Friday, January 31, 2014

Locked In at Fourth in The Central


Inconsistent play from one game to the next has long been a Minnesota Wild hallmark. It's both frustrating to watch and probably unpreventable. Except that the elite teams either don't have that problem or they have it far less-frequently as the Wild does. And the Wild doesn't produce the long winning streaks, or 14 wins in 16 games kind of runs that allows the other teams to have an off-game without it feeling like a big deal.

So, last night the Wild played their patented ineffective start, rally late that falls short move. Seriously, the Wild's score should have a registered trademark sign after it. But I fear the effect to their outlook for this season will be rather more pronounced.

Current Central division standings
1. CHI 56 GP 33 W 79 PTS 115.7 projected
2. STL 52 GP 36 W 77 PTS 121.4 projected
3. COL 53 GP 34 W 73 PTS 112.9 projected
4. MIN 56 GP 29 W 64 PTS 93.7 projected
5. DAL 54 GP 24 W 57 PTS 86.5 projected
6. NAS 55 GP 24 W 56 PTS 83.5 projected
7. WPG 55 GP 25 W 55 PTS 82 projected

It's going to be very hard for the Wild to finish ahead of Colorado - assuming no major ups or downs for either team from here on out. The Avs have both games-in-hand and more wins (and ROW: 31 for COL and 23 for MIN) than the Wild does. The relative delta there means it's going to be very hard for the Wild to catch the Avs - particularly since they don't have any more head-to-head games. The Avs went 4-0-1 against the Wild this season. So Colorado owns the key tie breakers, too. But even without all that, making up nine points and five wins - with three fewer games in which to do so - is just a very tall order. Think about it. If the Avs go .500 (14-15-0) the rest of the way, they finish with 48 wins and 101 points. That means the Wild would need 38 more points from this point to finish with 102. That would mean the Wild would have to go at least 19-8 the rest of the way to pass Colorado. The Avs have won at a 64.1% pace so far this season. If they win 64% of their remaining 29 games, that gives them another 18 wins, or 36 points, for a total of 109. In order to finish with 110 points the Wild needs 46 more points, or 23 wins out of their remaining 27 games. Sure, it's possible, but anyone who wants to bet me that the Wild finishes ahead of Colorado should feel free to contact me today. In fact, just mail me the money.

The good news here is that, if I'm saying the Wild won't catch Colorado, then that same rationale has to apply downward. And, indeed, I think it will be difficult for Dallas, Nashville and Winnipeg to catch the Wild at this point. They are basically as far behind the Wild as the Wild is behind Colorado. Dallas has the best chance of the three since they have 2 games-in-hand. So it looks like the Wild is pretty much locked into a fourth place finish in the Central this season.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Great Goalie Gambit


Watching the game last night, I was reminded of this picture of young Messrs. Richter and Vanbiesbrouck:

The Wild has managed to stitch together a Frankstein's monster of goaltending from partial season performances from Harding, Kuemper, and Backstrom this season. In totality, it has resulted in a plus-season defensively: 7th-best goals against per game (2.38), and Harding still sits at (GAA) or near (SPCT) the top of the major goaltending statistical categories - other than wins and shutouts - despite not having played yet in 2013. Kuemper has assumed the mantle of starter recently and is currently tied (with MA Fleury) for 21st in GAA and 18th in SPCT (I don't think he's played enough to qualify for league leader rankings).

For this cumulative performance, the Wild is paying Backstrom $3.416M, Harding $1.9M and Kuemper $776k against the cap. That's a rough total of $6.092M, which, frankly, isn't utterly ridiculous. As much as Wild fans like to think otherwise, the dollars for Backstrom are reasonable. And the dollars for Harding are terrific - when he plays like he played earlier this season. And, when he plays, but not as well as he played earlier this season, well $1.9M for a backup isn't exactly Jamie Dimon money. The per-season-cap-hit isn't the issue either. It's the term. And the fact that there are three of them.

Backstrom is a career 2.46/.916 goalie. Good, above-average NHL goalie. Not elite, but not Oilers goalie-du-jour, either. This season, Backstrom is performing at a 3.02/.899 level. And that's after he's played better in his more recent starts. Well off his career levels. I know the stats don't tell the whole story, but is anyone who has watched Bax this season going to argue that he HASN'T been shaky? On the other hand, Harding has been a revelation this season. As alluded to earlier, his 1.66/.933 is obviously extremely strong. Particularly when benchmarked to his career numbers which, at 2.45/.918, are eerily similar to...Backstrom's (reminder: 2.46/.916). Granted, Harding only has 124 career starts to Backstrom's 377, but you get the point.

Wild fans have been at odds with the mean regression mongers at various points over the years. Frankly, mean regression is an observable thing. It's real. But it's not as predictive as the self-styled fancy math set like to think it is. At least not in and of itself. It's an inherently lagging indicator. So, both sides should probably settle down about it a bit.

The question is: to what extent will both players revert back (up, for Backstrom; down, for Harding) to their career averages? And here's where we (finally) get to the point of this post. The conversation around the Wild goalies is extremely convoluted. If Backstrom is now playing to a new (lower) level from which he will not be able to materially improve, then being tied to him for two MORE seasons after this - at a $3.416M cap hit - is onerous. Backstrom's cap hit is higher than Jonathan Bernier's, Corey Crawford's, Craig Anderson's, Ben Bishop's, etc. It's also higher than Josh Harding's. So, if we're going to get largely the same output from both of those guys, why are we paying one twice as much as the other? Well, one of the answers is that we might not be able to get the same output from both guys. To begin with, Harding could regress. That's obviously possible - and, if you don't think it is, you're wrong. In black and white, Harding's play so far this season is the exception within his career-to-date body of work, not the norm. And the other side is that clearly it's dangerous to assume that Hards will be available for an entire season at a time at this point. Harding is under contract through next season.

So, it's not as simple as 'just trade for Ryan Miller', even if Fletcher could somehow hoodwink Murray into giving us Miller for nothing. As big an issue as carrying three goalies is, carrying four is not any better. Obviously if you acquire a healthy starter, you can send The Cows back to Iowa. But, in order to really land in a better place, vis-a-vis goalies, with any kind of acquisition, we would need to net reduce the number of goalies on the roster. There are three now. You bring in a new guy, send Kuemper to Iowa, you're still at three. Yes there are other options (LTIR, for example), but the ideal would be to send Backstrom or Harding the other way. Well, Backstrom has a modified NMC/NTC, per Capgeek, and, when most GMs trade for a player they want them to be able to play - and that's the big thing with Harding, right? Tough situation for Fletcher.

The wild card here is Kuemper. After an ugly start to the season, he has been huge for the Wild since he took over as starter. His stats are good: career 2.21/.921, albeit with only 13 starts, but no worse than what we can expect from Backstrom or Harding over a normal sample. Of course, Kuemper may be playing to a premium right now, as well. That's certainly a possibility. You're asking a lot from a kid his age to step in and save a playoff team's season. But, I assume the big thing for him this season was to get lots of minutes at the pro level. Doing that in St. Paul vs. Des Moines - particularly when he's not just getting shelled (and risking his confidence) - might not hurt his development, long-term. There's no doubt that Kuemper has allowed Fletcher more time to let the situation (with Harding) work itself out, with the highest potential for the least amount of upheaval to the roster in the process.

In the meantime, if you read Elliotte Friedman's 30 Thoughts this week, you learned about another wrinkle in the economics that might be keeping trades at bay right now. And there's always the chance that a Miller goes to Sochi and comes back tired, or injured. Or, by the same token, that Sochi gives Harding the time he needs to get back on the ice. And, the final piece in the puzzle: the Wild is thriving right now. They're not going to finish above third in the division, fourth in the conference. But, when I look at the current wild card standings, currently no team below the Wild has a better 10-game record - that's big because it means separation.

I'm glad Fletcher has not sold off big pieces to bring in a goalie so far. I'm glad he didn't bring in Theodore. I don't want him to sell off big pieces to bring in Miller, either. This isn't the Wild's year. Get that stretch drive under Kuemper's belt, maybe a series or two, and try to time the run for a couple years down the road when Backstrom and Harding are no longer our problem. At this point, I'm as confident going into the playoffs with Kuemper as I am with Backstrom (due to his play) or Harding (due to his health). And the pieces we would have to give up to get a Miller might be useful in a couple years when this team should be bearing fruit.

Monday, January 27, 2014

On Outdoor Games


There can be no doubt that the actual events in Michigan, California, and New York so far have been successful for the NHL so far. Just looking at the attendance alone - some 175,000-odd people have attended the three games? At their current pace, it would take Phoenix more than 13 games to prod 175,000 people through the turnstiles. The optics have been both strong and varied - from the seeing-the-Colosseum-for-the-first-time scale of Michigan Stadium, to 60s and palm trees and glitterati in LA, to that little bit of magic (good or bad, depending on your perspective) that Yankee Stadium just has in New York. The league must be pleased with the outcome, so far. But I wonder how much the league is holding its collective breath, too?

The cracks are there. was advertising discounts on tickets for LA a couple weeks ago. Promos for Wednesday's game at Yankee Stadium make sure to remind us that tickets are still available. You had some pointed griping about the conditions in NY. The hinky warm-up delay thing. The Ducks' uniforms.

And, the biggest crack, although few admit it (which makes you wonder just how many hockey fans are going to these games, versus those just wanting to participate in the happening - which is completely cool), is that the games have suffered. No honest to goodness hockey fan is going to sit there and tell me these games look like any other NHL game. It's somewhere between a preseason game and the All-Star game in terms of intensity and focus. And how can you blame the players? They walk out into that atmosphere, how can you not be in awe?

I've been to an outdoor game. This year, in Rochester. It was simultaneously one of the most fun hockey experiences I've ever had and the worst hockey game I've ever seen.

The basic problem is that a regulation hockey rink is just not set up to be viewed from as far away as places like baseball stadia and The Big House mandate it be viewed from. Watching a baseball game is simple. Football, too. With all due respect, watching a trapped baserunner try to juke around a shortstop trying to tag him out is just not the same as watching a hockey forward trying to deke a guy at the blueline. You need to see the plays develop in hockey, which is also something in football, I suppose, and I wonder if Michigan Stadium hasn't been the best of the three venues so far, for that reason alone - the stands are much more on top of the field than the baseball stadia. The game I attended was at a minor league baseball park - small in other words (and the seats were on an even more gentle grade than at some of the big MLB parks - to the point that the second deck were the "expensive" seats for the hockey game) - and I still couldn't see a thing. The rink was set up length-wise across the infield from first-to-third with the benches on the second base/outfield side. We were sitting behind home plate, so at center ice, but, because of the foul territory behind the dish, we were as far from the ice as you could be. The near boards meant you couldn't see players from the waist-down no matter what. And, if the play was on the other side of the rink, the line of sight was such that you could really only see shoulders-up. And forget about seeing the puck - ever. Again, that was a small ballpark, so maybe the viewing has been better at the NHL games so far. But, I'm guessing it hasn't been ideal. Or even very good. So, as far as Going To A Hockey Game, these outdoor games, writ as large as they can be, are no good.

But, as I said, the game I saw was also one of the most fun hockey experiences I've had. It was just a party, man. It was cold, for one. And people were taking their pre-gaming seriously. And their mid-gaming. And, I would assume, their post-gaming, too. But, instead of being sloppy, rude, belligerent drunks, everyone was just...happy. There was a wonderful feeling of shared suffering and a unique, cool, novel experience. People were dancing in the seats, high-fiving little kids they didn't know, just having a ball. And it rubbed off. My kids participated in the wave for the first time. It was really...special.

So, maybe that's the draw. Introduce a bunch of new people to the game of hockey in an atmosphere that is more hospitable than just dropping them into the upper deck at Wells Fargo Center in Philly wearing a Rangers jersey would be. And, if so, then that's enough. Hockey is worth that to me.

But, having been to an outdoor game, I do not feel the need to go to another one, ever again. And I certainly wouldn't pay NHL dollars to go to one. The optics on TV are good for a minute, but in the same way that I like to see about two minutes of the red carpet at the Oscars - it's a spectacle. I'm not rearranging my schedule to watch the Isles and Rags on Wednesday, in other words.

The NHL is going to do what's good for the NHL - that's their prerogative. And the fact of the matter is that these outdoor games do not interrupt my being a fan of the NHL. It's just a thing.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

3 Things: Wild vs. Blackhawks

by NiNY

Big game for the Wild tonight against Chicago. It's never a good thing when you have to say that, over a four-game set, the game against Chicago is arguably the most-winnable! But, after tonight's game in St. Paul, the Wild heads out west to play, in order, San Jose, Anaheim and Colorado, before completing the four-game roader in Calgary.

1. It's The Cows. Kuemper has played very well of late. Even with Backstrom healthy enough to dress, I think I'm at least as comfortable with Darcy in the cage than Backstrom - even though Bax has played better of late, as well. I'm not less-comfortable with Kuemper, anyway. But, against Chicago, and with all due respect to Dallas, Edmonton, Ottawa, Nashville, Montreal and Toronto, Kuemper will see the best team he's seen this season since he beat LA on 1/7. He has the mechanics, it seems like his struggles early this season were confidence and maybe a bit of rust. But neither of those things seem to be bothering him now. That must continue to be evident tonight or the Wild cannot win, because...

2. Goals, goals, goals. The Wild's offense continues to be dismal, overall. Tied for 21st in the league with goals for per game (2.45), they have done an admirable job since the plague of shot-blocking injuries set upon them. But, the Minnesota Wild cannot win a shootout against the Blackhawks. Crawford got touched for 4 last night (plus the SO loss), so we'll see who Coach Q plays tonight on the quick turnaround. Regardless, you're going to have to score in order to win most of the time (channeling Lemaire), and if the Hawks put up the goals they typically put up (3.12 goals for per game), the Wild is going to be in trouble.

3. Les Enfants. This could end up being the season that really sets the Wild up for success and opens their window looking ahead a couple years. Why? Because the kids have been pressed into duty, and we're not getting ground up like the kids in Edmonton, for example. They're seeing (moderate) success, which is good if only because the alternative - losing - runs the risk of killing their confidence. With Parise, Koivu, Spurgeon, Bax and Hards all out, the kids have stepped in and we haven't sunk to the bottom of the league. If the typical progression is something like: kids get experience, mix in the right vets, suffer heartbreak in the playoffs, learn "how to win", then emerge as a contender, one could say the Wild is somewhere on that arc right now - which is comforting given where they were even two seasons ago. I know some of you get all exercised when Zucker gets demoted to the fourth line or back to Iowa. But there has to be a reason why, and Yeo is well aware of the positive things he brings to the game (speed, scoring) and Yeo also knows we need those things. But, although the offense isn't consistent yet, Coyle is coming along. Granlund, too. Nino has been a terrific get for Fletcher, one of the best values in the league. And don't look now, but Fontaine is on a 20-goal pace! The Wild might have as strong a core of 2nd-3rd line youth as there is in the league. And we don't even have to discuss Brodin, do we? Didn't think so.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Four Men and a Flipper

The speed of the game of hockey today has dictated that only having one set of eyes call all penalties just isn't feasible anymore for games played at the sport's highest level. The four-man officiating system is universally accepted as the best officiating system for hockey at its upper levels. College, most professional leagues, the NHL, and IIHF (the International Ice Hockey Federation, governing body for the Olympics, among other things) have all adopted the four-man system. That being said, it is not a system without flaws. A play in the Minnesota Wild / Dallas Stars game on Saturday, January 18th provided a specific example where the four-man system can be particularly vulnerable.


The Sitch
Play starts out with Dallas defenseman Trevor Daley skating the puck out of his defensive zone. At this point the lead ref starts retreating to the Minnesota zone. Daley is approached by a fore-checking Kyle Brodziak. At about the top of the faceoff circle, Daley drops the puck back to Alex Goligoski just above the faceoff dot. Brodziak peels off, and takes a couple of strides backwards through the neutral zone. Trailing ref Jean Hebert stays behind the play. His responsibility is to monitor all players as they head up the ice. He is the last man to move up ice. Goligoski slides the puck to Benn at his own blue line, and Benn skates through the neutral zone. Lead ref Francois St. Laurent is responsible for being the first man up the ice, and is now approaching the faceoff dot in the Minnesota zone. Halfway between the red line and his attacking blue line, Benn is approached by the on-rushing Matt Cooke. Anticipating contact with the puck carrier Benn, Cooke appears to try to slow down or stop suddenly as he closes in. Benn slides the puck into the Wild zone and then immediately extends his left arm and elbow outward and upward, contacting Cooke in the face and head area, and sending him reeling backwards to the ice. At the point of contact Hebert (trail ref) is probably in the vicinity of the Dallas blue line, while lead ref St. Laurent is nearing the goal line deep in the Wild zone. No penalty is called as a result of the contact initiated by Benn on Cooke. This situation illustrates one of the biggest complaints about the four-man officiating system- the neutral zone can be particularly susceptible to a lack of visual coverage by the referees.

“How the hell can all 4 of ‘em miss that?”
While there are indeed 4 officials working every NHL game, there are different responsibilities divvied up between the referees and linesmen. Among referees responsibilities are calling penalties, awarding goals & assists, ensuring no player changes happen when teams ice the puck, and general supervision of the game. Linesmen are primarily responsible for determining off-side and icing calls. The only time a linesman shall stop play due to a penalty infraction is due to 1) too many men on the ice, 2) articles thrown on the ice from the vicinity of the players’ bench or penalty bench, or 3) delaying the game by deliberately displacing the goal post. A linesman may not stop play but instead can report to the referee at the next stoppage of play his version of a potential rules infraction that he believes is worthy of a bench minor, major, misconduct, game misconduct, or penalty shot. Also, any injury potential penalty that occurs outside of the referee’s field of vision may be reported to the referee. The referee may, at his discretion, assess a penalty in such instances. At the first whistle after the Benn hit on Cooke, linesmen Mark Wheler and Bryan Pancich race in to intervene before a scuffle ensues. As Pancich is keeping Cooke in check, and it becomes clear no physical confrontations are going to take place, referee St. Laurent and linesman Wheler have a quick exchange. I can only speculate that St. Laurent asked Wheler if he saw anything about the Benn hit that was worthy of a penalty. While they kept this chat brief, I can guarantee the whole crew talked about this hit at length after the game in the sanctuary of the dressing room. As Cooke was able to get up immediately and jump back into play, seemingly uninjured, any potential penalty call on this play would have been up to the two referees. I am quite certain this was a non-call due to the positioning of the referees, and that they did not get a good look at the hit from their vantage point. I can’t for one second fathom that an NHL-caliber referee with a good vantage point and sightline would have seen this play clearly, and ruled it a “clean” play without penalizing him. This play serves as a prime example that the four-man officiating system, while generally a very effective one, is not without its flaws.

Zebra Hierarchy Referees and linesmen work together under a code of their own. The refs are the stars, the linesmen the supporting cast. Good linesmen can make a good ref look great. Conversely, a ref can do a great job with penalty assessments, but if his linesmen have some questionable offside or icing calls, the take-away for most people is “Jeez, those guys suck!” In most cases, linesmen operate under the “don’t speak until spoken to” mantra with regard to judgment calls by the referee. It’s kind of a courtesy / respect thing, and with four officials on the ice it is imperative that the men in stripes work in concert, without stepping on each other’s toes. I always laugh to myself when watching a game and I hear someone say out of frustration, “C’mon, there’s two teams out there!” A little voice inside my head says, “Well, there’s actually three teams out there…”

Saturday, January 4, 2014

3 Things: Wild vs. Capitals


1. Backstrom was much better against Buffalo than he had been in a while - maybe all season. Granted, Buffalo is a weak team, but he was on top of his crease, moved laterally well, all signs that he was playing with confidence. With Harding still under the weather, obviously we need Bax. He must build on his game from Thursday if the Wild is going to have a shot tonight.

2. Ballard has struggled of late, and it hasn't been subtle. He is needed now, with Spurgeon out for a bit. This was supposed to be a season where Ballard got his career back on track. Tonight would be a very good time to demonstrate his intention to do just that.

3. Scoring depth was in evidence in the Buffalo game. If that continues, it would go a long way toward keeping the Wild moving in the right direction. Hard to imagine the Caps posting a bagel on the scoreboard, so we will need to find some offense. It's evident Mikko can't (won't) do it himself, so alternative means of scoring goals is necessary.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

3 Things: Wild vs. Sabres


1. Offense needs to produce.

2. Defense needs to tighten up.

3.  Goaltending needs to be strong.

No, but seriously, this team needs a win. Any win.  Pretty, ugly, doesn't matter.  Pretty would be better, but ugly will work, too.  Very simple.  I'm not sure if it's good or bad that they're playing the moribund Sabres, but again it doesn't matter.  Just.  Win.  Baby.