Everything Else

 vs. 

SCHEDULE: Game 1 Wednesday, Game 2 Friday, Game 3 Sunday, Game 4 April 17th

We move to the Central, where we have a supposed “rivalry.” At least it is according to the Wild broadcast. When it isn’t the Hawks, of course. Watch any game against the Jets from the Minnesota side, and you’ll hear the Jets only referred to as “our great rivals.” I’m sure the Jets have no idea what they’re talking about. Because like, you could drive it if you really wanted to? Because they’re both frozen hellscapes? Because they’ve both been irrelevant for their entire existence? Probably the last one. Anyway, one of those teams is probably going to change that this time. Hint: it’s not the ones who wear green.

Goalies: The Wild didn’t get the other-worldly goaltending from The Doobie Brother that they usually do when they’re this high in the standings. He was just about league average overall, which is probably what he is. The problem for the Wild is that he’s been pretty putrid in the playoffs, though last year he simply just got out-dueled by Jay Gallon. And we should thank him for that, because it caused the Blues to trust Allen for another season and look where it got them. Dubs isn’t going to win this series, there’s a chance he might lose it, but most likely in the middle.

We don’t know anything about Connor Hellebuyck in the playoffs, because this is his first foray. But he was excellent in the regular season, and the Jets have so much firepower up front that he might not be required to do more than simply not lose it. If he does better than that, and the Jets simply don’t freeze under the bright lights, then things could get awfully silly for a while up in the Frozen Tundra With No Airport That’s Not Green Bay.

Defense: The Wild took a major hit when Ryan Suter broke his leg. While he might not be what he was, he’s still the their anchor. Without him, some combo of Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, and Jared Spurgeon is going to have to do the heavy lifting. All of these guys are good, and Spurgeon is more than that, but with their depth eroded and the Jets having at least 10 forwards who can hurt you, the problems are farther down the lineup. And no, Nick Seeler and and Nate Prosser aren’t going to do anything other than get caved in when they’re on the ice.

This might have been a problem before, but with the return of Trouba it won’t be this series. Keeping Byfuglien away from the hard stuff is what he’s built for, and if Trouba is near his best he can nullify just about any top line. Josh Morrissey has been a surprise, and Toby Enstrom could return during the series though he’ll miss Game 1. It’s not the best blue line in the division but it’s hardly embarrassing.

Forwards: Another huge advantage for the Jets. While Eric Staal had a revival season, and Mikaeal Granlund is great, and Jason Zucker had a breakout season, there’s just not enough here.  Mikko Koivu is going to have a hard time keeping up with Scheifele, Charlie Coyle is never going to be anything. Nino Neiderreiter couldn’t buy a bucket this year. The bottom six is going to be a real issue, even with Jordan Greenway now here.

Meanwhile, the Jets boast what might be the deepest crop of forwards around. Blake Wheeler is an under-the-radar Hart candidate. Scheifele is a monster. Kyle Connor could be rookie of the year. Ehlers and Laine are on the second line. Little and Perreault on the third. Adam Lowry is the egg-head’s case for Selke. There’s no let-up here. Every line they throw out should be better than whatever Gabby throws over the boards.

Prediction: Hockey can be strange. I don’t know if Paul Maurice remains an idiot or finally put it together this year, but he doesn’t have to do much to defeat Bruce Boudreau who manages every playoff series choking on a ham bone. Chase any sort of matchup or structure and you’re ahead of Gabby. Sure, Hellebuyck could lose it in his first playoff series. The sticks could go cold under actual expectations this time. Dubnyk I suppose could go nuts. But that’s a lot of motherfuckin’ ifs. Jets in five. 

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

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

Being a GM in this league isn’t easy. You have exactly no margin for error, and you have to take that and balance the desires of owner, coaches, fans, press, and try and craft a hockey team out of it. You can do all that, and then there just might be two teams in your division better than you anyway and it’s all for naught. And then once you come up empty, the league does not make it easy to start over. Flexibility is a daft concept in the NHL.

And that’s where Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher finds himself. Perhaps it was his idea to sign Ryan Suter and Zach Parise until the sun swallows us all for a dump truck of money. Perhaps it was a directive from the owner after having nondescript, unsuccessful teams forever under Jacques Lemaire. Whatever it was, Fletcher is pretty much fucked right now. Which might see him let go this summer when his contract runs out as well.

The Wild aren’t going anywhere. They’re locked into competing for the last wild card spot at best this year. Maybe, if things bounce right, they sneak in, Dubnyk gets hot, and they can win a round or two. But that’s all built on hope, and Dubnyk has never shined in the playoffs. The difference between him and Jay Gallon last year is the biggest reason they didn’t move to the second round then.

And really, Fletcher is locked into bringing this team back next year. There’s no significant money coming off the books. Chris Stewart, Matt Cullen, and Daniel Winnik are the only forwards whose deals are up after this season, for just north of $3 million. There are no d-men who are up. And to make it even better, Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba are restricted free agents this summer. Because they’re RFAs they won’t break the bank, but they’ll be due more than the $4.5 million combined they make now (Dumba could reasonably ask for that himself).

So what do you do? This Wild team still needs a #1 center before it can even think of going anywhere, and those cost north of $8 million or more. No one is going to trade for those Parise or Suter deals, and Parise might be permanently broken after back surgery and just five points in 15 games so far. Nino Neiderreiter or Mikael Granlund would certainly drum up interest around the league, but if you trade them for a forward aren’t you just running in place? You’re supposed to build around guys like that.

You could hope that someone takes Mikko Koivu off your hands, but no one wants to pay near $6 million for two more years for what is essentially a checking center now. The window to trade Jonas Brodin has probably passed. Maybe Luke Kunin is a kid who can do something for you, but if he were something special we’d probably know by now. Dmitri Sokolov is lighting up the OHL, but everyone lights up the OHL. And because the Wild have floated around the bottom of the playoff picture for so long, it’s really hard to find help in the draft in the 15-20 range as they’ve been.

If it wasn’t so punitive, buyouts would be an option here. But because they’re spread out for so long, it’s not an option for Parise or Koivu, and wouldn’t provide that much relief. It should be something that the player doesn’t have to agree to but doesn’t punish the team so harshly if they agree. But that’s not the world we live in.

This is the devil in “going for it.” The Wild thought the signing of Parise and Suter meant they were amongst the big boys. They haven’t seen a conference final or a division championship. And now the Wild can’t even tear it down if they wanted to. If they traded Granlund and/or Neiderreiter, at that point you might as well keep going. Sell off Coyle and Staal and try in include Koivu in something. But when have you seen a team do that?

Parise and Suter have been on the Wild for six seasons now. That’s about the cycle every team gets. But thanks to the system, the Wild are stuck in this one, going nowhere, with no escape. Basically, they’re living your life.

 

Game #55 Preview

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

 vs 

Game Time: 7:00PM CST
TV/Radio: NBCSN National, WGN-AM 720
Strictly Leakage: Hockey Wilderness

After going above and beyond the call of duty in dispatching with the dreadful Senators last night in Kanata, the Hawks turn right back around for a RIVALRY NIGHT game against the divisional opponent Minnesota Wild, who are currently tied with the Hawks, but have played more games and have fewer regulation wins. What a time to be barely alive.

Everything Else

Immeasurable ink has been spilled, in the parlance of our times, about the raging insanity of the contracts handed out to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. It seems so quaint now, as it was five and a half years ago now that they were given matching 13-year deals that run through 2025. We’ll have two more presidential elections before these are off the books (and won’t those be fun for all?)

Suter has basically done what you’d expect for a top pairing d-man, and for a cap hit of $7.5 that looks pretty reasonable at the moment. Though he probably won’t be doing what he is now at age 40, of course. However, in a world where Doughty and Karlsson are going to make north of $11 or $12 million soon, and Shea Weber makes more, you won’t fold up and melt thinking about Suter’s hit.

It’s Parise’s that’s still perplexing. What NHL GMs don’t want to notice, or admit, or even know, is that most forwards peak somewhere around age 25 or 26. There are always exceptions, but that’s the general rule. The decline after that isn’t sharp, and you’ll get almost a plateau from 25 to 27 or 28 or so. It’s after 30 that things tend to go south like a spring breaker, but really what you see at ages 24-26 is generally as good as it’s going to get for a forward, who have to basically sprint all over the ice every shift. A d-man can adjust his game with better positioning, anticipation, and streamlining. This is what you’ve seen Suter do, as though he racks up some of the heaviest minutes in the league he barely looks like he’s moving at times while having everything under control. Sure, a forward, and especially a scorer like Parise, can become more of a spot-up sniper as he ages, but that changes his overall effect on proceedings.

When Parise was signed to this elephantine contract, he was 28. In most ways, he had already had his best years. And even in his simple counting stats, you can see that. Parise has only once come anywhere close to his 38 goals of ’09-’10 while donning the green of the Wild, and certainly has never approached the 45 he poured in the year before that when he was 24. 33 is the best he’s done in St. Paul. And since that three years ago he slipped to 25 and then 19 last year.

Nothing in the underlying numbers should make Wild fans feel any better. His peak years in The Swamp saw him score over a goal per 60 minutes at even strength, again at 24 and 25. The best he’s done in Minny is 0.98 in ’14-’15. His points-per-60 at evens have never gotten near the 2.3 and 2.8 he managed in his peak as a Devil. In New Jersey he would take 12-13 shots per game at evens. He’s never managed more than 11 in Minnesota, and the past two years he couldn’t even get to double-digits. You’ll find the same story with his overall attempts.

The only encouraging this is that since arriving in the Land O’ Lakes he’s managed to up the rate he gets scoring chances and high-danger chances, which speaks to a more active and anticipating mind. Of course, some of that the past two years can be explained by a switch to Bruce Boudreau, who plays a more high-tempo, if not less-organized, way than Mike Yeo did. But the difference is probably negligible.

All of this makes one wonder why you’d throw any serious years at an unrestricted free agent forward at all. A real players union, if they had any fear that NHL GMs would figure this out, would push for free agency a lot sooner. But they don’t have to fear that. Still, next summer’s big ticket is John Tavares, who is already 27. You’ll get some really good years out of any deal he signs, but you’re probably not going to get anything better than he’s already done. These are just how things go.

For more info on player aging curves, check this article out.

 

Game #43 Preview

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

 vs. 

Game Time: 6:00PM CST
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
Paisley Park: Hockey Wilderness

After a brief and suprisingly victorious jaunt to Manitoba on Thursday, the Hawks return home tonight having now had a couple days worth of rest, and will face of against the Wild, with whom they are tied, who played last night, and are beat the hell up by injuries.

Everything Else

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.
Everything Else

The Wild suck so hard that they’re the only team Bruce Boudreau hasn’t coached to a division title when he’s had a full season behind the bench. And really, if you don’t get that basically meaningless bauble out of our favorite Haagen-Dazs slathered bocce ball, then what’s the point at all? You’re still going to get a coach with both hands around his own throat in the playoffs but not to get to raise a silly banner aloft. Well, the Wild probably aren’t going to win the division this year, and they’re probably not going to get out of it in the playoffs. It’s almost if Brucey is now just in an abyss of meaninglessness. Which is how most people feel about the state of Minnesota.

Minnesota Wild

’16-’17 Record: 49-25-8  106 points (2nd in Central, out in 1st round to STL)

Team Stats 5v5: 49.3 CF% (20th)  50.5 SF% (14th)  52.6 SCF% (3rd)  9.2 SH% (1st)  .925 SV% (11th)

Special Teams: 20.9 PP% (9th) 82.9 PK% (8th)

Everything Else

 vs 

Game Time: 11:30AM CDT
TV/Radio: NBC, TVA-S, WGN-AM 720
Makes No Sense At All: Hockey Wilderness

Late season, weekend matinee games suck out loud regardless of the two teams involved. The thought process behind having them is clear, with both college and pro football shuttered for their respective seasons, and baseball yet to move north from Arizona and Florida, there is a void that can be filled by the Winter Tenants for viewership when there’s really only Law & Order: SVU reruns on elsewhere. But the vast majority of hockey games are played at night, and professional hockey players, like all athletes, enjoy their ya-ha time after a game and generally keep later hours. There is always at least a 24 hour break going into them so it’s not totally cutting into physical recuperation the way Thursday Night Football does, but circadian rhythms are still fucked with, and now past the deadline there are many teams who are just playing out the string. Couple that with the overall quality of the league due to a flat salary cap, and it’s left an absolute dogshit product on the ice on par with Thursday Night Football by any absolute or relative measure. And on top of that Daylight Savings just kicked in, so now two teams who at least on paper who are still jockeying for the top spot in the Central and the West, are effectively facing off at 10:30AM local time, all for the sake of courting viewers that the NHL is never going to grab. Nice work everyone.

Everything Else

 at 

Game Time: 7:00PM CST
TV/Radio: NBCSN, TVA-S, SportsNet, WGN-AM 720
Makes No Sense At All: Hockey Wilderness

And so it is now here, the most important regular season game in the history of the sport…at least until the next one. The Wild are still playing .900 hockey and have three games in hand on the Hawks, and a regulation win tonight should effectively salt the division away for them, and there’s nothing more that Bruce Boudreau likes than the taste of salted divisions. And the entire hockey world, such as it is, will be watching, as this is the only game on the docket tonight.