Hello brothers and sisters. No, I am not dead. The explanation for my lack of stories as of late is that my soccer coaching duties were eating away at my free time. In the last week, we've had the ''privilege'' of reading some ''grade A'' material out of hockeybuzz.com concerning the Wild and how well (or not) they are projected to do next season. Thehockeynews.com projects the Wild will finish 13th in the West. Am I the only one who doesn't get why everyone would grade the Wild so low?
Let's talk about this, jump with me will you?
It seems like everyone is projecting the Wild will finish LOWER than they did last season, which to me is simply preposterous. To me, there are so many factors that point to the Wild having a much BETTER season come October. First and foremost, let's look at last season's depth chart (in no particular order):
Centers: Mikko Koivu- Andrew Ebbett- Kyle Brodziak - James Sheppard -Casey Wellman - Cody Almond
Left Wings: Andrew Brunette- Guillaume Latendresse- Robbie Earl- Derek Boogaard - Chuck Kobasew
Right Wings: Antti Miettinen - Martin Havlat - Cal Clutterbuck - Owen Nolan - Petr Kalus
Defensemen: Nick Schultz - Marek Zidlicky - Brent Burns - Cam Barker - Shane Hnidy- Greg Zanon - Nate Prosser-John Scott - Clayton Stoner - Maxim Noreau - Justin Falk
Goalies: Niklas Backstrom - Josh Harding - Anton Khudobin - Wade Dubielewicz.
Now here's what it's shaping up to be for next season:
Nystrom-Madden-Clutterbuck (Madden and Brodziak could be switched up)
extras: Staubitz, Sheppard, Wellman, Earl
Extras: Prosser, Cuma, Scandella
Now correct me if I'm wrong, but on paper (or on screen), this is looking much better than what we had in 2009-10.
As I said earlier, there are so many reasons in my mind as to why the Wild should be able to do at least better than last season.
1) The imminent return of PMB. While he is sure to be covered in rust in his first few games, once he gets back on track, he'll be a better option on the top line than Miettinen ever was at the very least. We're talking about a guy who once reached 50 assists, and before you tell me that it does no good without a scorer, let's ponder on this: Crosby was touted one of the league's premier passers... until this year where he is now sharing the Rocket's trophy with Steven Stamkos. Don't you think Koivu can at least make it to 30-35 goals playing with PMB? Koivu has one of the best one-timers in the league IMO. The only downside, PMB will probably be more fragile than ever and even less willing to play the slightest bit of physical hockey.
2) A true 2nd line center in Matt Cullen. Sure the guy never made it past 49 points, but he's never had the privilege of playing alongside guys like Havlat and Latendresse. Again, he's supposed to prove a much better option on the 2nd line than Ebbett and Brodziak. Sure they did alright, but were clearly out of place. Cullen also has more experience than probably anyone the Wild have ever put at that particular position, and should be able to surpass the 50 point mark if he stays healthy, and believe it or not, we usually don't have too many 50 point players on the team. Also, if all goes well, Cullen will give a boost to Havlatendresse, which brings me to...
3) Having the Latendresse-Havlat tandem a full season (hopefully). Latendresse came to the Wild like a ray of hope, shining bright and cutting through the black clouds surrounding the team at the time. His timely and numerous goals gave the team a much needed lift. It also shot a spark up Havlat's ass to get him moving. You would be downright stupid to deny that Latendresse's arrival pratically saved the 09-10 season from being a complete failure. The dynamic duo ravaged their opponents night in and night out with skillful plays and passing. The Wild were finally winning strings of games, so imagine starting the season with this duo. You can bet your bottom dollar we won't start the season with some ridiculous 2-12 record. If they can stay healthy, their point totals and chemistry will grow, especially if Cullen meshes well with them. This now brings me to...
4) Havlat is unlikely to suck as much as he did in the beginning of last season. Look for a bounce back season from him, now that he has some teammates who can keep up with him. He played with Koivu, and it didn't work. Turns out Havlat didn't find chemistry with anyone, at all. Most nights, it was like he was trying too hard to do it all by himself. Then Latendresse arrived and he found the shoe that fit. He starting having some hot streaks here and there, often playing the best out of all Wild players. I would have a hard time imagining that he would have as slow a start this time around. Let's play with some numbers a bit: In the first half of the season (at the Wild's 41 game mark), Havlat was scoring about 0.657 points a game. In the second half of the season, he was scoring around 0.815 points per game. Keep in mind that the Havlatendresse duo was conceived very close to the beginning of the second half. The Wild will rely heavily on Havlat for the rest of his contract term, so if he can keep up the good work alongside his linemates, they should be alright.
5) The acquisition of Nystrom, Madden and Staubitz will now give us 4 lines to roll with. There was a reason our 4th line didn't see much ice-time in 09-10: It was horrible. Let's face it , a trio made up of Sheppard, Boogaard and flavor of the week (Kalus, Earl, and the like) wasn't giving goalies nightmares (although Boogs gave enough nightmares to anyone he showed his murder face to). Playing with only 3 lines made the Wild tired, predictable and less effective overall. You can't over-estimate the usefullness of the 4th line. It isn't called an energy line for nothing. Sure they aren't out there to score goals, but they shouldn't be hurting the team either. This is where guys like Madden (although he could easily be on the third line), Nystrom and Stubitz come in. These are guys who can play with a lot of grit, energy and effort, can pot in a couple of goals here and there and are sound in their own end. In fact, Madden is a former Selke winner for top defensive forward in the league and was nominated many more times and Staubitz was a defenseman in the minors (according to NHL 09 on PS3, not sure if it's accurate or not). Believe it or not, the Wild problem last year wasn't the lack of goals, it was terrible turnovers and poor positional play that led to way too many goals against, including the league's highest number of shorties allowed. Look for those numbers to change with guys like Madden, Nystrom and Staubitz in the fold, and even Cullen, who could all see some time on the PK (Staubitz probably less likely though). Again, this point brings me to my next one...
6) Special teams are likely going to be better. We kept talking about how bad oour powerplay was, yet we finished 10th in the league. 1st for shorties allowed isn't good though. The Wild were in unfamiliar ground at 14th on the PK. They scored a measly 4 goals shorthanded. Look for these numbers to change for a number of reasons: Better organization because of more experience with the new system, better PK players, who have been known to score shorthanded, Rick Wilson, the new assistant coach, specializes in defense, so we're likely going to give up less goals.
7) Deepest prospect pool we've had in awhile, with a couple of them probably seeing some NHL action this year. Wellman, Prosser, Granlund, Palmer, Cuma, Scandella, Noreau, Broda, Almond, Hackett, Haula, etc. Couple of years ago, the list looked something like this: Pouliot, Sheppard, Gillies, Stoner, Irmen, Kalus... Mouth-watering isn't it? We've already had a taste of some of them, and I think we can be pleased with most of them. The future's looking brighter and brighter.
8) New front-office, new bench bosses, 2nd year. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is going to be much better oriented this year than they were last year. 09-10 training camp could've been described as... unorthodox, to put it gently. It confused a lot of people, no one was physically and mentally ready, the players that mattered most hadn't had enough coaching and it resulted in a fucking mess of an October. This year, the management and coaching staffs have learned from their mistakes and are better prepared. These are things we don't always think about, but they can affect the on-ice product largely. Fletch has done an AMAZING job so far, and those who don't agree need to get their head checked. He did a WHOLE lot of rebuilding via trade, signings and re-signings, hiring new staff members, such as minor league coaches, who are very important to the development of our prospects, new scouting staff, director of player development (that's what it's called right? Regardless, it's a position new to the Wild) and the Wild's coaching staff.
9) To me, there's no possible way the Wild can be as unlucky as it was in terms of injuries. The Wild lost the 2nd highest number of man-games played last year, in large part because of PMB, whom I maintain his presence alone last year could've pushed us into the playoffs, but with the number of times we said that about Gaborik, we're used to it by now right?
Overall, the Wild's going to be a very different beast from what it was 12 months ago, and they keep progressing. I always find predictions, especially those for the next season, to be utter bullshit. I don't see how stats and odds can decide how a season will go down. So many things can happen during the course of a season. Trades, injuries, on-ice miracles, off-ice mishaps (like the great Ottawa fire...you know what I'm talking about). Who the fuck predicted with a straight face that the Habs would eliminate both the Caps and the Pens? Who expected Philly to make their miracle comeback against the Bruins? Who expected Olli Jokinen to return to Calgary? See what I mean? Any team can be the champion, it all depends on what happens during the course of the season. There are some things you just can't put a number on (especially not a fake one)
Of course I'm not saying there's no way the Wild can lose, I'm not crazy, it's just that it pisses me off to see people writing them off so soon, without properly explaining why. Going back to the Habs, 3 years ago (I think), ''experts'' were predicting 12th in the East for them. The Habs waved their middle finger at the entire league by finishing 1st in the conference, almost grabbing the President's trophy. You never know right?
So there you have it, I'm not saying they're a shoo-in to make the playoffs, but I'm very much expecting it. Last year I knew they weren't going to make the playoffs because it was a completely new era. This time around, they're ready.