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BILLINGS PARK…. I wrote back in October that I felt the 2011-12 version of the Minnesota Wild were going to finish in the 11th to 12th place neighborhood of the NHL Western Conference and I took a lot of heat for it. Lo and behold the club surprised everyone and in early December while Santa and the Elves were getting ready for a return engagement to your chimney, this team, yes this team, found themselves on top of the NHL points race. Then shazam! The hockey genie was put back into the bottle.
After starting out at a torrid 20-7-3 pace up to mid-December, the club has gone 5-15-5 since. They have dropped from first in the NHL and Western Conference to 12th in the West, 4 spots and 5 points away from a playoff position. Add the 15 and the 5 up after it (OT losses) and that means the club has gone 5-20 since leading the league. Like all NHL clubs, the Wild have had their share of injuries which in turn have only exposed their lack of depth and experience. Oddly enough, one of their injury call-ups, net minder Matt Hackett (no relation to Buddy) has better stats then either Niklas Backstrom or Josh Harding.
But for the most part, the back-ups and youth have played like back-ups and youth. And since the NHL is the best and hardest league in the World to compete in, it can be a cruel place for struggling banged up teams, and lets face it, the Wild are struggling. From the owner and GM on down this is a messed up bunch lacking in clarity and direction. The owner Craig Leipold, is a great guy with a bigger wallet then you and I have, but because he doesn’t have the hockey background that most Wild fans wished he had, it is my opinion that he has perhaps given his GM, Chuck Fletcher a bit more rope to guide the club then most owners would give a GM early in his GM career.
There certainly is no denying the hockey pedigree, smarts and Harvard education the young Fletch is in possession of, but he has made some “rookie” mistakes. My only question is, has he made them attempting to appease the wishes of Leipold? I ask that because I was of the firm belief going back to the tail end of the Risebrough-Lemaire regime that it was time to gut the roster and rebuild. During the DR-JL tenure the club was trying to establish itself with fans by fielding as competitive a club as they could every season. This would serve to keep the seats filled and their draft positioning not so good.
And the club has hardly made great use of their drafting over the years. They have only drafted in the top 5 positions twice in ten seasons, and out of all of those 10 drafts they have only two of their first players drafted left on the big club roster, two in the pipeline, and one who hasn’t made it to the show yet and might never do so. All of the rest either didn’t pan out, (Thelen, Pouliot, Sheppard, Gillies) left in free agency, (Gabby) or were traded. (Burns & Leddy) That’s 7 draft years that you didn’t get maximum value for. Ouch.
The next big fan letdown has been the Nick Leddy for Cam Barker trade-debacle, Leddy is playing huge minutes for the Blackhawks, while Barker never panned out here and is gone. This seasons boner du jour has been the Burns-Setoguchi deal and the Havlat-Heatly deal. I was always of the opinion that Burns offensive upside was negated by his defensive downside, but he does have 26 points this year and is a plus 10 so far. He was an impending UFA after this season and Fletch probably didn’t want to pay him. Perhaps Burnsie is the beneficiary of playing on a better offensive club because I can’t see him being a “plus” player on this edition of the Wild.
So, what do you do? At least thus far, in terms of changing the competitive level of either team, I look at this deal as a wash, plus the Wild end up with almost $2mil of additional salary to cover. Then, is Mikko Koivu an asset or a slight liability? To me, Koivu is one of the best two way players in the NHL. He is simply as tough and hard working a player as there is. However, his offensive production doesn’t quite match up with his $7.29mil salary in my opinion. In addition, on one of the elite 4-5 teams in the show, he wouldn’t be your number one centerman. More like a 2 or a 3 in my book. I think the team jumped the gun and overpaid for this player.
Koivu is also the teams first permanent Captain. As much as I like Koivu, I’m not sure about this choice. To me, if you are going to be a great NHL Captain, your teammates had better respect you or fear you, better yet if both of those factors come into play. In considering that the Wild have at least one “egg lay” game every four weeks, (no effort or team play) I constantly wonder where the Fab Fin stacks up in that regard. Koivu has averaged slightly over 50 points per season in his 6 prior years with the club and is on track to get there again. If I’m not mistaken, the club is on the hook for another 6 seasons of this contract. All I can say is “Yikes”.
NEXT WEEK: WILD WOES PART DEUX, until then, PEACE!
MFAN EXTRA; Four of the sweetest words the entire sporting world knows and loves will take place this weekend; “pitchers and catchers report”! What to make of the Twins? What to make of the new Prince Fielder Tigers? What of the Ozzie-less White Sox? With Robin Ventura (no relation to the former Governor Turnbuckle) set to skipper the Sox, I’m guessing he better watch his P’s and Q’s when visiting the Texas Rangers and Nolan Ryan lest Ryan feed him another knuckle sandwich. Aw heck, maybe they have made up by now…. just maybe. OVER & OUT!
Marc Elliott is a free lance sports opinion writer who splits time between his hometown in Illinois and Minnesota. Elliott grew up in the Twin Cities with many of his childhood neighbors working or playing for the Vikings and Twins. He participated in baseball, football and hockey before settling on hockey as his own number one sport. Elliott recently wrote “The Masked Fan Speaks” column for the Lake County Chronicle for the past ten years and was a prominent guest on the former “All Sports” WDSM 710 AM in Duluth.