Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 24-22-8   Wild 29-19-6

PUCK DROP: 7pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago, NHL Network outside the 606

NONE OF THEM LOOK LIKE MARY WINSTEAD IN FARGO: Zone Coverage MN

I suppose the Hawks themselves won’t feel this way. But now that it seemingly doesn’t matter, now that the playoffs are nothing more than a fuzzy concept to them, now that the pressure would seemingly be off, can the Hawks actually play enjoyable hockey again? Just say, “Fuck it, it’s free cake” and go out there and do shit?

Because that’s what’s probably been so dispiriting about this latest stretch. I don’t know that the Hawks have played badly, but you could easily see how tight they were as soon as things weren’t going their way. It wasn’t even leading goals. When they didn’t take two or three-goal leads that their play at times warranted, you could see anus-puckering. Well, not literally. That’d be gross. But you get it. They’ve looked like the weight of the world is on their shoulders, which in some ways it was. Or is. Not sure which.

Which is unlike the Hawks. This is most of the same core group that has stared down playoff deficits and kind of just giggled at the hysteria around it. Maybe something broke in their mentality when they didn’t quite come back from 3-1 down against the Blues two years ago. Maybe it broke last spring. Maybe the vets sense they don’t have it any more. Whatever it is, it’s been a hard watch.

So tonight, and in the next three, away from the expectant and increasingly bitter (and less and less full) United Center, maybe the Hawks can escape some of that malaise. Maybe the juice of another building, where every turnover or missed power play doesn’t elicit groans and jeers, they can be a just a touch freer. They could certainly use it.

They’ll find another pretty angsty team in the Wild, as they’re coming off blowing a three-goal lead at home to the dead-on-arrival Coyotes on Thursday. They did get a point out of it, but when you don’t get two against Arizona that’s bad, and when you blow a three-goal lead to them to cost yourself that point that’s criminal. They’ll have the cayenne pepper on their balls tonight, you would figure, as their hold on the last playoff spot is tenuous at best with all of the Flames, Ducks, and Avs nipping at their heels.

The Wild haven’t been able to get healthy all season, and will be without Jonas Brodin tonight and the next couple weeks to continue that theme. But they’re finally fully healthy at forward, and sport a good three lines that can hurt you. Mikko Koivu may be reserving space in a Twin Cities retirement home soon, but he still keeps the puck in the right areas and has been a nuisance to the Hawks for longer than I’d care to remember. Neiderreiter and Staal are the biggest threats on the team on the line behind that, and Mortimer Parise and Charlie Coyle are skating on the third line right now. We’d laugh, but we’d also kill for depth resembling anything like that on the Hawks.

Behind that it’s been something of a coming out party for Matthew Dumba lately. He’s got 19 points in his last 29 games, and finally appears free to be aggressive and kick it on up the ice with his speed and try and make stuff happen. That gives the Wild two dynamic puck-movers along with Jared Spurgeon, who’s been quietly excellent as he always is. Dumba is better buttressed by Brodin but will have to make do with Olofsson for the immediate future.

Strange for the Wild as they’ve been hot of late despite Dubnyk being only ok. They’re 9-3-3 since the turn of the calendar while Dubs is only carrying a .914 SV% in that time. It’s been pretty simple, either they score three goals or more, or they lose. Given that the forwards are all healthy again, while they don’t have what you think of as a premier scorer, they get it from enough places to get by for now. Though Staal is making a fist of being that frontline scoring, with 16 points in his last 15 games. Granlund has been coming right along with him on that line. So they’re the ones to watch tonight.

For the Hawks, Carl Dahlstrom looks to be making his NHL debut tonight, paired with Connor Murphy ahead of Michal Kempny. I’d get upset about this because both Gustafsson and Seabrook have been defensive sinkholes, but at this point the emotion seems like a waste. Let’s just see what Dahlstrom can do because what can it hurt? Glass Jeff gets the start, and Patrick Sharp looks to be the forward scratch so Lance Bouma can come out of mothballs and that’s a sentence I just typed and now I want to hurl things around my room and out of my digestive track and good lord there’s 27 more games of this!

The Hawks have generally played well against the Wild this year. beating them twice and losing twice in games they outplayed the Wild. They could use more of that tonight for sure. We’re not going to ask for any higher meaning out of this one. We’d just like to not want to numb ourselves after this one is over. Doesn’t seem like much to ask.

Game #55 Preview

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Lineups & How Teams Were Built

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Ben Remington is one half of Giles And The Goalie podcast, and ZoneCoverageMN.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenRemington.

How big is Jonas Brodin’s injury?
I mean it’s not a small deal, but I’m not super convinced it’s a huge deal either. Brodin had been better lately, but was otherwise having a pretty bad season, after he was protected in the Expansion Draft. It means more ice time for the young offensive dynamo/defensively challenged Mike Reilly, which I’m not opposed to. Gustav Olofsson is almost a Brodin clone, and he’ll slide into the second pair, and I think it’ll be alright.

 Injuries have really hampered this team, but they really can’t use Brodin’s injury as yet another crutch, given his body of work this season.

There was some talk that Eric Staal would be on the trade block before the deadline. Where did that come from?
 No sure, exactly. Is HFboards still around?
I mean, logically it makes a little sense, if the Wild were to decide to sell. He’s got a year left on an incredible contract, and teams would be salivating over that. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any kind of push to re-sign him, because he’s hitting his mid 30’s, probably due a huge pay raise, and the Wild seem to have some in house centers they want to give more time to eventually. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him dealt, but the return better curl my toes and expose my O face. It’s crazy to think about shipping out your best player without trying to re-sign him, but if you have a pretty good idea that you won’t be able to afford him anyway, there are worse courses of action, I suppose. 

Matt Dumba has 19 points in his last 29 games. Is this finally his arrival?
 I think so. He got off to a slow start but has really been solid generating offense for most of the season, which is why so many of us wanted him protected over Brodin. He’s only 23, and has shown some incredible stuff that has somewhat outweighed the occasional miscue. I think he’s just scratching the surface on offense, and with his shot could be a Burns-Lite (or even full flavor, who knows).
 What are the Wild going to do before the deadline? They have to at least push it, right?
 I think so, but I’m not expecting much, given their dire cap situation. The big contracts aren’t going anywhere, so anything beyond getting a bottom 6 forward type I’d be surprised by. I’m also a little terrified of Chuck Fletcher making a blockbuster deal at the deadline, since he’s on the last year of his contract and there’s tons of uncertainty on if he’ll be back.
 There’s been talk of them unloading Foligno, which is hilarious given what they paid for him and the contract they gave him. By hilarious I mean depressing, but I’d also be almost as happy about as when they fired Kyle Quincey into the sun. 
Where do the Wild go after this season? They’re kind of contractually committed to this group but it’s getting older. Is this cycle complete?
 Ha, well, yeah, I think? I think they’ll keep taking puncher’s chances at the playoffs every year with this core, but it’s hard to see them doing any real damage unless something drastic happens. Dubnyk is the type of goalie to get red hot for a stretch and carry this team, but we just haven’t seen that in the playoffs, or really this season, aside for his three game shutout streak. If Kirill Kaprisov comes over soon, that could change the whole complexion of this team, but something something Russia something something.
All in all I think this team is very much stuck in a rut through most of the Parise/Suter contracts, barring a miracle. It’ll be interesting to see how they try to build around their corpses in 5 years.

 

Game #55 Preview

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If you’re sick of Jason Zucker, we wouldn’t blame you. First of all, he needs to decide how he wants people to pronounce his name, because it’s run the gamut. More to the point, if it feels like he kind of murders the Hawks, you wouldn’t be wrong there either. The stats say in the regular season, it’s only been eight points (five goals) in 20 games. Feels like more, right? Part of that is the Hawks were finally able to keep him quiet last year, with no points in four games. Still, he’s been a nuisance.

Zucker is on pace to have his career-best season this campaign. He already has 14 goals, his career-high is 22. He has 25 points already, his career-high is 47. Yes, he’s been awfully hot this season, and a 20% shooting-percentage isn’t going to stick around forever you wouldn’t think.

More to the point, Zucker isn’t getting the same number of attempts he has in the past few years, averaging just 11 when the past three years he’s averaged between 14-16 attempts per game. His individual expected goals are down as well per game, so he’s riding the percentages a bit. What Zucker has been able to do is maintain his possession numbers while the team’s around him has collapsed. Zucker’s relative numbers have sky-rocketed, case in point being that Zucker’s relative expected goals-percentage is +12.1 over the team-rate, fifth best in the whole league.

And if you’re GM Chuck Fletcher, you’re kind of hoping Zucker’s agent doesn’t point that out this summer.

Zucker is a restricted free agent after the season, which pretty much blows for him. Should he be able to keep grinding down the railing of high-percentages, he’d find himself a 30-goal scorer and 55+-point man at the age of 26. On the open market, that’s a $5 million-a-year player. But Zucker isn’t going to be on the open market.

And he’s on a team that’s going to have no space at all. The Wild are already up against the cap right now, thanks to their Monty Python-foot-like deals to Parise and Suter. They don’t get much relief after the year either, as only Chris Steward, Matt Cullen, and Daniel Winnik’s deals come off the roster. That’s only about $3 million to play with. Rumors of the cap going up must have Fletcher with some kind of Jobu-like shrine in his office, praying to whatever god can make that true. Because the Wild also have to re-up Matthew Dumba, and seeing as how they punted Marco Scandella away to elevate his role, you’d best believe they’re not going to give up on him.

If the cap went up $3 million or so, with the three they have coming off the books, the Wild might be able to play hardball and get both Dumba and Zucker in for $3 million each. It’d be a slight raise for each, but you’d have to think that both want more than just a mere percentage-point raise.

And this is where if the NHL didn’t have an unspoken, collusion-lite system of no offer sheets things would get awfully interesting. Part of the reason there are no offer sheets is that the compensation system for them is utterly insane. As stated above, Zucker might prove to be a $5 million player. But if you were to offer him that, it would cost you four first round picks. In any kind of vacuum, you’re not trading four first rounders for what is at best a second line winger. If you were to offer Zucker $4 million a year, an amount the Wild might simply not be able to match, that still costs you a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. Again, for a second-line winger. You’d have to think this is something the NHLPA will revisit in a new CBA. That is, if they had a clue.

Look for some contentious negotiations this summer between the Wild and Zucker. They simply can’t give him more than $3 million, and he’s earned more than that. Would the Wild allow Zucker to bet on himself for a one-year deal and then go UFA in the summer of ’19? The Wild system is actually stocked. Jordan Greenway looks to be eying that spot as soon as next year.

Wonder if the Wild might think about a trade this season? Stay tuned.

Game #33 Preview

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Once again we dig out Ben Remington of ZoneCoverage.com from under the usual mountain of snow in Minnesota to inform us about the Wild. Follow him on Twitter @BenRemington. 

The Wild have won four in a row, and five of six, though four of those have come after the 60 minutes. Any big changes during this streak or just a bounce or two in overtime?
Little bit of both. They were having a hard time putting things together before that, and Kyle Quincey was somehow tanking this team singlehandedly, which is a fitting tribute to just how bad he really was. Since he was jettisoned they’ve been winning, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Part of the overtime success is a change in philosophy, directly from the analytics department, the former War on Ice folks. I was at the Devils-Wild game when they got destroyed with a slow lineup on the ice in the first minute of overtime, after that, Boudreau has prioritized putting the young faster players on the ice in OT more, and it’s paid huge dividends. They were 5-17 in 3-on-3 overtime games all time before the change and 4-0 since. So I guess you could say things are getting pretty serious.
How has the Matt Dumba thing going lately?
Pretty good. Two of those OT winners came from Mr. Dumba. He’s a classic risk/reward player, like a Burns Lite, so if he can get someone to cover his tuchus, he excels. Well, Boudreau has finally paired him with the painfully responsible Suter after Spurgeon’s groin injury, and it’s worked like gangbusters. He’s still going to have some frustrating moments in the neutral zone and his own end, but he can make up for it on the other end. After being the favorite whipping boy of Wild fans to start the season, his loudest critics have promptly STFU.
Jason Zucker is well on his way to a career-high in points and goals. Anything different about his game this year, other than his impending new contract?
There’s been a few analytic articles on him this year locally that have highlighted his improved playmaking ability, so that’s definitely a thing. Before he was more of a pure scorer, but he’s used his speed to set up some beauties this season now that he’s garnering a little more attention. As far as his contract situation goes, it’s a little bit of a worst-case for Chuck Fletcher that he’s really tearing it up this year as a pending RFA, and it might be yet another Fletcher failure from this summer that he didn’t give him an extension before the season started.
What’s been Devan Dubnyk’s problem?
Well, he’s dinged up with a knee issue right now, but otherwise he’s just been inconsistent, which is kind of his M.O. He strung together three straight shutouts in between some pretty bad stretches, but hasn’t looked terrible lately, and I think he was just as much of a victim of Kyle Quincey as the team on the whole was. Dubnyk usually heats up pretty good in December, .937 sv% in seasons past with the Wild, so he really got hurt at the worst time. Luckily, the Wild have a semblance of a back up this season in Alex Stalock, who’s playing well, so you’ll probably see the former Duluth Bulldog Sunday night.
What do the Wild need to add to get out of the muck in the Central?
The Wild have been as inconsistent as Dubnyk in years past, not coincidentally, so they need a hot streak something fierce. It’s easy to forget that this team won 12 games straight last December because of how horribly the season ended, but they’re capable of that kind of stretch if they get decent goaltending. Also, pin cushion Parise may return soon, which should help the overall depth of this team, and get some guys who should be playing in Iowa off the big sheet of ice. All of that and a sniper at the next Perds-Blyeos game might get us somewhere.