Before the National Basketball Association (NBA) season began, almost anyone with any awareness of the NBA’s existence felt they knew which teams would be playing in each of the Conference Finals. Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics would meet LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors would play the Houston Rockets’ James Harden and Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals.
That’s exactly how it turned out, minus Irving, who barring injury, would be suiting up against his former teammate in a Conference Final I’d actually watch. Now, I’ll wait to see if Houston can force a Game 7 against Golden State before tuning into the NBA Conference Finals, and it took me betting on Houston to win it all to even have an interest in that series. Basketball’s predictability is the very reason I prefer the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Giant men wearing armor and wielding weapons in their hands and on their feet skate at immense speeds on an ever-changing playing surface chucking a rubber saucer at speeds even faster than their feet can carry them or baseballs are thrown while their opponents do all they can to get in front of that unpredictable projectile. Hockey is a most unpredictable sport, and that’s what holds my interest. The fact it hardly has any stoppages for commercial breaks, provides coaches with just one timeout, and requires live substitutions are all just big bonuses for the sport with the best postseason -- a postseason that can still be improved.
The NBA is also looking to improve its postseason, thankfully. Commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of eliminating the conferences for the postseason and simply seeding the top 16 teams based on record. This would result in less chance of a lopsided NBA Finals series. For instance, the series most of us believe to be the actual championship series between Houston and Golden State would actually be played for the championship. Houston and Golden State would be the first- and second-ranked NBA playoff teams, respectively, and would only meet in the NBA Finals under the proposed postseason alteration.
While travel concerns and the fact that the seeding of Eastern Conference teams would be skewed based on them playing half as many games against the more dominant, deeper Western Conference might thwart the NBA’s efforts to improve the postseason. But they shouldn’t. As long as there are no back-to-back games scheduled in the NBA Playoffs, travel shouldn’t be a concern. And the seeding of teams from different conferences could be based on their play against similar opponents. For instance, if an Eastern Conference team finished the regular season with a better record than a Western Conference team but lost both games to that Western Conference team, the Eastern Conference team could be seeded behind the Western Conference team based on its performance in head-to-head matchups.
The dominance and depth of the NBA’s Western Conference is forcing Silver to find a way to remedy the lack of intrigue in his sport’s predictable playoffs. A lack of competitiveness results in a loss of fans, which is exactly what has happened with elections due to partisan gerrymandering. Because elections have become so uncompetitive, fewer people vote, thinking their vote doesn’t matter, which, of course, is the intent of partisan gerrymandering.
The same is true of American capitalism. “Free” markets work for the consumer when there’s competition. But businesses want markets working for them. It’s why six companies own the majority of media in America or the means to deliver media messages. Hollywood called this “vertical integration” until the Supreme Court eventually forced movie studios to divest their interest in theaters.
But it’s happening again, and on a much more massive scale. Not only do media moguls own the media produced but the means of distribution. Comcast owns the “movies” it makes and the “theaters” that distribute them. The theaters are the cable, internet and mobile data arms of Comcast, so not only are they pulling revenue from ad sales of their shows, but they’re making two trips to the bank on just about every customer by being either one of two or the sole provider of cable, internet or wireless data in that customer’s area.
The increasingly deregulated capitalistic markets reward monopolistic businesses at the expense of the consumer. Mergers are great for big business, but they aren’t good for consumers. Sprint merging with T-Mobile would result in one less competitor in the mobile data and mobile phone markets, and with each fallen competitor the price for those services increases.
If you live in rural America you’re probably familiar with the price gouging that occurs because of a lack of competition, especially in the cable, satellite, internet service and mobile data industries. Verizon actually kicked Eastern Montana customers off their data plans because they used too much data. Many of those customers don’t have access to internet otherwise, so Verizon knows they’ll have to come back, and will pay more to do so.
So I don’t watch the NBA Playoffs for the same reason I despise American capitalism: a lack of competitiveness that results from monopolistic mergers, like Durant going to Golden State. Maybe when my Timberwolves actually win a playoff series I’ll give the NBA Playoffs my divided attention. But even with my Minnesota Wild eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I have and will continue to watch the NHL postseason, because there’s no telling what could happen.
The best days of the Minnesota sports year are here, and I’m not just saying that because Target Field opens its gates for baseball on Thursday. The Minnesota Twins are, as of this writing, playing their home opener against the Seattle Mariners on Thursday afternoon.
Even if the foot of snow the Twin Cities received Tuesday doesn’t melt by game time or more rain and snow moves into the area forcing a postponement, at least Minnesota sports fans will have two more games to watch later that night. Both the Minnesota Wild and Minnesota Timberwolves play games that could affect the postseason, and both play at the same time, which is frustrating and frankly, should be illegal.
Thursday is going to be the best day of the Minnesota sports season. That is until Saturday, April 14, when four professional sports teams in Minnesota could all play on the same day for the first time ever. We know the Twins and Minnesota United FC (MNUFC or Loons for short) will be in action. But with the NBA Playoffs set to begin that same day, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs also underway, Minnesota sports fans could watch their home teams for up to 11 consecutive hours on April 14. The Twins host the Chicago White Sox at 1:10 p.m. CDT and MNUFC’s match in Portland kicks off at 9:30 p.m. That leaves plenty of room in the television schedule for both the Wolves and Wild.
These really are the best days of the Minnesota sports year, and they’ll continue for as long as the Wild and Timberwolves allow. Here’s the potential schedule for the best days of the Minnesota sports year. You’ll notice this is not a complete schedule of upcoming sporting events featuring a team from Minnesota. Days during which just one Minnesota sports team plays a game are not included. Each day listed has the potential for at least two games to be played by a team from Minnesota. All times are Central. Asterisks indicate a potential game not yet scheduled. Check back for updates.
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The Minnesota Wild stumbled into the 2016-17 Stanley Cup Playoffs and ran into the hottest team in the Western Conference at the time, falling 4-1 to the St. Louis Blues, led by former Wild coach Mike Yeo. Despite a .925 save percentage and 1.86 goals against average, Devan Dubnyk was bested by Jake Allen (.935 SV%, 1.96 GAA) and may not have done much better against Pekka Rinne, who had nearly as many points as goals allowed in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (two assists and three goals allowed).
There’s no denying the Wild lost something on both sides of the puck when general manager Chuck Fletcher made a trade deadline deal on Feb. 26 with Arizona, sending a 2017 first-round pick, 2018 second-round pick, a 2019 fourth-round pick and minor league center Grayson Downing to Arizona for Martin Hanzal, a big, two-way center, tough forward Ryan White and a 2017 fourth-round pick. Both are unrestricted free agents and will clear $4.1 million in salary, but it won’t be enough to get what Minnesota needs.
The Wild dominated every aspect of the series against the Blues if you look at traditional statistics. The Wild led in shots on goal in every game except the game they won (the Wild and Blues both had 28 shots on goal in Game 4). The Wild had higher quality shots in every game but the clincher, shooting from shorter distances than the Blues more often, so they were getting the puck in the right places. The Wild had four fewer penalty minutes and two more power play goals than the Blues. The Wild even led in hits in every game except Game 3, although the quality of hits is more important than the quantity, and the Blues had a size advantage almost everywhere on the ice (unless Martin Hanzel was on the ice). The Wild possessed the puck more often, which isn’t surprising. The only thing the Blues did better was block shots, which is also unsurprising given Mike Yeo’s zone defense that reminds me of the late Dennis Green’s “prevent” defense used when the Vikings had a lead back in the 1990s.
So the Wild had quality opportunities to score and Jake Allen was standing on his head, right? Wrong. If you look at the analytics, there were plenty of Wild players that performed poorly in the playoffs. Let’s start with the worst first.
In 24 minutes on the ice, Folin had a plus/minus of -2, but his relative Corsi and relative Fenwick numbers were just terrible. Corsi measures shot attempt differential while at even strength and includes shots on goal, missed shots on goal, and blocked shot attempts towards the opposition’s net, minus the same shot attempts directed at your own team’s net. Fenwick, or unblocked shot attempts, only counts shots on goal and missed shots. Blocked shots are not included, and might be a better measure of performance given the Blues’ focus on blocking shots.
Folin’s Corsi was -10.1, and his Fenwick was -14.8 because he only got one shot through to goal in three attempts and obviously allowed more shots than one. Folin is a restricted free agent at 25, will be subject to the expansion draft, and might not be back.
Charlie had two points in the playoffs and a plus/minus of -1, but his relative Corsi was -5 and his relative Fenwick was -7.8 -- second worst on the team. Coyle got 60.9 percent of his shots through to goal, though. Coyle is signed through 2019 and is set to make merely $3.2 million per year, but will likely be subjected to the expansion draft.
Stewart, 29, tied the captain, Mikko Koivu, for the lowest shot-through percentage on the team at 28.6 percent. He got two shots on goal in 39 minutes, and his Fenwick was third worst at -7.3 and his Corsi was seventh worst at -4. He’s signed through 2017 for $1.15 million and won’t be selected by Las Vegas, which means he’s back with the Wild.
Scandella peppered Jake Allen with 10 shots in 113 minutes for a plus/minus of -1. His Corsi was -4.5, and his Fenwick was -5.7. Scandella is signed through 2019 for $4 million annually, so at 26, he’ll likely be subjected to the expansion draft, as all his regular season numbers were down this season.
Dumba’s big shot was a non-factor in the playoffs. He had no points in 119 minutes and a plus/minus of -1. His relative Corsi and relative Fenwick numbers were identical: -4.7. His through percentage was just 36.8 percent. A great slap shot isn’t any good if it doesn’t get on goal, but Dumba trails only Nate Prosser when it comes to scoring chances allowed, so he’s limiting the big mistakes for which he’s been known. He’s signed through 2017 for just $2.55 million, so Chuck Fletcher probably wants to protect him, as Dumba’s just 22.
Neiderreiter had just 80 minutes of ice time in the playoffs and one point for a plus/minus of -2 after impressing with his best regular season by far. His relative Fenwick was fourth worst (-7) and his relative Corsi was -2. Expect Chuck Fletcher to attempt to resign him, as he’s a restricted free agent at 24. He’ll be tough to replace regardless of his playoff performance.
This one hurts, as Parise is signed through 2025. Parise took a goal right out of the net in Game 1, and he didn’t get any better. While his shot-through percentage was tops on the team at 79.2 percent, his Corsi and Fenwick numbers were -4.6 and -4.5 respectively. There’s nothing the Wild can do but move him down the lines.
In 62 playoff minutes, Haula had one point and a plus/minus of -2. His shot-through percentage was 60, but his relative Fenwick was -2.7 while his relative Corsi was 0.1. Haula’s a restricted free agent and won’t be protected from the expansion draft at 25.
Staal absolutely exceeded expectations in his first year as the Wild’s top-line center. He played every game and logged a plus/minus of 17 -- the highest of his career. His Corsi and Fenwick numbers took big dives from last season, though. His regular season relative Corsi dropped from 5.8 to 3.8 and his relative Fenwick fell from 4.6 to 3.2.
Staal was worse in the playoffs, with a relative Corsi of -4.6 and a relative Fenwick was -1.6. He’s only posted a positive plus/minus in the playoffs in his first season in the playoffs with Carolina and will be 33 next season. That’s why I think Staal is a good trade piece, given his $3.5 million-per-year contract over the next two seasons. He’d be a great veteran presence for a young Las Vegas squad, and Chuck Fletcher should be able to get late-first- or early-second-round pick for him. Staal has a 20-team, no-trade clause that could be a problem, but he doesn’t necessarily have to go to Las Vegas, either. He’d be an upgrade for the Blues and Montreal.
That brings me to what Chuck Fletcher should do in free agency this offseason. With the already allocated salaries for 2017-18, the Wild are spending a little over $59 million, but Neiderreiter and Granlund will likely get raises as restricted free agents. Say Chuck Fletcher gives them $8 million per year to split. That puts the salary cap figure at $67 million of the $73 million salary cap.
Now say Chuck Fletcher trades Eric Staal to Las Vegas for picks. That would free up another $3.5 million in cap space to give Fletcher around $6.5 million to spend in free agency, which could be enough to grab T.J. Oshie -- the best center on the market.
Think about what the Wild are missing -- a guy who can score on his own. The majority of the success Minnesota had during the regular season relied on goaltending, precision passing, breakaway and power play goals. They don’t have a player who can score from distance in traffic, and it showed against the Blues.
Oshie has 12 points in 12 playoff games with the Capitals so far. His relative Fenwick is 10.3 in these playoffs and was 16.1 in last year’s playoffs. His relative Corsi in this year’s playoffs is 6.6, and it was 14.7 in last year’s playoffs. He also had regular season career highs in both relative Corsi (8.1) and relative Fenwick (9.6) this year. So trading Staal after his best season and signing Oshie after his best season should be the focus of Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher if he wants to retain his job and take the Wild to the Stanley Cup.
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