Gross Misconduct Hockey Thoughts from a drifter on the hockey landscape

10/13/2009

Thanks For Playing: Minnesota Wild

Filed under: Doug Risebrough,Marian Gaborik,Minnesota Wild,Nik Backstrom — Joe Yerdon @ 2:37 AM

It’s with a heavy heart and loads of regret that I am choosing the Minnesota Wild as the fifth and final team of my season’s over series.  No, it’s not just because I occasionally moonlight over at SBNs Hockey Wilderness (I warned them already tough times might be ahead).  I like just about everything the Wild did in the offseason.   The problem here, however, is that it’s going to take a bit of time to right the ship in St. Paul and get away from the “make the most with the least” way of operating the team did under Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire.

Lemaire certainly had his hands full as Risebrough got seemingly lazier as the years moved along in Minnesota and there’s only so much you can do when you’ve got four lines of grinders and one scoring threat who was out of the lineup too often to be counted on.  Last year you could sense that Lemaire had had it with Risebrough’s inability to add actual help to the lineup and Minnesota’s bare bones farm system didn’t allow Lemaire to pick off anyone overtly worthwhile from Houston in the AHL.

gaboriknyrWild fans both love and hate this picture. No, they’re not bi-polar.

Lemaire left the Wild and shortly thereafter Wild owner Craig Leipold let Risebrough walk away.  In their stead, Chuck Fletcher was tapped to be the new GM and Todd Richards was plucked from San Jose to coach the team.  Out went the neutral zone trap and in with an aggressive attacking system.  The problem with this is that the Wild were built to fit Lemaire’s system and scrapping an entire team isn’t logical nor possible.  You can guess where this is headed.

While the start of the season has seen at least one huge highlight from the Wild, a 4-3 overtime comeback victory against hated Anaheim, other games have shown there are reasons to be more concerned (loss to Los Angeles, loss to San Jose). That’s not to say this team is a lost cause, they’re not,  but they are definitely one in the midst of transition and one who you will get to see learn their new system as games and the season moves along.

The positives for the Wild start with their soul cleansing – parting ways with oft-injured high-scoring phenom Marian Gaborik whose injuries last season set Wild fans off for the last time and made them all extremely happy that Gaborik turned down a Titanic-sized contract offer the season before from Doug Risebrough to stay in Minnesota.  Out went Gaborik and in comes Martin Havlat to shoulder the load on offense and give rising star Mikko Koivu someone to work with on the first line.  Petr Sykora joined up late to the party and will help give Martin Havlat somhavlateone to goof around with on the ice and bring about some insta-chemistry thanks to both of them being Czechs.

As for the rest of the forwards there are a lot of question marks about what their play in a new system will be able to provide.  The prevailing thought is that with the leash Lemaire kept everyone apparently under being gone now, some players who showed offensive potential might be able to break out.  Players like Pierre-Marc Bouchard, James Sheppard and Benoit Pouliot will have the chance to show that they’re worth something for the team and have the ability to be productive offensive players.  Older players like Andrew Brunette know their roles Owen Nolan and speedy guys like Antti Miettinen could flourish in Richards’ new system… But all that learning needs to be done on the fly while trying to win games and with a defense that leaves a bit to be desired.

Sure, Marek Zidlicky was a fine point producer and power play quarterback type of defenseman with the Nashville Predators but his new gig in Minnesota has made some Wild fans angst-filled as his defensive liabilities were apparent last year and now its feared they’ll only get worse as the team opens up the game.  What they do have working here is Brent Burns who is one of the better defensemen in the league you’ll never hear about.  He’s a great puck mover, has some solid offensive skill and can defend decently to boot.  As for the other parts here, it’s a bit of a patch work.  Nick Schultz and Jamie Sifers are still young with promise which is a good spin off to talking about Kim Johnsson who is not so young but still doing decently along the blue line.  Shane Hnidy and John Scott are big bruisers, especially Scott at 6’8″, and Greg Zanon (free agent acquisition from Nashville) is the prototypical defensive defenseman.  Scott is the defenseman this year who has drawn the unenviable assignment of occasionally playing on the fourth forward line to play the part of enforcer while Derek Boogaard is out with an injury.  Just the fact that John Scott is seen as somehow appropriate in this role as a forward is a bit disturbing and speaks to where the depth on this team lies… Not that Derek Boogaard is a game-breaker in the first place, but still.

Goaltending, the Wild’s asset under Lemaire, is now up for debate to see if Niklas Backstrom is a system goaltender or the real deal.  Wild fans are praying that he’s the real deal as former GM Doug Risebrough’s parting shot into unemployment was granting Backstrom a potentially short-term crippling contract paying him $6 million per season for the next four years.  If Backstrom doesn’t show that he’s the Vezina-nominated man between the pipes, the Wild are going to be cursing the name Risebrough until well after the contract expires.  Backstrom is a good goalie but he will certainly have moments where he’s hung out to dry by guys unwittingly leaving him alone.  All of this same lingo applies to backup Josh Harding who, despite being a restricted free agent in the off-season, stuck it out in Minnesota getting a nice bump in pay and providing Minnesota with a potential fall back option in case Backstrom fails.

What I give the Wild thumbs up for here is making changes to fit in with the way the NHL is played now and for realizing that if things stayed the way they were, things were going to continue sliding downhill even in the face of seemingly being close to the playoffs (last year’s Wild team was two points and two wins out of the eighth spot last year).  This year they’ll have to take their lumps and build character and build off the wins they do get.

Learning lessons is difficult to do and fans in Minnesota are going to HAVE to be patient with this team and realize that the previous administration put them in this hole by scouting young players poorly and not being properly active in the free agent market.  Chuck Fletcher has already done a world of good in that respect, losing out on Saku Koivu because he didn’t want to steal the spotlight from his younger brother and landing Petr Sykora to help give a boost to the offense.

A championship won’t be won in one off-season in St. Paul, but should coach Todd Richards show a commitment to playing the up-tempo attacking brand of hockey that has become more of the norm across the league and the fans continue to show their immense support and love for this franchise, the free agents will come because playing that brand of hockey in a place that will  live and die with their team while supporting the hell out of them is the greatest thing in the world.  It’s just going to take a little time is all and this year is going to be the “darkness before the dawn” for Wild fans.

Have faith, but for now… Have a seat on the bench, the playoffs won’t be there for you this year.

07/11/2009

Sheer Madness

If I sat here and wrote something psychotic about every idiotic deal that has been signed since the start of the July 1st NHL Free Agency free-for-all I’d never stop writing.

Ever.

So what did I do instead? I holed up in a bunker while the NHL contract nukes dropped and now that nuclear winter has settled in and things are cooling off (after all the biggest name left to go after is Alex Tanguay), went to New York City to take in some baseball games and now sit here and wait for the NHL schedule to come out so in-season road trips can be planned.

Yeah, it’s hockey’s off-season all right.

What’s particularly special about this off-season is how some teams seem to think the fountain of money is never going to run dry and how the salary cap managed to stay in basic neutral (with some help from the NHL Players Association) despite grim financial stories flying in from around the league’s warmer climes.

Chicago appears to be going for it all in the 2009-2010 season even in spite of having three key young players eligible for restricted free agency next season. An epic contract to Marian Hossa followed up by a potential paperwork snafu that lead into Chicago locking up their cast of restricted free agents this year has made Chicago’s salary cap in the seemingly doomed-for-dropping 2010-2011 season an incredibly amazing storyline that we’re going to have to wait a full year for.

Let’s hope this plays out like an old school Heinz ketchup commercial.

That Matt LeBlanc… He’ll become something someday.

James O’Brien over at Cycle Like The Sedins did an epic, and I do mean epic, job of breaking down Chicago’s hopes and dreams in what they hope is the post-coitus afterglow of the team’s first Stanley Cup since the 1960s.

I’ll give you the punchline of one of James’ scenarios in hopes that it’ll tickle you in dirty places and motivate you to click the link to his full rundown that I’ve so nicely provided for you.


d) So, if the Blackhawks lived in a dream world in which they could rid themselves of Brian Campbell, Cristobal Huet, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Sharp …

… while signing Kane, Toews AND Keith to trio of bargain contracts …

They would have five forwards and three defensemen for $30 million. This would give them $20 million to fill (at the minimum) seven forward spots, three defensemen and two goalies. To ice a hockey team, they would have approximately $1.67 million per roster spot.

Without a goalie. Without even two full lines of forwards or defense.

This is if the Blackhawks unload a murderer’s row of idiotic contracts.

Even if this situation played out with the current cap, they’d have $2.16 million per open spot.

And this the DREAM scenario.

How boned are the Blackhawks if Cristobal Huet, Corey Crawford or Antti Niemi can’t carry them to the Stanley Cup this year? “Pretty damn boned” is my amateur in-the-basement assessment.

The one pretty bow I can tie around Dale Tallon’s neck for this incredibly short-sighted and reckless means to win it all is that he’s at least being ballsy enough to say, “Screw it, we’re going for it all and don’t give a damn.” It’s really ballsy, but it’s also epically freaking stupid.

Jonathan Toews is their captain, Patrick Kane is the face of the franchise and Duncan Keith is a borderline Norris Trophy candidate and they’re ALL ripe for the picking next offseason and at least one of them is likely done in Chicago after this season.

That, my friends, is mind blowing.

After all, this kind of stupid isn’t at all like what New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather has done. You know Slats, he’s the guy who just a couple years ago signed both Chris Drury and Scott Gomez to ridiculous virtually identical $7 million dollar per year contracts that don’t run out until the sun goes supernova.

Glen Sather gave Rangers fans hope for all of one day that he had learned the error of his ways when he packaged up Scott Gomez and some never-will-be prospects to the Montréal Canadiens for Christopher Higgins and two semi-stud prospects. Higgins was a restricted free agent waiting to be signed and off went over $7 million dollars per year until 2013-2014 from the ledger.

An unbelievably stupid move for Habs GM Bob Gainey and a brilliant stroke of genius for Glen Sather to pull one over on a savvy general manager in his own right in Gainey.

Then July 1st happened and Sather used all of that new found cap space on a guy who tweaks and twerks his groin more than just about anyone that doesn’t play goal in the league in Marian Gaborik. Goal scoring was something the Rangers severely lacked and they went right out and got themselves a guy that will score in bunches. He’s a legitimate scoring superstar who fell out of favor in Minnesota with the Wild for both not doing what coach Jacques Lemaire wanted all the time and for being an oft-injured bitch that seemed to disappear in the playoffs.

Of course when you’re the only scoring talent on a playoff team that is otherwise offensively neutered it’s not hard to just shut down one guy.

Huh… Maybe the Rangers weren’t paying attention to that. Nor did they seem to pay attention to Gaborik’s games played over the last few seasons in Minnesota. In his last four years Gaborik has played in 65, 48, 77, and 17 games respectively.

When he plays, he’s dynamic – flat out. He’s an incredible offensive talent. Problem is keeping him healthy and if fans in Minneapolis grew frustrated and impatient with Gaborik’s inability to stay on the ice… Well, New York City won’t be rolling out the red carpet for him everywhere.

What’s incredible about this is that Gaborik managed to get an even bigger contract out of the Rangers than the one they gave up in Scott Gomez and one that ends the same year after 2014. If Gaborik’s next five years go erratically with the games played the way his last four in Minnesota have Rangers fans are going to go out of their minds. Thankfully for them the Islanders and Devils have done next to nothing to improve themselves this off-season.

Even more fun for Rangers fans is the fact that the Philadelphia Flyers managed to only get scummier by adding Chris Pronger and Ian Laperriere and reverting to their old side show ways in goal bringing Ray Emery back from Russia and then getting former backup Brian Boucher to back him up.

At least they didn’t lock Professor Elbows up to an obnoxious deal that they’ll never be able to get rid of now that he’s in his waning years.

Wait, they DID do that. From Ken Campbell:


When Pronger signed his seven-year contract extension Tuesday, it was front-loaded the way almost all long-term deals are. The extension kicks in for the 2010-11 season and carries a salary cap hit of $4.92 million per season. Pronger will make $7.6 million in each of the first two seasons of the deal, then is scheduled to make $7.2 million, $7 million and $4 million in the next three seasons before dropping to just $525,000 in Years 6 and 7 of the deal, which are the 2015-16 and ’16-17 seasons.

Now, nobody in the game expects Pronger to fulfill the terms of this contract. With Pronger earning $33.4 million of the $34.45 million in the first five years of the deal, it’s a virtual certainty Pronger will retire after the 2014-15 season.

Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the Flyers would be on the hook for the entire $4.92 million cap hit for each of the next seven seasons regardless of whether Pronger retires or not, because the contract kicks in after Pronger turns 35 (he turns 35 this October). But there is speculation the Flyers believe that since Pronger actually signed the extension prior to turning 35, they might not have to absorb the cap hit if he retires…

But the spirit of the provision is that it governs contracts that kick in when a player turns 35, not when it is signed.

“The league has sent out memo after memo after memo alerting teams about this,” said one former NHL executive. “If this is what they’re doing, they’re trying to drive a 747 through a loophole.”

The league has yet to hear from the Flyers about this and considers it to be unambiguous. And given that Holmgren has said the Flyers are willing to live with the negative ramifications of signing Pronger to a seven-year deal, it might not be an issue.

Whoops. It’s almost as if Bobby Clarke is still the guy running the show there.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to just blow through this next season just to see how things go in the NHL. After all, the league that beats them over the head for attention and media glitz and glam, the NBA, just had their salary cap drop by a cool million dollars recently and they’re supposedly awash in cash.

That makes the situation for the NHL, a league without a blockbuster media contract, even stickier and one that bears watching.

Gary Bettman may have been playing the part of Baghdad Bob and saying that everything is OK while we can all see what’s on the horizon, but I will enjoy playing the part of Nero while Rome burns mixed in with my consistent ability to keep telling the Emperor that he’s got no clothes on.

Gross.

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