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 Minnesota Wild parted ways with general manager Chuck Fletcher on Monday after a nine-season tenure that saw the Wild reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for six consecutive seasons, but fail to get out of the second round.
Joe Bouley over at Hockey Wilderness tabs Toronto’s Kyle Dubas, Tampa’s Julien Briesbois, Nashville’s Paul Fenton and Pittsburgh’s Bill Guerin as potential replacements. Regardless of who takes the Wild reigns, they’ll inherit quite the mess from Fletcher.
According to Sportrac, the Wild have just over $10 million in cap space to work with next season. Jason Zucker, Matt Dumba, Nick Seeler and Ryan Murphy are all restricted free agents. Zucker made $2 million in 2017-18 and will demand a considerable raise. He was third on his team in relative Fenwick at even strength and fourth on his team in relative Corsi at even strength. Dumba made $2.55 million and will also demand a raise, setting career highs in just about every category. He even matched his career-high plus-minus of 15 set last season.
The new Wild general manager won’t likely let Zucker or Dumba go, and Murphy and Seeler were both positive contributors in 2017-18, too. Murphy’s relative Fenwick at even strength of 1.4 was a career high, and Seeler’s relative Fenwick of .9 was respectable in his first season. Murphy earned $700,000 in 2017-18, and Seeler made $717,500.
So if Fletcher’s replacement signs all four of the Wild’s restricted free agents to contracts, there won’t likely be money to spend on unrestricted free agents, which means trades will have to be made in order for the Wild to improve the roster. Luckily, the Wild have a whole bunch of picks in the 2018 NHL Draft and some trade chips worth something.
The Wild have a first-round pick, three third-round picks, two fifth-round picks, and a sixth- and seventh-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. Whether the incoming general manager is of the opinion that it’s time for the Wild to blow it up and rebuild or just a few pieces away from contending for a championship will determine how the Wild’s ammo will be utilized. But it’s hard to blow up a team that’s paying more than $15 million annually to two players who can’t be traded (Ryan Suter and Zach Parise).
The Wild might have the most valuable trade chip on the table, though, in center Eric Staal. Staal, at 33, finished fourth in goals scored and 26th in the league in points, and he’s owed just $3.5 million next season -- the final year of his deal with the Wild. Staal has said he and his family are comfortable in Minnesota, but a long-term extension is unlikely this offseason given the Wild’s lack of salary cap flexibility. Stall might have to be traded just to remedy the situation.
One of Fletcher’s most recent offseason acquisitions just didn’t pan out. The Wild needed a guy who could deliver hits, sure, but his average time on ice dropped more than four minutes, resulting in 34 percent fewer hits than his monster season last year when he delivered 279 hits for Buffalo. And while his possession metrics were the best they’ve been since 2012-13, left wing has become a position of depth for the Wild with the addition of Jordan Greenway and Parise recovering from back surgery (only to enter another offseason with an injury).
The Columbus Blue Jackets need a third-line left wing with Matt Calvert’s contract coming off the books, and Marcus’s older brother Nick is already the center on the Blue Jackets’ third line. Dumping the $2.875 million the Wild owe Foligno each of the next three seasons would be a good place for the new Wild GM to start cleaning up Fletcher’s salary cap mess. The Wild could always sign free agents Patrick Maroon (+1, 4.2 relative Corsi, 4.1 relative Fenwick) or Jussi Jokinen (+7, 0.8 Corsi, 0.8 Fenwick) to fill the left wing position on the third or fourth lines.
The Blue Jackets have one draft pick in each of the first, second, third, sixth and seventh rounds, but packaging Foligno with, say, Mikko Koivu, could really go far in clearing the cap space necessary to extend Staal.
The Blue Jackets have roughly $17 million in cap space for next season, with only third-line defenseman Ryan Murray a restricted free agent worthy of a contract offer. The Blue Jackets’ fourth-line center Mark Letestu will also be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Acquiring Koivu would allow the Folignos to move down to the fourth line and second-line center Alexander Wennberg, 23, to skate third-line minutes. The move would transfer $8,375,000 from the Wild’s books to the Blue Jackets’ for the next two years, and Koivu’s $5.5 million in 2019-20 as well.
Coming back to the Wild could be Columbus’s third-line right wing Josh Anderson, controlled through 2019-20 at the modest price of $1.85 million annually. Currently, the Wild have just two healthy right wings on the roster in Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Rookie Kyle Rau was playing on the third line with Parise hurt in the playoffs. Anderson, 23, logged an impressive 3.3 relative Corsi and 3.2 relative Fenwick during 986.9 minutes at even strength, and would be a considerable upgrade to unrestricted free agent Daniel Winnik, who posted a relative Corsi and relative Fenwick of -3.1 as the Wild’s fourth-line right winger.
The Wild should also get a high-round draft pick from Columbus in exchange for Koivu, but probably not the first-rounder. The Wild adding a second-round selection in a draft expected to be deep with talent would be an exceptional return for their captain, Koivu. The trade would leave the Wild with $6.525 million in cap space to extend Staal or do something else if they choose to trade Staal.
Staal is coming off his best offensive season in a decade, so he’s going to demand Parise and Suter money to make up for the measly $3.5 million annual salary he was paid this year and last. But at 33, he might be signing his last contract, so much of his salary could be backloaded to give the Wild some salary cap flexibility in these years they are cleaning up Fletcher’s mess and transitioning to a new general manager.
The smart move would be to hold off on trading or extending Staal this offseason and hope he comes back strong in the first half of 2018-19, attracting interest from contending teams prior to the trade deadline. This would give the new Wild general manager at least a little time to evaluate 20-year-old center Luke Kunin, who will likely miss the start of the 2018-19 season recovering from an ACL tear in his left knee.
Even if Kunin shows the potential to be a top-line center right away, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to retain Staal as a mentor. The Wild could still sign Staal as an unrestricted free agent next offseason even after trading him for something at the deadline. Or the Wild could simply retain Staal, work Kunin into the lineup and make the playoffs again. It’s a nice problem to have, and one of the two moves of the Fletcher era that worked to perfection (the other being goalie Devan Dubnyk).
Regardless, the Minnesota Wild general manager job might not be that attractive to potential candidates, but whoever takes over the Wild not only inherits a mess, but an opportunity to contend immediately or the means to blow it all up and rebuild.
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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As we enter the stretch run of the National Hockey League season, more games are being broadcasted nationally and many of them are being played in playoff atmospheres due to their playoff implications. That’s especially the case for the NHL’s Western Conference, where the fourth-ranked Minnesota Wild and 11th-ranked Colorado Avalanche are separated by just eight points.
Just one point separates the fourth-ranked San Jose Sharks and fifth-ranked Dallas Stars. Just one point separates the Stars and sixth-ranked Los Angeles Kings. Just one point separates the Kings from the the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have a one-point edge on the Calgary Flames for the final Wild Card spot in the West, and the Flames have a one-point advantage on the St. Louis Blues, who have one point on Colorado. Almost every game played in the West the rest of the season will have playoff implications, and you’ll probably want to tune into the last month or so of the regular season to see how it all shakes out.
Just last night NBC Sports Network aired a doubleheader that featured a wild divisional game between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues that saw the Wild assert their dominance at home in an 8-3 win on the back of a hat trick by Eric Staal. Immediately after, the Los Angeles Kings won their second game in as many nights against the Western Conference leaders, the Vegas Golden Knights, in a preview of a possible first-round, playoff matchup. Today’s NBCSN Rivalry Night game between the Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues is almost a must-win game for St. Louis as a result.
If you don’t have cable or satellite television service, watching these games and the Stanley Cup Playoffs might require you to leave the comforts of home for a nearby sports bar. While it’s not all bad to catch a game with fellow fans, visiting a sports bar two or three nights per week will take a toll on your pocketbook. Even if you drink club soda you still have to get yourself there.
The National Hockey League isn’t as popular as “the big three” sports, so basic cable networks -- the ones with the most money -- don’t tend to buy the rights to broadcast many hockey games. And even though the NBC network of channels owns the rights to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s evident that NBC wants you to pay to watch hockey. It was especially evident during the 2018 Winter Olympics. Unless you had cable, satellite or a live streaming service, you couldn’t watch Olympic hockey in the State of Hockey. Not one Olympic, hockey game -- men’s or women’s -- was broadcasted on my local NBC channel in Minneapolis.
The same mostly goes for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. You might catch a game here and there on NBC using your digital antenna, but just four of the six Stanley Cup Finals games were broadcasted on basic cable last season, and just 18 of the 87 Stanley Cup Playoff games were broadcasted on NBC last year. The rest of the games were on either NBC Sports Network, CNBC or USA -- all of which require either cable, satellite or a live streaming service to view. So here are the cheapest options for cable cutters to watch playoff hockey. Hint: purchasing cable or satellite television service is not one of them.
The first knock against Xfinity’s live streaming service is that it’s only available to Xfinity customers. The second is that their 30-day, free trial is only on its basic channel lineup of 10+ channels, so NBCSN, CNBC and USA are not even included. They do waive the $10 fee for the basic package during your first month, though.
Xfinity’s customer service is as bad or worse than any other Internet service or cable providers. I actually had a customer representative sign me up for the wrong package because she did not understand that NBCSN and CNBC were different channels than NBC. I specifically stated the only channels I cared about were NBC Sports Network and CNBC, and she still signed me up for the basic package that includes neither.
Now if you’re contract is expiring with your current Internet service provider or mobile data service provider, you might consider switching to Xfinity to take advantage of a low, introductory rate on Internet or their always affordable Xfinity Mobile data plan that’s just $12 per month for one gigabyte of data. I’ve used Xfinity Mobile for three months now and have never gone over the one-gigabyte allowance because my phone connects to all the public Xfinity Wifi signals automatically. Purchasing either would give you access to Xfinity Instant TV, but there are better deals out there.
If all you want is NBC Sports Network, USA and CNBC to watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs starting April 11, Hulu is not the best answer. But it is better than paying for Xfinity’s streaming service or two years of cable or satellite service. While Hulu offers shows on demand, if the only show you intend to watch is live hockey, you can do much better than $39.99 per month. Even if you intend to watch other shows, there are cheaper options available to cable cutters.
YouTube TV is the newest streaming service on the market making waves, and at $35 per month for more than 50 channels, it’s a reasonable deal. Maybe after Google has acquired a share of the live streaming market, it will buy fewer ads and be able to lower the price. Until then, cable cutting hockey fans have cheaper options available.
Sling TV isn’t comparable to Hulu when it comes to on demand options, and it’s DVR service is an extra $10. It too offers just a seven-day, free trial, but hockey fans can save almost $15 per month going with Sling to stream NBCSN, USA and CNBC during the playoffs. You’d need to purchase the Sling Blue package of channels, which is $5 more expensive than Sling’s basic package, but you can cancel as soon as your team is eliminated. This is the best option for cable cutters who don’t have friends with cable or satellite television service on whom they can piggyback.
The cheapest option for cable cutters to watch playoff hockey is to piggyback on the cable and satellite subscriptions of family and friends. Ask for their login information and save it somewhere. As long as you’re logged in with their credentials and declare their service provider as your own, you should be able to live stream whatever channels they get that are made available to stream live by the provider.
The Minnesota Wild have already weathered multiple storms in their 2017-18 National Hockey League season, and NHL teams should be afraid -- very afraid -- because the Wild are finally healthy.
Minnesota opened the season playing a schedule that didn’t allow players to get their legs under them. Playing once every four or five days to start the season not only stunted the Wild’s collective rhythm on both sides of the puck, but likely contributed to injuries.
Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Marcus Foligno all sustained injuries on Oct. 12 in Chicago. Minnesota came into its third game of the season on four days of rest, so it wasn’t as if the Wild were in rhythm or comfortable on their skates or in their schemes. The Blackhawks didn’t seem to be either, as the Wild found a way to get five goals past Corey Crawford for their first win of the year. But Minnesota lost Foligno for a game, Niederreiter for six and Coyle for 16. The Wild went on to win eight of those 16 games and earned a point in another -- weathering the storm.
Minnesota managed to survive another storm when its workhorse goaltender, Devan Dubnyk, was shut down for six games with a lower body injury sustained on Dec. 12. But backup netminder Alex Stalock preserved the Wild win over Calgary that day, making 17 saves and allowing just one goal. Stalock played well enough for the Wild to win half of their games in Dubnyk’s absence -- again, weathering the storm.
The Wild managed to remain in the Western Conference playoff picture despite losing Jared Spurgeon for nine games and Niederreiter for another five -- a testament to the improved depth of this season’s club. Both Ryan Murphy and Joel Eriksson Ek showed improvement upon last season’s performances to fill the big skates left by Spurgeon and Niederreiter.
Ek’s relative Corsi and relative Fenwick were -12 and -11.3 last season. He’s posted a relative Corsi of -1.3 and relative Fenwick of .6 thus far this season. He still struggles in the faceoff circle, but that seems to be the case for many of the Wild players. The new faceoff rule changes saw Wild players booted from the circles regularly for the first few months of the season, but it’s occurring less and less. Minnesota is 15th in the league with a 50.4 faceoff win percentage but were sixth last season, winning 51.9 percent of faceoffs. Those faceoff numbers should improve as the season progresses, though.
Murphy was and remains an under-the-radar free agent signing. While he’s played just nine games with the NHL club, he’s lifted his 2016-17 relative Corsi from -5.3 to 3.3 and his relative Fenwick from -6 to 5.8. So far, his roughly 18 minutes of ice time per game has been much better than fellow defenseman Marco Scandella’s 18-minute average ice time last season. Scandella’s 2016-17 relative Corsi and relative Fenwick were -1.1 and -2.1, respectively.
And finally, Matt Dumba is starting to look like a keeper. Dumba’s strong slapshot is finding the net more often, and he’s been especially effective in overtime. Dumba’s just four goals shy of his total from last year because he’s taking more shots in the 2:24 of increased ice time he’s averaging this season.
Dumba’s shooting percentage is 10.6 this season -- 2.2 points higher than last year and a career high for Dumba. “Put the puck on net and good things will happen” is how the hockey cliché goes, and it’s especially true for powerful slapshots like Dumba’s. A 100-mile-an-hour puck is hard for goalies to see let alone catch, so most of Dumba’s shots are going to result in fat rebounds. That’s likely why he’s tied for third on the team with fellow defenseman Ryan Suter in point shares at 3.9. And while he still leads the team with 23 giveaways on the season, his relative Corsi is up to .3 after posting a -1.4 last year, and his relative Fenwick is also up from -2.7 to -.9.
On Thursday, in the Wild’s 41st game of the 2017-18 season, head coach Bruce Boudreau had his entire roster available for the first time all season. With half the season in the books, the Wild are finally healthy and managed to stay in contention for a playoff spot. They currently hold the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and trail Dallas by two points in the standings, but have played one less game and already beat the Stars at home this season. So the Wild’s ability to weather the storm of injuries that has held the team back in the first half of the season takes a lot of pressure off Zach Parise.
Boudreau knew he’d be without Parise to start the season but could only speculate as to how long it would take him to recover from back surgery and what kind of player he’d be post-surgery. But Parise might be one of the hardest working skaters you’ll see. He’s not the fastest, the biggest or the strongest, and his shot isn’t elite, so he skates with a chip on his shoulder. When he’s healthy (and even when he’s not), he looks like the hardest working player on the ice every second he’s out there. Tuesday was the first time I’ve seen him take it easy, and understandably so.
Parise skated on 20 shifts totalling 13:35 in ice time and put three shots on goal against the Florida Panthers in front of his home crowd. Despite Parise pacing himself, he wasn’t a liability on the ice. His 7.3 relative Corsi was sixth on the team, and his 72.7 offensive zone start percentage was second to only Chris Stewart’s 77.8 percent, for what it’s worth, which isn’t much given the sample size. He looked like a capable, third-line forward on Tuesday without exerting maximum effort, but he showed signs of his old self on Thursday.
Parise got into the scoring barrage against Buffalo after kicking a loose puck to his stick behind the Sabres’ net. He faked right, stopped on a dime and accelerated left to create separation from a defender. Then the best part of Parise’s game -- the part injuries and age can’t take from him -- displayed why the NHL should be very afraid of the Wild.
Parise knew his defender followed him behind the net, leaving the back side wide open for Coyle. Parise pushed a backhanded, wrap-around right through the blue paint and onto Coyle’s stick, who buried it in the wide open net to give Parise his first point of the season and the Wild a 6-0 lead just before the end of the second period.
The Wild still trailed the Sabres in shots on goal despite dominating puck possession and zone time, but the quality of their chances far exceeded that of the Sabres. Minnesota picked apart the league’s third-worst defense as measured by goals allowed like a playoff team should, and they didn’t let Buffalo back in the game like the last time the two played..
The Wild were up 3-1 after one period in Buffalo on Nov. 22 but let the Sabres make a game of it despite scoring twice more in the second period. It was 5-3 entering the third, and the Wild ended up playing the final 16 minutes with just a one-goal lead. Coach Boudreau has been hoping to see his team play a full 60 minutes, and the Wild are finally doing so and should be able to continue doing so now that everyone's healthy.
The Wild have an immediate opportunity to improve their playoff chances with a nationally televised game at Chicago on Wednesday, followed by a home game against the Winnipeg Jets, the second seed in the Western Conference as of this writing. After hosting Vancouver the following day, the NHL’s best visit Xcel Energy Center on Jan. 20, as Minnesota will seek revenge against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Wild were minutes away from earning a point in Tampa Bay with backup goalie Stalock in net before falling in regulation.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
Despite a 3-2 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings, the Minnesota Wild clinched its fifth consecutive playoff appearance on Sunday thanks to a loss by the Los Angeles Kings. The Wild have been falling like a hockey player in figure skates, losing nine of their last 11 games and allowing the Blackhawks to run away with the top seed in the Western Conference.
Minnesota has been a wildly different team since the acquisitions of giant center Martin Hanzal and right-handed forward Ryan White from Arizona. Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher added Hanzal and White to get physical with the likes of Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the playoffs, but a scoring slump has the Wild reeling. Since the trade the Wild have managed to win just five of 17 games.
While Hanzal has scored twice in his last 14 games, and White has put up a goose egg in the last 12, they aren’t the only ones struggling. In fact, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t. Chris Stewart has just two goals in his last 27 games. Charlie Coyle has four goals in his last 38 games. Erik Haula has just one goal in 19 games, Jared Spurgeon has scored twice in 23 games, and Jason Pominville also has just two goals in 21 games.
It gets worse. Jonas Brodin hasn’t scored in 32 games. Miko Koivu has just two goals in 24 games. Nino Niederreiter has scored once in 21 games. Ryan Suter has one goal in his last 29 games. Zach Parise has two goals in his last 13 games.
The only player that seems to be contributing consistently wasn’t even on the roster last year. Fletcher’s big, free agent acquisition, Eric Staal, has carried the team with 10 goals in March and has improved his +/- from -3 last year to +11 this season. But with everyone missing the net, that weight has gotten too heavy for Staal to carry. When you need an unassisted goal from a guy who hasn’t scored since 2015, things aren’t going well.
With six regular season games remaining and a seven-point lead over the Predators in the Central Division, the Wild are likely to host Nashville in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which might be better than if they’d won the Central Division. The St. Louis Blues have been on a familiar hot streak, winning 10 of their last 12 games under former Wild head coach Mike Yeo.
Given the deadline deal for Hanzal and White, another first-round exit in the playoffs will surely seal Fletcher’s fate. And while Bruce Boudreau has been historically mediocre in the playoffs (41-39, 1-7 in game sevens), his job should be secure. After all, it’s not his fault he’s had to rebuild a team that was never broken. He wasn’t even in the room when the trade was made.