contract, some defenseman by the name of Martin Skoula.


This came as something of a stunner. Rosters need to be finalized in about 24 hours - or at least down to a max of 23 players - and Skoula, well, hasn't skated in front of any of the Penguins coaches or front office staff. Last I knew, Skoula was on a tryout agreement with Columbus. Maybe that's where Ray Shero saw him play, because the Pens played the Blue Jackets twice. I don't recall Skoula being on the ice for the game in Pittsburgh but I don't know who the lineup consisted of in Columbus.

But anyway. As I said, it's fairly surprising. Nate Guenin and Deryk Engelland each had strong training camps in bids to become the No. 7 defenseman, and Shero stated recently that he intends to carry fewer than the maximum 23 players because of the salary cap. He just gave Ryan Bayda a contract on Monday, albeit a two-way deal, and both he and Chris Conner were two forwards who also impressed during camp and could've earned roster spots.

Then Shero goes out and signs Skoula, who hasn't practiced a lick and who's barely even shared the ice with his new teammates. Guenin, Engelland, Bayda and Conner are all on waivers, so presumably they will end up in the AHL and Skoula will become the seventh defenseman.

Barring injuries or dreadful performances, that's all Skoula will be, so I don't know how often he'll see the ice. Pittsburgh's top six on the blue line is set, with pairings of Sergei Gonchar-Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang-Mark Eaton and Alex Goligoski-Jay McKee. Now, McKee is prone to injuries, as he's suffered a lot over the years from all the shots he blocks. So Skoula will likely see some action. He'd be more of a veteran presence as well compared to Guenin and Engelland and that might've been a factor.

I know Skoula was a popular target for the ire of Wild fans. I didn't get to see him play often so I've got no opinion on him. Shero must see something in him, and he's done a few things right since taking over as general manager. Though sure, not all his moves have been good. But maybe having a smaller role on a team will cut down the mistakes Wild fans insist Skoula makes each time he steps on the ice.

It's still a head-scratching move given the timing and performances of Guenin and Engelland. Hopefully Martin's got a small contract, 'cause there ain't much room under the cap for him.

(Minor update: Skoula's contract is reportedly worth $575,000.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sorry, William


With apologies to my dear friend Bill Shakespeare, the question is not, "To be or not to be," it is, in fact, "To play or not to play?"

I refer to whether NHL players should participate in the Olympics. They'll suit up for next winter's Games in Vancouver, but as of right now, that will be the end of it.

Should it?

Alex Ovechkin doesn't think so. He says he'll play in the 2014 Games in Sochi come hell or high water. It's hard to blame him, since that is his home country and there isn't much that would bring him more joy than to return the gold medal to Mother Russia. Recently, Evgeni Malkin stated the same. Geno actually went a step further, alluding to the possibility that he'll play in the KHL after 2014.

The kicker? Malkin's NHL contract with Pittsburgh expires after 2014. He'll be a free agent. And you know the KHL will come calling. (Yes, I'm cringing at that thought.)

As for Ovechkin, well, he has a contract that runs beyond 2014. If he has Ted Leonsis' approval, Ovechkin will be in Russia's locker room.

If those two stars say they're going to play, I think they're going to play. The NHL isn't going to do anything to either player. In fact, given the recent public relations disasters they've been having, it's in the best interest of the league not to sanction either player.

Personally, I'm on the fence. Actually, I was writing up my arguments for why players should not participate in the Olympics. Then I stopped as a new argument hit me. But here's the first part.

I'm very much a pessimistic person by nature, and I believe most things that will happen are only going to be bad. So I'm concerned with injuries suffered in a game that isn't what the NHL players are paid to play.

Injuries are part of any sport and always a risk to happen. But a player being injured in an NHL game is different than if he gets hurt during a game for the Olympics. He's being paid to play in the National Hockey League. He's not being paid to play in the Olympics. It's a club-or-country argument that often comes up in soccer.

If a player gets injured while competing for his country, really, it might as well be as if the player was injured while in a jet skiing race at the county fair. He's partaking in some competition that his contract does not cover, and suffering an injury in such a competition will jeopardize his ability to fulfill his signed and legal contract.

I do not want to see Brooks Orpik, wearing a Team USA sweater, try to take off the head of the maple leaf-wearing Sidney Crosby. I'm more interested in my players winning the Stanley Cup, hockey's ultimate prize, rather than a gold medal. Maybe that makes me a bad American.

Capitals fans should wonder at the possibility that Ovechkin - a fierce hitter - will drive Mike Green's head through the boards when Russia meets Canada.

And here's the thing: If those players aren't trying to do that, then they're not competing as hard as they possibly can. And doesn't that dampen the whole spirit of the competition? These players should be going all-out, not making sure they don't hurt select members of the opposition.

Never mind also the condensed schedule as a result of the two-week layoff for the Olympics.

Here's where I'll reverse course and provide the opposite end of the argument.

I mentioned soccer earlier, and how, often a player faces a club-or-country decision, whether he'll play for his professional team (i.e. the one paying him) or if he'll dress for his country. When I watch soccer's World Cup, I want to see the best players on the field as often as possible.

Do I differ in that regard compared to hockey? I'm not sure. What is different, however, is I'm no particular fan of any one soccer team. If Cristiano Ronaldo pulls a hamstring playing for Portugal in the World Cup, I'll be upset that he can't play in Portugal's next game, not that Ronaldo can't return healthy for Real Madrid of Spain's La Liga.

But if Malkin separates his shoulder playing for Russia on a hit by Dion Phaneuf, I'm not going to be happy. Dan Bylsma won't be happy. Mario Lemieux won't be happy. That's our guy being hurt. If Malkin leads Russia to the gold medal, the three of us still won't be happy. None of us are Russian.

Having pros in the Olympics can lead to moments like this. Certainly, to grow the game, to get positive exposure for the game, you should have the best players on the world's largest stage.

It will also take away the chance for moments like this.

If I'm a non-hockey fan, I want to see the best players possible if I'm going to watch Olympic hockey. As a hockey fan, I'd rather my guys try to win the Cup. Should the NHL pander to the non-hockey fans to grow the game? I suppose that's the logical course. I'm not going to stop being an NHL fan because the players participate in the Olympics. But maybe the NHL gains fans by having their best players in the Olympics where more people will actually see them play.

For the good of the game, the players should be in the Olympics. For the good of the NHL teams, I don't think they should play.

I am willing to make this concession: If the players accept playing in the Olympics in exchange for outlawing these cheating, long-term, low cap hit contracts, I'll take that trade any day.

(A quick aside: Those contracts are legal, but violate the spirit of the salary cap. They're immoral, a loophole, and they should be taken advantage of while GMs can, but they should be outlawed.)

So, I still don't know where I stand on this issue, but if I had to make a call, I guess I'll say let them play in the Olympics. Every time one of my Penguins goes into the corner or takes a hit, though, I'll be keeping an eye on him to see if he comes up lame.

But if letting the players play in the 2014 Games means Malkin will sign an extension in Pittsburgh, then by all means, Mr. Bettman, make it happen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Outside outlook on the Wild


So Nick wanted an opposing fan's perspective on the Wild's 2009-10 season. Fine, he's gonna get one.

You guys are gonna suck. You've got nothing and nobody. Now that you won't be playing that defensive system, the great Nik Backstrom's gonna get third-degree burns by that red light behind him going off all the time. It'll be fun beating you by six both times we play. Other teams will beat you by five each night. We'll win by six because we're the champ...

In the background, Kevin's phone rings. "Hello?" he answers. Snippets of a conversation are heard, then Kevin says, "What? ...Oh. I understand. Yes yes, I'll do it better." Click.

OK, Nick forgot to mention something. Apparently he wants a collected, objective outlook from an opposing fan. Personally, I think that violates the fan handbook, but whatever.

So, the Wild's upcoming season.

I dunno.

No, really, I don't. I can see quite a few scenarios play out for Minnesota, from finishing as high as fifth (I think San Jose, Detroit, Calgary and either Chicago or Vancouver are the likely top four in the West) to as low as 12 or even 13.

Any time there's a change in the front office or behind the bench, let alone both, uncertainty will follow. What is this newfangled system Todd Richards plans to implement? How will the players adapt to it? Are the players good enough to make the change? Is there enough skill present on the team to move away from a defensive system?

We watched the Wild narrowly miss the playoffs last season despite missing their top skater for much of the year. Marian Gaborik departed, to be replaced by Martin Havlat, which isn't necessarily an upgrade. Or it could be.

I happen to disagree with the notion that Minnesota is a better team, if Havlat stays healthy. In my eyes, if you assume Havlat stays healthy, then you have to assume Gaborik would've stayed healthy. Operating under those conditions, I don't think Minnesota is better with Havlat instead of Gaborik.

Of course, that's the thing. Gaborik is already experiencing groin issues in New York. So, for the moment, it appears that the Wild has upgraded their offense.

The recent addition of Petr Sykora adds something Minnesota didn't have last season - a legit No. 2 scoring option. Sykora has produced 10 straight seasons of 20 goals or more, so really, it could be argued that he's Minnesota's top goal scorer, even more so than Havlat, who hasn't even been in the league for 10 years. But Havlat is capable of producing in areas that Sykora won't, plus he's younger, so Havlat will be "the guy."

I don't know what Minnesota's lines will look like, but it makes sense to me to have Havlat with Mikko Koivu, who must develop into a legitimate scoring threat. He's the No. 1 center in Minnesota right now and needs to produce like one. His limited offense no longer has the excuse of being confined by Jacques Lemaire's system. (Now he has the excuse of learning a new system, right?)

That allows Sykora to play with Pierre-Marc Bouchard, whose playmaking abilities will likely result in Sykora making it 11 straight seasons of 20 or more goals.

Wild cards offensively include Owen Nolan and Cal Clutterbuck. Nolan led the team in goals last year. With another year under his already heavily weighted belt, how will he hold up? Can Clutterbuck take the next step and start contributing on the scoreboard?

There's going to be more balance and more options for the Minnesota attack. The Wild should score more than they did a year ago, and we haven't discussed the potential contributions from the blue line.

Brent Burns should have a bounceback season. It can't get much worse from what happened to him last year. I'd look for Marek Zidlicky to provide an offensive contribution, particularly on the power play, and Kim Johnsson might re-discover the form that allowed him to score 10+ goals and 40 points from his Philadelphia days.

How Minnesota fares defensively I can't predict. Again, it all depends on what kind of system Richards implements. I can say that the signing of Greg Zanon will be a big boost, but not in the way that's easily seen. Zanon is a player I wanted the Penguins to go after if Rob Scuderi signed elsewhere, but Chuck Fletcher snatched Zanon up before Scuderi made a decision. Got Zanon for just about half the price too. There are quality defensive defensemen and capable offensive producers on the blue line.

As for the goalie, I think Backstrom's one of the best in the business, and while his numbers will likely suffer a little with the regime change, I don't think he'll suddenly start giving up three or four goals each game like some pundits expect. He's still arguably a top-five goalie in the NHL, I think.

Minnesota could be a playoff team. They might not be. The eight playoff teams from the West will continue to grow and are more than capable of staying in their current spots.

Nashville, with consistent goaltending from Pekka Rinne and/or Dan Ellis plus a healthy Steve Sullivan, could sneak ahead of the Wild, but their offense has question marks. Edmonton has a reliable No. 1 goalie, if Nik Khabibulin stays healthy. Dallas, with a healthy Brenden Morrow and a bounceback year from Marty Turco, should contend.

The Kings will continue to grow and might be a threat, but their time might not be this year. Colorado may have stabilized their goaltending situation but will need Paul Stastny and Marek Svatos to stay healthy.

Phoenix, with consistent and quality goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov, might not be the cakewalk people expect, but you do have to wonder what effect all the off-ice drama will have on their psyches.

So I really can see just about any scenario for Minnesota this season. One thing to keep in mind is Fletcher is basically rebuilding the organization, and it's going to take time to get prospects into the system, develop those prospects, and get them to become NHL-ready and NHL-caliber players. Fletcher will try to win now but he won't mortgage the future for it if he doesn't think the team can win the Stanley Cup, and I don't think Minnesota is that close to the prize.

Fantasy players
I'll steal this topic from Nick's post. And, with all due respect to him, I'll disagree on some points. I don't know if he meant it literally when he said Burns is a first-rounder, but if so, then I do have to cry "homer!" Don't get too upset at me yet, I'll explain later.

First, I've done several hockey drafts already with a couple more to go. Here's who I targeted in the completed drafts and who I will target in the future ones:

Backstrom - Like I said above, he's arguably a top-five goalie and a legitimate first-round pick. There are goalies I would take before Backstrom, among them Evgeni Nabokov, Roberto Luongo and probably Martin Brodeur. In my most recent draft, after I took Nabokov fifth overall, I had high hopes that Backstrom would somehow slip back to me in the second round, but he didn't make it out of the first. This league emphasizes goalies a little more than others and that's part of the reason I think.

Koivu - In a league with faceoff wins as a category, I'll target Koivu as a No. 2 center, maybe even No. 1 depending on who else I have on my team, if I've drafted elite wingers/goalies first. Ideally though, he'll be my No. 2, or No. 3 if I can manage it. In a league without faceoff wins as a stat, I'd look to Koivu to be a No. 3 center, maybe a No. 2.

Burns - I think Burns will return to being an offensive presence. But he's not in the Shea Weber or Mike Green echelon by a long shot, not yet. He won't be drafted that way either. But the potential is there, sure. Based on his last season, I think he'll fall quite a bit in the draft order. I wouldn't look to draft Burns until I'd gotten two defensemen at least, maybe one depending, as usual, on how the draft plays out. But I am not looking to make Burns my top defenseman, and I don't really want him as my No. 2 either. I'd prefer to him to be a No. 4.

But there are a lot of D I'm looking to take before Burns. In my most recent draft, I'm quite happy with a defense of Weber, Sergei Gonchar, Niklas Kronwall and Erik Johnson. My D in another league is Green, Mark Streit, Gonchar and Johnson.

(So as you can see, Johnson better avoid golf carts.)

Burns is really a sleeper at this point. I don't think many people outside of Minnesota will expect an outstanding year from him, so that will lower his value and should allow you to draft him in the late rounds. He went in the 13th of 18 rounds in my first league and 15th of 16 rounds in the second.

Now, for me personally, those are the only players I targeted. But that doesn't mean those are the only fantasy-worthy players on the Wild's roster. Here are others to consider:

Havlat - Why didn't I target him, you ask? Simple. My philosophy is usually to avoid players with injury histories. The longer the history, the more I stay away. Havlat's on a first name basis with many trainers. So it's nothing personal against Havlat. I also tend to stay away from guys like Alexander Semin or Gaborik. Is this a winning strategy? Is it a losing strategy? It might be either, or both. I've had some success using this strategy. I've also passed on some good players who stayed healthy and had productive years. It's really personal preference. Havlat is kind of a risky pick and I usually reserve those types of selections for later in the draft.

Havlat went in the sixth round in both my drafts. I'd say that's about right. If I were to select him, it wouldn't be as my No. 1 winger. As a No. 2 though, he's certainly a valid option. He was in the back of my mind in each draft, but was gone before I would've considered taking him.

Sykora - I overlooked him in my draft from Saturday. I think a lot of others did too. He lasted until the final (18th) round. He's a borderline No. 2 winger, probably more of a No. 3, depth-type player.

Zidlicky - Say what you want about his defensive abilities, or inabilities. That doesn't matter a great deal in fantasy hockey, unless your plus/minus is heavily weighted. But power play production is key. Getting points from the blue line is important. Zidlicky can cut it as a No. 3, maybe No. 2, D-man.

Players I won't draft but will keep an eye on:

Bouchard - In some leagues last year, Bouchard had dual wing eligibility. It'll be interesting to see not just what he plays but where leagues will list him. If he's eligible at multiple positions, that will add to his value. If he racks up assist after assist, and chips in a goal here and there, he could be worth a free agent pickup. I'm not drafting him though unless it's a really deep league.

Cal Clutterbuck - Apologies to all, but Clutterbuck is not (yet) worthy of being drafted in a fantasy league unless hits is a category, and in some leagues, it is. And that will make him a worthy selection in the mid-rounds. But a standard league with goals, PIMs, +/-, I'm not considering Clutterbuck. But I will monitor him and see if he begins producing goals with regularity.

Andrew Brunette - I forgot to mention him up above in the offensive portion, but I'll mention him here. He could find himself worthy of a fantasy spot, especially if he is on a line with Koivu and Havlat.

If you get desperate for PIMs, or are in a PIMs league, then sure, look at Derek Boogaard.

I think I've talked enough. Back to football day.

Last chance for Benny?

According to Michael Russo, Benoit Pouliot will be placed between Martin Havlat and Petr Sykora this afternoon on the first line for today's 5:00 PM Central Time game vs. the Chicago Blackhawks.

The entire blog entry by Russo may be found here:


Friday, September 18, 2009

HTP Wild Season Preview Extravaganza!

Writing a Wild team preview for the ’09-10 season is hard. Too much change equals too much uncertainty. Will Lemaire’s exit and Richards' entry serve as a boost to the offensive output of the Bouchards, Koivus, Sheppards and Burnses of the world? Or will the new fangled “up-tempo, skating, aggressive forechecking” system just expose how critically bereft of finishers the roster is – the result being a lot of odd-man opportunities coming at Niklas Backstrom and (for now) Josh Harding? Who the hell knows?


What appears to be an extremely top-heavy (skill-wise) group of players can muck and grind with the best of them and has some good speed. But there’s a general lack of scoring depth. Havlat replaces Gaborik’s scoring from last season no problem – IF he’s healthy. But keep in mind this was a team whose best and second-best goal scorers last season were Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette. Ugh. Mikko Koivu could certainly thrive with the shackles removed, and he and Havlat might be able to make sweet hockey music together. Bouchard could also thrive but, frankly, that would have less to do with the new system and more to do with his testicles dropping allowing him to start going to the net and shooting the freakin’ puck. At least now no one can say “the system” is what’s been holding him back, that or all those Selkes he’s got on his mantle. The signing of Petr Sykora, however, gives the Wild a more well-rounded second line than they had before.

Richards wants the attack to funnel through the middle, and get down low to punish the defenseman if it’s a dump and chase (but with not-one-but two forecheckers! If Lemaire was dead he’d surely be rolling over in his grave, emitting monotone zombie grunts of sacre bleuuuuu…derezzzz nooooooo dowwwwwwwtttt!) or draw the defenders into the middle, thus opening up the outside for the rest of the attackers. Sounds great. The Wild certainly has guys who will hit. The question is whether or not they have guys that can channel Dino Ciccarelli and finish.

Story lines:
*Who’s going to score? After the top line, it’s a bunch of question marks. Sure, the talent’s there, but a lot of that talent was there last year too. If Havlat and Sykora can replace Gaborik’s output (which they should do easily if they just stay healthy) the offense could be more potent right away.

*If they have trouble scoring, will they forget everything Lemaire taught them about playing defense? Watching this will be a very interesting side story, especially early in the season.

*Will the kids step up? Pouliot and Sheppard in particular, but Bouchard needs a big bounce-back year as well. Pouliot, especially, is sliding in public opinion. A slow start and the fans could be calling for his head.

*Will the vets stay healthy? Havlat was healthy last season, and he put up a career number of points. But this squad is not nearly deep enough to suffer injury, and is pretty reliant on some old-timers (Nolan and Brunette.) It wouldn’t take many injuries to the right players to submarine the season. Obviously no team can afford injuries to key guys, but the Wild simply doesn’t have the depth to suffer any material injuries without it basically killing their slim chances of making the playoffs.

Key Stat:
Ranked 22nd in the league (4th in NW division) last season in goals-for per game with 2.61.

Primed for a breakout:
Cal Clutterbuck. In a system that emphasizes hustle and hitting, the NHL record-holder for hits in a regular season could see time on the 2nd line, and his name on the scoresheet more often.

Primed to underwhelm:
Derek Boogaard. Neither the fleetest of foot, nor the craftiest with the puck, the big man seems like a fish out of water in Richards’ system. And, if most of the rest of the league is still afraid to fight him, it’s going to be tough to justify his $950k cap hit. Didn’t play much last year – when he dressed, that is – and doesn’t seem like he’ll be able to justify more minutes this year. Goes out of his way to help the team in the community, wish him nothing but the best, but it just doesn’t look like he’s got that much farther to go in Iron Range Red.

Fantasy Draft Guide

Take in the first round: I guess Mikko Koivu. But only if you’re not picking in the top, say, 20 picks. He should be on the ice for all key situations, and on the top line 5:5. Assuming everyone’s healthy, he’ll be with Havlat to start and a grit guy like a Brunette. Backup: Havlat, though, again, don’t use a super high pick on him.

Take in the mid-rounds: James Sheppard. This could be a great bargain pick-up. I think Shep could, repeat could, have a big breakout year. He’s also got some size, so he might get you some points in categories like PIMs. If your league has +/- as a category you may want to approach him more carefully.

Sleeper: Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Could have a big breakout year with the shackles removed. Will probably also get time at both center and wing – in case your league allows you to use players at multiple positions. Won’t be a stat monster though (probably not going to get you any PIMs), so Cal Clutterbuck is the alternative. Cal could really thrive in a role on, say, the 2nd line as the first guy in on the forecheck. Playing with more-skilled guys, he could easily belay the sophomore slump and put up some nice stats on a late-round pick.

Beware: Benoit Pouliot. To be fair, I’m not sure anyone outside of the Wild’s circle of influence even remembers this kid anymore. He’s just disappointed time and time again since he turned pro. It’s not his skill level; it’s his heart and his head. So, if you’re intrigued by his potential to put up points (which would be reasonable) keep in mind the big knock on him is that his attitude is awful.


An above-average NHL blueline. Young stud? Brent Burns. Puck movers? Kim Johnsson and Marek Zidlicky. Stay-at-homers? Nick Schultz and Shane Hnidy. ‘Tweeners? Greg Zanon. “You look at my goalie, I thump yo head”ers? John Scott. It’s a well-rounded group. We’ll see what effect Richards’ encouraging them to activate has beyond the expected increases in offensive output from Burns, Johnsson and Zidlicky. By Schultz’s own admission [link Russo??] he probably won’t light up the league. Burns appears to be healthy and rarin’ to go. But, boy oh boy, do Wild fans hope he doesn’t end up going down the Adam Deadmarsh road to oblivion. No, this isn’t the Flames’ “Team Canada” defense, but it’s no slouch either.

Story lines:
*Will they find any offense? Richards has said he wants them to activate when the situation calls for it. Burns, Johnsson and Zidlicky should have no problem with that. But what about Schultz, and lesser-knowns like Hnidy and Zanon?

*Will they give up more chances? Wild fans are used to a defense that seals up opposing offenses as tight as a drum and limits chances to the low-percentage areas. Will that continue, or if it doesn’t, will they be able to adapt defensively so that the result is the same?

*Where’s the sandpaper? Wild fans have longed for a defense that’s less hospitable to interloping forwards in the crease and slot areas. Certainly Scott brings some of that, and Zanon and Hnidy are unknown commodities at this point. Obviously you’re never going to make Kim Johnsson into a Chris Pronger in front of his own goalie, but will the squad overall be tougher?

*Can they adapt? The NW division features a variety of personalities among the five groups of forwards. Will the Wild blueliners be able to keep up with the speedy Oilers, go hit-for-hit with the Flames and break up the devastating cycle of the Canucks?

Key stat:
Ranked 2nd in NHL (1st in NW division) with 2.40 GA/GM last season.

Primed for a breakout:

Brent Burns. He’s tan, rested and ready to dominate. No more experiments at forward, and, with any luck, no more concussions. Burns could, repeat could, join the Shea Webers and Mike Greens of the league in the upper echelon of young stud defensemen.

Primed to underwhelm:

Marek Zidlicky will suffer from the loss of Martin Skoula more than any other returning defenseman if for no other reason than Wild fans, bereft of their favorite defensive whipping boy, will have nothing obfuscating their observation of Zidlicky’s adventures on his own side of the center red line. He’s a power play specialist, that’s about it.

Fantasy Draft Guide

Take in the first round: Burnsie. He should be good in several different categories. He could justifiably be taken right after Green and Weber. Bonus: he’ll be playing to impress Yzerman right out of the gate this season, so the motivation will be there from the very beginning.

Take in the mid-rounds: Kim Johnsson. He’s got more offensive skills than he was required to show under Lemaire – but that should be back on display with Richards. He’s in a contract year. ‘Nuff said.

Sleeper: Nick Schultz isn’t totally without offensive instincts, and you know he’ll be on the ice in a lot of important situations. The early word out of camp is that he’s pinching all the time – and in camp, as opposed to during the regular season, is when you want him to figure it out. He might surprise, especially since Burns and Johnsson will command the most attention when the Wild is on offense.

Beware: John Scott. He drops the gloves, but he says he doesn’t like it. Despite that, he probably won’t help you in any offensive categories.


I mean, Backstrom is good. Very good. But the Wild’s commitment to defense has been well documented to have done a great job of limiting shots from the “high percentage” areas – which, though he still has to get a pad on them, certainly made Backs’ job easier. He seems to have the mental make-up to play through the transition away from “Lemaire hockey” and to “Richards hockey” that will probably lead to some busy nights for him, at least in the early-going. It’s a reach to think he’ll go from being arguably the team MVP to a question mark. But his numbers may not be indicative of how well he plays, let’s put it that way.

Harding, you gotta give the man some respect. He’s been such a professional with the Wild, he has to have known he was being shopped this summer and still not one indication that his nose is out of joint because of it. It makes you hope he gets a chance to be a starter – somewhere in the league – that much more. But clearly he’s going to need to impress GMs more than he already has in order to drive up his trade value, and he’s going to need to get on the ice in order to have a chance to do that.

So, Fletcher probably would prefer if Richards would play Backstrom less than the 71 appearances he had last season on one hand, but on the other hand, Fletch knows how much Backstrom’s making, so I’m sure he wants his money’s worth too.

Story lines:
*Was it the system? We’ll see. Backs has had some brilliant numbers since he got to the NHL, but he had some pretty good success in Finland too.

*Will Harding earn some more starts? This is the key to the whole season for the Wild in goal. It will determine how much rest Backstrom gets which, assuming he at least makes Finland’s Olympic team, might mean a lot if they’re alive in the playoff race heading into March Madness. It will also determine if Fletcher is able to trade Harding for something of value. There’s no value to Dubielewicz playing in Houston (to Wade, anyway) so Fletcher’s got Backstrom’s backup already in-house if he can move Harding. But the kid has to establish more market value first.

Key stat:
Backstrom was third in the NHL last season in shutouts (8), GAA (2.33) and SPCT (.923, among goalies with 50 or more starts.)

Fantasy advice: Do I draft Niklas Backstrom? Yes. But with a caveat. He’s too good technically to think he’s going to have a material downturn in all statistics. While the Wild needs Harding to earn some starts to showcase him around the league if they want to trade him, sooner or later you need to have your $6M goalie on the ice. So Backstrom will get plenty of starts. Caveat: Backstrom’s probably not a true #1 fantasy goalie, but he’s a very good 1A.


This is the critical factor weighing on the Wild’s odds for success this season. We just don’t know. The uptempo, attacking style sounds great on paper to Wild fans that had grown frustrated and bored by Lemaire’s style, but do we have the horses to pull it off? I mean, to a guy that’s been wandering around in the desert for a couple days, any liquid is going to be tantalizing. But, while a cup of water from some stagnant well near Chernobyl might slack his immediate thirst…

Olympic Outlook

Burns (CAN); Koivu, Backstrom and Mittens (FIN); Johnsson (SWE) and Havlat (CZE) all have shots at their respective countries’ Olympic teams.

Bottom Line

Under the aegis of “who the F really knows?” it just doesn’t seem likely that the Wild will find itself in playoff position much after the Olympic break. The top 6 or so spots in the western conference are spoken for (SJ, DET, CHI, CGY, VAN, ANH) meaning the Wild is, at best, in a group with the likes of Dallas, Columbus, Edmonton, Nashville and St. Louis for the last two spots. Those just aren’t good odds. Fletch is doing a good job of slowly but surely molding the team to his vision, and Wild fans should expect a quasi-rebuilding year this year. The Wild should continue to churn out their patented solid, honest effort and hopefully there will be more vertical play livening things up. But the real fireworks may come at the trade deadline (Nolan, Belanger, Sykora, Johnsson, Zidlicky and Hnidy are all UFAs after the season) and, maybe, at the draft lottery.

Coming soon: Wild '09-10 preview from an opposing fan's perspective!


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fletch Working Hard To Please The Boss

When Wild owner Craig Leipold introduced Chuck Fletcher as the second GM in team history one of the things he mentioned he wanted to try to rectify with Fletcher's hiring was what he perceived to be a "frustrating" lack of success in landing free agents by the prior regime.

“...Yes I have been disappointed. In the past I’ve been frustrated not knowing why those unrestricted free agents wouldn’t choose this as their home. We have everything to offer here. I think the system might have been something that held them back. I believe Chuck feels that way. Other [candidates] that came through felt that way so I think this is like the missing piece. They’ll look at us in a different light now and they’ll want to come play here.”
-Russo's Rants, 6/3/09

To that end, Fletcher was successful in UFA season, landing one of the top handful of offensive players on the market in Martin Havlat. One hopes this was seen as a "win" by Leipold.

Since the initial fury of UFA season has simmered down, Fletcher's rhetoric vis-a-vis tinkering with the lineup has shifted into a two-pronged space. On one hand, he has talked about being willing to wait for teams in cap trouble to have to get under the cap to make a big move. On the other hand, it has been reported that he's been active in talks with some of the best remaining players (e.g. Alex Tanguay and Petr Sykora.)

This is not a contradiction. Well, maybe it is, but it's a contradiction that Wild fans seem to appreciate if for no other reason than the departure it represents from the M.O. of the prior GM - who let it be known that he was in on discussions with free agents, after they had signed somewhere else. Now, with the news of Sykora's arrival in Minnesota for a physical and then a "tryout" it seems like there's actual substance to those reports of Fletcher's activity.

And, again, one hopes the boss has taken notice.

Of particular interest is the fact that Sykora would have to take less money to play in Minnesota this season than he had on the table to play in the KHL. Sykora is not a 40-goal guy. He's a consistent 20-25 goal guy. On the Wild, that's easily 2nd line material, maybe even 1st line material. But that's beside the point. The point is that Sykora is among the most talented free agents available on the market right now, he wants to play in Minnesota (at least enough to get there, and on a "tryout" basis, in name anyway) and for less money than he'd receive elsewhere.

A player that wants to play for a specific team and is willing to sacrifice monetarily to do so? Are you sure we're not talking about the Red Wings here?

Okay, not quite, but when was the last time the Wild as a destination for a free agent could exist in the same sentence as the Red Wings in anything but a bad joke?

*UPDATE* Sykora signs for $1.6M for one year. This just makes the case that much stronger.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Are the Senators better?


Figured I might as well weigh in on the Dany Heatley trade.

By now, I'm sure everyone's heard that Heatley was shipped, with his profound approval, to San Jose, along with a fifth-round draft pick, in exchange for wingers Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek and a second-round draft pick.

Winner? San Jose.

Say what you want about Heatley's character, or whether he's a cancer in the locker room, whether he has attitude problems, or whatever. He's also one of the few elite goal scorers playing right now in the National Hockey League. If he ends up paired with Joe Thornton (which would seem likely), that will be a rather potent duo. Apologies to Jason Spezza, but Thornton is a much better player, and it is very possible, if not probable, that Heatley will return to his 50-goal scoring days.

Is he going to bump the Sharks over the top, and help them at least win a playoff round? That will remain to be seen. With Thornton, Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi, they're a more dangerous team now than before.

But what about Ottawa?

The Senators were fortunate enough to once before having swapped an elite talent for an elite talent, a rare trade where both teams received fairly equal value. That happened to be Marian Hossa in exchange for... Heatley.

Bryan Murray didn't get a Heatley-type back in this trade. In Michalek, he acquired a young power forward who will likely provide in the 20-25 goal range, maybe a little higher, on an annual basis. Michalek turns 25 in December and is signed for another five years. I like him better than any of the players they would've gotten from Edmonton and he is very much the centerpiece of the trade from Ottawa's end.

I can't say any of the above about Cheechoo, who has become the NHL posterchild of "fluke" or "one-year wonder" or any other adjective/noun you wish to use to describe such an occurrence.

In 2005-06, Cheechoo exploded onto the scene, winning the Maurice Richard Trophy with 56 goals. Since then, his goal totals have dropped sharply, down to 37, then 23, to 12 last year. That's a rather steep decline for someone who is only 29.

I won't claim to follow the Sharks on a nightly basis during those last two seasons, but I believe injuries and possibly even benchings have contributed to Cheechoo having played no more than 69 games in a season the last two years. And now he'll be expected to help replace Heatley's production in Ottawa, a place I'm betting is a much crazier hockey town than San Jose.

I don't know what kind of pressure or expectations will be on Cheechoo in Ottawa, whether they will be lowered because he was traded, or higher because of whom he was traded for, but I can say his production - or lack thereof - will go a long way towards making this trade a possible wash or win for Ottawa. If he can pot at least 25-30 goals for each of the two seasons remaining on his contract, and Michalek does the same, that would likely make Murray a happier man.

The Senators may have more depth on their team now. If Michalek slots in on the top line alongside Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, and Cheechoo lines up on the second unit - and starts to score again - Ottawa will have more of a balanced scoring attack than before.

But it all depends on Cheechoo. If his production continues to decline - and it can't drop much further - than Murray better make excellent use of that second-round draft pick, because all he'll have to show for one of the game's best players is Michalek.

Camp Opens

With the on-ice portion of training camp officially underway, the season really is finally approaching.

Russo's got a great take on the early look at the new system.

The Kalus thing just sounds dumb. I can't believe Kalus is going to make the team based on how much he emulates Clutterbuck - at least not more than his ability to put the puck in the net. I mean, yeah, do what you have to do to get noticed, but I'll be more interested if he uses this early "momentum" to transition into showcasing his power-forward skillz.

Also, Russo refutes the reports that Sykora has "signed" with the Wild, indicating that he is only coming on a "tryout." Not that I question what Russo's saying, but I say "bullpoop." I can't imagine why a player with Sykora's tenure lifts a finger to tryout for a playoff bubble NHL team - particularly when he'd HAVE to leave mucho dinero on the table to do so. I hope we get the full story on this because, well because I find international cloak and dagger stuff like this in sports interesting.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

'So wha'dya get?'

This popular refrain, from an ad for an all-you-can-eat buffet chain, kind of sums up what I'm thinking this Sunday morning, as dawn begins not only over the horizon, but over the 2009-10 hockey season.

Yesterday was the first day that single-game tickets went on sale for 28 of the NHL's 30 teams (Carolina and Nashville, both arenas near college football stadia, were allowed to defer until Monday, Sept. 14th), so now, dear reader, it begs the question: What Minnesota Wild road games are you going to this season?

OK, I know, I'm being nosy. But when NHL pundits and observers such as E. J. Hradek go on XM Radio's NHL Home Ice and proclaim that, "Minnesota Wild fans do not travel well", to me at least that's paramount to waving a red flag in front of a bull.

I'll be going to at least four games prior to the end of 2009; at Chicago (Oct. 26, Martin Havlat returns to Chicago while Marian Hossa, who the Hawks signed to replace Havlat, sits out injured); Nov. 10 at Toronto (a nightmare for buying tickets); Nov. 13 at Washington (a pleasant surprise; and no, we aren't going with the 'official' Road Trip group. We don't have that kind of money) and Nov. 15 at Carolina (hopefully, an afternoon to remember in Raleigh).

There are other games we are looking at, but the big problem is the compressed schedule due to the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver, which compresses the road trip opportunities to a precious few prior to the Feb. 14 cessation of activities for the Olympics. The Wild play 6 of their first 7 (and 8 of their first 11) on the road, with another 7 of 11 on the road immediately after Thanksgiving. In face, 23 of the 41 road games will be played by New Year's Eve.

What does this mean? You can't wait for the New Year to get your road trip on. The time to do this is, now. So, on we go, now looking at airlines, trains (there will be at least 2-3 of those), hotels, cars, etc., all the ancillary stuff in order to make these trips successful. The best way to do this on a budget (no, I don't have unlimited money for this stuff) is to plan ahead. The days of getting everyone together at the last minute and, 'Hey! Let's go to that game!' are over.

So, my original question is asked once again...

'So wha'dya get?'


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Need a hockey fix?

Figured I'd pass this along, for those who are not aware and who desperately need a hockey fix. NHL Network will televise 10 preseason games this month. The list (all times Eastern):

Monday, Sept. 14: New York Islanders at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 16: Boston at Toronto, 7 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 17: Toronto at Philadelphia, 7 p.m.
Monday, Sept. 21: Pittsburgh at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Sept. 22: Pittsburgh at Toronto, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 23: Toronto at Buffalo, 7 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 24: Edmonton at Tampa Bay, 8:30 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 25: Boston at Ottawa, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 26: Vancouver at Calgary, 9 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 27: Pittsburgh at Detroit, 5 p.m.

Center Is Key For Wild; 500 Posts!

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher sounds like a man that's more or less resigned to head into camp with the roster as it stands right now. That's fine. Can't get blood from a stone, and all that. But that leaves Mikko Koivu, James Sheppard, Eric Belanger and Kyle Brodziak as the players most likely to nail down a spot at center. Yes, Fletch (and, one presumes, Richards too) would be open to trying the PM Bouchards and Benoit Pouliots of the team out at center, but, really, odds are that it's going to be those first four that get the most minutes in the middle at camp (all else being equal, like injuries, etc.)

The question remains: are they enough?

No doubt Mikko's as good an all-around player as the Wild has. But is he a true #1 center? Hard to say. Statistically, he was the 20th-highest scoring center in the league last year. So, sure. And maybe you can expect some kind of "New Fangled Post-Lemaire" increase in offense. Okay, so I'll stipulate that he's a bona fide #1 center in the NHL. But can he elevate his game to the top tier of #1 centers? We'll see.

How about Shep as a #2? No doubt Shep has the build and we keep hearing that he has the promise to be a legit #2. And he could enjoy the fruits of the new system just the same as Mikko could. It's been very easy to poke fun at him for his "I've been playing since I was 3 comment" earlier this summer, but now it's time to put up or shut up. Writing him off would be stupid at this point, but he's got a lot to prove. If he can pull off a credible Ryan Getzlaf impression all would be forgotten very quickly.

I happen to think Eric Belanger is a good #3. At least he was under Lemaire. And Brodziak is a wild card for me at this point - having all-but ignored him up to this point. Maybe Bela and Brodziak can push each other, presuming neither wants to spend more time on the fourth line than they have to.

All in all, I think the Wild pivots mirrors the rest of the Wild forwards pretty nicely: pretty top heavy, though some potential if the kids come through.

So, I suppose, the question becomes: are they enough....for what? If you're talking about a playoff calibre team...maybe. If you're talking about a Cup contending team...yeah, no. If you're talking about a team that will fight for the last playoff spots but just as likely fall short as make it...juuuust right.

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Also, HTP just passed the 500 post mark. On behalf of WRT, KiPA, the Hockey Ombudsman and myself, thank you for reading.


Friday, September 11, 2009

It's a lot like Christmas Eve...for NHL fans

By the Wild Road Tripper (WRT)

It's beginning to look a lot like hockey season...

Time for 28 of the 30 teams (Carolina and Nashville excepted, as they have college football games near their arenas Saturday) to begin selling single-game tickets. Time to get the act really together, firm up the 'Where to go' list, and break out the credit cards. Because, you'll need 'em tomorrow.

That, and a lot of patience. A good working phone helps, also, as what Ticketmaster (or whomever actually is the selling agent) thinks as being 'best available' seating, isn't necessarily what you are thinking as 'best available' seating, and you know that what the online display shows isn't what you want, either.

You want what you want. You're willing to pay for it, so what? You still have to play the games. Just like the teams do, you have to play the games. You have been studying the NHL schedule for nearly 2 full months, thinking of scenarios where you can get that cheap air fare, the discounted hotel room, hopefully at the hotel which has the free hot breakfast to go with it, not to mention the free wi-fi internet connection. You have been studying arena seating charts, looking at highlights from, not to re-live some obscure Jason Blake goal or Luke Schenn check, but to figure out which end your team shoots at in the 1st and 3rd periods at the Air Canada Centre. You're second-guessing yourself (again) over which Washington Metro stop really has the best value hotels nearby so you can easily get to the Verizon Center to see your team go up against Ovechkin & Co., on 'Singles Night'. (And then it dawns on you; your wife is coming with you.)

Will the Leafs have any tickets left to sell? Will you be able to get across the US/Canada border and back again without a major hassle? How much snow will you run into on the East Coast? What hotel to stay at in Raleigh (Near the arena, or by the airport)?

And the most important two questions...

1. How much will all this cost?
2. How many road wins can you expect the Minnesota Wild to get on your road trip?


Monday, September 7, 2009

If hockey were more like baseball


As we sit here and while away the days until another sport finally starts (for most of us, waiting for hockey, for me, it's football and hockey), I decided to poke some fun at certain baseball rules or quirks and consider what they would be like in hockey. So, without further ado...

*There would be a "designated forward" but used only in either the Western or Eastern Conference, not both. This is someone whose only skill is scoring goals who will come off the bench once the puck crosses the red line into the attacking end, replacing someone who always should stay in the defensive end, like a Hal Gill or Rob Scuderi type. Once the puck goes back to the defensive end, the DF goes off the ice. (Baseball equivalent: the designated hitter.)

*The coaching staff wouldn't be dressed in sharp, expensive suits. They would be suited up in hockey pants, hockey socks, sweaters, and yes, even helmets. There might even be a rash of sales for certain coaches' jerseys. (Hey, I'll buy a Mike Babcock sweater. Wouldn't you?)

*Eric Godard vs. Derek Boogaard? Pfft. Even this or this (fast forward to the 2:45 mark) would be considered tame.

No, what we would see is this or this. And it would all be legal with very few suspensions, since baseball is rather weak when it comes to discipline.

*Hockey players would have egos.

*There would be nothing like Ryan Malone playing in the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 after breaking his nose. Not only because hockey players are tougher, but because baseball players don't break their noses. No, they get hurt from things like sneezing, sleeping, carrying luggage, shoeing a horse (seriously, I said SHOEING A HORSE), taking off a pair of boots, opening a DVD package with a steak knife...I could go on. This is just one article listing a slew of freak baseball injuries.

*Blackhawks fans would throw pucks back onto the ice if they went out of play.

*If a player or coach gets ejected from a hockey game, we might see more of this.

That's all for now. I hope you enjoyed it. There may be a Part 2, or 3, or who knows, maybe even 4. The gods know there are many head-scratchers attached to the world of baseball.