At this point, there's just not a lot to say about the Minnesota Wild, a team that has gone 3-4-3 in their past 10 games as a lottery pick looks more and more realistic. Does that trend continue this week? I'd like to think so, but it's going to be a struggle with top line center Mikael Granlund and top pairing defenseman Jonas Brodin out with injuries, and scoring winger Jason Zucker and goaltender Niklas Backstrom out with a stomach virus. Just another day in the State of Hockey, I guess.
This Week's Schedule
Monday 7:00 PM @ Winnipeg Jets (FS-N, FS-WI)
Wednesday 6:00 PM @ Columbus Blue Jackets (FS-N)
Friday 7:00 PM vs Toronto Maple Leafs (FS-N)
Saturday 7:00 PM @ Dallas Stars (FS-N, FS-WI)
Game of the Week
It's easy to look back at Saturday night's heartbreaking overtime loss to the Jets and say there's no better match-up than tonight's rematch in the 'Peg. However, Minnesota enters today nine (that's right, N-I-N-E) points back of their rivals from the North who are knocking down the door of the Central Division's top three seeds. It would take a miracle for the downward-spiraling Wild to catch the high flying Jets. With that said, this week's game to watch features the ever dangerous Dallas Stars.
Led by Tyler Seguin, the Stars have a 15-14-5 record, 35 points and are 6-4-0 in their past 10 games. In those 10 games, Seguin scored seven goals and 12 points, and leads the team with 25 goals, 43 points and a plus-4 rating in 34 games. On the back end, Trevor Daley currently leads all Stars defensemen with eight goals and 17 points. Finally, in goal, Kari Lehtonen is still the leading man, but he's definitely had better seasons. Through 29 appearances, the Finn has a 14-8-5 record, a 2.99 goals against average, a .904 save percentage and two shutouts.
The big concern that comes with Dallas (aside from being the "old team" which automatically should be given a good thrashing every game against) is the club's close proximity in the standings to the Wild. With 35 points, the Stars sit just one point back of Minnesota at the time of this writing and, let's be realistic here, odds are good the Wild will be looking up the standings at them by the time Saturday night rolls around. Then there are the division's cellar dwellers, the Colorado Avalanche, who are currently just one point behind Dallas.
As stated above, the Jets are flying high; the Blue Jackets may not quite be in playoff contention, but they're 8-1-1 in their past 10 games; the Leafs are wild card contenders in the East and Dallas and Colorado are pushing from behind. Throw in the fact that Minnesota has only just recently learned how to win in Dallas after an abysmal decade and it could be a very, very long week.
Key Player of the Week
Darcy Kuemper has played just three games since December 5th, allowing nine goals, collecting zero wins and posting a .860 goals against average in that span. He's struggled with illness and confidence issues, but GM Chuck Fletcher and head coach Mike Yeo have no better options between the pipes at the moment.
Kuemper was outstanding to start the season, collecting six wins, a .926 save percentage and three shutouts in his first eight games. In 15 appearances since, Minnesota's young starter has just five wins and a .816 save percentage for 11 total wins, a 2.64 goals against average, a .901 save percentage and three shutouts in 23 games played this season. In a perfect world, Josh Harding would never have broken his ankle (nor have MS, God bless him), Backstrom wouldn't be anchored to the club with a less than ideal deal and Kuemper would still be developing in the minors. Unfortunately, this is the hand Fletcher, Yeo and Kuemper have been dealt.
Minnesota's star young goalie has been exceptional at every level of play so far, and and I have all the confidence in the world that it will continue at the game's highest level. However, he has to be confident; he has to rediscover his game from earlier this season and last season. Will he be able to do that?
The club is currently at a crossroads. It's either time to rise to the occasion or cut losses and hope and pray for a lottery pick in arguably the deepest draft the NHL has ever seen next June. As much as anyone hates to see their favorite team lose, mediocrity (win one, lose one) just isn't going to cut it. In order to develop into a legitimate contender every season, Minnesota needs to draft more Marian Gaboriks, Nino Niederreiters, Granlunds and Brodins and less James Sheppards, Colton Gillies and Tyler Cumas. Guys like that are typically only available in the top 10 picks.
This may sound drastic to some readers, and I am by no means suggesting Minnesota deliberately tank (so just drop that notion here and now). However, any confidence the Wild had at the start of the season has long since gone down the drain. Though the club is looking at 11th overall in next summer's draft, they're just six points ahead of Dave Tippett's Arizona Coyotes, who would currently hold the third overall pick if the draft started today. If the Wild can't right the ship and Arizona starts winning, Minnesota could easily slide into a top-5 pick.
Minnesota is clearly bent on adding size, and it looks like monstrous 2014 top pick Alex Tuch is a keeper. There are a number of sizable skaters at the top of the draft (25 of the projected top 30 skaters are at least 6'0" or taller), including five pivots not by the name of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Is a high scoring center like Erie's Dylan Strome (6'3", 187 pounds; 23 goals and 66 points in 35 OHL games) in the cards?
There's no question there is talent and depth throughout this draft class and especially the projected first round, but a top-5 pick could help get Minnesota back on track sooner rather than later. Still, let's hope this campaign doesn't come to that. Have faith, Wild faithful; there's still plenty of season ahead.