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WINTON… The new National Hockey League season is upon us and the Minnesota Wild will kick it off on the road Thursday eve in the Gateway City versus the St. Louis Blues. The Bluenote will look somewhat different behind the bench and on the ice this year and I will make some quick observations on them in next weeks Western Conference preview. This week I want to focus on the locals. What could we expect from this edition of the Wild? Beginning with the coaching staff, outside of returnees Darby Hendrickson and Goalie coach Bob Mason, it’s a new staff. Hockey ‘lifer” Bruce Boudreau, fresh off of the Anaheim Duck joins the team as the Head Coach joined by 2 other fellows with lengthy resumes’ in John Anderson and Scott Stevens.
To profile each of these guys would take this column and the next two so briefly, Boudreau has had a lot of success in the regular season as an NHL Head Coach, his playoff results have had mixed success. Anderson and Stevens bring in a wealth of knowledge and experience and I believe this is a high quality coaching staff and some fresh faces and ideas behind the bench will not hurt this group of players. The player roster though is largely unchanged and that is driving a pessimistic outlook from me for this upcoming season as far as the Wild go. And honestly, I don’t wish to take that stance, but I am presuming you want me to give my honest opinion.
I have been watching this game and league since the early sixties (which doesn’t qualify me for anything) and I have been watching this organization pretty intently from Day one. When Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire exited, it was time for a new look at the top. Chuck Fletcher came in and has mostly accomplished that. He was left with a thin roster, an un-tradable contract (Mikko Koivu), the team was thin on prospects and the clubs first draft pick and big star (Marian Gaborik) had recently bolted via free agency. The team was also rather inconsistent at making the playoffs. But the team had a new owner as well and was more then willing to do what was necessary to move the team forward.
Fletcher made some early mistakes (Nick Leddy trade) but also hit a couple of homeruns, (Parise & Suter) saved a season from going south (Dubnyk trade) and has retooled the roster into a competitive team. Going into this season the team might be thin in a couple of spots at center and in wing depth but might still feature one of the better defenses in the league. Netminder Devan Dubnyk, after salvaging the season the year before last had some struggles last year and is looking to rebound and rumors have it that Fletcher is shopping current backup Darcy Kuemper in a potential trade. Off-season acquisition, South St. Paul native and former UMD Bulldog star Alex Stalock was expected to start the year for the Iowa Wild but was placed on waivers Monday. As of this writing no claim has been put in on him.
For me, Dubnyk needs to pull his game back up a notch, Kuemper needed some more consistent playing time to be on top of his game but didn’t get it from former Coach Mike Yeo and Stalock after some early backup success in San Jose struggled last year, and after they acquired Martin Jones over the prior off-season, Stalock’s fate on the Sharks was probably already decided. Up front the team signed former Carolina Hurricane UFA Eric Staal, and it looks like they will begin the season with a few fresh faces in Christoph Bertschy, Joel Erickson Ek and centerman Zac Dalpe who was also placed on waivers but cleared, but neither was he assigned to Iowa. RW Chris Stewart returns.
The Staal deal is a 50/50 one to me, he is an older player with a lot of hockey miles on him, but with basically little to no salary cap space available to Fletcher, Staal was a deal he could make and is a strong leader in the room and has Championship experience. As of this evening the team is carrying 12 forwards, 8 defensemen and 2 goalies and that could very well change by 4pm on Tuesday.
So, why the pessimistic outlook? This is pretty much the bulk of the roster that didn’t do too well in last years playoff against the Dallas NorthStars. And the year before, and before that and etc. What would be different this time around? Fletcher has got this car up to a certain level in the race and that’s where it is stuck. He has gambled a couple of times, he has made some inferior deals and most of all he has painted himself and the club into a salary cap corner. The club is not good enough to win a Stanley Cup and they aren’t bad enough to obtain a top one or two franchise changing draft pick. And that is where matters lie at this point. They will struggle to get into the playoffs and if they do, they won’t have enough juice to advance.
And it’s not that this team isn’t capable of playing against the top teams and winning some of those games, it’s that this group hasn’t done so consistently or shown they can take command of a playoff series versus a top contender and close it out. They did take the STL Blues in the recent past, but that turned out to be a one off and they have had no success against the most recent Western Conference gold standard, the Chicago Blackhawk’s. To be one of the top teams in the West the Wild will have to have everything go perfectly for them from every position to a lack of serious injuries and even then it could still be a dice roll. I’m hoping though. I have a lot of hope actually, but it’s been tempered with past experience and reality. As for Coach Boudreau? I have a picture of him from the seventies on the Johnstown Jets and he still had hair! You had better dig in though Coach, you have about 377 games before this club will bail on you and run you out of St. Paul…. PEACE