Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 25-21-6   Wild 23-22-6

PUCK DROP: 7pm

TV: NBCSN

ONE GOOD DOSE OF THUNDER: Hockey Wilderness

The Hawks will conclude their mini-trip out of the bye week in St. Paul tonight, before returning home for all of one game and then heading back out where they came from for another five games. That’s some brilliant scheduling if you ask me! You can feel Toews’s rage without much effort. But the Hawks won’t have a lot of time or cause to bitch, because every point is valuable and though the travel schedule might not make much sense the opponents on offer are certainly gettable. That for sure describes the Minnesota Wild these days.

While the Hawks are certainly in the thick of the playoff race, mostly because it came back to them, they aren’t really away from anyone. The Preds and Jets are right there with them. The rest of the division is pretty much out of touch out ahead in the distance. Except for the Wild, whom the Hawks can kind of put out of their misery tonight. That sounds silly to say with 29 games left after this one, but a regulation win would put the Wild five points in arrears and that’s a massive gap. Not that it’s one the Hawks couldn’t cough up, but let’s say it’s unlikely. And the more teams you can cull from the chase the better off you are.

It’s not hard to pinpoint where it’s gone wrong for the Wild. While Bruce Boudreau continues to conjure up his magic potion of not really being a great Coris team but an excellent expected goals team – i.e. the Wild are content to give up attempts but don’t give up good chances–that doesn’t really matter if your goalies can’t stop a sloth in the sand. The Wild give up the least amount of xGA/60 and scoring chances per game in the league, but their SV% is bottom-10 with both Alex Stalock and Devan Dubnyk especially facing the wrong way and identifying cloud shapes most of the time. That’ll torpedo most teams, and so it has done with the Wild.

Which might just be enough to torpedo Boudreau out of a job come April.  It would be a second-straight playoff-less season, and the team probably needs an overhaul, and there’s a new GM on board these days in Bill Guerin and his weird face. It might not be totally fair to Gabby, but dem’s da breaks. The Wild certainly score enough to be better than this, at 3.06 per game, and their defensive structure has kept the task to a minimum for the goalies. But they haven’t been up to it, and if you were to swap goalies with the Hawks the Wild most definitely would be in the playoff picture if not up among the top three in the Central. Also when your goalies suck it’s hard to have anything near a decent penalty kill, and the Wild very much don’t, second-worst in the league. They’re not good enough to outscore teams by two or three at evens.

Which is saying something for Gabby, because the Wild feel like they’re short on frontline talent once again. Zach Parise these days is a tweener between a first and second line player, and the advanced age of Eric Staal might make him that as well. Mats Zuccarello has always been that, as has Jason Zucker (and he’s missed a fair amount of time this year as well). Kevin Fiala might actually be proving to be something more than sarcophagus filling with 28 points, but he’s not providing what Mikhail Granlund used to (but certainly isn’t now). That Rask-for-Nino trade was such a disaster that Rask is a healthy scratch tonight. There isn’t a lot here, and you can’t say Boudreau isn’t maximizing it.

The blue line is still very solid and finally healthy, as you can do a hell of a lot worse on a top-four than Suter, Spurgeon, Brodin, and Dumba. That’s how the Wild keep things pretty limited in their end, even if it is all getting undone by the men in the mask.

No changes for the Hawks other than it looks like Lehner will get the start with Crow getting the slightly tougher assignment of Patrice And The Pips tomorrow night. New boy Nick Seeler, who is neither loose nor tight, won’t make his debut against his former team tonight and let’s just hope he’s ballast for the rest of the season. You don’t want this rockhead taking regular minutes, believe us.

The key tonight for the Hawks is getting to the middle of the offensive zone. The Wild are more than happy to let you putter around the perimeter and try and thread a needle through to the net from there. Suter and Brodin especially play economical defensive games where they let things come to them and simply prod you back outside the dots or behind the net. So players like Kane and Dach and Strome and Top Cat, the ones who can conjure something out of nowhere will have to, and players like Toews, Kubalik, and Saad who can get to the middle through power will need to do some of that as well. If you can get the shots, the Wild goalies will give you goals.

It’s a big ask to get four of four with the Bruins waiting tomorrow, though they’ll also be on the second of a back-to-back, on the road, the Hawks have been great with those all season, and they’ve caught the Bruins napping before this season. Still, these two points seem pretty vital before that road trip that is going to determine the rest of the season. They’re right there, so take them.

Hockey

You may not want to hear that it was over seven years ago that Ryan Suter and Zach Parise shook the hockey world, or at least tried to, by signing matching 13-year contracts, worth $98M. What’s even funnier is that they still have five more years to run, though one wonders if they’ll actually finish them out. Parise especially could be an LTIR ghost one day, given that something falls off of him getting the paper every morning. Sometimes that thing is his coach.

As these things tend to do though, what once seemed outlandish cap hits have come back to be more than reasonable. It could be argued that the first pairing minutes Suter still supplies at a $7.5M hit is something of a bargain. Sure, Suter isn’t going to score at what first pairing d-men do now, but he’s going to be in the tier right below that. And his defensive metrics are still pretty glittering. His style of game should last for as long as he wants it to, because of its efficiency. Suter only has the 11th-highest cap hit among blue liners now, and you’d certainly rather pay him that Byguflien’s bloated ass (when he’s actually playing) or Brent Burns or even OEL and you could have a lengthy debate about Subban and Trouba.

Parise is a harder case. Health was always going to be a problem for a winger that plays a power forward game with bantamweight size. Parise has missed 98 games in the eight seasons he’s spent in St. Paul, which is hard to hold against him. He’s only scored more than 30 goals once as a member of the Wild, but has produced 25 or more three times. Is $7.5M for a second-line winger justifiable? Yeah, probably now, if on the high end. Though at 35 now, it’s unclear how long he can keep putting up 25 goals. To be fair to him, he’s on pace for that this year.

The question for the Wild isn’t what they got from Parise and Suter, because they got pretty much what they paid for. It’s what having them on the roster has cost them or kept them from getting. The Wild were never able to pair Parise with a #1 center. Some of that is a failing of their system, whether it was being too infatuated with Mikko Koivu, Mikail Granlund’s inability to be anything, or Eric Staal showing up on the scene too late.

It’s not Parise’s fault that the Wild haven’t been able to draft and develop much more than Jason Zucker or under-appreciating Nino Niederreiter.

Suter on the other hand has been part of good blue lines. Most teams would swap out their top pairing for Suter and Jared Spurgeon, and Matt Dumba has been an excellent second-pairing guy for a few years when healthy. Maybe they needed one more, but it’s not been nearly the most glaring hole on the Wild for this stretch.

And it’s neither Parise’s or Suter’s fault that Devan Dubnyk’s short spasm of brilliance either ran into the Hawks at the peak of their powers or came apart in the playoffs. And even when he was good, they didn’t have enough firepower.

It seems the Wild are definitely headed backwards now. They’re last in the division, and there isn’t really anything on the way to juice the team. After flogging Neiderreiter and Granlund last year, there isn’t much for the Wild to throw overboard now for futures. Especially as they were basically traded for nothing, depending on what you value Kevin Fiala as. And if you spend anytime thinking about Kevin Fiala, it’s probably time to have a hard look at your life.

Which makes it a question what the legacies of Suter and Parise will be. Certainly they probably did enough themselves, but the idea was that they would bring the Wild to prominence. They’ve won two games beyond the first round so far. It’s probably important to remember that at the time of the signing, the Wild were still struggling to come to terms with the post-Lemaire era. They hadn’t made the playoffs in four seasons and hadn’t won a series in eight. They needed something to get back on the map again, and to give their fans some reason to watch them over the Gophers, which most of them would rather be doing anyway.

It was probably worth taking the shot. But if you don’t do anything other than that, you end up with this.

Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Wild 16-12-5   Hawks 12-15-6

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago

BEYOND THE WALL: Hockey Wilderness

Well, should be quite the tasty atmosphere at the United Center this evening, no?

Tonight is all about finding out if this is bottom or not. The Hawks will be in front of what has to be a cantankerous home crowd after their worst loss of the season last night (which is saying something, given the variety of defeats already on offer). And it might not be all that full, though it probably won’t be anywhere near Bulls-levels (yet). Any sign of more incompetence is going to be met with boos and a hearty amount, you would think. Have the Hawks ever faced that from their fans? Their previous seasons have mostly been met with indifference. This will not be that.

And it’s really about how the team responds to not just that. After a crushing setback and their recent form, we’ll know if they have totally quit tonight. Or do they still have some professional pride left, which can be just called fear of embarrassment, and scrape together something to at least let everyone know they aren’t in fact dead? They may hate the coach, they may think the front office has steered them wrong, but surely they don’t want to keep getting their dicks kicked in and save some face? If they can’t manage anything beyond limp for most of the contest tonight, major changes have to be made the very next day. They won’t be, but they’ll need to be. If you’ve ever wished for Jonathan Toews – Player/Coach, you just might get it Monday.

As for the Wild, this nothing squad has managed to go 14 games with only one loss in regulation, going 9-1-4 and zooming up the standings to the fringe of the playoff spots. They’ve overcome inevitability catching up with Devan Dubnyk, and then injury, and have made do with Alex Stalock and Kaapo Kahkonen. They’ve have a revitalized and healthy Parise scoring goals. Somehow Eric Staal is still a genuine #1 center, and Jason Zucker is also pouring them in.

And once again Bruce Boudreau has employed a system that is fine with giving up attempts and shots from the outside, but gives up very few quality chances. The Wild are a middling at best Corsi team, but have the second best xGA/60 in the league. They can’t create a ton, but they don’t give up much and are more than happy to collapse to the middle of their zone and let you have it on the perimeter. What an interesting idea. When the chance comes, they will get up the ice off turnovers and mistakes and have the d-men to join in as well in Suter, Dumba, Spurgeon (when healthy) and Brodin. And even if Boudreau’s “structure” at times gets loose, his charges show up every night and skate hard because they have to.

In the end, it’s not likely to go anywhere, but he usually gets the most out of what he has. The Wild can’t ask for much more, as they try to figure out how to transition their next phase.

For the Hawks, there aren’t that many lineup changes they can make. Robin Lehner will start. Alex Nylander should be thrown into a trash pile somewhere along Damen Avenue, but it seems orders from on high will dictate that he be jammed into the lineup in the faint hope that he magically turns into something. Dylan Sikura should be back in the lineup, but he’s run afoul of both coach and front office in just two games it seems.

If Colliton were really going to go down swinging, he’d promote Boqvist with Murphy and put Dach in between Saad and Kubalik. Why? Because you’re already suffering lapses defensively and missed checks and turnovers, so how much worse can the kids be than what the vets have given him? What are we hanging onto here? If it’s time to move on from what came before, and it is, why wait around? Want to make sure you’re in dead last first?

Really curious to see how the whole organization responds to this weekend. Something tells me they won’t be able to stick their head in the sand much longer.

Hockey

There are few teams around that I can definitely say the Hawks will finish ahead of. And there’s only one in the division I can be certain of, and it’s this outfit. Or. to put it more accurately, if the Hawks don’t finish ahead of this collection of used rags and grill scrapings, everyone is fired. Let’s look in on this fine mess…

20180-2019

37-36-9  83 (!) points

2.56 GF/G (27th)  2.84 GA/G (12th)  -23 GD

50.9 CF% (11th)   54.1 xGF% (5th)

20.3 PP% (14th)  81.7 PK% (7th)

Goalies: So here’s a thing that Minnesota can’t seem to wrap their frozen brains around — their goalies were bad last year, and Devan Dubnyk has been kinda bad for a while now. Sure, .913 doesn’t look all that bad from Doobie on the surface. Except he had the best expected SV% in the league thanks to Bruce Boudreau trying to do everything he can to shield him. And he had the third worst difference at evens between his expected save-percentage and actual, behind Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones. That’s not a neighborhood you want to be putting down roots. It was the same the season before, and Dubnyk is 33 so he’s probably not going to jump forward at this point. The Wild got the best out of him, and now they’re going to have to smoke the resin.

Stalock wasn’t any better, and if the Wild are hoping for a .915-.920 that he’s spasmed out a couple times as a backup in Minny and San Jose, they might be looking down the tracks for a very long time. What’s so weird about the Wild is that even with this roster, Boudreau was able to keep them getting the majority of attempts and chances and severely limit what their goalies had to do. And they couldn’t do it. And there’s little reason to think they will now. Combine that with a distinct lack of finish and you get…well, make your own whoopee cushion sound.

Defense: It’s the same crew as it’s been, though they will get Matt Dumba back after he missed more than half the season last year. That’s not insignificant, and along with Jared Spurgeon that’s all the Wild’s get-up-and-go from the back. Dumba was on pace for his second-straight 50+ point season before a torn pectoral ended things prematurely. Spurgeon’s influence started to slip a bit last season. He was still ahead of the team rate on his metrics, but not by the wide margins he used to be. Perhaps having to cover for Dumba hurt him and they can set that right now. Ryan Suter is getting up there but can still economize his game to remain effective. Once again, Jonas Brodin will be solid but not much more. The third pairing will be some concoction they pull out of a steaming cauldron of Nick Seeler and Greg Pateryn and Brad Hunt and whatever other eye of newt they find on the ground.

Forwards: And here’s your big problem. There isn’t a first-liner anywhere to be found, so they’ll have to shove Eric Staal, the eight minutes Zach Parise‘s back isn’t a puppet show, and Mats Zuccarello up there. Or Jason Zucker and however he’s decided to pronounce his name this season. Or they’ll have to force-feed Kevin Fiala, the first version of Eli Tolvanen, trying to prove the Preds wrong in that he can be a genuine top six forward in the league. Can they conjure another miracle out of Ryan Donato? His 16 points in 22 games after being acquired for Charlie Coyle suggest there might be something there. But doing it in 20 games that don’t matter and over a full 82 are different matters. Mikko Koivu is 187 years old and wasn’t good enough when he was 27 to do the things the Wild needed him to. Ryan Hartman somehow has ended up here, though St. Paul tends to be the last stop for the bewildered and lost. No matter what kind of magic and voodoo Gabby cooks up to keep the Wild in the right end of the ice, there’s not nearly enough here to make it really count unless a couple players get some spirits to conjure shooting-percentage spikes.

Prediction: It’s funny how the Hawks season is being viewed as some springboard to better and the Wild seem truly and deeply boned, and there was one point between them. Yet the Hawks do have some youth and growth on the roster and in the system. The Wild have lottery tickets like Fiala or Donato. With the goaltending heading south, there just isn’t enough scoring, or close to it, for the Wild to get around a playoff spot. Maybe if it’s truly awful they can start over, which they’ve needed to do for about two seasons.

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 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 19-24-9   Wild 26-22-3

PUCK DROP: 7pm

TV: NBC (WHAT?!)

GOIN’ CRAZY OUT DERE BY DA LAKE: Zone Coverage MN

Whatever it is the Hawks are now, and it’s certainly been entertaining the past couple weeks if hardly artful, heads into St. Paul this evening to back up the what-have-ya in Buffalo last night. They’ll meet a Wild team that has an even more ridiculous back-to-back, coming home from losing in Dallas last night and only having to traverse essentially the length of the country in a night. Again, artful is not something you’d count on tonight from either side. So what a wonderful piece of programming for NBC to put across from Lakers-Warriors, huh?

Due to last night’s loss, the Wild handed the last automatic playoff spot in the Central back to the Stars, which they’ve been passing back and forth to each other like a handmade bowl, and slipped into the first wildcard spot. They have a three-point clearance on the Canucks, who are the first outside the cutting line. It’s been a  roller-coaster season for the Wild, who lost five in a row around Christmas to drop out of the playoffs altogether, then won four of five, and then have gone .500 in the 10 games since. Which is probably exactly what they are.

It’s not what you’d normally expect from a Boudreau-led outfit, as this is the best defensive team in the league in terms of chances and shots they surrender. As always with the Wild, they just don’t have enough front-line talent to bag in the goals. They’re 26th in goals per game, and 25th in shooting-percentage.This is never going to be a team that outshoots its percentage, not until it gets some more firepower. Missing Matt Dumba is huge, both on the power play and at evens, as he gets them up the ice better than anyone and can score from the blue line, which they don’t have anyone else to do.

Not that it seems like new GM Paul Fenton gets it, with the recent bewildering trade of Nino Neiderreiter for Victor Rask. Neiderreiter may not have put up the hard numbers to get anyone tumescent, but he was one of the best possession players in the league for years and had an acute case of snakebite this year. If you’re going to move him, you move him for someone who actually dents twine on occasion. Rask sets off toxic alarms everywhere he goes, and that’s all he does. Other additions around the edges like Pontus Aberg and Brad Hunt don’t really move the needle. The addition of Rask jumbled the lineup as well, moving Charlie Coyle back to a wing when he finally looked somewhat comfortable at center, and bestowing upon Parise the honor of looking at Rask confusedly, trying to figure out what in the actual fuck he’s doing. At least Coyle and Jordan Greenway have meshed nicely with Eric Staal on the top line.

The Hawks will get Alex Stalock tonight, after Dubnyk went last night. The latter really hasn’t been all that good this year, and has benefitted far more from the defensive work of the team in front of him than vice versa. Stalock hasn’t done either.

Speaking of goalies needing help. Collin Delia will get the start, and since his initial splash he’s been just this side of rancid. Sure, he’s getting no help, as the Hawks routinely are giving up shot totals that start with a “4.” But the last time Delia gave up less than three was December 29th, and you can’t hope that Patrick Kane is going to outscore that kind of surrender (even though he has of late). Delia has had a nice long break to reset, not playing since January 20th. This is still an audition for Delia to vault himself onto the roster for sure next year, whether as backup or not, but he’s not going to do that looking behind him four times a game.

Any other changes will be small. Maybe Koekkoek in for Dahlstrom or Forsling, though unlikely. Maybe Perlini in for Kunitz or Hayden, though unlikely.

Given how free-scoring the Hawks have been of late, this is a challenge. The Wild don’t give up much at all, and the Hawks’ two wins over them were basically goalie wins. The Islanders were able to keep the Hawks down in a way that the Caps and Sabres were not, and it’s a similar style. Mikko Koivu has been a particular annoyance to Jonathan Toews for his entire career, and were that to continue that quiets the big gun of the Hawks in Kane. Probably where most lies tonight.

The idea the Hawks can get back into it all is still ridiculous, but if they’re going to go on a run it’s right here. The Wild are nothing impressive, and the Oilers less so. The Canucks again are not anything special, and the Red Wings are worse than the Hawks. The Devils, Senators, and Ducks all appear on the slate in February, as do the Avalanche and Stars, teams the Hawks have handled earlier in the year. If they’re going to do something stupid, it’ll happen now.

 

Game #53 Preview Suite

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 vs. 

RECORDS: Wild 17-15-3   Hawks 13-20-6

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

VIKING HORN SOUND: Hockey Wilderness, Zone Coverage MN

The mini-Christmas break is over, and the entire NHL is kicking out the cobwebs, stretching it out, processing a big yawn, and getting ready to get back to the grind. And thanks to the CBA and the players’ union strange request, tonight is filled with games where the road team flies in day of and never looks like it’s all working together. You’ve seen some of them get really fed on this day, but the Hawks haven’t gotten this day right much at all over the years. Last season they got an extra night before shitting it against the Canucks in Vancouver. The year before that that they were nowhere against the Jets, and the year before that they laid an egg against Carolina. So just because the Wild are in the air as we speak doesn’t guarantee much.

Let’s start with the Hawks. Collin Delia looks to be getting the start, which should be the case until there’s a back-to-back (weekend after next) or Corey Crawford comes back. Cam Ward showed his true Cam Ward colors on Sunday, or should I say is true technicolor yawn, basically gifting the Panthers a couple goals and ruining what was a decent enough start from the Hawks. While he played well in a couple wins before the break, he still has a terminal case of being Cam Ward and we all know exactly what he is. Delia at least comes shrouded in mystery and some hope, and right now that’s good enough for the Hawks.

Other lineup changes see John Hayden slot in for Chris Kunitz, who sadly wasn’t banished to a sawmill in the country during the break. Dylan Sikura is dropping to the fourth line, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I guess Brendan Perlini has played well enough for a promotion? Whatever. I don’t think it matters at this point.

To the Wild, who are only five points ahead of the Hawks but have played four games less. They have been tumbling down the standings like Martin Sheen off a roof for the past few weeks now. First it was Devan Dubnyk having a month-long sneeze in November, and while that’s corrected their scoring has gone completely agoraphobic and they can’t get anywhere near the opening between the posts. Since the middle of last month the Wild are shooting just 6.4%, fifth-worst in the league. Which betrays their metrics, as just like last year they create far more good chances than they let up even if the attempts are more or less evenly distributed. But that doesn’t really matter if you can’t bury them, and if your goalie goes through a streak where he can’t stop them.

Further dampening the Wild attack is that Matthew Dumba is basically done for the year, out three months with a pectoral problem that required surgery. He was one half of all their push from the blue line, with Jared Spurgeon the other (it’s not really what Ryan Suter does anymore). This has forced both Nate Prosser and Greg Pateryn into the lineup, which is a place you want to be in less than a bus station at 3AM. Without Dumba, you can expect the Wild’s metrics to go down.

Up front they’re juggling things again, with Charlie Coyle doing his regularly scheduled shift from wing to center where he can flatter to deceive there as well. Jordan Greenway has got himself punted to a wing where he can watch Mikko Koivu wheeze and belch as Father Time leaves another counting the lights. Zach Parise was hot there for a minute but has cooled off, and Mikael Granlund couldn’t hit an elephant from five feet at the moment. The lack of a true front-line scorer is once again biting the Wild in the ass, just as it has for the past…well, existence.

I guess in the Hawks’ mind, not yours or mine, if they’re going to push anything out of this season they have to start now. The schedule is pretty light from now until their bye in January, with only one back-to-back and three-in-four stretch with two of those at home. We’ll see what they make of it, which won’t be much.

 

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You’re supposed to get a guarantee with Bruce Boudreau behind your bench. Your team might not have any defensive structure, or really any offensive structure for that matter, he’s going to be awfully red-faced, but your team will finish with over 100 points. Oh, and you’re going to do dick in the playoffs. Those are the guarantees. So what happens when your team doesn’t get those 100 points? Or even looks bang-on to not even get 90?

Bourdreau’s record is quite remarkable, both in its consistency and uniqueness. No team he has coached for a full-season has played at less than a 100-point pace (the Ducks had 66 in the season-in-a-can of 2013). The exception, if you want, is his ’11-’12 Capitals team that 25 points through 22 games before it fired him. But that’s really the only team before this Wild one that wasn’t going to clip triple-digits. And even that Caps team was on course for 93 points which may have been enough for the playoffs.

But obviously, that’s been combined with a startling, and honestly hilarious, lack of success in the playoffs. Boudreau teams have only gotten past the second round once in his 10 attempts to ascend the mountain. And even in that one, it was the third of four-straight Game 7 capitulations at home for the Ducks. No coach is ever going to be able to claim that again, you wouldn’t think.

Which makes Boudreau a hard coach to judge. Based on the far larger sample size of the regular season, you can hardly find one better. Even Joel Quenneville can’t match Boudreau’s regular season marks, and he had superior talent for most of it. And yet in a sport that only cares about what you do after that, you can’t really find anyone much worse. At least no one who’s had the chances that Gabby has had.

While you’re tempted to make a certain level of excuses for Boudreau’s playoff face-plants, and his two Wild teams really had no business going anywhere anyway, there’s only so far you can go when a team has led 3-2 four times with a Game 7 at home and whiffed on it every time.

So this season, when the Wild don’t look to be set for the regular season success, where do they go? The Wild are on pace for 86 points, which is going to leave them open leagues from a playoff spot. In the underlying numbers, the Wild still look good, Their 12th in CF% for a team, and 5th in expected-goal percentage. What they can’t get is a save right now, 22nd in even-strength save percentage, as Dubnyk had a simply abhorrent November and has only been ok in December. They also find themselves unable to hit water if they fell out of a boat, as they’re 25th in SH% as well. Is that really on Boudreau if he can’t get a save and his team isn’t converting the chances that his “system” is creating?

Still, you get the feeling the Wild know this era, such as it is, doesn’t have much legs left. Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Eric Staal, and Dubnyk are all on the wrong side of 30, and Jared Spurgeon reaches that next season. They hired a new GM in Paul Fenton, and presumably his main charge was to find a way out of the cap hell his predecessor Chuck Fletcher got them in. That probably means younger soon, and Boudreau’s teams have rarely been that, save for his first Caps team. Which then pretty much quit on him anyway.

Boudreau’s regular season record certainly warrants more than one bad one before a shit-canning. And yet when combined with nothing close to banner-worthy playoff success, and the wick on this candle may be a lot shorter than you’d first guess. But how do you find someone to squeeze better regular season results out of this? It’s also a hellish division, where the Preds, Avalanche, and Jets aren’t going anywhere for a while and one could assume the Stars and Hawks won’t suck forever (though they might).

It’s going to be an awfully tough decision for Fenton. Boudreau’s tenures haven’t lasted too much longer than a third full season. In DC he was fired during his fourth full-season. In Anaheim it was after his fifth. It won’t be long either way, you’d think.

 

Game #40 Preview Suite

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 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 2-0-1   Wild 0-1-1

PUCK DROP: 7pm Central

TV: WGN

SO THEY PHONED IT IN, END OF STORY: Hockey Wilderness

The current Circus Of The Western Conference rolls into St. Paul, Minnesota tonight, as the Hawks seek to continue their “points streak” against the Wild. That’s what it is, right? I mean, technically the Hawks have lost. But it was in the carnival game that the NHL calls overtime. So that doesn’t really count. Whatever. The Hawks have been fun, and they have an excellent chance of keeping it rolling tonight. And they’ll find the same thing they’ve found at the X for just about four seasons running.

Let’s start with the Westside Hockey Club. A couple changes look likely tonight. One, Alexandre Fortin, whom the Hawks have been trying to promote for about two seasons now, will make his NHL debut tonight. This is definitely in the can’t-hurt-could-help category. He’ll slot in next to Artem Anisimov and on the opposite side of Chris Kunitz, which has actually been a pretty effective line in highly-sheltered use.

That will slot David Kampf to the fourth line, which it probably could use. Marcus Kruger moves back into the middle, in yet another victory for logic. Either SuckBag Johnson or John Hayden will sit, and I would guess the former. The fourth line could certainly use the injection of speed that Kampf has and certainly Kruger’s brain in the middle. Sure, SuckBag was fast but it doesn’t really matter if you’re fast if you have no idea where you’re going. You just get nowhere faster.

Still appears that Cam Ward will play, and Brandon Davidson will continue to enjoy the popcorn. They’re going to make this Brandon Manning thing work if it kills them. Or the Jan Rutta thing. And either or both could.

Things aren’t nearly as rosy in the Land Of 10,000 Lakes, where the Wild have basically gotten pummeled in two games so far. They were able to scratch out a point against the Knights Who Say Golden thanks to Devan Dubnyk making 41 saves. They didn’t even crack a 40% share of attempts in either game, nor have they been above that mark in expected-goals percentage for those two games. It’s a whole lot of not pretty so far.

The Wild have a few problems causing that. One, Ryan Suter is not Ryan Suter. The ankle injury he suffered that ended his last season early have not cleared up yet, or at least are hampering him. And Matt Dumba just hasn’t been able to pick up the slack. A 33% CF% against the Knights would be the opposite of picking up the slack. That would be taking the slack and trying to fashion a belt-tie combo while you’re climbing partner plummets to death or serious injury.

Normally, Jared Spurgeon does some heavy lifting from the second-pairing, but that hasn’t happened either. Compounding that is the fact the Wild haven’t really upgraded their forwards in any way in like four seasons. They brought Eric Staal back, but he was there last year. They re-signed Jason Zucker, who will assuredly score tonight against the Hawks because that’s a thing that he does, but he’s not someone you build a team around. He’s also not going to shoot 15% again, or at least likely isn’t to.

Mikko Koivu is old. Joel Eriksson Ek, while sounding like a rare disease, isn’t going to pull any Atlas act. Mikael Granlund is just enough to break your heart. Nino Neiderreiter is marauding on the third line for some reason. Jordan Greenway is still figuring out how to fit his gangly frame into an NHL game. It’s not that they lack firepower at all. It’s just that they don’t have advanced weaponry.

You could get away with these forwards if you had a stellar blue line. You could carry that blue line if you had a crew of fast, skilled forwards on lines one through four. The Wild don’t have the two things that need to made up for, not either of the things that do the making up.

So basically, once again, they’re good enough to let Devan Dubnyk carry them into the playoffs if he has another .920 season. He’s more than capable of that of course, but the Wild won’t go anywhere if he doesn’t. That’s not really enough in this division which is The Unblinking Eye.

For tonight, the Hawks just need to keep running n’ gunning. The Wild can’t really do it with them, and then you’re just up to the whims of Dubnyk. You can past this blue line. You can catch back up to these forwards. Let’s have some fun.

 

Game #4 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

In this strange world of hockey writing we are more and more forced to deal with the unhinged and downright strange. So today, we have a salvo from something called The Noogie. When you send these things out into the abyss, you can’t be made when the abyss sends something weird back. You can find it on Twitter @The_Noogie.

The Wild have pretty much brought back the same crew from last year. Why do you think this version will turn out better or worse?

It’s not so much that the Wild brought back the same crew as last season. It’s just that the biggest addition of the offseason happened in the front office when owner Craig Leipold released former GM Chuck Fletcher after nine seasons and brought in Paul Fenton who previously was the Assistant GM for the Nashville Predators. Fenton was brought in with the understanding that Leipold was not looking for a complete rebuild, but more a new set of eyes to look upon an old problem.

So, with one hand essentially tied behind his back, Fenton made few moves in the offseason, certainly nothing that was sending shockwaves across the NHL. Role players like defenseman Greg Pateryn and centers Eric Fehr and Matt Hendricks were brought in to provide depth and a little cushion for some of the younger guys coming up through the system. They are by no means game-changing additions for the Wild which has a lot of the fanbase feeling lethargic about this squad that despite making the playoffs the past six seasons, have not made it past the first round in their las three tries.

At the same time, injuries plagued the Wild last season. It didn’t matter the time of season, one of the Wild’s every-day starters was likely out of the lineup. With that in mind, one could make the argument that if this team can stay healthy, they have a great shot to make some noise. Then again, they’ve been healthy before, with much of the same core intact.

The Wild also bought out the remaining year of Tyler Ennis’ contract and shed the husk of Matt Cullen as well. But don’t worry, Nate Prosser is still floating around eating popcorn somewhere. Some things never change, and that notion very much applies to how this season will probably shake out for the Wild. Not noticeably better and not noticeably worse.

We watched Jordan Greenway crush fools in the WJC a couple years ago. He was one of the few younger players to make the Olympic squad last winter. What are the reasonable expectations for him in his first full NHL campaign?

Greenway certainly has been fun to watch as he came up through Boston University, made a few international tournaments along the way, and participating in the most recent Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang as well. His performance in the WJC in 2016-17 was the bright spot. The gold medal winning USA squad also featured another Wild prospect in Luke Kunin, both players are worthy of your attention as their careers progress in the NHL.

Hockey Wilderness runs a series every fall where we rank the teams top 25 players under 25 years old. This year Greenway finished 4th in our rankings. We are mostly excited about this kids’ potential, but he is going to need some time to figure things out at the next level. It’s not underselling it to say this guy is a monster on the ice though. Standing at 6’6” and tipping the scales at 230 lbs. he’s a big body who will be hard to dislodge from the puck, and if he lines you up for a check, watch out!

Greenway made the team right out of camp this season and has been centering the 3rd line with a couple of utility wingers in Charlie Coyle and Joel Eriksson-Ek. Don’t count on him making his way into the NHL lexicon this season though. It’s early in the season and he is still adjusting to the speed of the game at this level. He has been successful at every level of hockey, so there is no reason to assume he won’t find a solid NHL game over the next couple seasons.

The Wild are once again up against the cap after re-signing Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba. What’s the plan to free themselves up a bit in the coming years?

The salary cap has been the rallying cry for some disgruntled Wild fans who want to see Ryan Suter and Zach Parise’s heads on a spike. Until those two contracts are off the books, the Wild are on the hook for their matching 13-year, $98 million contracts signed on July 4th, 2012. If one were to retire after the season, or be bought out… let’s just say it gets really gross looking in 2022-23, and worse in 2023-24 and 2024-25. If both contracts expire after this season, X2. YAY!!!

We don’t like to talk about the salary cap in Minnesota, but if we must. Zucker’s 5-year, $27.5 million and Dumba’s 5-year, $30 million contracts are hardly the albatrosses on the roster. Both players who signed extensions this past offseason showed significant growth over the previous season, and their contracts cap hits are right in line with what Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund signed in the summer of 2017. In these four players, you will find many admirers in Minnesota. This is the young core the Wild look to be building around.

With the cap, the plan is to wing it, because what else can you do? You have a pair of the last great old school bananas contracts which the 2013 CBA (that cost half a season) was designed to put a stop to and penalize. But who knows, that CBA expires after 2021-22, they could blow it all up again and the Wild could avoid a very painful future.

What are you expecting out of the Wild this year?

Same old Wild, and with how this season has started that old looks like it’s starting to show. Mikko Koivu, Devan Dubnyk, Eric Staal, Suter, Fehr, Hendricks, and Zach Parise will round out your over 30 crowd. Jared Spurgeon will be joining them in a years’ time as well. Entering this season on the active roster the Wild boasted a league-leading 9,637 combined games played. These guys have been around the sun a few times. Suter is also coming off a nasty ankle injury from late last season that caused him to miss the playoffs as well as the final few regular season games, so he’s looked an extra step off to start the season.  

The Wild have looked a step behind out of the gate losing 4-1 to a speedy Colorado Avalanche squad and dropping their home-opener after giving up a late-game lead and losing in a shootout to the Vegas Golden Knights. If the Wild get their possession game going, they’re as dangerous as anyone. And it’s not as if the Wild are just a bunch of potted plants out there. Zucker can be elusive and is very speedy, Granlund and Nino are pretty quick as well, and Staal has been sneaky in his ability to get behind the defense.

So where might the Wild finish? I’m inclined to believe this team will do well in the regular season and make the playoffs once again as either a 3rd seed in the central or fighting for a wildcard spot. Unless we see some significant growth from the younger guys, especially players like Charlie Coyle who really need a good bounce back year, it’s tough to believe this team is worth much more than what their recent history has shown with them bowing out of the playoffs early. One hopes for the best, but this is Minnesota sports. Good things don’t tend to happen here. (Don’t worry, Khalil is coming to help with that for the next five years. -ED)

 

Game #4 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

As the season draws nigh, we land on the team in the Central Division that I become more and more convinced are the only ones the Hawks can actually catch. The Minnesota Wild will show up to make up the numbers, because that’s really all they do. Sure, there was that weird one a couple seasons back where they almost won the division, and then surrendered meekly in the playoffs.

And that’s all the Wild ever really do. The height of their accomplishment is that they almost did something. They like, almost beat the Hawks in 2014. They almost won the division. And they almost mattered anywhere beyond that.

This is a team that if it has a true, top-line player it’s either the pretty damn old Eric Staal or the permanently crocked Zach Parise. If it has a truly top-pairing d-man it’s the pretty damn old Ryan Suter. It will once again rely and Devan Dubnyk to bail them out of just about all the things they can’t do, as he barely clings on to the platform of top-echelon goalies. Again, he’s an almost. He’ll almost get you there. But he won’t. And they won’t.

2017-2018: 45-26-11 101 points  253 GF 232 GA  47.8 CF%  53.5 xGF%  8.1 SH% .927 SV%

Goalies: You know the story here. Doobie Brother is going to be in net and he’s going to be better than you ever think he is, because we don’t associate him with the Prices and Holtbys of the world, perhaps just because he’s so damn goofy looking. But last year’s .918 SV% overall was something of a small step down for him, And over the past four seasons, only Price has a better SV% than he does. He’s a tick ahead of Corey Crawford in that span as well. He’s just that good, and without him the Wild would essentially be the Canucks.

He’ll be backed up by Alex Stalock again, who was just about serviceable last year. Stalock spent three seasons being woeful or being in the AHL before last year, and he’s certainly not anyone the Wild are going to want to have to ride if Dubs were to get hurt. But he’ll do a job. This whole fucking team is guys who’ll “do a job.” It’s why they don’t do anything.

Defense: Christ, is there a team with less turnover than this bunch always seems to have? Dumba, Suter, Brodin, Spurgeon. It’s been that way for seemingly 89 years. And none of these guys are bad, and in fact all are quite good. Even if the Wild have been trying to trade Brodin for three seasons. Suter has aged better than his contemporary Duncan Keith because his game is more efficient. There’s no wasted movement. Dumba put up 50 points last year and I bet you didn’t know that. Spurgeon has been one of the best puck-movers and possession d-men in the league for years even though he’s not getting on any roller coaster. As far as top fours go, there are plenty of teams doing way worse than this (leading off with the one in town).

The third-pairing is looks to be Greg Pateryn, who is a broken toilet, and rent-a-stiff Nick Seeler. There’s a couple kids in the AHL in Menell and Belpido who could come up somewhere during the season to bolster this, but in the meantime they’ll get by with the top four they have.

Forwards: Again, you know this crew. Eric Staal somehow came up with 42 goals last year, though somehow I doubt he’ll shoot 17% again. As he hadn’t scored more than 30 since 2011 before that, you can look for 25-28 goals again. And where the Wild will make up the difference, I can’t tell you. Mikael Granlund is still here to not be a center and a top line winger with a whole lot of “Yeah, but who gives a shit?” Jason Zucker got rich and will still score 10 goals annoying goals against the Hawks, and that’s it. His 33 goals last year aren’t the anomaly that Staal’s totals were, because he’d scored at that rate before. But you see him and think, “If he was on the second line, that team would be good. But he isn’t, and they’re not.” Zach Parise is here for 50 games and then he’ll have some injury that will cause you to have to take a moment to yourself while kneeling. Charlie Coyle is a synonym for disappointment. Mikko Koivu needs his food turned into mush. Nino Neiderreiter will be undervalued by everyone, including his coach. “Joel Eriksson Ek” is something you say while booting. Marcus Foligno is always a sign that your roster needs work.

We have written this preview for them for like four straight seasons. I’m just fucking cutting and pasting next year, assuming the Hawks haven’t caused me to turn the lyrics of “High Speed Dirt” into a performance art piece.

Outlook: The thing about the Wild is that the roster isn’t anywhere near bad enough to be bad. That would at least be interesting. They’re a team full of the middle skater from the Nintendo hockey game. Just fast enough to not get killed, but not skilled enough to surge. Dubnyk gets them to the playoff platform if he performs. If he falls off or gets hurt, this is the definition of an 88-point team.

But they’re not going to do anything memorable. They’re not anywhere near the Jets or Preds. They’re nowhere near bottoming out to get a top pick to actually get a player you’d recognize one day. They’re in that limbo-hell that teams in other sports actively try and avoid (except for the Bulls). They’re not gong to win anything, they’re not going to rebuild. They’re as bland as the state they come from. Seriously, how did that place produce Prince? That seems like a crime.

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