Friday, October 21, 2011

Hard To Gauge Wild This Early

by NiNY

The standings say the Wild is the 7th-best team in the Western Conference through last night. Wild fans, desperate for anything positive to seize upon, the other local teams having either conclusively proved their inferiority (Twins, Vikings) or their unavailability (Timberwolves), are a mixed bag. Some are optimistic. Others are pessimistic. Yet others still have adopted the look of the oft-beaten dog, hopeful that his master will extend his hand not to smack him but instead to scratch his ears this time.

It's easy to want to say "We've seen this movie" about the Wild, based on their play so far this season. In a word: uneven. In two words: lacking consistency. Yeah, that feels pretty familiar.

And I suppose if you were to audit the differential between minutes-played of ineffective, disorganized, lethargic (whether from disinterest or thinking too much about The New System) play and inspired, proactive or dominating play, the final ledger would show a strong bias towards the former.

But, I still think the balance of this season will play out with a different plot than prior iterations of the Wild.

It's all about Coach Yeo.

He's so obviously a different kind of bench boss than Todd Richards. Where Todd appeared aloof or phlegmatic behind the bench, often caught on camera with a distinct "Uhhh...?" expression on his face, Yeo appears rigidly composed, in command and with a distinct "I've just looked at that from every conceivable angle and I know just how to fix it" expression on his face.

Ms. Conduct has been lauding Yeo's ability to inspire and motivate his players. I am starting to see what she means. That steely confidence tends to work osmotically on a team.

If you read Justin Bourne's piece on Backhand Shelf yesterday about Yeo pulling guys aside during practice for a little chat, that's part of it, too. And, maybe, emblematic of the main point.

Yeo's the youngest coach in the NHL, but he doesn't act like it (okay, dropping the mitts with Bulmer in practice was a funny sideshow, but a good coach knows when to use the stick and when to use a little levity on an anxious team). Yeo's the least-experienced NHL head coach in the league. But, if that's an excuse for other guys, Yeo ain't buying.

He's adapting. He's already broken up his vaunted top line once in a game. That's huge. How many times did Richards break up his top line in the two years he was the coach? A couple?

When the Wild was born and then hired Lemaire to be head coach, I loved it because it gave the team instant credibility. It also gave the team identity, even if it was one that was ultimately derided (trapping team).

When the Wild hired Yeo, it did not bring instant credibility and identity to the team. Indeed, it very much brought those things into question. It was "Will the Wild, under Mike Yeo, have a different identity than they did before?"

Although the results have been spotty, it's clear that Yeo knows exactly what he wants this team to look like, exactly how he wants them to think of themselves and exactly what he needs to do to make those things happen.

I still don't think it will necessarily manifest itself in a playoff berth this season, but I think the improvement in the team will be significant.

The credibility and identity are his, and he's confident banking on it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Buncha Stuff

by NiNY

I read a great hockey book before the season started, that I haven't had the time to review on here. It's called Gretzky to Lemieux, by Ed Willes. It tells the story of the 1987 Canada Cup, in particular the final series between the host Canada and the intrepid Russians.

Mr. Willes has a casual narrative style that is easy to read, humorous and appropriate for his sharp eye for the game. He incorporates interesting side bars, for example on Team Canada coach Mike Keenan, that greatly aid the reader in setting the proper context for the action.

I was unaware of the amount of awesome on both the Canada and the Russian teams in that tournament. Willes illustrates the confluence of dynasties that made up Team Canada, between the outgoing Islanders early 80s dynasty and the then-current Oilers dynasty, pitting the differences in style - on and off the ice - in sharp relief and to great effect.

The hockey sounds like it was sublime, and Willes' description of it pays appropriate homage.

The denouement is set up well before the actual end of the book as Willes points out the distinct relationship that Gretzky forged with the Russians in general. This sets up the last part of the book, after the tournament is completed, as Soviet Russia's grasp on both the country and the hockey team starts to crumble.

It's a great read, and I recommend it to any hockey fan.

*** *** ***

The realignment argument got a boost in the arm this week when the inimitable Bob McKenzie of TSN dashed off a tweet mentioning that the Red Wings are lobbying hard for relocation to the Eastern Conference under any realignment scheme. That opened a can of twitter worms that got, among other people, many of us Wild fans up in arms. Bob then followed up with a lengthy article on TSN outlining the various different plans in his typical thorough and brilliant manner.

My main takeaway from that article was that there is simply no easy option here. Whether the prevailing consideration is geographic proximity for divisional or conference play, or maintaining or improving the current playoff format, this is one tricky issue.

Obviously, for the Wild's sake, I would prefer that they get to play fewer games one and two time zones behind Central time. But there are several teams with the same gripe.

One thing though, if Detroit's beef is that they have to travel more than other teams, I have to think Dallas and even Minnesota have a bigger claim to that problem than Detroit does. At most, Detroit's playing one time zone behind them in a road division game. Dallas plays two time zones behind them for ALL road division games, and Minnesota plays one or two times zones behind them for road division games. Detroit may 'deserve' a relocation back to the East for other reasons, but division travel is a weak argument in my opinion.

It will be very interesting to see how this gets resolved.

*** *** ***

Rick DiPietro and his ridiculous contract has to go down as one of the biggest NHL flops of all time. He's a backup on the Islanders right now. That is, when he's not hurt. Whenever I think of DiPietro, I think of the line in the Hockey News "Rick DiPietro is the best goalie in the NHL...just ask him."

Obviously it's common for players to play their best in a contract year. So why Wang thought it would be a good idea to give a relatively unproven (at the time) goalie a 15 year deal is absolutely beyond me. A $4.5M backup, under contract until 2021. I mean...

From 2005-2006 to 2007-2008, Rick averaged 62.66 games per year, 29.33 wins, 2.80 GAA and .907 SPCT. In the three seasons since then he's averaged 13 games per year, 3.66 wins, 3.18 GAA and .893 SPCT.

He's won 127 games in 8 NHL seasons. That's an average of 15.8 per season. On a per 82 game season basis, his wins/games played (127/207) works out to 33.92 - which really isn't bad. He's not a bad goalie. He simply can't stay in the lineup.

And now he's a backup.

*** *** ***

I'm going to undertake a project wherein I will watch at least one broadcast from each team's home announcers this season. I got this idea arguing on Twitter with a Red Wings fan who took issue with my position that the Wings announcers are horrendous. I state up front: the Wild announcing team is not up to my standard of broadcasting excellence, either. And the FSNorth productions are of an unacceptably low standard. Anyway, should be fun.

*** *** ***

Speaking of the Wild, I'll be very interested to see how they respond after the ugly two-game east coast swing. They have this huge winning streak against the Oilers on the line, but if they're figuring out Yeo's system, they're not showing it lately. Either that or the thing don't work (which I think is the less-likely possibility.)

Interestingly, defense, as measured by goals-against anyway, hasn't been too bad. But you can't blow a two-goal third period lead against a team like Ottawa.

Consistency for 60 minutes has been something the Wild has lacked since before Richards, even. If Yeo can get that out of this team it will be a major accomplishment in and of itself.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

With PMB Suspension, It's All About Consistency

by NiNY

As I've said, I approve of the job Brendan Shanahan has been doing as the new dean of discipline. He's brought accountability and transparency to the job, and raised the standard of play, albeit with primarily negative reinforcement, for players. Both things, overall, I like.

So, while I don't like that Pierre-Marc Bouchard got two games for his incident with Matt Calvert last night, I realize that's the Wild fan in me speaking, and not the hockey fan.

And, when I listen to the hockey fan in me, I realize that the suspension is entirely in keeping with the precedent(s) Shanny has set with his prior suspensions this season.

Shanny's consistently giving more games for egregious incidents than his predecessor gave in similar situations.

The PMB situation is definitely more controversial than most of the other incidents on which Shanny has had to rule so far. It's clear from the video that Calvert's own action may have been the only reason Bouchard's stick hit him in the face and not lower on his body. So this one isn't as clean as maybe a checking from behind.

But Shanahan is consistent in his holding players ultimately accountable for the consequences of their actions, inclusive of this ruling.

@BrianHohlen asked me on Twitter whether the suspension sets the precedent that every 4 minute minor high stick warrants a 2 game suspension now. That's a fair point. It seems to me that Shanahan is saying that, when the action is an illegal high stick to the head that causes injury, yes, it does.

And, really, what's wrong with that? Was not PMB's stick making contact with Calvert's face within the definition of an illegal high stick?

Here's the text of the rule:

60.1 High-sticking - A “high stick” is one which is carried above the height of the opponent’s shoulders. Players and goalkeepers must be in control and responsible for their stick. However, a player is permitted accidental contact on an opponent if the act is committed as a normal windup or follow through of a shooting motion. A wild swing at a bouncing puck would not be considered a normal windup or follow through and any contact to an opponent above the height of the shoulders shall be penalized accordingly.

60.2 Minor Penalty - Any contact made by a stick on an opponent above the shoulders is prohibited and a minor penalty shall be imposed.

60.3 Double-minor Penalty - When a player carries or holds any part of his stick above the shoulders of the opponent so that injury results, the Referee shall assess a double-minor penalty for all contact that causes an injury, whether accidental or careless, in the opinion of the Referee.

60.4 Match Penalty – When, in the opinion of the Referee, a player attempts to or deliberately injures an opponent while carrying or holding any part of his stick above the shoulders of the opponent, the Referee shall assess a match penalty to the offending player.

The language of the penalty does not offer a qualifier based on the actions preceding the stick encountering the face. If we don't like the illegal high stick rule, then we should change the rule. But, as written, it seems to me that, when Bouchard's stick hit Calvert's face, it qualified as that particular infraction.

Shanahan did mention PMB's squeaky-clean history over his nine-season career in the video explanation. So, against the backdrop of PMB's track record of compliance, is two games an eye-opener? Yes, frankly, it is.

But, again, that's been Shanahan's MO since the preseason started. Opening eyes with his supplemental discipline decisions. Getting players' (and fans') attention. It seems clear to me that the individual suspensions in a vacuum are about more than the individual act. Shanahan's setting precedents. Stakes in the ground. If a check from behind that used to be worth a game is now worth 5, then a player with an unblemished record of clean play who commits a stick infraction that injures an opponent that might have drawn a slap on the wrist under Campbell is now worth two. I think that's a parallel shift.

No, I don't like that PMB is going to sit for two games. But I get it. And, further, I still think Shanahan's doing his job.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

It's Only One Game, But It Feels Like More

by NiNY

It took me a while to realize why I was more wrapped up in the Wild's season-opening win over the BJs tonight than I thought I'd be. Then it dawned on me that the anticipation for this season that was borne of the inspiring moves made by Chuck Fletcher this summer was building this first game up to be more than just one out of 82.

The full plan was on display tonight, too.

From the re-tooled first line (which put out exactly like we hoped they would) to the youth movement (Scandella, Spurgeon, Stoner, Bulmer) getting legit minutes in all situations, to the new coach with his "Go ahead and underestimate me, I freakin' dare you" look that I absolutely adore.

On this one night, I hope Fletcher was satisfied. It's not the end of the road, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was conclusive evidence that they're on the right path.

As for the game itself, the Wild had the jump on the BJs for the majority of the first two periods and then shut it down effectively in the third. The first two goals of the season came not from the exciting first line but from the defense (a sophomore to a freshman, no less) and the 2nd line. As nice as it is to be able to expect offense from our top line, getting offense from that second line is beyond huge.

Backstrom was tremendous. I've been having trouble deciding if he or Latendresse was more important to the ultimate outcome of the season, and I think it has to be Backstrom. With the younger blueline, should they show their age at all, Bax has to be able to clean up any spilled milk with regularity if the Wild is going to have any success this year.

The BJ TV announcers were talking about the speed of the Wild making a difference in the game and that made me think about Yeo's great quote in the FSNorth pregame about the difference between being a fast skater and playing fast hockey. I'm going to remember his line and I have a sneaking suspicion it will come to represent his style of hockey.

After the game ended, I turned to the Sharks/Coyotes game to see Burns' debut. I remembered how Todd Richards had been an assistant with San Jose, and how Yeo was an assistant with Pittsburgh. Well, the Penguins won a Cup while Yeo was there and the Sharks, well we all know about their struggles in the playoffs. Maybe the difference between Yeo and Richards is as simple as that: they're both new coaches, with similar pedigrees, but one has seen what it takes to win at the NHL level and the other hadn't.

Which leads me to my expectations for this Wild team. I want to see two things: 1. consistent effort. That's been missing from Wild teams since before Lemaire left. 2. Playing meaningful games in March. I don't know if they're a playoff team, and I hate pre-season predictions. But staying in it past the trade deadline would be a solid step in the right direction from where they were last season.