After needing a shootout to beat the Central’s worst team, Colorado, at home just over a week ago, and allowing 13 goals over their next two games, the Minnesota Wild got their two biggest wins of their wild season over two of the Western Conference’s best teams.

Wild Now vs. Then

The Wild squad on Saturday was better than the team that was eliminated by the Blues in the playoffs last season, despite Zach Parise’s absence -- and the Wild dominated almost every aspect of that series with the Blues except where it counted most. The Wild defense is considerably different than it was last year despite the return of Nate Prosser a few days ago.

The addition of Marcus Foligno to a squad that delivered so few hits last season has resulted in more takeaways closer to their opponents’ goal. The Wild were second to last in hits per game last season and have raised their average per game by more than three so far this year. Foligno had six hits on Saturday -- two more than any other player.

Wild Defense Sparks Wild Offense

The Wild were also good defensively in the neutral zone on Saturday, and it resulted in six takeaways to St. Louis’s zero. The Blues’ struggles to carry the puck into the offensive zone forced them to alter their offensive zone entry strategy. The Blues resorted to dumping pucks in and chasing more often than they’d like, but that’s what happens when you can’t retain possession of the puck through the neutral zone.

The Wild’s first goal on Saturday was the result of a neutral zone turnover by the Blues. A seemingly unnoticeable step-up by Miko Koivu into Blues center Vladimir Sobotka at the Blues’ blue line forced a turnover to Matt Dumba at center as the Blues attempted a change. What resulted was a carry-in by Ryan Suter, who left a dropback pass to Jason Zucker. Suter then skated into his forecheck ever so innocently and was rewarded with a fat rebound off the slapshot of Zucker, which he bounced off goalie Jake Allen into the net. The ease of carrying the puck into the Blues’ zone rather than requiring the Wild a long dump-in resulted in a dropback pass and quick shot, which turned into assists for Zucker and Dumba.

In overtime, Anthony LaPanta pointed out that Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau changed his overtime strategy, starting the overtime period with two defensemen on the ice. You can always add a forward if you win the faceoff, so it’s perfectly logical. Since the Wild lost the overtime-opening faceoff, they got to defend the first Blues’ possession with two defensemen, and it paid off in an unexpected way.

The Blues got two shots on their first overtime possession, only one of which got through to Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk. But having the offensive-minded defenseman Dumba on the ice sure seemed to be the difference in the game.

Dumba knew he had a chance to create an immediate scoring opportunity off the rebound of the Blues’ shot. He carried in quickly, made a pass to the charging Charlie Coyle, and buried Coyle’s pass back after Vladimir Tarasenko made a defensive mistake in failing to get inside position on Dumba. It made the 42-25 Blues lead in shots on goal and 35-21 faceoff advantage irrelevant, as did Dubnyk’s 41 saves. And the recently acquired Nate Prosser had a takeaway, a hit, three blocked shots and a shot on goal.

Wild Takeaways and Vegas Giveaways Lift Wild

The Wild’s forecheck and neutral zone defense against the surprising Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday was again key to a 4-2 win. The Wild led 9-6 in hits and overcame eight giveaways with a 29-23 edge in the faceoff circle, but three of the Wild’s four goals were the result of takeaways or Vegas giveaways.

Zucker forced a turnover behind the Vegas net that resulted in a shot on goal and an offensive zone faceoff, which the Wild won. A perfect pass from Mike Reilly led to a wide open shooting lane for Mikael Granlund, who bounced it off the post and in for the Wild’s first goal three minutes before the end of the second period.

At 2-2 with eight minutes to play, Eric Staal didn’t allow the Knights’ Pierre-Edouard Bellemare an easy clear up the boards, Dumba pinched to hold the zone, and Staal moved to the net to bury the deflection of Dumba’s slapshot.

The Wild’s empty net goal was also scored off a neutral zone turnover by the Knights. Staal intercepted a blue line entry pass and sent it slowly down the ice into the empty net.

Wild Schedule

The two wins put Minnesota seven points back of the Blues and Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference with the always tough California road trip upcoming. So instead of looking up at 10 teams in the Western Conference, the Wild are looking up at eight teams and are just a point out of the Wild Card.

After playing roughly once every five days to open the season, the Wild are entering the toughest stretch of their schedule. They entered the Vegas game having played three games in four days and will host Calgary (14-11-1), Toronto (17-10-1) and Edmonton (11-14-2) and visit Chicago (12-9-5) over the course of six days.

Wild Injuries

The Wild can do without Parise for a while, but they can’t do without Jared Spurgeon for too long. Spurgeon is out two weeks nursing a groin strain and could come back either Dec. 14 against Toronto or Dec. 16 against Edmonton. Most importantly, Spurgeon should be close to fully healthy when the Wild visit Chicago for a big, division game. The two are tied with 29 points this season.

With Parise skating in consecutive days on Thursday for the first time since having surgery to address nerve pain caused by a herniated disc in his back, the Wild are in much better position to welcome him back when he’s fully healthy. They won’t need Parise to be Parise right away, but in the playoffs, they will need his nose for the net if they’re to advance.


 

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A few months ago I wrote about how sports fans can save more than 50 percent on their cable and internet bills without missing their favorite teams’ games. Much of the savings came in the form of cutting cable and switching to online streaming services like MLB.TV and NHL.TV -- both operated by BAMTech.

Well, Disney is now the majority owner of BAMTech. So instead of enticing cable-cutting sports fans to re-enter the cable fray, ESPN will rely upon a stand-alone streaming service it intends to launch early in 2018.

The move to streaming is a big one for the “worldwide leader in sports,” as ESPN has long depended on cable subscribers paying $9 per month for its four channels -- ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and the SEC Network. But the network has lost 10 million subscribers to cable-cutting since 2010. That’s over $1 billion in lost revenue, which resulted in the termination of around 100 online journalists and television personalities.

ESPN executives hope to maximize revenue by meeting the needs of both cable-subscribing and cable-cutting sports fans, and apparently they know who’s who.

ESPN’s acquisition of majority ownership in BAMTech gives them access to the cable-cutting sports fans it’s lost, who are generally fans of sports not often televised nationally. ESPN will now get 75 percent of revenues from MLB.TV, NHL.TV and MLS Live, the Major League Soccer streaming service.

Also available via the ESPN streaming service will be the typical collegiate games available on the WatchESPN app, but not those televised on cable channels. Grand Slam tennis matches will also be streaming live.

Monday Night Football will still require a cable subscription, though. But if you live in the market of your favorite NFL team, a $25 digital antenna will get you most of their games in HD. Watching the NBA will also require either a cable subscription or NBA League Pass.

So what does this all mean for cable-cutting sports fans? Nothing really. It just means the majority of their money is going to ESPN rather than BAMTech. And while ESPN could roll MLB.TV, NHL.TV and MLS Live into its one streaming service and require customers to pay for all three streaming services, that’s likely a recipe to lose even more subscribers.

The real potential of the streaming services to ESPN is the advertising potential. If you’ve ever watched a game on MLB.TV, NHL.TV or MLS Live, you’re likely familiar with the “Commercial break is in progress” screen. This screen will likely appear less and less given Disney’s fat Rolodex of advertisers.

So not only will ESPN take back some of the 10 million cable-cutting sports fans it’s lost since 2010 via streaming services, it will also profit from filling the plethora of commercial breaks that have gone unfilled since the advent of sports streaming services. It should be a big win for Disney, and shouldn’t cost cable-cutting sports fans a penny more -- unless they see something advertised they just have to have.

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The Minnesota Wild cleared some salary by trading veterans Jason Pominville and Marco Scandella to Buffalo for left-wingers Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. The Wild and Sabres also traded draft picks, with the Wild receiving a 2018 third-round pick for a fourth-rounder.

Foligno provides the size and strength Minnesota was missing against the St. Louis Blues in the playoffs. He was second amongst forwards in hits last year with 279, and should serve as an effective bottom-six forward who will score a dozen goals or so. He’s a restricted free agent, so the Wild will have to work out a deal, but it should be at a rate considerably less than what Pominville ($5 million) and Scandella ($4 million) were making.

Ennis was a top-six forward in the past but has been limited by injuries the last two seasons. He’s a friend of Jared Spurgeon’s and works out with him in the offseason. While he’s played center effectively in the past, Ennis is more likely to play left wing for the Wild. He’ll make $3.65 million this year and next and count $4.6 million towards the salary cap each season.

The money general manager Chuck Fletcher saved the Wild with this deal should go to extending restricted free agents Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund. Both are due big raises following breakout seasons. Granlund went from a -12 plus-minus in 2015-16 to a 23 last season, and Niederreiter improved his plus-minus by eight points last season.

Granlund made $3.2 million last year, and Niederreiter made $2.67 million last season. Both were extended qualifying offers, so if they sign with another team the Wild will get draft pick compensation. That’s not likely to happen, though, as the Wild will need their services if they’re going to advance in the playoffs.

With $18.4 million in cap space now, Fletcher can not only retain both Granlund and Niederreiter, but sign a free agent veteran or two. The Wild will need a backup goalie, and the free agent market for goalies is deep, so the price should be right.

The Wild could also use a a couple of bottom-six defensemen, and can now afford to make a run at Trevor Daley or even 26-year-old Dmitry Kulikov, who’s coming off a down year. Some had their hopes set on a couple of Stanley Cup champions being signed by the Wild. Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen have both likely played their final seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they aren’t a great fit now that Fletcher has added two forwards.

The deal looks like a win for both teams, as Buffalo improved its defense immensely, and Minnesota got the physicality and scoring options it will need to compete with the best in the West. The fun has only just begun, as free agency kicks off on Saturday, July 1.

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The National Hockey League (NHL) owners have decided not to send the best hockey players in the world to South Korea for the 2018 Olympics because they’re “unhappy with the league shutting down for weeks to take part in the Olympic tournament every four years,” according to ESPN senior writer Scott Burnside. The owners were seeking more money to justify stopping the season and sending the best hockey players in the world to the Olympics.

The decision makes the 2018 Olympic hockey tournament an amateur tournament, which will still be well-viewed but won’t come close to the potential ratings that would have resulted if the best hockey players in the world actually participated. Do you remember watching the Olympic basketball tournament before the Dream Team? Could you imagine going back to playing the Olympic basketball tournament with amateurs? That is what the NHL owners have done.

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said it was “disappointing news” on Twitter, and the NHL Players’ Association called the decision “shortsighted.” It certainly doesn’t allow for growth of the NHL’s fanbase, as the Olympics would have put NHL players on a bigger stage in front of a larger audience.

NHL owners have repeatedly failed fans, with a lockout occurring in 2012 that made me lose interest in the league just as I was growing to love hockey. I didn’t watch a single regular season game that year after falling in love with the Stanley Cup Playoffs the previous season. I did watch the playoffs, though, because, well, playoffs.

The NHL players were entitled to 57 percent of the league’s revenue prior to the collective bargaining agreement reached to end the 2012 lockout. Now they receive just 50 percent of all revenue, which was called a “grand-slam home run” for the owners by one player agent. The owners have again cut into the players’ marketability and potential earning power through global endorsement deals. More importantly, NHL fans don’t get to see the USA and Canada do proper battle on ice. Instead the American and Canadian kids will take the Olympic torch, which isn’t all bad. But the 2018 Olympic gold medals for hockey won’t go to the best team in the world.

While I feel the NHL owners have failed their fans with this decision and are missing an opportunity to grow the game of hockey, I’m not going to stop watching NHL games, but I probably won’t watch the Olympic hockey tournament now. Will you?

Editor's Note: An update follows.

While NHL players like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov are determined to participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, their NHL team's owner might suffer big consequences for allowing them to do so. Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis could be subject to a fine and loss of draft picks if he allows players to compete in the Olympics, according to the NHL constitution. Basically, whatever NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says goes, and instead of the owners getting a little dough for stalling the season for the greatest sporting event in the world, they'll be spending dough to accommodate their players' wishes.

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