6 Things We Can Take Away From Minnesota's October
Posted by Nathan Wells on Tuesday, November 01, 2011
It's November (or Movember for those fighting against prostate cancer like our old friend Erik Nystrom)and almost a month into the season. There's still plenty of hockey to be played and the pages of the season remain be to written, but there are a few things to take away from the first ten games.
1. We are who we thought we were
So far Minnesota has played to expectations. The Wild have been inconsistent beating some good teams, losing to some bad teams and not knowing what effort the team will give on a game-by-game basis. The defense, which after losing Brent Burns was considered to be the weak link of the team, has been shaky at times and shows the lack of depth on the blue line. And the offense has been struggling to score goals with the worst goals per game in the league (at 1.90).
That's to be expected by a team which came into the year with question marks on the blue line and at best sneaks into the playoffs. While the offense needs to step up, there's a lot of new pieces and speaking of a lot of new pieces...
2. Chemistry takes time *cough* Mikko Koivu *cough*
One of the assumptions this off-season was that the acquisitions of talented scorers Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi would finally allow captain Mikko Koivu to break out. After spending most of the last few years with Andrew Brunette and Antii Miettinen, this is his chance to show his talent with real first liners (sorry 2010 Bruno). That hasn't been the case so far as the captain hasn't scored a goal this season (or in the last eight games of last season) and has had issues being on the same page with Heatley.
Despite the three having some good preseason games, there were signs that Koivu was forcing plays and in fact Dan and I were commenting on the number of giveaways and bad no-look passes Mikko was doing against Columbus (when the Setoguchi-Koivu-Heatley line scored eight points).
On one hand, the top line's start is alarming because the importance of having a top-six who can score more than last year is one of the keys to the Wild's success. It would also mean we're paying a captain top money despite being proven twice (with Martin Havlat being the first) to be unable to center and improve the play of elite players. On the other, it's a limited sample size. As Mikko Koivu becomes more comfortable with his linemates, the play of the three (or two if Setoguchi continues to play with the second line) picks up.
We've seen some positive signs in the last couple games but needless to say, the next month will be important.
3. Goaltending is not an issue
As bad as the defense has been at times, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding have been a rock between the pipes for the Minnesota Wild in October. Backstrom has made some amazing saves off of bad giveaways and Harding is second in the NHL with a .961 save percentage. Hell, Backstrom has even won shootouts this season!
Regardless, it's easy to get down on goaltending due to the number of goals given up, soft goals or even Backstrom's contract size. Bias aside, the fact remains that for a team which has been depending on defense to make up for the least amount of goals, Backstrom has been on par with Ryan Miller and Cam Ward with goals given up.
3a. Josh Harding can only play against Detroit
I don't know if it's in his contract but Josh Harding apparently can only play against Detroit. His only two appearances this season have been against the Red Wings and his last regular season appearance in the 2009-2010 season was also against Detroit.
The bad news: Minnesota plays Detroit tonight but only have one more game against the Red Wings this season. Obviously Harding's play this season creates discussion for a "goalie controversy" (it always does) but at the very least two good goalies are better than none.
4. Where art thou Marek Zidlicky?
Before the season, my big thought on the defense was that it would live and die with Marek Zidlicky. Zidlicky, the offensive defenseman who has scored 40+ points 3 consecutive seasons before missing half of last season, seemed to be the player who would step up in minutes and defensive play. If anything, he's been more of a liability despite leading the team in TOI with 23:09.
No one would ever mistake Zidlicky with a shutdown defenseman but his defensive play seems to be getting worse. For a player who should leading by example, it feels like at least once or twice a game he gets beaten badly or gives away the puck. Other players have the same issues but when it also affects his strengths and Zidlicky's on the ice more than anyone there is a problem.
Here's a scary thought: Zidlicky is tied for the lead in points by a defenseman with Jared Spurgeon. Both have 2 points. Two! And if that's not enough, Nick Leddy has 7 points in 11 games (which would be tied with Dany Heatley for the Wild team lead...that's how bad the team has been with scoring).
Basically if the team is going to live and die with Zidlicky, he better improve in November or this is going to be a long season. When an offensive defenseman isn't adding to the scoring - his play on the man advantage has been abysmal with controlling the puck and creating offense (in fact he's being replaced on the first PP unit) - he better be doing something else to help the Wild out.
5. All these overtime games are a good signs
Although Minnesota has been frustrating at times under new coach Mike Yeo, there are some positive things to take away from the team. One of the most important is the amount of times Minnesota has spent in overtime - half of the Wild's ten games have gone past sixty minutes.
In many cases, the team has not given up and found ways to keep themselves in games. There's no better example than Dany Heatley scoring with less than a second left against Edmonton and then the Wild winning in a shootout. It's easy to say that neither of those two things would have happened last year and honestly it's a bad sign when you're amazed at Minnesota's 2-1 shootout record. Throwing in overtime losses to elite teams like Vancouver and Detroit these extra points and experiences will pay off as the Wild become more and more acclimated with the Yeo system.
Then again, they have blown 3 third period leads.
6. Youth Is Not Yet Served
Dan touched on this yesterday but it goes without saying that General Manager Chuck Fletcher made the right choice in sending back Brett Bulmer to Kelowna. Despite all the talk over the summer and the anxious awaiting of "Finnish Baby Jesus" Mikael Granlund, this year's team is not about the future. The waiver wire pickup and play of Nick Johnson should go to show that.
Other than Marco Scandella, no other top prospect has a chance to impact the roster and that even extends to some of the middling prospects. Casey Wellman came into the Wild pipeline with a lot of hype but is blocked by Johnson, Brad Staubitz, Darrol Powe and others. Their time will come - it's great to see the Wild picking up depth for the eventual injuries of an 82 game season - and making players earn their spots on the team is the way to go.
Although some players holding spots on the team will not be around by this time next season, the more the organization can get away from using short-term fixes at the expense of long-term gains, the better.