Wild playing flat versus better teams

Marc Elliott

Pierre-Luc Dubois scores against the Wild in 7-3 win in St. Paul.

CLOVER VALLEY  – I just finished watching a game against tomorrow night's opponent for the Minnesota Wild. It featured the Columbus BlueJackets versus the Calgary Flames in the Arch City. The CBJ prevailed this evening by a 3-1 final. The win lifted the Jackets to 2-2 on the young season. The Flames are at 2-2-1 thus far.

In analyzing the records of the two clubs at this point it would be hard for me to envision either of these teams as NHL juggernauts. The Flames had a couple of nice wins against Winnipeg and Buffalo but dropped games to the middle-of-the-road Penguins, the Metro division basement-dwelling Washington Capitals and the Jackets.  

The Jackets lost their opener to the Flyers, respectably beat the NY Rangers, were shut out by the emerging Detroit Red Wings, and then this evening's win. But when I think of the Jackets over the past few years it is hard to get a feeling for why they haven't made it a bit farther up the NHL ladder. They entered the league at the same time as the Wild and had their inaugural season in 2000-2001. And if Wild fans are frustrated by the overall historical performance of their team, the Jackets have had a tougher time of it than have the Wild. In its first 22 seasons of competition they did not qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament in 16 of those seasons.  

The only thing I can consider regarding that is it could be even more challenging to be a fan of theirs than it has been to be a Wild fan. That isn't a pleasant thought.   It's not like the CBJ haven't had any talent. They have had some star power over the years. Players like Rick Nash, Cam Atkinson, Artemi Panarin, Seth Jones and Marcus Foligno's brother Nick come to mind. All-world netminder Sergei Bobrovsky was a Jacket at one time. They have featured coaches like the legendary John Tortorella, Doug Maclean and Ken Hitchcock. And yet, "Torts" is the only coach who got them into the playoffs consistently albeit with little success. But in one minor-major footnote to NHL hockey history Tort's Jackets upset and swept the Presidents Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning 4 games to nil in the 2019 playoffs. (1st round) I've addressed the curse of the Presidents Cup before but that was impressive.  

In the front office they have one of my all-time favorite players John Davidson as President of Hockey Ops. Jarmo Kekalainen is the GM and after a mess of an off-season head coaching change, the new man in charge is Pascal Vincent. A couple of familiar names on his staff are multi-Cup winner Mark Recchi and former Wild netminder and all-around good guy Niklas Backstrom. I groaned loudly when I saw their European Player Development Coach was Jarkko Ruutu. I am not exaggerating when I say he was a fairly dirty player, maybe one of the dirtiest of his era. He was a tough dude and played that to the hilt.      

What of the Wild in this newborn season? Last night in the Capital City they got spanked by the LA Kings in a 7-3 outing. It is much too early to speculate about that old "first game back from a road trip" scenario because it was the first one of the season, it was only two games and five days. They were on the wrong end of a tilt in Toronto in a 7-4 loss but defeated the perpetually rebuilding Montreal Canadiens 5-2 before returning to The State of Hockey. Netminder Marc Andre Fleury got the start in his home province in what may have been the last game of his illustrious career there.  

The ever-classy Habs fans took every opportunity they could to cheer for and thank one of their fellow Quebecois before, during, and after the game in which Fleury got the Number One Star award after the game. It is said that he had about 90 family and friends in attendance. Is that a sign that this season is it for the Flower? I'm not sure because he throws out conflicting signals to the media at times.  

No matter what he has established himself as one of the best goalies of all time. He is currently at 545 wins putting him in third place in that category right behind Patrick Roy. (551) Seven more wins will move him into second place by himself. Martin Brodeur has the first spot with 691 wins and that record may never be broken. Fleury has played 987 games and barring injury or illness he will hit the thousand marker sometime early next year. In looking at the list of the top 50 all-time goalies there is no one active or retired that will get close to Fleury, or Roy and Brodeur for that matter. They are in a class of their own.      

Last night though, I have to be honest about what I observed. I must say that Fleury looked a bit like a guy who has played in 987 tilts over 22 seasons. That same desire for honesty dictates that I must also say that the team looked poor for about 45 minutes of this game and that is a bad combo. Fleury had a nice game in Montreal and should have gotten a shutout. Do veteran tenders need more game time to get to mid-season form? Most likely. He isn't there yet but his level of professionalism will help and push him to find his best game. Despite my thoughts here I am still a huge Flower fan. He is simply going through the normal chronological evolution that all athletes do at some point.  

It's still a tad early to gather much from any available statistical data. But it isn't too early to form an opinion with my observations. The team is 2-2. They beat a mid-level team that outplayed them on their ice. They won against a lower-level rebuilding team. And they got their posteriors handed to them by two clubs that are better than they are to varying degrees. Since it is early two of the things I see that worry me is the team is a -2 in goal differential. I don't care if it is game 1 or game 82 that is a stat you want on the positive side for the entire season. It means you have your game in order.    

The other issue is that due to the cap restrictions the team is facing there is NO help on the way. This is it. The available cap space the other night was $51k. Star players make more than that per game. That "five-one" could get you a beer leaguer from Hibbing but that's about it. GM Billy Guerin, Coach Dean Evason and the boys are going to have to figure this one out on their own.  

And since there is one more season of this to go, I see choppy waters on the horizon for this team. The die-hard hockey addicts (me) will hang on and roll with the punches. What of the casual fans, the ones who only watch when it's good and exciting to do so? It's cause for concern in The State of Hockey. PEACE