Ben Remington covers the Wild for ColdOmaha.com (I love that name). You can follow him on Twitter @BenRemington. Bryan Reynolds, on the other hand, is just some lunatic who won’t leave us alone so we toss him this bone every so often to make him go away. But it never works. Anyway, he’s on Twitter @BReynoldsMN.
We’ll get to the tough one first. The Wild are on pace for their best regular season ever. They should win the division for only the second time. Is it a mirage or is this for real?
Remington: From what I’ve seen, it’s hard to not say that it’s for real. As usual, some of the fancy stats point to regression, but others bear out that this team has been very, very good so far this season. Even the players that are ‘slumping’ are having decent seasons, and we’ve seen monumental steps up from young players that have been underachieving for most of their time here. Dubnyk is still the key, and him continuing to play well will be the difference between them winning the conference or not, but even with a noticeable regression to the mean recently, his January was just average, not bad, and he could catch fire again.
Reynolds: I’m a Minnesota sports fan, and I’ve learned that nothing happens faster than a Minnesota sports team imploding. In this case, I’m calling them a mirage right up to the moment Mikko Koivu grabs the Cup from Commissioner Gru’s tiny Trump hands and gives Gary the steely eyed death glare and maybe mutters, “I can’t believe Pantera made a song for the Stars.” I have no idea what that last part even means, but no, I don’t trust this anymore than I trust the Oilers to select a defenseman in the draft.
It’s basically the same roster that Mike Yeo had to drag, lever, and hump just to make the playoffs year after year before getting fired. What has Bruce Boudreau changed?
Oh, where to begin. I recently ripped Yeo to shreds a bit, citing the differences between this team now and then. I think they’re improved in every facet of the game. They’re playing a freer, more high event game, but at the same time, actually limiting scoring chances more. Most importantly perhaps is this team’s personality under Bruce. This team was infamously mentally weak during Yeo’s tenure, perhaps a reflection of an unsure first time NHL head coach, and now under Boudreau, like Boudreau, this team doesn’t give a flying fuck what the score is, they’re going to try to win the game. We’ve seen more comebacks in 4 months under Boudreau than the last 4 seasons.
Ben Remmington, now of Cold Omaha, was supposed to write about this and tell me what Bruce is doing different, because I don’t see it. As of this writing, he had not done so, in a direct affront to me. We’ll settle that next game, though. I’m still a firm believer that the Wild were sandbagging because they didn’t like Yeo, but having no evidence to support that, it is purely indefensible. What I do know is that the veterans on the team have fallen into line, giving the kids more ice time, and allowing the miracle that is youth and speed to play out in a league where youth and speed look to be more important every day.
We’ve loved Mikael Granlund for a while now. He’s nearly a point per game and in the top 15 in scoring. Why has this year been the breakout?
Two-fold, I think his move to wing was an epiphany from Torchetti last spring. You’d think a guy with the vision and hands of Granlund would benefit from playing center, but it feels like him playing wing has shed a lot of pressure off of him, and he’s finding open ice on the wing still, and creating many of the scoring chances for the ridiculously successful line he’s been on most of the season with Koivu and Zucker. Which is my next point, he’s been next to countryman Koivu for the entire season so far, and as evidenced by their 2016 IIHF Tourney results, those two really, really like playing together. Koivu has taken on more of skilled, gritty role, Granlund creates space and time, and Zucker has blazing speed to round out the line’s skill set. It’s really been a lot of fun to watch.
Loved him? That’s kinda creepy. He’s like 12, guys. Awkward.
I’ll be honest. I had Granlund as who I would expose to the Knights. I guess that changed. Why is he a good player all of a sudden? Multiple reasons. He’s no longer being asked to be a top line center, which he was never going to be. He’s not even being asked to be a center, which allows him to do what he does best. An improved power play has allowed him to best last year’s mark (11PPP) already this season. There was a ton of pressure on this kid to jump in and make the Wild great again (I’m not sure when they were great either, just go with it), and that pressure seems to be off.
Both Granlund and Niederreiter enter restricted free agency after the season. How big of a problem is this?
That’s kind of the foreboding feeling in Minnesota right now, as they’re pressed against the cap pretty hard, and Koivu’s spendy deal still has a year left and Pominville’s albatross has two. However, the unfortunate reality of losing someone to Vegas might just mean that some cap space is freed up, or god forbid the NHL is able to turn a buck one of these years and raise the salary cap more than a pittance (I’m assuming Hawks fans feel our pain there). To answer the question, it’s a pretty big problem, but there’s realistic hope that there’s an easy solution to it. I don’t see the team buying out Pominville with two years left and Vanek on the books next season, but if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes, and keeping Nino and Granlund should be top priority. If I’m Chuck Fletcher, I’m calling George McPhee daily to see what it’ll take for him to take Pominville’s contract(before the Expansion draft, especially).
Both players have, in the past, been fairly kind to Chuck Fletcher. The RFA tag does limit their options a bit, and with the crop of prospects coming in behind them, they likely aren’t going to make Chuck fear for his job if they hold out. I still think the Wild hold the advantage here. Now, if Granlund actually tops 80 points, and leads the team in scoring, he’s got some leverage. Giles Ferell, the smarter half of the Giles & the Goalies podcast, told me only 4 Wild players have ever topped 80 points. How depressing is that? I’m not buying Granlund keeps this up, but if he does, he is a much bigger issue than Nino.
Jared Spurgeon is another player who is having a career season. What have you noticed different about him this season?
Haha, well, my fancy stat friends will tell you that’s he’s been this good for a while, and I tend to agree. Spurge has been quietly underrated for a long time running, and the rest of the league is starting to take notice now. Certainly his pairing with Suter for a vast majority of the season has helped him flourish even more, not in the way that Suter has made him better, but in that it gives him a partner that’s just as good as him, and allows him to play a little more aggressively. A huge factor along those same lines is probably Boudreau’s arrival, as we’ve seen career offensive numbers from damn near the entire roster, which speaks to both Bruce’s strengths and Yeo’s shortcomings. For a while there we enjoyed seeing Spurgeon and Scandella paired together, now it kind of looks like Spurge was propping up Scandella a bit, and may have been held back by him as well, but I’ll probably dig a little deeper into that for an upcoming article.
I always want there to be a really simple answer to one of these questions. Something like “Why is Spurgeon good,” and the answer is, “Well, his TOI on the power play tripled, so… duh.” But that never seems to be the case.
He’s still the little engine that could. Since his first season, I think most people paying attention knew Garth Snow blew this choice like a hurricane. You thought there was going to be an oral sex joke there, didn’t you? Keeping you on your toes, people. Being a top pairing D-man has its advantages, especially under a coach that doesn’t reign in his defense as much as Yeo did. Consistency in defensive partners, massive vote of confidence from the coach, team playing better in front of him… it all adds up.