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.


Kirsten said...

God, every Pens fan I've talked to has basically said the Wild are gonna suck. You guys are clearly a bunch of arrogant downers. ;)

Nick in New York said...

Great work, Kev.

Okay, so my format on the fantasy thing was bad. I'll give you that. I should have done it from a "target as your first center" type of thing.

You're right Burns should be more of a sleeper, but I do think he could be a sleeper than pays off big time.

I think Burns and Clutterbuck are the two true sleepers on the Wild.

KiPA - Kevin in PA said...

Kirsten, I clearly stated I think the Wild might finish as high as fifth. ;) I didn't say they'll suck - well OK, I did, but that was the sarcastic part of the post - just that anything is possible with them. They might suck, or they might be a playoff team.

I don't think they'll win the Cup, so if that's your definition of me saying they'll suck, then yes, I can't deny that. But I can see St. Louis' kids taking a step back, the goaltending situation falter, and them falling out of playoff positioning and the Wild happily snatching that spot.

I can see Steve Mason having a sophomore slump and ruin Columbus' season. Jonas Hiller might come back down to earth, J-S Giguere might stay in Red Light Land, and Anaheim could fall out of the picture.

The Wild are a more dangerous team now with Havlat and Sykora. It gives them multiple and legitimate scoring options. Koivu needs to take the next step offensively. The goaltending will still be good.

If I say the Wild will miss the playoffs, it's not necessarily a knock against Minnesota, just that other teams in the conference are actually good.

It's not going to surprise me at all if the Wild make the playoffs and win a round or two.

KiPA - Kevin in PA said...

A sleeper that pays off big time is the definition of a sleeper. ;) And yes, I agree, Burns has a lot of upside. I just think people can afford to wait on him in drafts. Burns went high in drafts last year, and his subsequent struggles will mean his stock will/has dropped.

In a couple leagues last year, I drafted Rob Blake as my third or fourth defenseman and was rewarded with a damn good season. The same could happen for Burns.

As for Clutterbuck...well, it'll be interesting to see where he plays. Is he going to end up on a line with Bouchard and Sykora? I'd almost say that's the perfect fit, because talk about a duo that desperately needs a physical presence to go with them. If that's where he ends up, I'd definitely keep an eye on him. I still won't be drafting him unless it's a league with hits or a really deep league. If he gets hot, I'll consider snatching him up if I deem him better than what I have. It depends on how things play out.

Kirsten said...

Haha, I got the sarcasm, I was just making a general comment that most of the Pens fans I know seem rather smug at the moment.

I don't disagree with your predictions, and I certainly won't counter them with my own predictions, because I don't like to make predictions. I think as usual it could go either way for this team. Hopefully we'll get the breaks and bounces instead of broken players this season.

KiPA - Kevin in PA said...

I don't like predictions either and don't often make any clear-cut ones beyond generalities like in my post.

And with all due respect, I think Pens fans have reason to be a little smug. Or we did. I was a bit during the summer, but it's a new season now, so what happened in June doesn't matter as much any more. But even when I hear announcers say, or read headlines that say "Sabres knock off champs" even that will be a little neat. OK, not really, but you know what I mean.

On a fantasy note...sigh, I frickin' drafted Havlat as my #1 right winger. In my defense, I was going to draft Thomas Vanek to be my #2 left winger in that spot, but Vanek went one pick before me. And Havlat was my 6th round pick after I'd already gotten two top goalies, a center, LW and a D. I think it was those two goals he had the other night that convinced me.

But I did load up on RWs, ending up with four.