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.

This is a playoff pairing we haven’t seen much of. Neither team has been all that impressive over the last half decade. In the first meeting between the two back in 2003, the Wild prevailed in the first round meeting. In the more recent meeting in 2008, the Avalanche prevailed. Not many players are left from either squad. The Avalanche were the surprise of the season. Wild were plagued by injury at all the worst possible times, to all the worst possible players. The Avs chased down the division title, and the Wild fended off the Stars and Coyotes, which brings us here.

Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche surprised everyone this year with new head coach Patrick Roy getting superb offense and adequate defense out of a rather lopsided roster. In the previous season the defense was woeful, and the offense only pretty good. Led in scoring by Matt Duchene and in goals by Ryan O’Reilly, two even younger players in Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon were key in their success contributing 50 goals good for second and fourth in team scoring.

Best Players:

Semyon Varlamov has spent the last three seasons reminding his former team simply by playing what they gave up. No more so than this year when his .927 sv% brought the Avs to the playoffs while the goalie brigade in Washington brought them to the golf course early. Landeskog and Duchene are two guys who are going to be household names for a good long time up front.

X-Factor

We’re now in the playoffs, and this is still a very, very young team Duchene, Landeskog, O’Reilly, Mackinnon were the top four scorer’s for this team and their average age is about 21 and enough time to recover from an epic hangover. If their offense can’t get going, their defense isn’t up to saving them in a best of seven series.

Minnesota Wild

The Wild are a very odd team to quantify, they only had two player hit twenty goals this season. But they were 7th in goals against despite a brigade passing through the goalie crease as Darcy Kuemper, Ilya Bryzgalov and John Curry all spent time in net in place of Josh Harding (multiple sclerosis) and Niklas Backstrom (he’s Niklas Backstrom) spent significant time sidelined. They do have Matt Moulson and a few others that might be dangerous if played well by Yeo, but not many teams are going to be intimidated by the offense the Wild have historically put on the ice.

Best Players:

Ryan Suter is probably leaving Las Vegas with the Norris trophy. If he doesn’t, there should be damn good story around it. Mikko Koivu, and Jason Pominville both need to watched carefully, and Marco Scandella’s days of flying under the radar are overdue to come to an end.

X-Factor

Mike Yeo doesn’t have much experience as an NHL head coach. This is his third season, and second playoff trip. He should know his players (most of them) better than his opposite number knows the Avalanche. If he can push the right buttons a the right time, the Wild do have a chance at the second round.

Last season was not a banner year for the Buffalo Sabres. It was a year of great change. Gone was the longest tenured coach in the NHL. In his place is Ron Rolston took over after 17 games, and pushed the team hard but couldn’t take them to the playoffs. They lost a lot, they lost some quality players to trades. Gone is Jason Pominville and with him Nathan Gerbe, Jochen Hecht is a Sabre no more, and the short stay of Robyn Reghr is over, Jordan Leopold wears another uniform, and those aren’t the only departures. They finished 23rd in the NHL with a 21 and 21 record. Interestingly, they took two of three from the Penguins last lesson, both after the coaching change, last season. On the plus side Henrik Tallinder is back and Tyler Myers played his best hockey during Tallinder’s first Buffalo tenure. Luke Adam added a year of seasoning, as did Grigorenko, Hodgson, Foligno, and new comer Jamie McBain.

The season opens with five games in eight days. They pay a visit to the Red Wings to open the season before scooting across the Great Lakes for a game at home in the first half of a back to back against the Senators, after the game they go south to play the Penguins, and then pop home for games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Number of days game 1-5: 8

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Pittsburgh Penguins

Weakest opponent: Tampa Bay Lightning

Home games: 3

Projected points: 4

The team can have a better season that last year if the young guns can pick up the pace and push some of the mote complacent members of the team forward. Uncertainty about how long Vanek and Miller will remain on the team, and serious questions about leadership will hold the team back. Also up in the air is the question of what this teams real identity is, they’ve been trying and trying to be tough guys, but I’m not sure there’s a team in the league who finds the Sabres physicality intimidating or even worth noticing. They could finish the season above 500, but will likely not make the playoffs as there are at least four better teams just in the new build “Atlantic Division”.

Yesterday we looked at the surprises the preliminary rosters had given us. Now, its time to look at who should be there over who is.

Forwards:

  • Jason Pominville, with a roster that will struggle for offense, at least compared to some, leaving out a the guy who finished seventh among American scorers last season, and second the season before is unabashedly embarrassing.
  • Brandon Dubinsky is one of the best two way forwards in the league. He’s capable of throttling the life out of opposing powerplays, winning faceoffs reliably, and will play physically against anyone. He’s well over a point a game internationally.
  • John Gaudreau makes the most sense of any non-NHL player for this Team USA squad to field. He’s money in the bank scoring goals, and is over a point per game at every level he’s played, USHL, NCAA, WJC and others.

Defense:

  • Alex Goligoski had his most productive season in points per game, despite having two of the top forwards traded mid season and no describable NHL quality centers on the team.
  • Torey Krug, unlike certain invitees, Krug played a significant number of his teams playoff games and managed to make the Bruins walking dead powerplay look like it had a pulse. Speedy, great passer, plays well against larger opponents (nearly everyone).
  • Matt Greene while offense is undoubtedly needed, a shut down defenseman who can hit like a freight train is never something to be without. Arguably the best American shutdown defenseman in the NHL, certainly top 3.

Goal:

  • Jack Campbell has international experience and even if he doesn’t make the final roster the organization should take a good look at him for next time around. It is unlikely Howard, Anderson or Miller will be at or near their top form as goalies in four years.

 

The NHL’s Entry draft is right around the corner. With only 30 general manager positions in the NHL there’s always four guys and gals waiting to take advantage of a failure. For some general managers the way to keep themselves employed is to get it right, Peter Chiarelli and Ken Holland are currently on that path. For others, like Glen Sather and Mike Gillis, simply filling the seats most nights appears to be enough. For others a constant coaching carousel is the ticket to maintaining a Teflon exterior. For still others a perpetual chain of blockbuster trades that serve as a reset button for bad drafting or non-development.

But the gentlemen in this list are all on the hot seat, having dodge enough bullets to level a small arena.

George McPhee – Washington Capitals.

Personally I’m baffled as to how GMGM is still employed. He’s iced a team that’s consistently near or at the cap, that can’t seem to get out of first gear in the post season. With the amount of talent on the rosters there should be at least one or two Stanley Cup Finals appearances. Since 1997 when McPhee took over the Capitals, the team has failed to make the playoffs in one third of the seasons played. They failed to make it out of the first round in three additional years. The sixth coach patrols the bench under McPhee’s tenure, and yet the team still can’t go anywhere. The 2009-10 season saw the Capitals rack up 121 points in the regular season and get stomped out of the playoffs in the first round by the eighth place Montreal Canadians. If draft doesn’t yield one or two players that make an impact next season, one has to wonder how much longer Ted Leonis will tolerated flashy mediocrity. With the leagues realignment slotting them into an eight team division with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers, the resurgent New York Islanders, and the plucky Columbus Blue Jackets for the next three season or more easy victories against the former Southeast division paper tigers will be a much rarer thing.

Doug Wilson – San Jose Sharks

The Sharks seem to have been on the cusp of greatness for a decade. Yet they can’t seem to get it done in the post season. Patrick Marleau holds nearly every regular season record on the teams books, and in the post season becomes the living example of “hockey isn’t played on paper”. Joe Thornton has won major awards, continues to be one of the NHL’s best faceoff men, and has only begun to figure out the post season in the last two or maybe three trips.

In the ten years since Wilson was hired, what has the team done? In the regular season everything, in the post season not a damn thing. They’ve been sliding slowly down the division rankings each season. In the three conference final appearances (the last three years ago) they have a total of three wins. Two of those wins came with a largely inherited roster back in the 2003-2004 season, and one appearance they were swept, and a single win in the most recent. Only one of those three conference finals defeats came at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup Champions.

With an aging and expensive core of players, and a declining salary cap, it is likely that without scoring big in the draft or at the latest free agency, the chum used to get this school in order will be Doug Wilson.

Paul Holmgren – Philadelphia Flyers

While Holmgren has been one of the most exciting general managers to watch in the way he maneuvers the trade market, his success rate is a bit iffy in all other regards. Several of the big free agents and trade pieces have failed to deliver in any meaningful way. Pronger was signed to a long term deal despite a history of injuries and suspension and is retired in all but name. Ilya Bryzgalov and just about every other goalie to land in the Flyers crease under Holmgren can be grade downwards from really bad to unspeakable. The only real exception to that is the 2012-13 Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who was traded away for the 4th round pic that turned into Anthony Stolarz, the 2nd round pick that was used for Taylor Leier, and one more fourth rounder in the 2013 draft. As a goalie, Stolarz is likely 3-4 years from the NHL, and Leier had a solid but unspectacular season for the Winterhawks playing with likely top pick Seth Jones.

The health disaster that has been the Flyers blueline in recent years has been compounded by the addition of questionably talented blueliners like Schenn, and the doubts reinforced by the acquisition of Streit for both a high dollar amount and long term for a 35+ contract. The 11th pick is unlikely to get an impact defenseman, unless it is used to trade for someone, and while other teams struggle with the salary cap, the Flyers even after buying out Briere seem to have built themselves a whole prison planet for their cap situation.

Darcy Regier – Buffalo Sabres

When Terry Pegula bought the Buffalo Sabres he promised a change in the status quo. In that time, things have changed. The team has spent more money and gotten worse. Last season we saw the end of the NHL’s longest running coaches tenure as Lindy Ruff was banished from The Isle of Misfit Toys. NHL newcomer Ron Rolston was brought up from the AHL to coach the team. Wilson isn’t just short on NHL experience as he never played above the ECHL, he’s short on head coaching experience of any kind. In 2009-10 the US National Under 17 roster was under his stewardship, and they failed to make the playoffs. The next year he took over the Rochester Americans who bowed out in the first round of the AHL playoffs. With less than two hundred games as a head coach of any kind he was dropped into the NHL, and failed to spin straw into gold.

The rosters that Regier has assembled don’t bear up under much scrutiny either, nor does the inability to land free agents. John Scott, Steve Ott and Ville Leino were three of last years additions to the team, and just from looking at them it is hard to imagine what he was trying to accomplish. To the best anyone can remember the biggest accomplishment for each was Ott: limiting himself to two game misconducts, Scott: concussing another player and playing three games were he hit double digits in minutes, Leino; playing more games than Rick Dipietro.

Most damning of all is the fact that in the last six season, four times the team failed to qualify for the post season, and the other two times the team lost in the first round. In that time the teams scoring has eroded and the defense has gone south. With two first rounders and two second rounders and a top ten pick, the teams fortunes can change, if Regier and company can manage to draft well he might retain his job.

He didn’t help his creditability much by failing to move more than two name players at the deadline after just short of calling it a firesale. He had to keep part of Pominville’s salary, and the players he got back in these transactions include a goalie who couldn’t steal a roster spot from the chronically injured netminders in Minnesota, and an unexciting Johan Larsson.

#1 Vs #8

The Chicago Blackhawks seemingly have everything going this season. They have two goalies putting up top flight numbers. they have an upgraded defense that has allowed Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to reclaim the form that helped the team win the Cup a few years back. Better still, they have arguably the best forward group in the NHL; Toews, Kane, Hossa, Saad and Sharp.

The Minnesota Wild are that new kid in playoff town no one knows quite what to make of. On paper the Wild have every tool they need to be dangerous, and even contend. In reality, they lack playoff experience, especially with Pominville and Heatley on the shelf. Add that to five of six blueliners who have never seen the NHL playoffs, and you have a recipe for a dicey playoff series.

Players to watch:

For the Wild, don’t be surprised if rookie Charlie Coyle comes up big in spots, Setogouchi is a threat, and Mikko Koivu is never to be underestimated.

On the other side of the puck for the Blackhawks, Kane, Hossa and Toews can all take over games individually.

Edge:

Chicago, it isn’t purely the quality that they lead in, it is the playoff experience, particularly on the blueline that will decide this series.

#2 vs. #7

Anaheim Ducks have almost no pressure this year. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are drawing an inexplicable amount of attention, and Chicago was start to finish the best team in the NHL. The Ducks simply have to get on the ice and execute. They have savvy older veterans in Koivu and Selanne. They have high quality younger veterans still in their prime in Ryan, Getzlaf, and Perry. They also have a surprisingly strong backend in net and on the blueline. They don’t have any dominant or elite players there, but they do have several really good ones.

The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs again keeping their two decade long streak intact. They have Jimmy Howard who again very quietly put up impressive numbers, they have Datsyuk, and Zetterberg. These are not your Dad’s Red Wing’s though, they just don’t have even one elite talent on their blueline, much less two or three as they have had in years past.

Players to watch:

If the Wings don’t have Howard playing top notch goaltending, they don’t have anything, For them to win,  guys like Tootoo, Smith, and other role players will have to elevate their game.

The Ducks need to have their defense continue to smother their opponents, and have at least one of their goaltenders show up and never take their eyes off of Zetterberg and Datsyuk.

Edge:

Wings can’t win this if the Ducks show up and execute. It’s just that simple.

#3 vs. #6

Vancouver Canucks, it is put up or shutup time in Vancouver. They drama in their net has covered up the fact that this isn’t as good a team as it was in years past. They only won their division by four points, by comparison the Washington Capitals won by 6, and of the six division winners this is the team that scored the least this season. The Sedin twins combined for less goals than Jiri Tlusty. They put up the mediocre season numbers with three of the bottom four teams in their conference playing in their division.

San Jose Sharks are also at the point where if they don’t win the Cup it is tie to break up the band. Marleau, Boyle, and Thornton don’t have many more years left in them and behind them there isn’t much to write home about. What gives this squad a bit of believability is that Niemi, who was part of the Chicago cup run, has turned in the best regular season of his career and played in 43 of the teams 48 games.

Players to watch:

Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa are two guys you should never ever count out, for the Canucks to do well, these two will likely be the biggest impact players.

Joe Thornton appears to have learned how to play big in the playoffs, and Raffi Torres (when he plays clean) is a surprisingly good playoff player.

Edge:

This series is almost a push, but I give the edge to San Jose, Thornton, Marleau, Couture are are better right now than any three forwards you can name for the Sharks, and with Schneider’s injury and the general chaos in British Columbia I don’t like the Canucks chances.

#4 vs. #5

The Saint Louis Blues boast some damn fine players no one talks about because the team is too far south. David Backes is a game changer, Pietrangelo is one of the best defensemen in the game, and Chris Stewart turned in more points in 48 games this year than he did in 79 last year. Goaltending is clearly this teams weakness, but with Oshie coming back the team gains immediately in two way play.

The reigning champions the Los Angeles Kings have to get scoring from more people than just Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, if for no other reason than Jonathan Quick is not as good this year as last. They’ve gotten a slight refresh adding Regehr and injecting Muzzin into the lineup, but the roster is really almost identical. You have to question the teams hunger a little.

Players to watch:

Drew Doughty emerged as an elite two way defenseman during last year playoffs establishing his bona fides in his own end in addition to the offensive ability he’s always displayed, he and Mike Richards who is frequently overlooked on this team will be crucial to this team going anywhere.

For the Blues, Vladimir Sobotka just finds an extra gear in the playoffs and he can tilt the ice, but he won’t be enough, Bouwmeester, Oshie, and Perron will have to show up and put in work.

Edge:

This is a push, the Blues I think have the edge in hunger, the Kings have the edge in knowing how to win in the post season.

Total Wins by eliminated teams this round; 9

 

Filling out the Team USA roster will require a mix of youth, international experience, and attitude. The Russians, the Canadians, and the upper echelon of European teams will not be intimidated by half the roster returning, or even two thirds. Part of what will be needed is a bit of familiarity, so anyone who has played with likely players wins the tie breaker over complete outsiders.

Top Priority:

  • Craig Anderson, he’s played with Erik Johnson, he’s the best goaltender in the NHL this season, and he’s got enough of a different style from both Miller and Quick that if the coach has to make a change, the opposition will have to make adjustments.
  • Dustin Byfuglien, big body, can play defense and forward, has won the Stanley Cup has played with Patrick Kane.
  • Jason Pominville, an infusion of skill is needed and this guy has it.
  • John Carlson, is highly talented, knows the tendencies of several of the big names from some of the other national teams.
  • Max Pacioretty has turned into one of the most interesting players in the NHL. Almost a point per game player on a team that has been injury prone over the last two seasons.

Priority:

  • Kevin Shattenkirk, has played well in the very defensive system in St Louis, has also played in the more free wheeling Colorado system in the past.
  • Seth Jones, has won World Junior gold, will likely be part of team USA for years to come, even if he only plays seven or eight minutes a game, good experience for the future.
  • Alex Galchenyuk, has played with Jones internationally, and plays with Pacioretty on the Habs.
  • Rob Scuderi, no international experience, but has won Stanley Cup’s in two radically different systems, the Los Angeles Kings and the Pittsburgh Penguins, among the leaders for US born defenseman in shorthanded ice time.
  • James van Riemsdyk has had solid international experience, currently playing with 2010 Silver Medalist Phil Kessel.

Possible:

  • Alex Goligoski, the Dallas Defenseman gets overlooked a lot, but it should be noted he’s putting up almost identical offensive numbers on the far less talented Dallas team as he did with the Penguins. Has a small amount of international experience.
  • Justin Faulk, great young defenseman burdened by a poor defensive team. Has played under the flag, plays in all situations, like Jones will likely be around for the next three Olympic cycles, has played with Gleason.
  • Drew Stafford, scored 52 points in 62 games including 31 goals two seasons ago, plays with Pominville, some international experience.
  • Erik Cole, former Olympian, World Championship experience, two time thirty goal scorer, played briefly with Galchenyuk, and a season with Pacioretty.
  • John Gaudreau, speedy little pure goal scorer,
  • John Gibson, WJC tournament MVP, stud goaltender.
  • Rocco Grimaldi, speedy, agile, had two goals in the WJC win over Sweden.
  • Blake Wheeler, great reach, good speed, plays in all situations.
  • J.T. Miller, played in on the WJC gold team with Gibson, Gaudreau, Grimaldi, Jones, playing for the Rangers and getting compliments from John Tortorello.

Long Shots:

  • Emerson Etem has proved himself at the junior level in the WHL, he’s yet to make a big mark in the NHL, but he’s got speed to burn and plays on the same team as Bobby Ryan, some games for the NAHL national team.
  • Tyler Myers if he can somehow get his grove back he’s undeniably talented, has developed some aggression, and is both a good skater and puck handler.
  • Brandon Dubinsky, has had a downturn in production lately, but had a good World Championship and is a great two way player.
  • Jack McCabe, captain of the gold team, solid defender, but the defense is the area where the team is likely to have the least turnover.
  • Jimmy Howard no slight on his talent, but he’s about the fourth best American goaltender in the NHL right now. National development team veteran.
  • T.J. Oshie, depending on how the top lines shake down he might find himself tapped to captain the penalty kill effort, also plays with Backes, some national experience, plays physical.
  • Kyle Palmeri has a hat trick this season, and half of his goals have been game winners, national experience, and plays with Bobby Ryan.
  • Paul Gaustad, incredible faceoff man, great penalty killer, like Oshie could end up as a “role player”, team guy.

Given the eventual composition of Teams Canada and Russia, ensuring there is a viable penalty kill, players at all positions who can skate, and guys who won’t wilt under physical play or the bright lights of Olympic play take priority over pure skill with questionable fortitude. With a deep enough team, playing against the weaker teams gets easier because you can use your whole bench and stay reasonably fresh for the games where one bad five minute stretch can bounce you from the metal round.