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We have hit July, and finally the tumultuous 2013-14 hockey season can be put behind us. Last Sunday’s NHL amateur draft had some surprises and some adjusting by most of the league’s teams, and only time will tell how effective those moves were.
The Minnesota Wild suffered what I think is a difficult blow by trading Cal Clutterbuck to the New York Islanders. Clutterbuck is an always-hustling, always-hitting winger who is among the NHL leaders in hits year after year. Critics said he was expendable as a restricted free agent, and that he didn’t score enough this past season. In my mind, he seemed to score and be in the middle of the action whenever he played on one of the top two lines, but this past season he had reduced ice time, playing on the fourth line much of the time as general manager Chuck Fletcher acquired better offensive players to play ahead of him.
The Wild added Swiss prospect Nino Niederreiter from the Islanders in the Clutterbuck trade, and drafted 6-foor-3 defenseman Gussav Olofsson on the second round. Olofsson moved to the U.S. from Sweden when he was 6, grew up in San Jose, made the USHL all-rookie team playing at Green Bay, and will play at Colorado College this fall. The Wild also drafted Canadina juniors, forward Kurtis Gabriel of Owen Sound on the third round, and defenseman Dylan Labbe from Shawinigan, Quebec, on the fourth.
The big trade was the Wild’s biggest news. At the still-young age of 25, Clutterbuck was a fan favorite at Xcel Energy Center, and has a bright career ahead of him for the Islanders, who were one of many teams trying to gain his services. Once again, we’ve heard from unknowing newspaper and radio critics in the Twin Cities who acted as though a down year in scoring in only his third full year in the NHL rendered Clutterbuck expendable. However, those same cynics ripped Fletcher for trading Clutterbuck and a third-round draft pick for Niederreiter. One guy said he’s never scored, but did well for Switzerland’s team in the World Junior Championships.
Hold on, there, hockey bozos. Nino Niederreiter is a 6-foot-2, 210-pound prospect who was drafted at age 18 by the Islanders as the fifth player taken in the first round in 2010. He came to North America and played for the Portland Winterhawks in Canadian Major Junior hockey, where he scored 130 points in 120 games. He turned pro and played in 64 games for the Islanders over the past two, scoring only two goals and one assist -- but playing only a few shifts a night on the fourth line and sitting out frequently. For some reason, the Islanders never gave him the kind of look the Wild gave to Charlie Coyle or Jonas Brodin this past season, and he wasn’t even invited to training camp, even after scoring.28 goals in 74 games for Bridgeport of the American Hockey League. So he asked to be traded.
Amid all of this, one of the great stories of the past hockey season was Switzerland’s performance in the World Championships -- not juniors, but the big one. Because of its recent improvements, and a few upsets in international play, I knew Switzerland had some good young players, but this year it all came to blossom. Switzerland beat everybody, rolling through the entire preliminary round undefeated. Then it won its first playoff game, while Team USA was beating Russia 8-3. I predicted on my KDAL radio show that the U.S. had best be prepared, because following up such a great victory over Russia offered no insulation against an upset against, of all teams, Switzerland. Sure enough, Switzerland beat Team USA in the semifinals, and advanced to the Gold Medal game, where it lost to defending champ Sweden, which had just added the Sedin twins from Vancouver to its all-star NHL roster. That meant Switzerland wound up with the Silver Medal - its best finish ever.
Niederreiter, after scoring 2-1--3 in 64 NHL games for the Islanders, scored 5 goals and 3 assists in the World Championship tournament, against the best available pros in the world.
The cynics make it sound like Clutterbuck wasn’t worth much, but the new guy is only a junior player. I hate to see Clutterbuck leave the team, but, for certain, it sounds as though Nino Niederreiter could be an impressive young prospect who could seriously help the Wild right away.
Free agency has juggled the scene around the NHL, as general managers try to trade or buy out high-end players to stay under the NHL salary cap. Tampa Bay, which is a top threat with Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier as a 1-2 punch, failed to make the playoffs this past season, while St. Louis won the scoring title, but Lecavalier suffered with injuries. So Tampa Bay bought out his contract for the astounding figure of $32,666,666. If he bounces back from the injuries, Lecavalier should be a great player for somebody, and he will have a nice bank account to soothe him while he chooses a new team.
Then there are the Vancouver Canucks. Remember how they made the critical decision that veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo was expendable, and it was time to give the No. 1 job to Cory Schneider? Well, Schneider had his problems, and Luongo got back into the picture, and ended up No. 1 for the playoffs -- which the Canucks promptly lost in the first round. After trying unsuccessfully to trade Luongo all season, the Canucks have now traded Cory Schneider instead -- to the New Jersey Devils, where, at age 27, he will now get tutored by Richard Brodeur and undoubtedly will be groomed to take over and become a superstar.
Minnesota homestate players once again proved why hockey is the most significant contributing sport to the pros, with 14 players taken in the NHL draft. They include Avery Peterson of Grand Rapids, taken in the sixth round by the Wild. He apparently has decided to pass up his senior year with the Thunderhawks to take his sharp-shooting eye to the Sioux City USHL team, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
A key pick is Washington’s fifth-round selection of Blake Heinrich, a talented and hard-hitting defenseman from Hill-Murray who played for Brett Larson at Sioux City this past season, when he could have been a senior with the Pioneers. Heinrich is headed for UMD and is my choice to be a crowd favorite and make every foe’s hate-to-play-against list.
Also in the draft, Michael Brodzinski from Blain was picked by the San Jose Sharks, and Jonny Brodzinski, his brother, was taken on the fifth round by the Los Angeles Kings. Michael, the younger, is a defenseman and went on the 141st pick, while Jonny, a forward, was taken with the 148th pick. Now, Michael is considered the better prospect, perhaps, but he’s played high school with a year of junior, while Jonny joined the St. Cloud State Huskies and scored an amazing 22 even-strength goals as a freshman, helping the Huskies to the WCHA championship and into the NCAA tournament.
Fantastic Stanley Cup final we recall, with the Chicago Blackhawks completing an almost perfect season by beating the Boston Bruins in six games for the Cup, after starting this lockout-shortened season with an unprecedented 21-0-3 record, then finishing with the best overall record in the NHL. After beating the Wild in five games, the Blackhawks responded to a 3-1 deficit in games against the Detroit Red Wings with three straight victories, and went on to beat the Los Angeles Kings, and the Bruins, to win the Cup.
The glory can pass quickly for some, however. The Blackhawks faced the departure of some of its top young players, so they traded two vital parts of their Stanley Cup championship team by sending Dave Bolland to Toronto and Michael Frolik to Winnipeg, both for draft choices.
TWIN OUTFIELD, ALMOST
While the Minnesota Twins stay in contention with hot and cold performances, try to imagine how the team would look with an outfield of Michael Cuddyer in left, Carlos Gomez in center, and Torri Hunter in right. Gomez is the wall-climbing ballhawk in center for the Milwaukee Brewers, and is hitting .317 now that he’s matured into a solid Major Leaguer. Hunter is aging, but gracefully, as a .300-hitting right fielder for the Detroit Tigers.
And Cuddyer? Well, we can only go back to the trade of the popular Cuddyer for Josh Willingham, as the Twins tried to improve on the home run tally from its outfield. At the time, I wrote that Cuddyer was just as good a hitter, and a much better outfielder, although Willingham has been very effective hitting home runs and driving in runs for the Twins.
However, right now, Willingham is hitting a mere .224, with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs. Cuddyer is hitting .346 for the Colorado Rockies, standing second in the National League. As of Monday, Cuddyer also was on the Major League best 27-game hitting streak. And he’s still playing right-field walls and throwing strikes back to nail runners in the infield.
SUMMER IS HERE IN DULUTH
There is Duluth Huskies and American Legion baseball, dirt track auto racing, and recreational sports, to occupy our summertime in the Northland. For me, sightseeing anywhere near Lake Superior is a highlight, and spotting the occasional wildlife critter sets it apart.
On Monday, I returned home to Lakewood after doing my KDAL radio show, and as I got out of the car I saw a shadow over the bright sun. Glancing up, I saw a big, immature bald eagle circling above my driveway. I went inside, and while eating a little lunch, I again saw a shadow pass swiftly over my deck. I picked up my camera and went out on the deck, searching the sky for a possible return flight of the eagle.
As I got to the corner of the house, I looked up in the tall spruce tree closest to the house, and spotted a white object at the very top. I did a quick-draw with my camera, and inspired the bird to fly. It was a full-scale, mature bald eagle, and it flew quickly away as I caught just one good photo.
Maybe wildlife photography qualifies as my new favorite summertime sport.