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ST. PAUL…. It’s been a bit of a rough ride so far in this short campaign for the NHL Minnesota Wild. At this point, the club sits at 5-5-1 and is headed out west for a couple of tilts. And only a few games into the season, some in the club’s fan base are getting restless. Against another solid edition of the Vancouver Canucks last Thursday evening, the team came out listless for the first period and managed a 10-minute stretch in the second period, where they exhibited some life before finishing out the third frame in lethargic fashion on route to a 4-1 loss.
The boys were booed lustily several times by the Xcel faithful. Much was made of this after the game and of the team’s battle level. Wild forward Zach Parise was quoted as saying, “We didn’t show up tonight,” while team captain Mikko Koivu said, “We were right there” throughout the game. Maybe the problem for the Wild was that these two key players for the club weren’t at the same game. The team got a small measure of redemption Saturday eve besting Nashville 2-1 in OT.
I have to admit here that there are times when I hear a team’s own fans boo it at a game that make me cringe. And sometimes those teams have it coming. So, the question begs to be asked, what are the realities at work here for this club? Here are some of the tangibles after the conclusion of 11 games. The club is still offensively challenged. They are tied for 27th in the league in goals for, and tied for 24th in assists. Their goal per game average has them ranked at 26th. They are 26th in shots on goal per game. Their power play percentage has them at 22nd.
The team’s goals against average is 18th in the league, while the penalty kill percentage has them at 11th. The general theme for this club over the years has been offensively challenged and defensively tough. This edition of the team is carrying on with that, with the exception that they are not showing the strength of defense that they have in past seasons. Even with the club not bringing a lot of offense to the table in the past, they were defensive killers. Not so thus far. Additionally, the team has had a historic propensity, for whatever reason, to come out on occasion very flat at the start of a game, much like they did against Vancouver. The fans weren’t happy.
I think many fans are making the mistake of seeing payroll dollars spent and the contracts of the two big free agent signings over the summer as an indication of where the team should be in the standings right now. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were obviously the recipients of a couple of monster contracts over the summer. But two players alone cannot win games in the NHL. That’s just the way it is, and I’m not making it up or making excuses for when the club doesn’t perform. Parise has brought an extreme effort to the table every night and is amongst the league leaders in goals. Suter has struggled to assimilate himself into the team’s systems but is improving. Because of his contract, some fans are expecting the next coming of Bobby Orr. That’s unfair, and let’s face it: he is not playing with Shea Weber anymore.
The Finnish rookie who got a lot of fanfare, Mikael Granlund, has struggled to settle in thus far. There exists a contingent of the fan base that has been all over the kid from early on. In net, both Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding have struggled. Backs was yanked from the Vancouver tilt before coming back with the strong performance versus the Preds. Of the 23 players “up” with the big club, there are eight new faces, three of which are rookies to the league. The second, third, and fourth lines haven’t produced, although against Nashville Devin Setoguchi got the OT winner, his first marker of the year.
Other players who have been counted on for some offense—Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Seto, and Kyle Brodziak—have not contributed. D-man Tom Gilbert has been the main offensive contributor from the blue line, although Suter, while still looking for his first goal of the season, has six assists. To conclude, while this club could be in a little bit better of a position standings-wise, the reality to me is that they are probably right about where they should be.
So where does some of the fan angst come from? Some fans just have high or unrealistic expectations no matter what—that’s just the way it is. I would offer that after the way last season concluded (not very good) and with the club out of the Stanley Cup tournament for the fourth year in a row, the club sensed some desperation to rebuild some positivity around the club. So the team went out and made the biggest free agent splash of the off-season. The club finally convinced Granlund to come over from his team in Finland and the young man received a lot of buildup prior to his arrival.
The team, while not promising a Stanley Cup win or even guaranteeing a playoff run this year, has put a lot of positive upward spin on the two free agents, the rookie, and the new look roster. Has the team’s verbiage created unrealistic expectations from the fans? It brought back the full houses the team had become accustomed to before the new ownership-GM regime assumed control of the club, and the downward spiral began shortly thereafter. Years one and two of the Craig Leipold-Chuck Fletcher team appeared to be in denial that the team needed a total rebuild.
Even year three seemed to be lacking an acknowledgment that something more than a patch job or roster tweak was in order. Not so now. With some promising drafts under their belt, and with two very solid NHL players signed on through basically the end of their careers, the team is headed in a better direction. But it must be noted that there are many more pieces to acquire before this team can say it is in its Stanley Cup “window.” Until then, the fans are going to have to have patience. You can and should boo a lack of effort; otherwise don’t boo your own club. They are working at it, and I believe we will see results sooner than later. Come on, we have waited 45 years for a Cup. A couple of more ain’t gonna hurt…. PEACE
Marc Elliott is a freelance 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 wrote “The Masked Fan Speaks” column for the Lake County News Chronicle for ten years and was a prominent guest on the former “All Sports” WDSM 710AM in Duluth.