Last years playoff appearance wasn’t a fluke. Last years trip to the second round was also not a fluke. After more than a decade of aggressive mediocrity, the Minnesota Wild are set to be a contender or the next several years. Marion Gaborik couldn’t bring them to the this level.  Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson couldn’t sustain the altitude the Wild now call home. Brent Burns, Marek Zidlicky and Alexandre Daigle have nothing to do with the teams success.

Gone is Jacques Lemaire. His stultifying system of play was a prime contributor to the lockout, and locking the Minnesota Wild out of success. Likewise, Doug Risebrough the teams inaugural general manager. Between Resebrough and Lemaire they took a hockey mad market granted a second lease NHL life, and lulled them to sleep and bored the rest of the league from day one on.

Fortunately, those days are over. Chuck Fletcher has ruthlessly, if cautiously extracted every counter-productive element from the roster or behind the bench. He’s built a team that is not only good now, but has the cap space and flexibility to be good for years to come. About a half dozen movement limiting clauses (beyond this season) are light on the roster. Koivu, Suter, and Parise probably weren’t going to be traded anyway. The others belong to guys who are now at or about their peak and want to be with a contender, not just in the NHL.

The core of the team is built around a top shelf center Mikko Koivu, an enormously talented elite defenseman Ryan Suter, and the hugely driven Zach Parise. A strong cadre of experienced, hungry, talented forwards is the next tier with Jason Pominville, Tomas Vanek and Matt Cooke each filling their roles. Their counterparts on defense are less well known but equally worth watch, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella along with Keith Ballard and Jonas Brodin make for a formidable defense.

The key to this teams next five years is how many of their young players are still on the upswing towards the top of their talent. Spurgeon, Coyle, Scandella, Haula, Grandland, Dumba, Neiderrieter, Brodin, and Kuempher are all twenty-four or younger. That’s half a roster who can’t even rent a car in most places. With that many RFA’s heading into their second contract, they still have an enormous amount of control over what they spend and who they retain. At the end of this year they have just three UFA’s to deal with, none of them critical.

Can the team stand to upgrade at goal? Yes, absolutely. They have talent and depth at the position, but a disturbing and consistent lack of health. Goal has been an troubling question for other teams who have made deep runs and even won the Stanley Cup. No one really thinks Chris Osgood was an elite netminder, and you can point at others to have own the Cup in the last two decades and wonder how they made it, which doesn’t make the Wild’s position either unique or insurmountable.

The first round of the playoffs may have been the best opening round as a whole in years. The Columbus Blue Jackets traded blows and goals with the Pittsburgh Penguins and had the Metropolitan division winners looking just a bit weak. The loss of David Backes due to a suspend-able hit by Brent Seabrook was clearly the tipping point of the series between the Saint Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. The San Jose Sharks went from unmitigated domination of the Los Angeles Kings to going into the night with a whimper.

The Philadelphia Flyers played a pretty even series with the New York Rangers that came down to a memorable game seven decided by one goal; the series was also the coming out party for Steve Mason who put up a stellar 1.97 GAA and .939 sv%. The Alex Goligoski and Shawn Horcoff led Dallas Stars put a two game scare into the Anaheim Ducks before succumbing to a focused and superior team. In the battle between snowy Montreal and snowbird heaven Tampa Bay, the Lightning went down in the opening rounds only sweep, minus Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop. In the opening round the Boston Bruins lost the opening game to their Original Six rivals, and then laid them in the dust in four straight wins.

Biggest surprises of the first round:

  • 169 players having more goals than Sidney Crosby, including Luke Schenn, Bryan Allen, Raffi Torres, Jordan Caron and Devante Smith-Pelly
  • How much Jonathan Quick struggled in the first few games, and that Sutter didn’t go to Jones full time.
  • Paul Stastny ending a playoff run with well deserved accolades like “heroic performance” being thrown his way, even around all the love for the shiny new rookie.
  • Paul Martin weighing in at over a point per game. Yes, that Paul Martin.
  • Alex Goligoski gaining zero attention while playing 28:30 a night, putting up 4 points and being a +7 in a six game losing series.
  • How well the very young Colorado Avalanche held together through some very tough games.

Top 3 series of the opening round:

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets vs Pittsburgh Penguins, the pure drama in this matchup was amazing to watch.
  2. Minnesota Wild vs Colorado Avalanche; There is so much young potential in this series it is staggering, Coyle, Neiderrietter, Brodin and Spurgeon we’ll see more of this year, MacKinnon, Landeskog, Hishon, and Duchene we’ll have ot wait until fall for more from.
  3. Chicago Blackhawks vs Saint Louis Blues, as far as the best hockey played game in and game out this series wins, but the drama level wasn’t quiet as high as the other two series.

I was not among those surprised the Wild made their return to the playoffs last season. Mikko Koivu has long been one of the most underrated players in the NHL, and adding Suter, Parise as well as several young and talented players to the team was only going to do good things for the team. Jonas Brodin was lauded right and left, but no less of a success was Jared Spurgeon. The late season addition of Jason Pominville wasn’t quite enough to get them a division title, or keep them from being bounced in the first round, but the playoff experience will do them good this year, and for years to come.

In the off season they added Keith Ballard. At best he can contribute as a top four defenseman, at worst he’ll be a voice of experience on an inexperienced blueline. The most controversial signing of the off-season was former Pittsburgh Penguin and Washington Capitals forward Matt Cooke. Cooke is well know for the numerous injuries he’s caused, and the disdain which his claims of reform draw in many quarters. Also looking for a new start is former New York Islanders first round pick Nino Niederreiter. Unfortunately for Wild faithful, none of these players will be the biggest question mark of the year. That distinction will as it has for years reside in the crease as Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding and others fight for good health and crease time.

As soon as they cross the starting line this season their ability to score on good goaltenders will be put to the test. The Kings and Ducks both pay visits to the Twin Cities before the Wild play their one road game in the opening set in Nashville against Shea Weber, Seth Jones and the Nashville Predators. The Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars will complete the Wild’s first set of the season. No back to back games, and playing four of five at home is a good sign for the opening stretch.

Number of days 1-5:

Number of cities: 2

Best opponent: Los Angeles Kings

Weakest opponent: Dallas Stars

Home games: 4

Projected points: 6

The Minnesota Wild enter the season as one of the top three teams in their division. Staying healthy and avoiding running into a buzzsaw in the first round of the playoffs have to be their priorities. With a little confidence and a dash of machismo the Wild have the tools and talent to play in the second round. Fans looking for a more exciting brand of hockey than this franchise was once known for should keep their eyes on Pominville, Coyle, and Niederreiter.

Last year at about this time we took a look at some of the players expected to break their own personal glass ceiling.

 

David Perron: since the end of last season Perron has been traded to a a new address, but during the year is of course the story we’re after. The previous year was clearly his best on a points per game, and at a .912 ppg and a slide back from an elite level isn’t surprising. Unfortunately Perron’s slide was a bit worse than taking him back to average. His career PPG is .582, last seasons .520 probbly wrote his ticket out of town.

Sam Gagner: With another year of rising stats, it gets harder and harder to overlook Gagner. At just under .80 ppg on the season, arguing that Gagner is not capable of being a top flight center. The Oilers have possibly more problems than solutions, but Gagner is clearly not one of the problems. The only thing he needs to do now is peg the meter at over .70 fo a whole season.

Bryan Allen: Allen had an utterly average offensive season last year. His hits and blocked shots were right on the mean. And for just the fourth season in his career he got a taste of the playoffs. This time he doubled his career playoff games played. In game two against the Detroit Red Wings he picked up his first playoff point an assist.

Justin Falk: In his first full season withe Wild Falk was pushed aside by the emergence of Jonas Brodin. The arrival of  Ryan Suter also pushed out a player or two. Between his own still developing maturity, the lockout, and  the arrival of others Falk took a bit of step back last season. This year he will be a member of the New York Rangers.

Anton Khudobin: Playing  nearly a third of Boston’s games Khudobin put up  a very solid .920% with only sporadic stars on a Bruins team that never seemed to get out of third gear. At times he outplayed Tuukka Rask who signed an enormous contract this year. The Boston Bruins went on to the Stanley cup finals, in part because Khudobin’s solid play allowed them to protect Rask from the injuries he’s shown he is prone to him the past. This season he will be sharing the crease with the injury challenged Cam Ward in Raleigh.

Brandon Sutter: Last season was his second best goals per game season, and his first (s0rta) full season in Pittsburgh. The playoffs saw him gain just 3 points in fifteen games, but given how poorly the team did in the second round, it is unlikely much of the blame falls as the feet of one of the scions hockey’s first families.

Jiri Tlusty: If there is one player spotlighted last year who had the year I projected it is clearly this one. I projected a 20 goal season, before the lockout became every NHL fans living nightmare. I’m not sure even his biggest fans expected him to succeed wildly not just in having his best ppg total on the season, but simply his best career season.I’d pegged hi for 25g/55p across an 82 game season, in the truncated 48 game he had 23 goals, and 48 points both career highs. With the depth around him at both win and center, how high he flys this season will be limited only by how hard he works.

Look for a guide to next seasons potential breakouts in the coming weeks.

The deadline is coming!

The deadline is coming!

And it is a glorious thing, the western conference has a lot of interesting parts that make it hard to say who will be buyers or sellers. Some of the bottom teams have improved a lot, some of the middle teams aren’t as good as they look, and some of the top teams are just scary.

Chicago: If there’s anything this team could use other than better centers not named Toews, I’m not sure it really matters, they are scoring lots, allowing little, and beating people on a regular basis (at least the ones who aren’t from Anaheim). Extra depth for the playoffs wouldn’t hurt but how do you tinker with a team that’s lead the league since the word go?

Anaheim: With just one player in the top 40 in the NHL’s scoring race, and a defense where the TOI split between #1 and #6 is about four minutes, one wonders how this team has been the the second most consistent team in the NHL this season. This team doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses, unless it is a lack of playoff experience up and down the roster.

Vancouver: We know the Canucks are desperately trying to win he very last northwest division title. We know they have less ROW’s than Minnesota who also have a game in hand. We know the team traded away the talented young Hodgson even though Kesler is rarely healthy and they don’t have a viable 2nd center without them. We know after year of being at the top o the NHL’s scoring race, the Sedins who sat on the couch during the lockout are behind guys like Sam Gagner, Patrice Bergeron, Mikko Koivu, and Chris Stewart in the scoring race.

Minnesota: We knowWild will be the word for the emotions of fans in the state of hockey when they get to see their first playoff game in a few years. There’s still a good chance they win the division. We know that Mikko Koivu might finally get some of the adulation and national attention he deserves if they win a round or two in the playoffs. We know they need to do something pretty damned extreme to get their goalie and a respectable roster put together by opening night this fall. We know it is a crying shame Jonas Brodin won’t even make the long list for the Calder.

Los Angeles: We know the Kings who weren’t notoriously good at scoring last year are very quietly number seven in goals for this year. We know that their number one goaltender has had a performance dip year over year.  We know this team will be a different variety of difficult to beat in seven games than last spring.

Detroit: With the trade of Huskins for a conditional 2014 draft pick, and hometown boy Danny DeKeyeser, we’re starting to get a look at what the team will look like in a year or two. We know that with 27 skaters having taken the ice in 34 games and just two players with 10 or more goals, long term answers need to be found.

San Jose:  82 goals for, 82 goals against tells us this team is rather mediocre. I can’t see a high price on some of their middling talent, but I can’t see this team selling big before the deadline, ownership has apparently decided to drive this core group into the ground, meaning Sharks fans can expect another year or two of making the playoffs and getting made into chum in the second season.

Saint Louis; Good news, bad news. We know the team is scoring better than last season, we also know the team is allowing more goals than last season. We know the team needs to find an identity, and see if they can get more recognition for Pietreangelo.

Dallas: We know this team needs to find defenders who can get the puck out of their own zone. We know this team has lots of old guys left and the team wouldn’t be made worse medium term to get rid of every forward over thirty.

Columbus: We know if this team won half their games on the road instead of one fourth they’d not only be a playoff team, they’d be poised for home ice advantage at least through the first round.

Nashville: What ails this team isn’t just the loss of Suter, they are missing some of the same drive the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins lack. They also still don’t know how to score.

Edmonton: We know the Oilers defense is made out of wet tissues, we know the offense is struggling despite the nearly point per game production of Sam Gagner, we know the team isn’t going to be fixed until the leadership is changed.

Phoenix: Like the desert they play in, this team is hot and cold, last season they won the division and went to the conference finals last season, and this season they are in the basement. We know the ownership drama may never end. We know the Coyotes need both depth and quality.

Calgary: We know handing out too many no movement clauses makes rebuilding difficult. We know failing to acquire good young talent makes rebuilding difficult. We know being publicly shown to have no clue, and no ability to make deals makes rebuilding difficult.

Colorado: We know if this team was playing in a top tier hockey market the media bludgeoning would make their record and team stats look pleasant. We know this team will probably draft a high end talent and then fail to develop them.

 

 

 

 

As of today, the Montreal Canadiens have twelve players and just under $44million committed for next season. This is hardly the worst cap situation a team has ever been in, but if the cap should go down, or key players demand more than management has budgeted things could spin out of control and get even uglier than the current season.

The biggest issue facing the Habs heading into the off season is who isn’t signed. The bad contracts currently on the payroll are there and just need to be accepted if they aren’t assigned to the minors or don’t miraculously spend the whole of next season on the injured reserve. Hal Gill was just jettisoned for what is potentially an overpayment.

Of the up and coming players Lars Eller and Alexi Emelin are arguably (not that it’s a good argument) at the bottom of the list. Emelin is in his first season in North America but brought with him a level of punishing physicality that can’t be understated. Lars Eller is likely to double his rookie seasons numbers and with a hot streak might just hit the 20 goal mark. Both are guys who performed admirably against a variety of opponents. It’s unlikely that the two will be moved or cost a great deal as both are at the end of their entry level contracts, but it is hard to imagine either signing for no raise or a cut in pay.

Next on the list is Andrei Kostitsyn. While his name was mentioned more than once in trade speculation (as it has been for years running) he’s also sixth on the team in points this season, despite missing some games. They will need to replace his goals, something that probably won’t come from their farm system and even if they are lucky enough to win the lottery and draft Yakupov, they haven’t shown a great deal of faith in the ability of rookies to produce in the NHL at a young age. The free agent market will likely have Alex Semin on the list but Semin has made six million each of the last two seasons. Other offensive upgrades are likely to top the reasonably $3.25m Kostitsyn is taking home now.

Raphael Diaz is another player who’s importance is magnified with the cloud of uncertainty that is Andrei Markov’s health on the table. He’s blocked a ton of shots, contributed offensively and not wasted a lot of time in the box. Better still he’s contributed points shorthanded as part of an effective penalty kill, and on the powerplay too. With Gill gone the defensive aspects of his game take on even more importance than his offensive ones.

And then there are the big guns. P.K. Subban and Carey Price. The two are by almost any measure the two most skilled players on the team. Price as a goalie is still maturing and despite playing behind a lackluster defense that was breaking in two rookies as regulars he’s still turned in a .916 sv%. He’s reportedly seeking compensation similar to Pekka Rinne, which would put him in the $7mil a year range. Subban after a rough start is with Josh Gorges one of just two regular defensemen with a positive +/- this season. Add in his offense, which no one thinks was at it’s peak this year, and you’re probably in the four million range.

If either of these players holds out of demands a trade that is an enormous hole in the roster. With a fairly weak free agent market it is unlikely they will fill the holes, retain the right players and put themselves over the top all this summer. Price and Subban have to be signed if they intend to win now. If they intend to win in the future, signing Price and possibly trading Subban for a needed piece like a top center or one or two forward prospects might be the ideal.

If they are going to wait out the Gomez’s contract, and want to retain as many pieces as possible, swapping Subban and or a pick or prospect that will be less expensive now or more valuable in the future. It is possible that a swap for one of the top picks of this draft like Dumba or Murray or Faska, or even a top pick from a recent draft like Brodin or Hamilton. Having two high end young defensemen come in together and help stabilize the team identity as did Keith and Seabrook or Suter and Weber could be an enormous asset to the team for a long time.