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ST. PAUL… I’m not much for sports prognostications these days. I used to have some luck picking winners in NFL games (without point spreads) but I don’t follow that league anymore to the point where I could do some honest to goodness picking with consistent success. And since the NHL embraced “cost certainty” as Commissioner Gary Bettman likes to refer to it or the “salary cap” as the NHLPA prefers to call it, as each season has moved forward, we have been witness to a high level of parity among the clubs in the league. That’s not to say that any club in the league has a legitimate chance at a Stanley Cup win every year, but when it comes to the bulk of the regular season tilts played on any given night, for sure, you can say that parity is in full force in the NHL.
Much is made of the STL Blues rise from last place at New Years last season to their astonishing Cup win in mid-June, but to me, the reality is that if you looked at that club on paper in the pre-season, that was a pretty good looking team. Their October to New Years performance was the misnomer to me. They weren’t playing well, had some problems amongst personnel, made a coaching change, a goalie change and went on a run. There was nothing surprising or mystical about it. Is that going to happen every season now in the NHL? No. If you take an honest look at it, look at rosters, trends and so on, there are a handful of teams that are the real deal and have the best odds at Cup success. If I have found out anything over the past few seasons, it’s that not even the highest level of analysts and “experts” in and around the game can predict a winner or champion with any real degree of certainty.
Do you recall the thinking of some analysts north of the border that have always felt that whatever teams are in a playoff position at American Thanksgiving that those are basically the teams that will get in? I think that in the past there was some truth to that and maybe even some empirical data to support it. However, even that is being challenged now. On SAT radio NHL Network today, I heard a pretty prominent Canadian analyst state that we should have a pretty good read on who will do what by Game 10 from this era forward! We won’t have to wait for Turkey day! Is he right? I was smiling at the thought. In this day and age where almost everyone plays with the same systems, with perhaps some subtle variations here and there, where the athletes now come into camps at very high levels of conditioning and performance, there are still some things that will always hold true for me.
They will do so because of the human factor being involved. No matter what, in all of the decades I have followed the league some teams will be “on top” of their game quicker then others, there will be a young team that might be on fire early, and then as older more veteran teams pull their games together, the younger clubs will fade back a bit. There will be, god forbid, some injuries, some to important players, some not. And there is just that good old chemistry and karma, and there is no predicting who will have that and who won’t. No doubt the past 60 days or so have been interesting for our Minnesota Wild. Considering the changes made and the verbiage being issued, where do they fit in the Central Division?
Coach Bruce Boudreau has stated that the team is going to surprise some people and that they have a shot at making the playoffs. New GM Bill Guerin has mostly stated that he is going to be in intense observation mode and wants to get a look at his steads before deciding if he has a Derby horse on his hands. For me, I tend to be skeptical, opting for the “show me” mode before getting on board. I have stated over the off-season that the basic “core” of the club is 25% aging veterans, some of who still have some good hockey in them. I’m not sure how that translates over an 82-game sked. The bottom 25% is some upper level young players who still have a lot to gain from an experience standpoint. If they step up, and do it now, this team moves forward. And then there is the 50% in the middle. There is some talent there, but can they outperform other teams mid-roster players? In goal Devan Dubnyk has put up some of the best regular season stats going since joining the Wild. Al Stalock is capable when he gets strong play in front of him and doesn’t ride the bench for long stretches between starts.
The clubs top 4 D-men rank up there with the best in the league. The forward group struggled to score consistently last year, and two major injuries derailed the club from the Cup tourney. Home ice was always a source of strength for the team, last year it wasn’t. I’m armed with three NHL yearbooks, and here is what one of them has for the Central; 1. COL, 2. NASH, 3. STL, 4. CHI, 5. DAL, 6. WINN, 7. WILD.
That’s not how I see it. COL in the top spot is fine. Matt Duchene or no, I think NASH takes a step back this year. STL will not duplicate last years run and I don’t see CHI as being quite ready to move up. I think DAL will move up, WINN has had a disaster offseason personnel wise and I am going to be optimistic on the Wild, although a few factors must go perfect for them. The vets on the team will have to regain some mojo, there can be no major injuries as depth is a factor, the young guys will have to produce, and the mid-roster will have to sustain every night. Duby must regain his form and Big Al is going to have to win 2/3rds of the game he gets into. If that happens; 1. COL, 2. DAL, 3. STL, 4. NASH, 5. WILD, 6. CHI, 7. WINN. I could see the WILD getting 8th place and the 2nd Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
The flaw with this sort of pick with the Wild is the fragility of their roster and depth situation. This club can literally afford no hiccups. As in ZERO. My gut tells me that can’t happen. Even with stronger rosters, this club would usually take 5 games off a season. That’s 10 points and that’s NO playoff spot. And by the way, Boudreau goes into the season with a new boss and on the last year of his contract. Can THIS team get Bruce an extension? PEACE