Sunday, February 9, 2014

At the Oly Break, Who Are the Wild?


They're pretty much who we thought they'd be. A low seed in the West. The most-talented Wild team ever, but likely to struggle to do much damage in the playoffs. My stated expectations for this season are that they improve on last season - which is to say that I want them to win a round in the playoffs. But, that is likely to be a tougher expectation to meet than last year's expectation which was simply to make the playoffs. At no time was this team positioned to be a contender this season. Anyone who thought that is seriously delusional. But, I wanted them to move from the 53rd percentile to the 26th percentile - I don't think that's too much to ask of a team that is spending what this team is spending, on the caliber of player on which it's spending it.

This has been the surprise position this season. It's also been a source of disappointment. For as brilliant as Harding has been, and he was brilliant the first half of the season, the team must figure out what's behind his penchant for pulling up lame all the time - and I'm obviously not talking about MS (when he has complications from that no one, least of all me, is going to complain). But the MS is also an issue. We need a good goalie on whom we can count (to play). We have a (potentially) good goalie who cannot be counted on - for both unfortunate reasons and, alternately, vexing ones.

Backstrom, on the other hand, has been disappointing. He's so far off his career numbers as to suggest that either he's having a monumental off-year or his game simply vanished over the summer. Under contract for two more seasons, although, if you want to whine about Fletcher signing him to that deal, don't bring that around here. You play the cards you're dealt, and Bax was willing to give up a lot of money (from his last deal) to sign here.

Kuemper, on the third hand, has been, on balance, a revelation. The question is: will playing up here be good or bad for his development and confidence? I can't believe it's been bad for his development, and his confidence appears to have been restored after his rocky start to the season. The discussion about whether or not to go out and get another goalie for the stretch drive and the playoffs is valid, but also fraught with hypocrisy. If, for example, we don't want Fletcher to go out and trade a bunch of assets for Vanek for the stretch drive, then why should we want to bolster our goaltending? In other words, I don't want Vanek now because I don't want to give up the assets and this team ain't winning the Cup this year regardless. So, by the same thinking, just let Kuemper ride it out. Stranger things have happened with rookie goalies in net.

Frankly, this group has played beyond my expectations, as well. No need to re-hash the play of Suter and Brodin, but, from Spurgeon on down through Blum, we've received enough solid-if-unspectacular play from the depth guys that I have to say I've been pleased with the defense. The Wild has a very solid core of 5-8 defensemen. They could use another minute-muncher to take some of the pressure off Suter. I know he says he thrives under the minutes, but especially with the Oly, if he breaks down towards the end of the season it will be very unfortunate. More than goalie, I hope Fletcher addresses this, long-term.

There really isn't an appreciable difference between Scandella, Stoner, Prosser, Ballard, and Blum, beyond the margins. But they've all been effective, for the most part (Ballard has probably been the weakest link).

This has been the most frustrating group of the three. This team simply cannot score goals. They've never been able to score goals in the entire history of the team. But, although the offensive skill is as high as it's ever been, it's not translating to the scoreboard (currently ranked 25th in goals for/game, 9th in goals against/game). Now, the key here is that the kids are coming along. Niederreiter could end up being one of the best trades of Fletcher's career. Hopefully he comes back from the Oly (intact and) with even more confidence, his game raised to yet another level for playing against that kind of competition. Granlund, what a turn around. I've been pining for a true #1 center for years. Could he and Pominville end up being the second coming of Hull and Oates? Coyle is coming - just needs to find consistency (hardly alarming for a kid his age). Fontaine is shaping up to be a very valuable multi-dimensional player with a nose for the net. Haula has the look of a future strong 3rd line center, and his wheels are a very powerful weapon. It's because of this group (plus Brodin) that I'm not fretting about how this season ends up. It's also because of this group that I don't want Fletcher to pay the Islanders what they want for Vanek. The window for this team isn't open yet. If they continue on their current trajectory, it could be open in a couple years. Let's not shoot our load now. Let the kids develop, take their lumps and their losses (when they come). Think long-term, which, in the Wild's case, might not be that long.

I said before that I was off the Yeo bandwagon. I don't like to look rash, so I'm not going to tell you I'm back on it. There's still too much inconsistency, and, while the ship certainly seems to have been righted from where it was in December, the rocky shoals are not far off and frankly Yeo hasn't delivered anything yet during his tenure. He may be the gateway coach, and his contributions may be guiding the kids right now. And, if that's the case, and there's another coach out there to bring us to the promised land, then I will ultimately be grateful to Yeo for overseeing these formative years.

So, who is this Wild team? I think they're a playoff team, for starters. I think they have goalie depth issues, but may have found their long-time starter (although, if that's true, then you have two untradeable guys on one-way deals for at least one more season....that's a bit of a mess). If there was a defenseman MVP award, Suter would certainly win it (the Norris having become what it has become). They have the makings of a deadly offensive combination in Granlund and Pominville. They have the hardest working star-who-plays-like-a-grinder in the league, in Parise. Their best days are still in front of them. And the best thing I can say about this team is that they pulled out of that holiday nose-dive and recovered to win some big games - all without some major stars in the lineup. That's extremely encouraging. We'll probably be first round fodder again this season, but the train is on the tracks at this point in time.