Wanting The Peacock To Be More Like A Shark

Despite the Wild taking their customary April trip to the golf course, this has been one of the best playoffs in recent memory. The last eight days have featured at least one overtime game, there will be four Game 7s and teams which were left for dead like San Jose in Game 3 or Chicago after being down 3-0 in the series have been able to come back. And this is just the first round!

Hockey has come a long way since the Lockout nearly destroyed the NHL six years ago. Rules have opened offensive play and creative hockey to an apathetic audience and young stars have given multiple teams hope and building blocks for the future. American fans across the country are becoming more informed and know it's not just Fight Club with a goal or two anymore.


The first rule of Hockey Club is you can talk about hockey...


So it is fitting that on the same day ESPN pulled poker programming (which received better ratings than the NHL when it replaced hockey) from their lineup, the NHL signed a ten-year, $200 million/year deal with NBC and Versus (or whatever Versus' new name is) for their American coverage. It makes sense for the league to negotiate and sign a long-term deal. Ratings have been up across the board (84 percent in the last four seasons and 17 percent this year); including record ratings in large U.S. markets this playoff. The league also has built up its regular season by going back to its roots and featuring an outdoor Winter Classic as a New Years Day tradition. With multiple bidders, Gary Bettman and co. struck while the iron was hot.

However, even with a new deal the NHL and NBC Sports need to improve hockey on American television. Signing a long-term deal with a network has its risks and the ability for all parties to be complacent. As much as Versus has accepted the NHL and showcased it as the tentpole of its sport portfolio, the channel is behind the Worldwide Leader and other sports channels in presentation. That's something which needs to be changed as the NHL has made a conscious choice to stay off the dominant sports network in the mind of most Americans (ESPN) while positioning itself as one of the four major sports leagues.

That's apparent just looking at the playoffs so far. While the NHL is a very tribal league (in which fans are more likely to watch games featuring their teams and do something else if a game is on not featuring their team), the bigwigs have not done a great job promoting other games. Here in Minnesota, fans are only given one option of what game to watch; that's not the case across the border in Canada where both TSN and CBC allow every game to be broadcast. And with certain series being ignored by Versus, it is hard to get into them or know what is going on. Seriously, if a goal in Anaheim is scored, does it matter if no one knows?

Just looking at tonight, Game 7 between Pittsburgh and Tampa was supposed to be "joined in progress" until earlier today. That's an elimination game featuring one of the most accessible teams in the league and one of the brightest stars (it would be three but apparently no Crosby, no care). Would that happen for any other major sports league? No. Thankfully the NHL Network is going to show the game tonight but that should have already been a contingency plan for when games are at the same time rather than a last-minute add.

Another thing Versus fails at doing well is branding. Many hockey fans joke about how the Western Conference is its own league given NBC and Versus rarely show teams west of the Mississippi. While there are a few reasons for it (number of teams and ratings), look at the below video of San Jose's four-goal comeback in Game 3:



Just going by the bar score, it looks like this is a national broadcast of Comcast Sports Net (in this case CSN California) and not Versus. It makes the channel come off cheap as even Fox, who has built their national sports network on the backs of regional channels, makes sure to differentiate the two in its branding. Although Versus is getting re-branded soon, this has been something the network has had issues with ever since they acquired the NHL rights in 2005. If you are going to have the rights to the entire NHL, make it look like you are carrying the entire NHL rather than have the West come off as something else.

Fortunately for American hockey fans, NBC Sports is fixing a few of these problems. The new contract specifies that all playoff games will get national coverage; however the little things do add up. Presentation values, discussion across the Comcast/NBC Sports family (having the early afternoon games on NBC without pre or post-game shows) and education are all important if the NHL wants to be taken more and more seriously by the mainstream.

While Versus is a channel which many can't get or have to pay more for compared to ESPN or TNT (due to having just the NHL, quarterly UFC fights and other second-tier programming), if the NHL and NBC Sports position the league as something which can't be missed more people will look into and demand it. There's no Worldwide Leader, but with proper branding and access, the NHL can keep growing its television product in America like it has since the lockout over the length of the contract. The Peacock just can't rest on its laurels and needs to be more shark-like.

Separation of Church And State

As I was coming home from work today, going over the short laundry list of things to do before I retire to sweat pants, cold beer, and chili on the couch, I made a quick inventory of what the television had to offer me tonight.

Two Game 7's.

Nevermind the Minnesota Twins, nevermind the NBA (pffffffft,) nevermind the Bill Parcells Draft whatever on ESPN, nevermind network sitcoms, movies on demand. There was no question that the alternating of chili and beer to my lips was to be done while Philadelphia and Buffalo and Vancouver and Chicago played their respective "Loser Leaves Town" match, to use a professional wrestling analogy. Normally, following (another) disappointing Wild season, I check out and decompress a bit and catch up with the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup.

But this first round has been so good, so exciting, so riveting, so compelling- You just can't help but tune in night in and night out. The storylines are so phenomenal- rivalries of old and new, redemptions, triumphs, failures, heros, villains; the story arc of Vancouver and Chicago is pure pulp fiction at this point for example. Things have transpired so far that you just can't make up- its been that wild of a ride so far. Did I mention we're still in the First Round?

Ask any hockey fan, and they'll tell you that the Stanley Cup Finals is thee best postseason tournament anywhere. I subscribe to that notion. Often coupled with this proclamation is that the general public doesn't know what they're missing.

I think its better that it stays that way.

Before I go about defending myself, if you look around the landscape of the sports world there is worthy combatants seeking your attention and disposable income- The NBA playoffs are under way, NFL Draft Mania is peaking (and this is occuring during the Lockout/Unlockout and no free agency frenzy,) and Major League Baseball, still in the season's infancy, is on its way to being the cock of the walk for the Summer months. So understandably, a six game series between Nashville and Anaheim can slip through the cracks, especially if it gets little mention on the Worldwide Leader (nevermind that it has broadcast interests on the other three sports listed.)

Don't get me wrong, as a full-fledged hockey guy, I want the NHL to thrive, and be successful, and receive praise and attention, recognition, and make new and lasting fans. The reality is, however, that there is a glass ceiling- especially on the American pro sports conscience, the NHL is a niche. Is there anything really wrong with that?

I remember Puck Daddy running a series of interviews/essays called "5 Reasons I Love Hockey", which featured prominent hockey personalities, media types, and bloggers listing why they love the sport. Many of the reasons strike chords in that you agree with some, and that other reasons that you may not have thought of, resonate in a way where you suddenly realize that "yes, I feel that way too!" Needless, this got me to thinking about that concept.

What I realized is that hockey fans, especially of the NHL, are like those who are in on a joke, or like an underground movement- its a sort of "us vs. them" mentality, but it is this sort of community element, tight knit in a way where even though the world is expansive, we're close because we share a common bond. Its punk rock, its street art, its graffiti (the good kind, not the chincy vandalism where some piss-ant 13 year old wrote "balls" on a bridge pillar*), and its different than fandom in any other sport. Hockey fans feel like we got the goods. And we are hardcore about the goods, this underground union. We stick it out through the good and the bad- true to the teams and the game. You can see it on the painted logos on a child's cheek, and in even the most hardened, crusty, and skeptical adult (hello Leafs fans!) A metaphorical Church if you will, a place of religion- we believe in the essence of hockey and the things that come with it. Count me as a part of the congregation.

Its almost like the fear against the proverbial "sell out"; we don't want bandwagon fans, we don't want the product to be corrupted, most of all we, the diehards, don't want to become disenfranchised, bitter, sullen, and withdrawn. Sure, it isn't perfect, but its ours.

Maybe its selfish, probably more delusional if anything, but there is a part of me that wants the Stanley Cup Playoffs to remain low key, to be underrated, to be on the periphery of the Sports Landscape, despite the obvious gains with the added notoriety. That way we will continue to feel like its ours.

Keep it underground NHL. Let the rest miss out.











*note: the "balls" spraypaint is real. I drive by it every Monday. And its bad.

Bouchard Snubbed For Masterton Trophy

The NHL announced their three nominees for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy today and remarkably the Wild's Pierre-Marc Bouchard is not one of them.



In case you are wondering what the Masterton Trophy entails, it is for the player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey" according to the NHL. It is named after Bill Masterton, a former North Stars player who in 1968 became the first (and so far only) player to die in a NHL game.

Don't get me wrong, there are other players who are deserving of a nomination, but there aren't three more deserving than PMB. The three nominees, Ray Emery of the Anaheim Ducks, Daymond Langkow of the Calgary Flames and Ian Laperriere of the Philadelphia Flyers played a combined fourteen games this season. Laperriere didn't even play at all and most likely won't. Bouchard on the other hand returned from a concussion (and missing an entire season) and was able to be one of the few bright spots in a disappointing season for the Wild; scoring twelve goals and displaying chemistry with multiple players.

Every team has a player who preserves injury or overcomes a horrific situation. That's why each franchise has a player nominated. But for an award which has in the past been known for players overcoming serious injuries, some comebacks are better than others. It's hard to fully overcome something or be dedicated to hockey if you come back at the end of the season; let alone putting up similar to better numbers than before. Just look at all the winners since the lockout.

2005–06 Teemu Selanne, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim: Overcame major knee surgery to score 90 points (40 goals and 50 assists)

2006–07 Phil Kessel, Boston Bruins: Missed 12 games because of testicular cancer mid season.

2007–08 Jason Blake, Toronto Maple Leafs: Was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia but still played a full 82-game season.

2008–09 Steve Sullivan, Nashville Predators: Played 41 games this season after missing nearly two years due to a fragmented disc in his back, and a strained groin.

2009–10 Jose Theodore, Washington Capitals: Had his best season since 2001–02 following his son Chase's death in 2009 from complications stemming from his premature birth.



Bouchard did that this season. He did the same thing Daymond Langkow did (rehab from a serious injury which sidelined him for a year) and Emery but was able to play most of the season. He put up thirty-eight points in fifty-nine games. He was an ambassador for the game, speaking out for more concussion awareness in the league (which has happened this season as stars like Sidney Crosby and Marc Savard have been affected). That's everything the award embodies and to snub Pierre-Marc Bouchard's comeback from a year-long concussion as not being one of the top three cases in the NHL this season is nothing short of a travesty. I hope the PWHA (or at least the members outside the Minnesota contingency) takes a look at Bouchard's case and feel ashamed; especially as concussions and post-concussion syndrome become a growing problem in the league.

In Which Mikko Koivu Realizes He Should Stick To Skilled Play




Uh-huh.

Just what we want to see, our highest paid player, scoring leader, and CAPTAIN get beaten like a steel drum by a busker on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. I'm fairly sure that Koivu went Ron Burgundy on the situation and immediately regretted that he was about to lock horns with 255 pound Evgeny Artyukhin.

Hell of a hit by Tuomo Ruutu though.

Tidbits: The "Thought At Work" Edition




It's sort of been a weird little offseason so far for Minnesota- Todd Richards and his staff (sans Rick Wilson) were canned right after the final game against Dallas, and......that's about it so far, save for the signings of NCAA free agents Chay Genoway and Justin Fontaine, and the signing of 2010 2nd Rounder Brett Bulmer.
Chuck Fletcher has said there's not really any timetable for hiring a new Head Coach and Staff (although Fletcher said he'd have input as to who the assistants would be, and count in Wilson since he still has a year left on his deal.) This makes sense, since the pool of viable candidates will continue to grow as the playoffs in the NHL, AHL, and CHL continue on into the Summer. Well, considering the weather we've gotten, the theoretical "Summer."
The usual suspects have been named as potential candidates: Ken Hitchcock, Andy Murray, Craig MacTavish, even Wilson himself. The established, Old School, crusty types- they have a Head Coaching resume at the NHL level.

But I keep coming back to Mike Yeo, who is captaining the Houston Aeros ship through the Calder Cup playoffs.

You gotta think he's a priority candidate, considering what he (and his staff- Brian Wiseman and Darryl Sydor) has done with a young group of moderately talented Wild Prospects- they swept Peoria to waltz into the 2nd Round. He believes in the same coaching philosophy as Todd Richards, which means that there would be continuity in not only the style of play, but in that Yeo would essentially be coaching the players he has in Houston, all over again in St. Paul.
Chuck Fletcher went out of his way to praise Yeo and Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir for the way they've developed young talent this year- so you would think that would be an impressive feature on Yeo's resume, the production he's gotten from what he's got to work with.

But my question to you is this: If Yeo's done so well in Houston, coaching up the players, would that developmental process be damaged if he got the job in St. Paul? Don't you think that if you were Fletcher, you'd want Yeo to get his hands on as many of the young talent Minnesota has coming in and through the system as much as possible? Or would one of Wiseman/Sydor continue to run the show?

Some food for thought I guess.

- Tip of the Cap to The boys at Orland Kurtenblog, who pointed out a Associated Press Interview with Craig Leipold. There wasn't anything that was much different than his sitdown with Mike Russo. However, he did make reference to the marketing of the "uptempo" style of hockey and how it was maybe overblown; that it would be more entertaining and they'd win more. Nevermind that Minnesota does not have the talent required to be really effective using that system, but those wheels have been set in motion already. I think the insinuation that Minnesota would win more by going back to being more of a hard working (did you see how hard they worked to score goals this year???) defensive-oriented team would be a mistake, considering the time required to implement a new system to replace the system...that guys just got the hang of this year. It would be a knee jerk move.
- Remember that Todd Richards' philosophy echos that of Chuck Fletcher's of how he wants the team to be/play- their identity. This leads me to believe that the hiring of a trap/defensive coach, like a Ken Hitchcock, isn't likely. Fletcher wants a proactive, aggressive team. To me, this points to Yeo again.
- The more I read, the more I think that Todd Richards was fired because he didn't communicate well with his players. It has to be a relationship thing or something of this ilk that did him in, because there was enough progress on the ice (in my opinion) to warrant him having another year with more compatible personnel.
- Brett Bulmer signed an Entry Level Deal yesterday, which is more of a formality than anything. I certainly expect Bulmer to be back in Kelowna of the Western Hockey League next year. Minnesota must really like what this kid projects to be though- he made an impression in Training Camp, enough to get into a preseason game. He's got some tools, but he's still raw.
- You can find many videos of Bulmer fights on Youtube, but here is a scouting report on Bulmer from roughly a year ago.
- Speaking of Bulmer, who signed an ATO with Houston. Its unlikely that Bulmer and his teammate defenseman Colton Jobke, Sam Lofquist, Kris Foucault, and Scott Campbell will see any game action in the Calder Cup playoffs barring an injury, but I think its still a step forward developmentally speaking for these guys (kids!) to be apart of a professional hockey atmosphere/lifestyle. The practices, the game speeds, the travel, the schedules, etc.
- Since we have NOTHING as Wild fans, please follow the folks at The Third Intermission as they cover the Aeros on their playoff run.
- Finally...after watching a number of playoff games, all I can do is sit back and laugh at the pace of the games compared to what Minnesota's team speed was this year. Oh man.

Slow and Low That Is The Tempo

Mikael Granlund, the Crown Jewel of The Minnesota Wild Toybox (and the Tenth Best Hockey Prospect according to Hockey's Future) capped off his season in the SM-Liiga with 16 points in 15 playoff games, as his HIFK squad swept Espoo for the League Title.



The next step for young Mr. Granlund will be to suit up for Finland in nine days for the World Championships, where he'll be playing along side Private Gomer Pyle, I mean Mikko Koivu. The prospects of Mikael Granlund in a Wild sweater are exciting, especially for a fanbase of a moribund National League Hockey team. However, Chuck Fletcher has no plans to streamline Granlund's assimilation to the NHL.

Makes sense.

In an ideal world, Granlund will sign an NHL contract so he can do the numerous Camps- Prospect Development Camp in the Summer (which will draw big time crowds for the scrimmages if he's on this side of the pond), the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, and Training Camp. Presumably there will be a few roster spots up for grabs (depending on free agency, but likely at least two wing openings in the Top 9) so he'll have to battle like the rest of the prospective NHLers for it. Worse comes to worse, he'll go to Houston to start the year (the sound you hear is Ms. Conduct championing that concept.)

"He shall not be rushed," says the Brain Trust. However that statement doesn't end in a period. Its not definitive, an absolute, the decree from on high. The part that is being left off is "unless he shows that he can play at the NHL level."

Granlund's SM-Liiga resume looks like this: 76 points in 82 games, 22 points in 21 playoff games, and a League Title all by the age of 19. His international resume, to date (U-18 and World Junior Championships) consists of 9 goals, 27 assists in 24 games, resulting in two bronze medals (and there's an argument to be made about the strength of some of those teams he played on.)

He's been dominant among his peer group. He was dominant in the top Men's League in Finland. Granlund doesn't have anything to left to prove- except that he can play in the NHL.

So now he's set to play games for his country in the World Championships in Slovakia, with and against current NHLers. I'm venturing to guess that there will be interested parties on hand to see how the kid fares- The World Championships do serve as a platform for offseason maneuvers afterall, so its a cinch that The Brass will be there in person. We, the public, don't have these games readily accessible to us- well, for the most part (live streams, I know I know.) We, as Wild fans, won't have any idea how he does against what is perceived to be the next step on his path to the NHL. Youtube highlights and press clippings don't do the actual game justice- but that's all we'll have.

Sure, there is a development motif involved; why potentially screw up Minnesota's most promising forward prospect since...Pierre-Marc Bouchard(?) by unnecessarily fast tracking someone who isn't NHL-ready. It makes perfect sense- this franchise needs all the help it can get.

However the oath that "Mikael Granlund won't be rushed to the NHL" was a way of tempering expectations of the fans and reining in the romantic notion that Mikael Granlund will step in from Day One and save this franchise.

Even if Hockey Ops sees that Granlund is NHL ready.

Wild Roundtable Report Cards: The Front Office

Hi kids! Since our season is already over, The Editorial Staff at FRB thought it would be wise to fire up the Roundtable Panel and grade out the various components of the Wild Organization for 2010-2011.




The Front Office
(Chuck Fletcher, Jim Mill, Brent Flahr, Shep Harder, Blair Mackasey, Brad Bombardir)

Notables:
- 2010 Draft Class
- Free Agent Signings
* Eric Nystrom, John Madden, Matt Cullen, Drew Bagnall
* Jared Spurgeon, Dennis Endras, Chay Genoway
- No Trade Deadline Acquisitions
- Also Fired Head Coach Todd Richards 4/11/2011


Tony:


Well...where to begin with the front office? First, you do have to give some credit to Fletcher with what he has done with Houston as the very least. While the Wild struggled throughout the year, the Aeros finished with 98 points and 2nd place in the league. That is huge considering they were 7th in the West last season. However, while I'm happy we are going for a Calder Cup this season, the Wild are still trying to search for an identity. Player moves like Kobasew and Barker have not panned out along with several other players who were brought in prior to Fletcher taking over GM responsibilities. Moreover, Fletcher's inability to move any players at all has been quite bewildering because many of the players could fit playoff contender's needs. While I admire the "fight to the bitter end" there is also that time when you have to begin to make the right steps in order to prepare for the future. The last thing this franchise, and its fans, want is to become a Columbus or Florida where we can draft high, but nothing ever pans out. Sooner or later the players who can actually play at a high level of the game are going to want out because they will either get offered the same pay or they have a chance to win a championship with a contender, or both.


Jarick:


Trades: B

Fletcher made two trades of note this year (sorry Petr Kalus). Acquiring F Brad Staubitz for a 5th round pick gave the Wild a tough guy with serviceable hockey skills for relatively low pick. Trading G Anton Khudobin for D Jeff Penner and F Mikko Lehtonen was a low risk, high reward move that gave the Wild NHL rights to a skilled scoring forward from Europe. The last roster move made by Fletcher was to pick up Patrick O'Sullivan off waivers, which was a no risk move to add skill and scoring to the team, although he ended up being an impact player for the Houston Aeros instead.

Coaching Hires: A

Two changes were made to the coaching staff, as Fletcher brought in assistant coaches Rick Wilson and Darby Hendrickson to the team. Wilson seemed to bring the team back to playing a more defensive style, which resulted in much better play for most of the season. Hendrickson was a liason between the players and coaching staff, although I'm not sure exactly what that means or how he did.

Unrestricted Free Agency: C

In unrestricted free agency, Fletcher landed C Matt Cullen for 3 years at $3.5m, which in hindsight looked like an overpayment for a player past his prime. Likewise, 3 years and $1.4m for F Eric Nystrom was another expensive mistake, as he spent most of the year on the fourth line and added little scoring to the team. Later in the summer, Fletcher signed C John Madden to a 1 year, $1m contract, which ended up looking like a bargain as he scored clutch goals, played strong defense, stepped up when the team needed him, and added leadership to the team. G Jose Theodore was added at 1 year, $1.1m, and vastly overperformed that contract as well. Finally, D Jared Spurgeon was signed to a 3-year deal at $527k, and he looks to be a very serviceable defenseman at the NHL level with some upside.

Contract Extensions: B

Fletcher's biggest move this offseason was a 7-year deal for C Mikko Koivu at $6.75m per year. Most people outside of Minnesota saw this as a huge overpayment for a player who wasn't an elite scorer, but Minnesota fans generally accepted that they would have to overpay to keep their team's captain, emotional leader, and leading scorer. W Guillaume Latendresse was given a 2-year deal at $2.5m per year, which was a good number considering his performance last year, although he missed most of the season with injuries. D Clayton Stoner received a 2-year deal at $550k per year, and he appears to be a good bargain at this time. Finally, G Josh Harding and F James Sheppard were given 1-year contracts to prove they could perform at the NHL level, and both missed the entire year with injuries.


Bozak:


The Front Office.

After last season, if I were the professor determining the grading scheme for the Front Office, I would have changed from a percentage based letter grade to a simple Pass/Fail.

This season, the front office gets a Passing grade. First, there were no panic move trades (like Kobasew or Barker) which should be considered a passing mark. Second, the one move he made during the trade deadline was to pawn off Khudobin for prospects. Little mention is given to also pawning off Kalus, which means that a roster spot was opened up in the organization. That’s a key move, if not a bit understated. Kalus was often even getting scratched down in Houston and it was apparent that he was not going to be in the long term plans for even the farm club. So why waste a limited roster spot on him?

The organization has (I believe) 53 roster spots available; 23 for the big club and the rest for Houston and prospects, etcetera. Considering that we had one roster spot sitting on the IR all season, we were already one spot down.

Which leads me to the one confusing aspect of the business that I’m not sure about. LTIR. Harding, at least in my understanding, was never put on LTIR. I don’t think it was needed, mind you, but I cannot find sources which say that he was “off the books” so to speak. It definitely didn’t make sense to put him on LTIR to have insurance pay for his salary. Why? The insurance that the Wild carry does not cover him. We also may have been close to the cap all season, but his cap hit doesn’t really make or break a team. It would have only have made sense to put him on LTIR if they needed the roster spot. Sheppard didn’t count due to him being suspended by the team.

Other than this, they were quiet. If fans really expected a Fire Sale or an acquisition at the deadline, they weren’t educated. We were in fifth place a week before the deadline. We were in position the day of the deadline. You don’t screw with that. Granted, this roster only got there when Todd Richards was “hands off”…

All in all, the moves, or lack of moves by the Front Office receive a passing grade.


Ben:


C

Simply put, the front office did not make many changes to the Wild this season. The Wild were in the playoff hunt right up until the trade deadline. This caused the front office to weigh three options: sell UFAs for picks/prospects, trade for player(s) that would help now, or do nothing and let the current team play out the remainder of the season. Chuck Fletcher obviously could not trade his UFAs when his team was in the playoff race. And instead of sacrificing the future for a chance at making the playoffs this year, Chuck decided to go with the team he had. This resulted in no playoffs but no damage to the Wild's future.

Where the front office succeeded was turning over the Aeros' coaching staff, as well as adding Brad Bombardir into a player development role. The results paid off as the Aeros had a very successful season. They are currently ahead 1-0 in the first round of the Calder Cup. Many of the Aeros players played a few games with the Wild and did not look out of place.

Lastly, Chuck Fletcher continued to try to add depth by going after college/European free agents. He missed out on De Costa but was able to sign Chay Genoway. Additionally, he made a no-risk/high-reward trade, sending UFA to be goalie Anton Khudobin to the Bruins for Jeff Penner and the rights to Mikko Lehtonen.


Nate:


Although the front office did a good reorganizing itself and setting the team up for the future, there wasn't much for this season. That's going to happen when a team has few assets to deal with and their biggest splash was re-signing their captain to a long-term deal. Some lower moves paid off like John Madden as a defensive center and Jose Theodore after Josh Harding went down, but a few players signed by Fletcher, including this year's top free agent Matt Cullen, regressed or did not meet expectations.

The front office did a good job with their draft class. Although Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker each suffered injuries, you cannot take away their outstanding seasons and growth as 18 year-olds. The four top forwards (including Brett Bulmer and Johan Larsson) all look like they can play at the next level; something which the Wild desperately need. In addition, Mike Yeo has a young AHL team in Houston overachieving. However with injuries to Tyler Cuma and Marco Scandella, the defense is not looking as top-heavy as it once was and the team still has a lack of top-end talent.

As for coaching, the recent fire of Todd Richards leaves a black mark on the front office. Richards was GM Chuck Fletcher's hire and his responsibility whether you agree with the firing or not and at the very least was made a scapegoat. Richards was unable to implement an offensive system due to the lack of talent. That goes on the front office but in the end Richards was fired due to being unable to adjust and being an easy scapegoat. Other personnel moves by the front office paid off - especially hiring Mike Yeo - but it is more important for a team not rebuilding to make the playoffs at the highest level.

There wasn't much Fletcher and co. could have done to improve the depth of the team as that takes time, but it would have been nice to see them act more on it. When injuries piled up and the grind of the season took its toll, Minnesota faded fast. Looking at everything, I have to give the front office a grade of C+. There are signs of a future and a plan in place which will let the team make the playoffs (and meet expectations) but until the team stops treading water it won't get a better grade.

Separated At Birth

This is kind of chincy, since I'm rehashing something I did a long long time ago...but after writing about Craig Leipold, I figure its worth a laugh.

Brother from another Mother?

Craig Leipold:



(photo courtesy of Bruce Bisping)


And...

Peter Griffin:




And I too find the offseason shallow and pedantic.

Waiting Is The Hardest Part

This week our resident font of information, Mike Russo, had a sitdown interview with Wild Owner Craig Leipold, who answered a variety of questions concerning the franchise, team, Chuck Fletcher, etc. Russo also had a supplementary post on his blog that contained more of the interview that didn't make the cut, but nevertheless touched up more of the same topics.

I'll be honest in that I spent the last couple of days, thinking of some grandiose take on the Owner, based off of that interview, but its hard to read the guy. Being a season ticket holder I see Leipold, in his center ice suite nearly every game, elbows on knees in his suit and tie, game program rolled up and clenched in his hand.

You can't question his commitment to an investment- He is willing and able to spend to the Salary Cap ceiling; he stated that "we spend 3, 4, 5 million dollars for players, there is no financial restraints when it comes to a Coach."

The financial resources are readily available, as is a willingness to spend; a relief of sorts, knowing that Minnesota sports fans have long suffered at the whims of shallow pocketed owners like Calvin Griffith, Carl Pohlad, Red McCombs, and the previous Owner of the Minnesota Wild, Bob Naegele.

Craig Leipold is losing money operating this way, but he does it because he wants to win. He wants to create his own legacy, much like Bob Naegele did roughly a decade ago by bringing the NHL back to Minnesota.

When Chuck Fletcher was hired by Leipold, he (Leipold) made the grand proclamation that we are "defined by a singular goal", which is of course, bringing the Stanley Cup to the denizens of the "State of Hockey". Eager is he to make his mark; he rid of the previous regime, brought in his guy- Fletcher, a "rising star", and set forth towards that goal. There isn't any doubt as to his interest in landing a Winter Classic either- I'm sure he lobbies as hard as anyone for it, despite Minnesota's middling on-ice product, and mid-major market status.

But there is a part of me that wonders if Leipold is too eager, almost forceful in his want and desire to be a transcendental figure in the pantheon of Minnesota Sports Figures.

Like I mentioned earlier that there is a willingness to spend to the Cap ceiling (which is supposed to increase again this Summer) and that is certainly a luxury, but even if there is a supposed correlation between payroll spending and ticket revenues (found here, about halfway down) it doesn't mean its wisely spent money- there is no denying the amount of money tied up in bad contracts held over from the Doug Risebrough Era- Niklas Backstrom at 6 mil/year, Pierre-Marc Bouchard at roughly 4 mil/year (depending on his inconsistent play,) Mark Parrish's lovely severance package of about 900k until 2013-14 (a great gig if you can get it); but just because you have that cash to burn, doesn't mean you have to overpay, or just spend it frivolously.

Or a sea change in philosophies, on roster and developmentally speaking, don't happen overnight- progress is a slow process at times. Chuck Fletcher fill the empty toybox overnight, overhaul the roster in one offseason, one season, or even two until he sees fit; now we are set to have our second coaching staff in two years.

While the parties involved may be different, the situations in theory were the same; I venture to guess that Craig Leipold looks at what Terry Pegula, the new Owner of the Buffalo Sabres, has meant for that franchise; Change and Hope from the top down. More money spent on Scouting, on the on-ice product, on HSBC Arena; the team responded with a second half charge into the playoffs.

Pegula's a cult figure now in Upstate New York. Craig Leipold is the owner of a team that has missed the playoffs the last three years, needs a coaching staff and talent, and has a fan base that is a bit on the ornery side. He's losing money on an investment that he considers "guaranteed good-business."

Eventually things will set, and the franchise can start to build on its new foundation and move forward towards that "singular goal", the Winter Classic, and Craig Leipold's legacy can be made.

Even if he hates the wait.

2011 Minnesota Wild Ad Campaigns

In the spirit of "Every Fan Counts," here are some possible Wild ad campaigns for the 2011-2012 season:

-Minnesota Wild: Where meaningless games are portrayed as monumental games in team history

-Minnesota Wild: One James Sheppard injury away from the playoffs

-Minnesota Wild: It's A Trap

-Minnesota Wild: See You On The Golf Course

-Minnesota Wild: Booing. It's in our blood.

-Minnesota Wild: Managing expectations since 2007.

-Minnesota Wild: Same number of Cups as the Canucks

-Minnesota Wild: Figure out what Nordy is.

-Minnesota Wild: We won't hurt you again. Pinky swear?

-Minnesota Wild: Our arena is better than your arena

-Minnesota Wild: Come for the entertainment, stay for the hockey

-Minnesota Wild: See some of the East's best teams. Unless of course they don't come.

-Minnesota Wild: We own Edmonton.

-Minnesota Wild: Matt Cullen's from Minnesota....just saying

-Minnesota Wild: At least we're still better than the Timberwolves

Tidbits: The "Save The Best For Last" Edition




While the mood around Wild Nation today is a bit more subdued considering the season is over and, oh ya, Todd Richards was unceremoniously fired, it should be worth noting that The Wild thoroughly had the Xcel Energy Center rocking last night. It was quite odd and unexpected, given the glorious swan dive into the NHL Draft Lottery Minnesota took in the past month, that all of the sudden the last game of the year, played in front of the home crowd, would carry so much importance. Dallas, plain and simple, needed to win to get into the playoffs- Chicago, which had been in the same position, lost to Detroit earlier in the afternoon.

Think about that for a second- back in the rough and tumble days of the Norris Division, Minnesota (albeit the North Stars) and Chicago were the fiercest of rivals. Stuff of legend really- Basil McRae and Bob Probert, Dino Ciccarelli and Al Secord.

Now The Blackhawks organization were sitting in front of their televisions with their foam clam, that green fist beer holder, and their Wild pennants.

And Minnesota responded. And not just responded- they suffocated Dallas with a stifling forecheck, hard work, contributions from some unlikely players. You may have remembered that formula from that 2-3 month stretch where we were hovering around the playoffs.

The decibels ratcheted up a notch when Colton Gillies scored his first goal of the year to give The Wild the lead, and the top damn near blew off when Pierre-Marc Bouchard iced it with an empty netter.

So there it was, one last time as the season closed- the home team, winning (duh), and sending the fans out into the offseason smiling, laughing, and with a glimmer of hope and a spark of excitement for the Fall.

- I came away from that game very impressed with Colton Gillies. He hit, he forechecked hard, he hustled, he was noticeable. I'm willing to take the offensive limitations if Gillies will be a guy who can bring that every night.
- About the offensive limitations: I don't think he's got that intuition for scoring goals, but I think he'll score some as long as he goes to the net. He'll have to make his living below the circles, on the wall, and around the net.
- Ultimately I think Gillies is going to be very similar to Eric Nystrom (save the wicked case of being snakebit offensively.) Gritty character guy.
- I'm currently reading The Art Of Scouting by Shane Malloy, and I just read an interesting bit how Gillies, who was a 1st Round Pick in the WHL Bantam Draft, was instructed to change how he holds the hockey stick so he can effectively roll his wrists better. I thought that was interesting.
- Speaking of Houston kids...I also think Carson MacMillan has interjected himself into the conversation for the 4th line center spot next fall. He assisted on Brad Staubitz' goal, and played well for a kid who's had less than a handful of NHL games under his belt.
- Who would have thought our main goal scoring threat over the last week would be...Brad Staubitz?!?
- Staubitz is a HUGE upgrade over Derek Boogaard, and its not even close.
- Bouchard has played well over the last few weeks, but I'd like to see him use his speed more often. There was a goal he scored a few games ago (don't remember) but he got the puck, skated along the blueline, and took 2 hard strides into towards the slot and scored on a bullet of a wrister. If he did this more often, he wouldn't be so easy to defend when he typically pulls up along the half wall.
- I do like that he's willing to shoot a bit more. For a team historically starved for goals, production from him is huge.
- Bouchard also played well with Mikko Koivu, which gives us a rough sketch of a top line. Again, another summer spent looking for a winger for #9.
- Finally...thanks to those who choose to visit the site and read the drivel that Nate, myself, Tommy, and all the others spew upon the internet. We appreciate the readership very much.

Minnesota Ends On A Winning Note


Kyle Schmidt will never have to buy another beer in Duluth...

Before touching upon Todd Richards' dismissal (which we have and will touch more upon), I want to take a look back at happier times this weekend. Minnesota is not known for their winning ways; in fact the Twin Cities are up on the list of most tortured sports cities. It's sad but true. The Vikings are a top-three team in terms of sports heartbreak, hockey fans lost the North Stars to Dallas and the Timberwolves have been one of the worst sports franchises over the last decade. So it is nice to take any win and see two hockey programs from the state give the "State of Hockey" a good name.


It's a better name than this guy gives North Dakota fans. I know this doesn't represent their fanbase but it's no excuse.


Hopefully you followed me this weekend at the Frozen Four (and if you did, thanks). The final saw Minnesota Duluth defeating Michigan 3-2 in overtime and the Bulldogs winning their first national championship and the state's sixth (the University of Minnesota has won five titles and is the only other college in the state to win a D1 hockey championship). Although they are not my college, it was great to see Duluth win a long overdue title and have the opportunity to celebrate a title 150 miles from home.

The Bulldogs have some of the classiest and most passionate fans in all of college hockey and they have done a great job representing the State of Hockey. When Schmidt scored, the Xcel Energy Center was louder than any moment in Wild history. I still wish for my Gophers to turn things around next year but any Minnesota hockey team winning a title is good in my book.

Along the same lines, it was great to see the Wild end their season on a winning note. Beating Dallas to knock them out of the playoffs was even better. Norm Green broke my heart as a kid and although he doesn't own the team anymore, any perceived chance to get back at him is a good thing.

Even though I'm not a Blackhawks fan and the stakes were a no-win situation, it was great to see Minnesota make the best of a bad situation. Some of the young guys played their best game in a Wild uniform when they could have easily folded. Players like Colton Gillies and Drew Bagnall made an argument as to why Chuck Fletcher should give them a look next season. It was particularly refreshing to see Gillies look like he was turning a corner. We've always known that he has speed and size but when the former first-round pick was sent to Houston two seasons ago he didn't know how to use it. After last night, it looks like Gillies has made a lot of progress and another good summer of work could pay dividends for Minnesota.

Unfortunately for the fans, that's all she wrote. There's no more college hockey, the Wild are out of the playoffs for the third consecutive season and the team is now looking for a coach. There's still plenty to look at post-mortem (including a lot of lead up to the NHL Draft in June) but for now I'm happy to see Minnesota ending on a winning note.

p.s. Chicago, you owe us something for that win. Cash is fine.
p.p.s. Norm Green still sucks

"A Fluid Process"




You could tell Chuck Fletcher had a really tough time with this. It's hard having to fire someone, nevermind a long-time friend.


I guess I'm puzzled as to why, after two years, that Fletcher felt the team needed a new voice and go in a new direction. This is the same guy who told Elliotte Friedman earlier this season that he didn't fire Richards because he "wanted some stability when there was constant change." So...what happened?

Surely there are things that we, the public, will never be privy too- the internal dealings within the locker room, the discussions in the video room, the meetings in the front office; but unless there was something that would raise a giant red flag, I cannot see how firing Todd Richards is the answer.

To me, he wasn't the issue.

Now, while Fletcher is doing his best to make the toy box look respectable and bring in talent (so what does he tell the pro scouts now? Or is it still the "speed and grit" that Fletcher covets?) so this team is a bit more sleek (and less expensive) than the rusted out 1983 Buick Regal it was this season, it just seems like nearly a wholesale change in coaching staff (Rick Wilson is the only one under contract) just creates a new set of continuity problems.

There is a part of me that wonders if Richards was doomed from the start- trying to install a system, based on being aggressive on the forecheck and being proactive, with a team that's riddled with bad contracts and roster holes. Considering the market prices and the lack of assets that were left in the toy box by the previous regime, just acquiring the personnel suited for the new system seemed Herculean, much less trying to win with a team who's overall speed wasn't conducive.

I'm not saying that Richards wasn't infallible in his 164 game tenure as an National Hockey League Head Coach, but when you put the big picture in perspective- trying to win while your GM is attempting to overhaul on the fly without a complete rebuild, he had the deck stacked against him. Especially when you have an owner, eager to create a legacy of success and losing millions doing it, who is cognizant of the fact that the denizens of the Xcel Energy Center haven't been exactly the happiest campers for a couple of years. It cannot be overstated enough just how bad a condition Doug Risebrough left this organization in, and it became really apparent this season when the team was playing well. When stacked up against the other teams in the West, Minnesota was by and large marginally talented, so when there was a need for scoring help or some other fix, it wasn't a viable option because we lacked the resources to get that help.

So he had to make due with what was left to him, and whatever Chuck Fletcher could get without further damaging this team long term, like selling the farm for a what would be perceived as attractive roster help.

Todd Richards was charged with trying to win with a team pieced together, ill-fitting to his philosophies, and still had this team playing at a playoff caliber level. Granted the margin of error was slimmer than some of the other teams in the Western Conference, but there was progress over the course of his tenure. And to me, that progress was worthy of more patience- the development curve was evident.

Alas, here we go into an offseason of uncertainty about who is going to coach the team, how we're gonna play, this that and the other. I suppose it creates fodder for a guy like me to get on his little bully pulpit and shake his fist as if my opinion matters. I think Todd Richards got a raw deal, whether it was Chuck Fletcher's or Craig Leipold's call.

The wheels have been set in motion, and who knows when it started. But this "fluid process" sure looks a bit knee jerk to me.

And Now, The Healing Can Begin



This morning, GM Chuck Fletcher made the move we've all been waiting for, some for well over a year now, and gave the boot to Head Coach Todd Richards. It's my opinion that Richards will ultimately be remembered as a coach who was a little too defensive of his players, and who was thrust into a position way over his head way too quickly, in an organization that just wasn't a good fit. But I'm sure this space will be used extensively in the coming days to take a more detailed look back at what went wrong, and who should be brought in for the future; for now, let's just be glad to finally be turning the corner on a new era in Wild history.

Just six months 'till the new season starts. Go Wild Go.

Your Moment Of Zen 4/10/2011





Nice follow through. Chicago Blackhawk players, coaches, executives, and fans all agree.





Courtesy of FRB homeboy @Fel0096

Restocking The Cupboard: Sam Lofquist



Sam Lofquist
Defense, Guelph Storm (OHL)
6'2", 200 lbs.

College Hockey fans, most notably Golden Gopher hockey fans, might recognize the name; Lofquist played for the University of Minnesota in the 2008-09 season, before leaving the team, dropping out of school, and taking his talents to Guelph of the Ontario Hockey League. Prior to his short time at Minnesota, Lofquist spent a year at Shattuck St. Mary's and two years playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, MI.



From Brock Otten of OHL Prospects:

"After leaving the University of Minnesota, this former U.S. National team member become a rock for the Guelph Storm. His arrival (as well as the improvement on the injury front) was a huge reason Guelph was able to turn their season around. He's got a lot of things that NHL teams look for from the back end. He's got very good size at 6'2, 200lbs. He's mobile, physical and he can perform offensively. He's actually got a cannon of a shot from the point and generates a lot of offense from it. Lofquist didn't have a tremendous end to the season and struggled in the playoffs, but I think he was clearly fatigued...something that often happens to departing NCAA players in their first CHL season. I think the way he played most of the season and how important he became to Guelph's resurgence definitely would have gotten him noticed."


Again from Otten:

"This former University of Minnesota defenseman hasn't been in the OHL long, but has definitely been an impact player. He's been the Storm's most important and consistent defenseman the past 2 seasons and deserves a look at the next level. He has size at 6'2, 200lbs, he's mobile, he can play in all situations and he can take the body if need be. Really a jack of all trades type of guy."

Lofquist would sign an Amateur Tryout Agreement with Houston when Guelph's season ended; the article is a tad old, but Guelph lost to Saginaw in the opening round of the OHL playoffs, but there hasn't been anything on the AHL transaction page. It's been reported that Chuck Fletcher is looking on adding more CHL and NCAA free agents, and Lofquist looks like he'll get his chance to impress on a playoff-bound Houston squad.

*EDIT*

Houston Aeros play-by-play voice Joe O'Donnell tweeted that Lofquist will make his pro debut today against the Oklahoma City Barons.


Pictures courtesy of Brace Hemmelgran and Storm-Trackers.com respectively.

A Series of Unfortunate Events/Requiem For Harding

On the eve of the last game of the 2010-2011 season, Jose Theodore will get the nod in net, his second in a row. Niklas Backstrom is a bit dinged up; so the backup, Theodore, will effectively close the curtain on a season that has eroded away into a lost cause.

The pundits are out now, doing some quick analysis and projection heading into another looooooooooooooong offseason; soon-to-be free agents, unrestricted and restricted; possible junior and NCAA free agent additions, who gets qualified and who doesn't. There isn't any question that Minnesota's a bit hamstrung financially, so there is a really good chance that all of the UFA's are let go, and possibly some of the RFA's as well, all in the name of financial flexibility.

The salary dump will most likely involve Josh Harding.



Once upon a time Harding, coming off of a celebrated career for Regina and Brandon in the Western Hockey League, was considered the future of Minnesota's goaltending; he was supposed to be the long-term answer for the franchise between the pipes. In retrospect Harding was even left to develop in Houston of the American League, which was odd for the Doug Risebrough regime; he posted a 67-40 record in 118 games with a 2.38 goals against, and a .924 save percentage. He also made his debut at the NHL level in 05-06, going 2-1 in three games, including a shutout.

The reality is that he didn't do anything to tarnish the promise and potential of securing the #1 goaltender gig at the NHL level.

But then came a series of unfortunate events.

1. The Free Agent Signing of Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom was signed out of SM-Liiga by the Risebrough regime, on a word of suggestion by Dwayne Roloson, who had been dealt to Edmonton earlier in the Spring. Backstrom looked to be Houston-bound in the following Training Camp, with the notion that Harding would back up and ultimately contend for the #1 role with Manny Fernandez, who had been given an extension. When Backstrom was able to grab a hold of the reins, he never looked back; he got his shot because of...
2. Injuries. Harding got injured in Camp in the fall of 2006; nothing major, but just enough to where it was prudent that he was sent to Houston in order to rehab; Backstrom would ride shotgun to Fernandez because Fernandez was being paid to shoulder the load, and also that Backstrom was healthy- it didn't make sense to put an injured/not completely healthy Harding in that role. Even if his destiny was to be the guy.

That destiny never came to fruition; and it likely never will here in Minnesota.

Harding eventually got the back-up role, and played the role of good soldier in the locker room, on the bench, and in the community; it was a minor news item when he debuted his new mask every season, including a touching tribute to his sister stricken with cancer. Girls cooed over him. He did his role admirably too; most memorably replacing an injured Niklas Backstrom and securing an improbable comeback win against Chicago by shutting down John Madden in the shootout.

The beginning of the end should have been noticed when Niklas Backstrom was bestowed in what was a lost season; for the record I was in the camp that wanted Backstom traded at the deadline, and let Harding take the reins. Give him the reps in what would amount to be pressure-less games in a season that would mean nothing but development. Instead, he was doomed to the same role as the #2 guy, and his name was bandied about in trade rumors.

Sadly Harding will most assuredly see himself July 1 looking for a job, hoping to show and prove to NHL teams that his surgically reconstructed knee, which he suffered in a preseason game this last fall, is healthy enough and that he is worthy of a contract.

That knee injury lead to the late signing of Jose Theodore, the same guy who will be the starter later today.

Looking back on the season, and how up and down Niklas Backstrom played this year, you can't help but feel for a guy like Josh Harding- this could have been the prime opportunity to grab that role to be the horse, the #1 NHL goaltender. He was recently cleared to start going down into the butterfly position, another step in his rehab.

And it is a shame to think what could have been, how different things could have been without the unfortunate timing of the misfortunes of Josh Harding.

Your Wild Prospect Update Of The Night

Mikael Granlund set a record with the fastest 5 points in SM-Liiga history in HIFK's series clinching win over Lukko last night. Granlund scored 2 goals and 3 assists in, oh, roughly 12 minutes in a 7-1 win. I believe Granlund has 8 goals and 13 points in 11 playoff games so far- I think.




(daps to @HockeyTrend for the video)


And...

Sean Lorenz, a junior at Notre Dame, was voted The CCHA's best Defensive Defenseman. Lorenz was drafted in the 4th round, 115th overall, in 2008.
Of course, Lorenz and his Fighting Irish squad is in St. Paul this weekend for the Frozen Four; and in the spirit of shameless self-promotion, FRB writer Nate Wells is covering the tournament for SBN Minnesota.

Please do check out his coverage all weekend, starting today. You can also follow him on Twitter at @GopherState.

Wild Move To KFAN - Does It Mean Anything?

The two Minnesota winter sports teams switched radio partners this morning as the Timberwolves moved from sports talk station KFAN to news station WCCO and the Wild took their place at KFAN. From MinnPost:

The Wild deal is for three years beginning next season. While the club controls the broadcast and hires the talent, Clear Channel operations manager Gregg Swedberg says, "We would never even think of changing the announcing team. We love Bob Kurtz and Tom Reid.


At first glance, it's not a bad move for the Wild as they currently are not discussed on the two Minneapolis-St. Paul sports talk stations (the other one being ESPN 1500) very often. Part of the reason is that Minnesota doesn't have an interesting story along with the Minnesota hockey culture, but on the other hand being the only pro team not on a sports talk station doesn't help. Neither ESPN 1500 nor KFAN had a reason to promote even if the team was bad (see: KFAN with the Timberwolves since they reacquired the basketball rights), but that now changes with the Wild being on KFAN.

Being on KFAN also helps Minnesota keep their "State of Hockey" brand as while the station isn't a clear channel AM station like WCCO, they do have a variety of affiliates throughout the state.

However, at the same time it shouldn't change too much. KFAN did lose the Timberwolves but added in the last month University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football and basketball to their arsenal. Both of those teams get more coverage than the Wild and are higher in the pecking order if they are successful. Throw in the fact that there aren't too many "hockey guys" on the station and it is hard to see additional Wild discussion being initiated from Common Man or the Power Trip Morning Show.

The Wild changing radio partners ends up feeling like a lateral move which ends up being good financially for KFAN but not too different from the past. It's the same broadcasters, the same team and the same winter radio siblings (Gophers basketball). Only time will tell if the station dedicates more time to Wild discussion.

Nate's Al Shaver Press Box Experience



A few weeks ago, First Round Bust contributor Tim Karsjens wrote a two-part blog (read here and here) about his experience touring the Al Shaver Press Box at the Xcel Energy Center during a game. I really enjoyed the posts, as did others, and because of that I thought it would be nice to write about my own press box experience.


Changing The Ice After The Final Five Back For The Wild (Photos by Nathan Wells)

Two weekends ago I also had the experience in my other-other-other job (or maybe it's my other-other-other-other job) of writing for the Minnesota Gophers hockey team on SB Nation Minnesota (hint: click on link and read me there too - the Frozen Four is this week) and attending the WCHA Final Five as a member of the press (despite the Gophers missing the F5 for the second consecutive year). For those who don't know what the Final Five is, it's the annual conference tournament for the WCHA held in St. Paul. With nine of the twelve teams within driving distance of the Xcel Energy Center, the weekend is a gathering of fans from all teams and tickets are tough to come by. There aren't many college hockey events which sell out NHL arenas, but this is one of them. So because of that and fond memories of attending in the past, I was excited to cover it.

Overall the weekend was both humbling and a success. While I have a college degree in journalism, it's for PR/Advertising and has never been used for a newspaper or any reporting of any sort other than blogging my thoughts and opinions as a hockey fan. It's not my real job and although I've been in the press box before, it is still a new experience to be an objective spectator. Just being surrounded by many names I read on a regular basis after taking the media elevator up to the Press Box level on its own is pretty surreal and humbling.

Once I was there and found my seat (or seats given I kept getting moved throughout the weekend), it was almost show time. Ahead was food, including the infamous "Scratched Players Popcorn" that is an ongoing Wild fan joke, and various media packets which contain line combinations and every known fact the schools' PR team can come up with. Those are great treasure troves of information and extremely nice to have on hand rather than trying to remember things off the top of my head (which as a PR guy means that they've done their job).

My seat itself had a great view of the ice (like every seat in the Xcel - look left) and unlike Mariucci a TV was hanging above it. Personally that was helpful as FS North operates on a delay and looking up after a play helped confirm what I thought happened.

Unfortunately there aren't too many good stories during the game due to spending most of the time working. I've heard stories of bloggers using their credentials as an excuse to wander around and mingle (and there were people who did that throughout the weekend, albeit not all were journalists) but since I'm still new at this whole thing I'd rather work first and mingle second.

However, I was still able to wander the Press level, look through the various TV and radio rooms and talk to a couple people I've always wanted to. The most important one was former Gophers coach Doug Woog because as a kid I grew up wanting to wear the "M." So when I almost accidentally ran him over after turning around, I had to say hi (and sorry) and talk with him for a little bit. The other person was Wild beat writer Michael Russo, who was nice enough to come over Saturday night and say hi and talk some college hockey during the overtime intermission. He's a busy man and didn't have to do that so that was nice to actually talk with a guy Dan and I persistently tweet questions like we're Bud Fox and probably is sick of it. There were a few more "bigwigs" walking around but since work came first I left them to their own devices.

Finally the best was left for last and did not even take place in the press box. After the game, I was able to head downstairs to ice level and take part in the press conference after the game. Every fan, observer and spectator always has questions that they would love to ask and I had the opportunity to do so. It was a little difficult to come up with questions that don't sound too fanboyish or that didn't make me stand out as an unprofessional person (I already received that feeling from a few media types who shall remain nameless) but in the end I was able to ask a couple good questions and listen and learn.

In the end, my first of hopefully many press box experiences at the Xcel Energy Center was a success. Writing about hockey is something I really enjoy doing as it's therapeutic and doesn't even feel like work; even when I get out of the X at 12:30 AM on a Saturday night/Sunday morning. My thanks to everyone to helped me out (there are too many to personally name, but you know who you are) and I hope you enjoyed this little deviation from the usual Wild blogs.

FS Detroit Needs A Research Department

Count the errors in this picture from yesterday's Wild-Red Wings game.



(Thanks to HF Boards User "Se7en")

Tanking Does Not Equal Success, Good Drafting Does


Hey look, Nate's writing something for the first time in ages! No one cares? Okay, moving on.

One of the things I've noticed lately as the Wild end their third consecutive season without playoffs is the call for more tanking. Despite Minnesota going on an eight-game skid throughout March, wins against St. Louis and Edmonton were met with scorn and cries of more losses. Even Wild beat writer Michael Russo wrote his Sunday insider on how four points separated the Wild from Jeff Skinner. The main point of this argument is that "if you are going to miss the playoffs, is it possible to make it count for once?"

And I say to those people: Benoit Pouliot anyone?

Look, it is easy to say that a higher draft choice means a better prospect because that's the case in theory. However the NHL does not operate in theoretical terms; just because a pick was high does not mean that player will end up being an elite NHL player. Wild fans should know this better than anyone given the high number of first-round picks who have busted in recent years (and if you didn't know that, we haven't flaunted the name of this blog enough).

The truth of the matter is that draft position helps but good drafting and development matter more. There are plenty of top NHL players who were drafted after the Wild's first-round pick since 2004. Players like Drew Stafford, Anze Kopitar, Carey Price, Michael Grabner, Claude Giroux, David Perron and John Carlson were all drafted slightly after Minnesota's first-round pick. Imagine a Wild team with those players. Kopitar and Giroux with Koivu. Carlson and Burns on the blue line. This team would be a lot different and these are all picks which could have happened.

Which brings us back to Pouliot. The one lottery pick Minnesota has had since Marion Gaborik occurred off of a lousy year with the lockout and was a chance to do the same thing Carolina did with Erik Staal. Instead the Wild ended up with Pouliot and essentially wasted the opportunity.

They're not the only ones who have wasted a lottery pick. Sure Jonathan Toews was chosen by Chicago with the third overall draft pick but so was Cam Barker. How different would St. Louis be if they ended up with the number one overall pick a year before or ended up with Toews, Phil Kessel or Nicklas Backstrom? They might be contending for a perennial playoff spot rather than a perennial top-ten pick post-lockout. And Florida would probably not be playoff-less this decade if they were the ones who took Erik Staal instead of Nathan Horton.

Tanking does not always equal success. The only way it does is if you can grab a generational player and that is rare (they are called generational players for a reason). Even those teams with "one bad year" had to do more. It worked out with Carolina, albeit their other two lottery picks the following two years (Andrew Ladd and Jack Johnson) did not play a major role on the Hurricanes. Colorado did get Matt Duchene with the third overall pick after injuries and age caught up with the Avalanche, but they are still looking at another lottery pick this season.

Then there's Philadelphia, a team which really did the "one bad year" thing yet wasn't mentioned by Russo. In 2006-2007, the Flyers finished with the worst record in the league and ended up with James VanRiemsdyk as the second overall pick. They were able to reach the Stanley Cup Finals last season but it was not due to the drafting of VanRiemsdyk, a forward who had thirty-five points last season. It was due to good drafting (Mike Richards and Claude Giroux were both picked in the 20s), trading (Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timmonen, Braydon Coburn) and free agency (Danny Briere).

Minnesota is not putting themselves in a bad position because of winning a couple games and drafting outside of the lottery. For those teams who didn't end up getting Sidney Crosby, smart drafting on multiple first round picks and developing is the key to becoming a better team. The Wild have not done that regardless of where they draft and until that happens all the tanking in the world for "one bad year" will mean shit.

Tidbits: The "Quality Control" Edition



I wrote a column yesterday and to a lesser extent Mike Russo had something about high draft picks today; but the central theme is that Minnesota needs some young, high end talent; not just for the on-ice product, but also for the folks concerned with the off-ice ramifications as well; the marketers, the merchandisers, the PR staff, et al.

Certainly the need is there; but its just not as simple as really going in the jug and earning the right to select an 18 year old in the Top 5 of an Entry Draft. While we, as a hockey-watching audience, have been incredibly fortunate to see players like Sidney Crosby, Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, Steven Stamkos, etc. step right into the NHL and contribute right away, the reality is that for every Jeff Skinner there is a Jason Bonsignore, or Petr Taticek, or ahem, James Sheppard.

Sure, we can daydream and look at teams like Pittsburgh, Chicago, LA, or as they continue on Colorado, its isn't just a series of top 5 selections that is the only way to go. Just look at the Detroit.

The name of the game is development.

There are so many variances in Draft Classes from year to year, that to count on a high pick to have a elite projection is an assumption; in scouting circles you hear hear terms like "weak draft" and "no depth" thrown around from time to time- not every draft is like the fabled 2003 first round draft class, where every player taken has seen NHL ice time, and the majority of those have star quality. However, if the developmental system is in place, you can get as much out of your prospects as you can.

Considering that Chuck Fletcher and Co. have installed a system that puts a premium on assets and development, we shouldn't be overly concerned with that we'll have the eleventh selection, instead of a lottery pick.

- Speaking of development, in what can now be considered a lost season, this rash of injuries amongst the main roster players isn't a bad thing- we can all evaluate the Noreau's, the Prossers, The McMillans, and which ever Aeros that get these call-ups.
- Getting a taste of the highest level only serves to increase the drive and hunger to get there as well.
- It is also a trickle down thing; with McMillan and Colton Gillies joining the team in Detroit, that opens up spots for Scott Campbell and Kris Foucault, who are both with the Aeros on ATO.
- Considering Foucault's inconsistent career with Calgary (WHL) I'd think this is an audition for a pro contract.
- Favorite quote in the last 24 hours: Ms. Conduct on all the Aeros call-ups: "It'll be like a free Aeros game" in reference to today's game against Detroit.
- Can't help but notice that Clayton Stoner has ramped up his physicality; not just around the net, but lining up on-coming forwards and separating them from the puck. He's really taken off this year now that he's gotten a shot (another allusion to the development theme) but the key issue with him is the constant battle with injuries. If he stays healthy he's really effective.
- I swear to god I saw the world's shortest power play unit yesterday. Noreau, PMB, Clutterbuck, and Spurgeon are all under 6'. The lumbering giant out there on that unit was Martin Havlat.
- Re: Noreau. I thought he didn't look out of place in any particular position, and I really like his shot on the PP. I'd like to see him get an extended look.
- Noreau part II: Let's say he establishes himself in these final few games; now we've got a cornucopia of young defenseman who can challenge for roster spots- Falk, Noreau, Spurgeon, Scandella, Prosser. I believe that is called a "surplus", which can aid us in an offseason where it looks like any addition to the roster will likely be through trade.
- Just my opinion, but I think Havlat suffered a concussion after being crushed by Mattias Ohlund.
- Speaking of injuries, now that Schultz has been shut down, I wonder if we'll see guys like Zidlicky (hamstring) and Havlat (undisclosed) just shut down for the season because we really don't have much to play for. If anything.
- Finally...I think that it should be noted that the crowds the last two home games, which I both attended, were pretty impressive considering the team's situations. You have to wonder what they would be like if this collapse had occured some other time than the end of the year. Or maybe the collective focus has shifted to baseball, so there wasn't anytime for fan apathy?
- Finally Part II...Fuck Sid Hartman. Retire already.

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Generator

This week the "Stephane Da Costa Sweepstakes" ended rather unceremoniously for The Minnesota Wild, when the French-born center chose to bring his talents to Ottawa. Despite Chuck Fletcher's best efforts, which included a recruitment video extolling the virtues of playing in and for Minnesota.



Jokes aside, the chase for Da Costa was an attempt in bringing in more talented youth into the prospect pipeline, which has slowly increased from a slow drip into what looks to be a steadier trickle of talent.

Fletcher made three NCAA free agent signings last year; Casey Wellman, Nate Prosser, and Jarod Palmer. While Palmer is plying his trade in the AHL, both Wellman and Prosser have seen time at the NHL level, and look to challenge for roster spots this fall. Wellman, in particular, was a curious case in regards to his inclusion to roster last fall.

He generated excitement amongst the fans- or as Nate Wells playfully (I hope it is anyways) puts it, Wellman's our "saviour." In a season that in the annals of history will be glossed over as a non-descript playoff-less season, the 12 games he played in created a buzz; not just that the signing of his ilk- an American NCAA free agent- was in strict contrast with the previous regime's theology, but that he young player that the fans could really invest themselves in. Let's face it- goal scorers are sexy in the grand scheme of hockey, and Wellman had scored 23 goals at UMass-Amherst before signing with The Wild; the prospect of getting a goal scoring forward for a team who historically struggled the put the puck in the net largely blew up the skirt of many a fan.



(I was at that game- he got a HUGE crowd pop when he scored. The video doesn't do it justice.)

27 games in, and Wellman has just two goals and five assists at the NHL level, but a respectable 32 points in 40 games in Houston, where he's battled injury. The jury is still out on whether or not he'll be a productive NHLer, but there is a lot of things to like about him.

This brings me to a larger point.

The Wild fanbase desperately wants a young player to hook their wagon to- you look at Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay (who ironically will be at the X in a few hours,) Jeff Skinner in Carolina (who was compared to Justin Bieber in terms of popularity in that market by Canes Captain Eric Staal,) Taylor Hall in Edmonton, John Tavares in Long Island, and so on and so forth- not just a steady contributor per se, but a kid with star quality. In a way, not unlike a few players of Minnesota hockey past; Mike Modano of the North Stars, and Marian Gaborik here. Kids who put butts in the seats, kids worthy of the price of (an increasingly steep) admission.

You can see that yearning when it comes to all things Mikael Granlund; so few of us, as Wild fans, have seen the kid in live action- we can only go off of the Youtube highlights, scouting reports, and updates from Wild fans in Finland who so diligently assist in the dispersal of information from the other side of the pond. So collectively we held our breath as concussions were reported, waiting for a sign to return to the hope of a brighter future- as of this point, Granlund doesn't seem to have lost a step at all as his HIFK team fights through the playoffs.

All signs point towards young Mr. Granlund coming to North America for next season.

So we wait patiently, hoping that he can be what we want him to be- a generator, a contributor, a horse to hook our wagons to.

A kid worth sitting on the edge of our seats for.

Worthy Of Its Own Post

From "nophun" from HF Boards...