Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I don't get it

I'm having a hard time parsing the Rick Nash to the Rangers deal here.

I mean, I get that he was highly coveted and why the Rangers wanted him. I'm just baffled by the return that Scott Howson got for him.Brandon Dubinsky? Artem Anisimov? Tim Erixon? Ok, I get the first round pick. But Dubinsky and Anisimov have always left me ... underwhelmed. Tim Erixon I know nothing about. He might be the sleeper in this deal.

But overall, Howson got jobbed, which leaves me asking why the hell does he make this deal? Nash had a NTC with the Blue Jackets. He could decide where he wanted to play. Even if he gave Howson a limited number of options, it still begs the question why Howson made this deal, and why he made it now.

A few thoughts on this.
  • I've heard that the BJ's ownership wanted Howson to cut costs. My response to that statement is that there are better ways to cut costs than to trade your best player. Shirley there are other players on the team that could be moved to relieve costs. 
  • Nash's salary was 200k less than his cap hit this year, and the same next season.
  • James Wisniewski makes 7 mil this season at a cap hit of 5.5 mil. If the BJs wanted to cut salary, trading Wisniewski makes more sense to me than trading your best player. Granted, it's tougher to do with a Wisniewski than a Nash, but if I'm Howson, that's one direction I'm looking
  • Dealing Fedor Tyutin is another place to cut costs
  • If you're getting lowball offers, you can always wait it out, and make the deal when it better suits your needs.
Unless Howson was specifically told to gut the team, beginning with its captain, the only justification for this deal seems to be that he wants the team to suck for the next decade to stockpile high first round picks and rebuild through the draft. I mean, look at their coach if you want any evidence of that theory.

That said, the Jeff Carter Experiment lasted less than a season. Howson got the business on that trade as well. The whole thing reeks of desperation. At least I can understand - and empathize - with that.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Wild are a Boring, Trapping Team

I hate to break it to you all, but it's true. We all know it. The Wild are the most boring team in the NHL. All they do is trap, and Mike Yeo is a mere disciple of Jacques Lemaire. I mean, the Wild even trap in warmups! It's why Parise and Suter won't make a lick of difference to the success of this team. Parise's offensive skills will be obliterated on the Wild, and Suter, well, he fits right in!

So sayeth Bill Watters on Marek vs. Wyshynski this week. So it must be true, right?

Hold your horses. First off, on paper, I'm sure Watters might have a point. The Wild was one of the lowest scoring teams in the NHL and had decent defense. Based on that alone and not watching a single game, he might be headed in the right direction.

If he weren't sitting on his horse backwards. And if the horse weren't blind. And he wasn't wearing a blindfold. Then he might be headed in the right direction.

This is something that chaps my ass, when national "talent" looks at a stat sheet, sees the word "Wild" at the bottom of the goals scored column, and thinks "trap." Five or ten years ago, they might have had a point. After all, Jacques Lemaire IS the father of the Neutral Zone Trap, right? (Actually, he isn't, but let's not get pedantic for the time being.)

Todd Richards. tried to implement a system that was aggressive and offensive in nature. He made a point not to trap, but the team retained the label. Mike Yeo has a more pragmatic view of the game and will use trap variants from time to time, but generally speaking, his game is about aggressive forechecking, lots of back pressure, and trying to disrupt the other team's flow. To get them off their game.

So why didn't the team score last year? For one thing, they lost key players in droves. Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and Mikko Koivu all went down at inopportune times in the season. The Wild also had an atrocious power play percentage, scoring only 15.1% of the time. Fourth worst in the NHL. When Koivu came back, the Wild, strangely enough, got better.

In a highly unscientific study, I determined the Wild scored 2.375 goals per game in the first half of the season, and 1.95 in the second half. That's a drop of 0.4 goals per game. Of course, this piece isn't about how the Wild need to score more goals or how the health of the team impacts its ability to score, otherwise, I'd be geeking out on stats right now.

The point is that there's a reason the Wild didn't score goals last season, and it has nothing to do with the style they play. Which isn't a trap.

There are plenty of other teams that do use a Neutral Zone Trap that Watters can watch if he wants to see how that game is played.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Craig Leipold: Hypocrite or Hero?

There's been some concern going around the hockey blogosphere of late that Craig Leipold is a big, fat hypocrite. Why, you ask? Well I'll tell you!

The setup
Back in April, at the conclusion of the NHL season, Craig Leipold made the statement that NHL teams weren't going to survive long term if they kept paying players exorbitant salaries. Allow me to quote April 11, 2012's Star Tribune article:

We're not making money, and that's one reason we need to fix our system. We need to fix how much we're spending right now. [The Wild's] revenues are fine. We're down a little bit in attendance, but we're up in sponsorships, we're up in TV revenue. And so the revenue that we're generating is not the issue as much as our expenses. And [the Wild's] biggest expense by far is player salaries.
That's like saying we don't have an eating problem, we have an exercising problem. Not exactly, but I think you see where I'm going with this. The Wild's owner is saying that player salaries have to come down for the long-term success of the League, especially in smaller markets that don't have obsessive fans (read: Phoenix).

The Incident
On July 4 of this year, all hell broke loose. At least in New Jersey, Nashville, and the remaining 26 teams who pursued both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter aggressively. Every fan of the Wild who uses Twitter sat dumbfounded Wednesday morning, sending forth profound missives such as "I ... uh ... I ... holy shit" as the realization set in.

Chuck Fletcher was immediately hailed as the salesman of the century for luring two outstanding players away from the only rinks they've ever known. And Craig Leipold made abundantly clear he was making a statement. Something like: "Don't Mess with The Wild."

Uncle Moneybags wrote two checks totalling $20 million. Think about that. I won't make that in my lifetime, and he wrote checks of that amount as if it were an afterthought.

The Money Shot
Craig Leipold may have cried poor in April, but doesn't it make him a hypocrite to bemoan this lack of cash, and then lay out enough money to buy, I don't know, 40 Ferraris? Well, yes. And no.

For one thing, it may be true from a certain point of view that the League is hemorrhaging money and needs to restructure the CBA to ensure the continued health of the League.  Then again, someone was going to pay Parise and Suter ridiculous amounts of money. Might as well be the Wild, right?

That's kind of a weak argument, but I do think that a lot of the objection comes from the fans of teams who lost out on the Parise/Suter Sweepstakes. They have every right to question what happened, but as long as the current CBA is in place, teams will use whatever loophole they can find.

Also, let's look at the source. Leipold is Gary Bettman's buddy (or so I've heard). Leipold claiming to be in the poorhouse was surely a gambit that Bettman was playing. The Wild were probably the perfect team to do this with: out of the playoffs multiple years, midwest, smallish market. I'm sure if Bettman could go back in time, he'd have tried to get, say, the Predators' owner to get the narrative out there, or maybe the Blues' owner.

I think there's another key point here: Lou Lamoriello was crying foul of long-term contracts that gamed the system, then offered one to Ilya Kovalchuk. For which the League promptly swatted his backside. I think Lou knew exactly what he was doing and was willing to pay a price to make a point.  And the fact is that GMs and owners will do what they can under the rules in place. Don't like how some GMs and owners use the rules to their advantage? Then change the rules. But get player buy-in first.

Personally, I go back and forth on this one. I admit that I'm torn. On the one hand, I don't like it from a big-picture point of view. On the other, I love it as a fan of the Wild.

Whoa Nellie: Wild Not Contenders Yet

by NiNY

Some of you guys need to tap the breaks a little bit.

Is the Wild a better, more competitive team today than it was on July 3rd? Absolutely.

Should a return to the playoffs be a prediction for the 12-13 season (however and whenever it occurs)? Yes, I think that's more than fair.

Are they a Cup contender? Come on.

Now, that doesn't preclude them from being next season's LA Kings or New Jersey Devils because they could.

But it's July 6th; I'm just trying to be reasonable.

The glass half full (GHF) set will point to the 20-7-3 start last season and say that only injuries derailed what could easily have been a playoff berth. So net adding to that roster should put us over the top.

The glass half empty (GHE) people will note that the team was certainly playing over its head until the injuries came along and slapped us all upside the head with the cold, dead fish of reality.

I'm sort of in the middle. I don't think they were a 100 point team last year (as a 20-7-3 record would indicate over a whole season). But I do think they could have been a playoff team after the start they got out to. Afterall, they did set the dubious record of being the team that was #1 overall in the league the latest day in the season that went on to fail to make the playoffs.

But that's really academic.

Which is why applying a "contender" status to the Wild right now is so silly. We aren't even all the way through free agent season. Add in Luongo, Nash, Ryan...there is still the potential for significant redistribution of power across the league.

I like what Fletcher has done wherever he's done stuff to the line up so far. A lot.

And we had a (precious) couple building blocks already in place.

And if he can make a move for another 2nd pair-type defenseman that would be dandy.

But only one team wins the Cup. Which means several really good teams don't win it - sometimes including the 'best' teams.

I just don't think it's reasonable to think we can consider ourselves among the Flyers and Kings and Canucks and Rangers just yet.

The "pinch me" moment for me when all that stuff was going down on Wednesday (we signed Parise and Suter, not sure if you heard that) was when I remembered that I was already excited about the future of the team - because of this great crop of young kids we have ready to make their pro debuts. The other stuff - where the Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, for example - was just gravy. Really, really nice, rich, velvety gravy to be sure, but gravy nonetheless.

Seriously think about it: if we'd only signed these five guys this summer, that makes the team better for the next couple years. But what's going to make the team go from better to great over the next several years is the additional influx of all these young bucks we've got pawing at the ground, nostrils flared.

Again, I'm expecting a playoff berth this season.

But, A) that's sort of a backhanded compliment since that puts the Wild in the 53rd percentile of the league and B) while I don't think it's reasonable to think they'll be contenders this year, I also don't think we'll have to wait too long until we can do.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Day After: A New Dawn

by NiNY

If you're not from Minnesota, you just don't know what it's like to have hockey be such a large part of your identity, yet none of your State-produced biggest moments in the sport were at the NHL level. Minnesotans have this binary identity when it comes to hockey.

High school, college, Olympics, yeah we got that. But we've suffered the manifold humiliations of exporting many Sons of Minnesota - most of whom never amount to much at the NHL level, of never winning a Cup when we had team #1, then losing said team #1 (the blame for which, if we're being honest with ourselves, is at least partially our own fault), then watching team #1 move to, of all places, Dallas, then watching team #1 'win' a Stanley Cup in Dallas, then getting a new team #2, then experiencing a thrill in '03 with team #2 but knowing that was just a fluke, then seeing team #2's GM #1 grandly fuck up team #2 before owner #2 finally got wise and deep sixed him, then seeing team #2's GM #2 come in and find that both of his hands and one of his feet are tied behind his back and start the process of rebuilding without being allowed to use the word "rebuilding". Everything pertaining to our NHL-level experience with hockey is painted in some combination of the shades of embarrassment, underachievement and disgrace. That drove us crazy.

For example the first round draft picks for the Wild from 2004-2009 were:

04 AJ Thelen
05 Benoit Pouliot
06 James Sheppard
07 Colton Gillies
08 Tyler Cuma*
09 Nick Leddy**

*Still with the organization, jury's still out
**Traded by Fletcher in the unfortunate Cam Barker fiasco

You want to understand Wild fan angst, there it is.

But, as Minnesotans or fans of Minnesota teams, our misery is such that it's not just the local pro hockey team that haunts us. It's all the goddamn teams! The Twins have provided the best experience. But that experience appears to have peaked in 1991. There's a team called the Timberwolves that plays bouncy ball that showed a bit of a pulse last year from what I've gathered and might be on the upswing. Might. And don't even get me started on the Vikings. Only Bills fans get to talk to me about how shitty their experience with their team has been.

We don't just expect the worst, we know it's coming - because it always does. Every win is (or should be unless your powers of self-delusion are Biblical in magnitude) mitigated by the certainty that the team will figure out a way to undo the benefits and good feelings from that win sooner or later, and probably sooner.

It took my New York team-rooting wife years to understand my sports gestalt. When you've grown up with the Yankees and Rangers free agency is like the old joke about being on a 'seafood diet': when you see desireable free agents, you sign them. Same thing, at least in the Yankees' case, with championships. Not so, Minnesota teams fans.

Legitimacy in hockey, in other words, is something Minnesotans have been craving forever. Herb Brooks and the '80 team is great and a treasure and all that. But that's not purely a Minnesota accomplishment. We needed some kids from the likes of Massachusetts, for example, to make that happen.

Imagine if one of the things you prided yourself on wasn't recognized on that thing's biggest stage? You get cast as a quaint little addendum to that thing's living history. A footnote. A Vice President. That smarts. Why hasn't Minnesota - as natural a choice for a Winter Classic as there is in America - gotten one yet? The answer, we're told: not enough star power. Ouch. It's not enough that Canadians consider us Canada-south in terms of hockey passion, knowledge and participation? We don't have enough fair-haired, made-for-TV boys on the squad to warrant consideration?

So you'll forgive Wild fans if we've had a chip on our shoulders when it comes to hockey. We know more about the game than you do, but we never mattered on the scene enough to show it off.

Chuck Fletcher, I am reliably informed, is not from Minnesota.

As mentioned above, he inherited one big pile of dog shit of a team, and he should be able to look himself in the mirror today and honestly say that he's done one hell of a job rebuilding it.

He left a franchise that was given Sidney Crosby on a silver platter, and came to a franchise that had indelibly scorched the earth between the best player they had and a new contract for his continued services.

Learning that the stunning signings yesterday fit into the plan on which Fletcher sold Mikko Koivu when he re-signed two years ago(!) was mind-blowing to me. Foresight alone indicates a stark departure from his predecessor. But then the chutzpah (and, obviously some luck) to pull it off as well? Eat your heart out, Riser.

Because part of the fabric of being a Minnesota sports fan is this maxim: marquee free agents do not sign with your teams, at least not when their careers are still waxing. Brett Favre, yeah, but that was well into his wane and after he'd exposed himself in a text message, to boot.

So yesterday was about redemption and justification all in one. Think about that. Wild fans had been convicted of murder and spent time in prison, and yesterday our conviction got overturned and we got let out of the clink.

This sounds like I'm piling on. Like it can't possibly represent this much angst. But it does. And who knows, maybe they lock themselves out and lose the season. Maybe both players break their legs getting out of a golf cart. Maybe one of them finds Jesus and gives up hockey to go spread the good word. We don't know what the future will bring.

But, regardless, yesterday was a watershed moment in the psyche of Minnesota sports fans.

We who love this game of hockey so much, invest so much time and resources into the proliferation of it over the entire course of our lives, and have felt so repressed because even Corpus Christi, TX has its Brian Leetch, but all we had was the personal injury law firm of Parrish, Broten and Richards. Hey Parise said it himself: every kid who grows up in Minnesota wants to play for the Wild. It's different when it's some journeyman fourth liner saying that. But, when it's The Marquee Forward in an entire year's free agent class?

Now, all of North America knows about Minnesota and hockey.

And it was also a coming out party for Wild fans. We no longer have such a gaping hole in our first round pick history, if you think about these two players from the '03 draft's first round making up for a Thelen and a Sheppard, for example. Between Mikko and Zach and Dany and Mikael and Devin, we've got the makings of a legit first line. Roll that one around in your brains, Wild fans. Yeah our defense is still sub-par, but at least we have a clear #1 now - and a guy in Ryan who would be a #1 on many teams in the league - not just a guy who would only be a #1 with the Wild, the Isles and the Blue Jackets anymore. We have a general manager who, since the season ended, has upgraded all four of our forward lines and our top pairing on defense. Literally no other team in the NHL can say that.

Now all of North America knows about the Wild.

To the rest of you Minnesotans. You Vikes and T'Wolves and Twinkies fans who know about hockey, but for whom the Wild was just the team that plays over in St. Paul, and you go to Gopher or Bulldog or Huskies, or high school games for your hockey fix. It's okay to be a fan of the NHL. Maybe you got burned by the North Stars. Or maybe you've only ever needed high school hockey. Either way. We've got some great young debutantes, a good core of 3rd and 4th liners, and now, finally, some star power.

Hockey is what we do. Texas has its football. California has its baseball. Minnesota does hockey. Does it well enough to be proud of it. The Wild now, finally, embodies that pride.

It's a great day for hockey.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Fletcher Proving Deft at PR Game, Too

by NiNY

Chuck Fletcher - Manager of Expectations.

You know, that just sounds wrong.

Fuckin' Riser.

Hey, Fletcher doesn't have to have it printed on his business cards in order that it be an apt description.

We let the likes of Latendresse and Lundin walk, and with nary a whisper of dissent from the Wild faithful yesterday. We all "get" why Latendresse walked (Gui being at least partially responsible for why we swallowed his leaving so easily) and yet, when we saw the money he got from Ottawa, there could have been some "aww, come on Fletch. We could have paid him THAT!" While that's true, if a guy doesn't want to sign here, he doesn't want to sign here. And, in any event, I don't think I saw any whining of consequence about losing Latendresse - and his considerable potential.

Lundin, well, sadly Lundin is the Cal Coolidge of the Minnesota Wild. Barely healthy when he was here, and didn't really distinguish himself when he actually played. Did he actually leave? How would we know?

Hards back in the fold at a reasonable, tradeable $1.9M for 2 years is another solid if unspectacular move. And Kassian at $575k is equally non-constraining.

And Veilleux, sweet, simple, benign l'il Stevie Veilleux. A two-way deal for $600k is the veteran pro hockey player contract equivalent of me winning $5 on a scratch-off. In a word: inconsequential. In five words: not going to hurt us.

You know what else Fletcher didn't do yesterday? He didn't give Paul Gaustad $3.25M for 4 years to play ice hockey. He didn't give Dennis Wideman $5.25M for 5 years to do anything.

I like the Konopka signing. We've never had a tough guy who could garner a normal shift. And God knows we've had our share of tough guys. And Mitchell's a fairly benign player in his own right, but he takes pressure off the kids, should they fail to prove ready for the show this fall.

So, while the big fish are still out there swimming around, Fletcher was wily enough to land some smaller fish, bolstering the optics among the faithful that he is in fact awake and driving the ship.