Minnesota Wild 2013 Training Camp Good, Bad, and Ugly.
By: Tony Dean @AWKD
-The Wild will begin training camp with their most talented roster of players from top to bottom ahead of the 2013-14 NHL season. The Wild seemingly have a balanced mix of veterans in the prime of their career and young players on the verge of elevating their game to the NHL level.
-The Wild has drafted and graduated their top prospects to the NHL which is necessity for any successful NHL organization in the present day with the collective bargaining agreement and salary cap making young talent capable of contributing at the NHL level a significant need for all teams.
-General Manager Chuck Fletcher and his staff specifically Assistant General Manager Brett Flahr have built basically from the ground up, the organizational prospect pool and it now rivals any in the NHL. The moment that plays over and over in my mind that clarifies how skilled an talent evaluator of amateur prospects Flahr has become, has to be the “Becoming Wild” episode where he is filmed explaining why he believed Jonas Brodin had the potential to be a special player at the NHL level. The Wild truly has loaded its prospect pool with young players that will be the foundation for year to come.
-In signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last summer maybe the most impactful element is branding the organization as a top tier destination for free agent talent and capable of luring veteran hockey player native to Minnesota to this organization. As it stands now there is a healthy possibility the next NHL superstar with MN ties to make his return will be former Gopher Thomas Vanek next summer via free agency.
-This year training camp for the Wild will mark its most competitive for rosters since GM Fletcher took control. Young players will be pushing veterans not only for roster spots but for significant roles on the club this year. The Top6 is fluid at this point but not for the usual reasons of needing someone to step it up. Very easily the Wild could open up the season with Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, and Nino Nederrieter or Jason Zucker in the Top6. As it stands veteran winger Jason Pominiville is slated to start on the top line with Parise, and Mikko Koivu but Coyle experienced success playing on the top line last year and could find himself asked to play there again. Granlund was simply put brutal last season and found himself losing his roles as second line center and eventually being demoted to the AHL. The early talk out of the Wild camp has been that Coyle and Granlund will compete for the second line center role this year with last year’s incumbent Matt Cullen now playing in Nashville. Coyle a center at every level he has played in his jockey career only began playing winger after arriving at St. John being teamed with another Wild prospect Zach Phillips. Coyle’s size and style of play seem to compliment Granlund so maybe a move to the wing for him will allow his potential to be realized at the NHL level.
-The elephant in the room last year was how much positivity surrounded the resigning of Josh Harding despite more financially beneficial offers elsewhere in free agency only to have his diagnose of multiple sclerosis knock the wind out of the organization. Harding seemingly was the heir apparent to the starting goaltender spot and was now faced with an illness that attacks the nervous system and impairs reflexes. Harding made a couple starts early in the lockout shortened season and then stepped away to work on indentifying a means to manage the demands of the NHL and his illness. When Niklas Backstrom injured himself in warm ups for Game 1 of the playoffs, Harding battled his tail off for the team. Although Harding’s future is still very unsettled he showed on the NHL’s biggest stage he is able to compete and he worked very to keep to Wild in the series.
-Entering training camp this year the Wild’s blue line should no longer be considered a glaring weakness no matter which defenders make the roster. The top pairing solidified with Suter and Brodin, it will be interesting to see which defenders will round out the Top4. Early favorites to start in the second pairing are Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon. Scandella is entering a pivotal year in both his development and financially. Scandella has been the Wild’s most talented defender at times especially before the arrival of Suter and Brodin, while also having mental lapses and attitude issues that caused demotions to the AHL. Scandella has the talent to be a Top4 pairing defensemen in the NHL and will need to prove he is capable of being consistent in the defensive end to elevate his game. Spurgeon is a small in stature large in talent finesse defender that relies on his very good hands to make for his lack of size and strength. Spurgeon can be very dangerous when enable to be creative and aggressive with the puck. Spurgeon and Scandella will need to improve their pairing in the defensive end for the Wild to be considered a contender in the now loaded Central Division. Adding veteran Keith Ballard gives the blueline a defender capable of playing in every situation and looking to find his game after a disappointing tenure in Vancouver. Ballard could find himself playing in the Top4 or bottom 2 pairing depending on how the blueline shakes out after training camp and during the regular season. Matthew Dumba is a kid that it is hard to do justice trying to explain his impact on a hockey game. Dumba is better recognized and understood by being in attendance when his eyes light up at the opportunity of blowing up an opponent in the open ice with a devastating full body check. Dumba is a kid that can take the puck end to end fearlessly dangling towards the net or unleashing a bomb from the point. Dumba may still be a season away from joining the Wild but only for what could be his own protection as the Wild will need him to grow and build onto his frame before unleashing him on NHL competition. Dumba could very well earn his way onto the opening game roster this year but he will have to be overly convincing for that to occur. Also the addition of Jon Blum a talented offensive defensemen from Nashville via free agency and what is shaping up to be a minimized role for Clayton Stoner all should be viewed as very positive signs for the Wild.
-As we are on the verge of another NHL season here in that state of hockey, fans and members of the Team of 18,000 have to wonder whether this will be the year the ghost of Jacques Lemaire will be exercised? This is still a hockey club that struggles to consistently score goals and has been notorious for disappearing against more physical and skilled opponents. When Lemaire was the coach of the Wild his ability implement a very positional responsible trapping defensive brand of hockey helped to earn his Wild teams grind it out victories against more offensively skilled opponents. Although effective Lemaire’s brand of hockey was not very pleasing to watch for the fan base and ultimately the Wild as an organization has worked to distances itself from that style of hockey and the ideology of the previous regime. The counter effect of trying to play a more exciting offensive brand of hockey has been the lack of defensive zone responsibility. The Wild has struggled in its own end against skilled opponents and lacks the physical play necessary to keep opponents honest in the corners and in front the net. The Wild has not done their goaltenders many favors recently and that will need to change if this team is going to be a Cup contender.
-Mike Yeo is in his first tenure as an NHL Head Coach and it has been a very bumpy transition after his experience as an NHL assistant and AHL experience. Yeo is clearly knowledgeable about how winning hockey is played but he has struggled to indentify roles for specific players and incorporate success line combinations and defensive pairings. Yeo has struggled to decisive addressing issues of chemistry and inability to perform by the Wild’s veterans and young players. Yeo has not succeeded at intervening or soliciting a response from his Wild teams in game when adverse situation have occurred during his time on the job. Last year the Wild nearly collapsed and missed the playoffs entirely and the followed it up by being out played, coached, and worked by the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Yeo is plainly coaching for his job this year despite dreaded votes of confidence by Wild owner Craig Leopold and Fletcher. Yeo has already been spinning the message that the Wild’s offense will be exciting and aggressive which the fans know to be code for hopefully it will not be broken like it was last year and the year before that.
-Fletcher has been very skilled and able to add top prospects and find talent in the amateur ranks through the draft with a good amount of the credit going to Flahr and the scouting staff. Where Fletcher has left a lot to be desired is identifying and addressing talent at the NHL level through free agency. Parise and Suter not included as they are the exception obviously, Fletcher at best draws mixed reviews for his free agent signings and their performance in a Wild sweater. Fletcher also has a mixed record in making trades with maybe his most celebrated trade of Brent Burns looking less like a complete success now that the Wild has given up on Devin Setogucci trading him to the Jets this summer. The Nick Leddy for Cam Barker trade will always be a flashpoint for casual hockey fans and a sore spot every time Leddy suits up against the Wild but in context the idea around that trade and specifics are not a bad as it currently appears. I am definitely not defending how little Barker contributed to the Wild or downplaying how good a hockey player Leddy has become with Chicago. I am just pointing out Barker has fooled many hockey personnel guys not just Fletcher. The latest scrutinized deal made by Fletcher is the Jason Pominiville trade which currently is widely viewed as an overpayment or desperation move at the deadline. The caveat for Fletcher though is no one will ever second guess that trade if it helps to facilitate luring Vanek next summer by bringing in his friend and former linemate Pominiville.
-Yeo has cringed and attempted to argue away the term dump and chase but just being honest about it in his 2 seasons on the job his teams have done a lot of dumping and chasing the puck. Yeo has been under siege at different points from media types and the fans in response to what exactly his system entails and why the Wild has struggled so mightily to enter the opponent’s zone with the puck and maintain possession of the puck as opposing teams seems to do against the Wild on a nightly basis. It’s a tough line to toe attempting to explain what a system is to casual hockey fans and then have them understand why it is not working. It is especially tough to find an audience willing to listen when the ownership, front office and media is describing your team as the most talented in Wild history. Point blank Yeo is a guy I believe everyone wants to like but it will not matter if he fails to remedy his shortcomings as the head guy in charge. Yeo must get his line combinations and defensive pairings right this year out of the gate. Yeo must be able to get his team’s attention and stem the tide when momentum swings in game and he will need to hold EVERYONE of his players accountable to their assigned role on the team.
-The simple truth about this season for the Wild is that they still may not have the group of players or coaching staff equipped to make a deep run at a Stanley Cup. I realize the Wild has yet to play an NHL game in the 2013-14 season and already I have unleashed a negative take on their outlook but I think this is an incomplete team with areas of need that just were not addressed this offseason.
-The Wild’s defensive corps is talented but lacks an imposing physical presence. When Suter arrived here via trade I am sure fans had a complete picture of his style of hockey. Suter is a supremely talented player in both zone but he is not a hard hitting physical defender in his own end instead he relies on smarts and positioning to eliminate opponents ability to score. In fact the Wild last season and even this year lacks a truly punishing defender capable of playing Top4 pairing minutes. The Wild currently rosters only one player in Clayton Stoner, who I would consider to play a physical brand of hockey in his own end capable of keeping opponents honest. Stoner though struggles with his skating and puck handling so his role is best limited to not have him exposed for his weaknesses.
-Ultimately no matter how the Wild front office and coaching staff chooses to view and explain it, had Dany Heatley not been ineligible being considered an injured player this offseason he would have been a compliance buyout. Now that doesn’t mean that Tom Gilbert would have avoided being a compliance buyout as well, I just believe Heatley would have been the first to go. As it stands now Heatley is still capable contributing to this hockey team and he has shown that he can still score 20+ goals but I think that a major mistake made by Yeo last season could repeat itself again this year out of camp with Heatley playing in the Top6. Heatley is no longer a sniper at the NHL level due to diminished skating and puck handling ability. Heatley struggles to apply pressure in Yeo’s forecheck heavy system because he is now a stride or two late getting to the puck. Heatley does possess an ability to score the puck and if playing with complimentary players able to carry and deliver the puck to him in the slot or in front of the net he could be still valuable to the Wild. Because Yeo miscast him on the top line and in the Top6 last season, it proved costly to chemistry and production. I will always give Heatley credit for coming in here and being a positive influence and battling his tail off for the most part but Yeo will need to clearly define for him a role better suited to his current skill set as more of a power forward 3rd line winger.
-If the Wild does not see its young players take a large step forward in their consistency at the NHL level it will not compete in a very tough Central Division this year. Granlund specifically will need to make good on all the talent and hype that has surrounded him. The Wild and Yeo specifically fell victim last season out of camp depending on Granlund to step into a very important role as the center on the second line only to see him in over his head. Granlund was eliminated offensively by lesser players with middle of the road physical play. Granlund proved to be a liability in the defensive end and found himself a healthy scratch on a team desperate for secondary scoring. If Granlund is unable to translate his all world talent and potential to success with the Wild it will be a major blow to both Fletcher and Yeo now and moving forward. It will be interesting to see if Yeo and Fletcher are willing to concede that Granlund maybe better suited to play on the Wing which they have yet to commit to or attempt to implement. I think Granlund has lacked any sort of killer instinct in his NHL ice time choosing to differ not unlike the skill set of now gone Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Unless Granlund is able to find his confidence and scoring touch against NHL competition, then he needs to be utilized in a complimentary role setting the table for a player like Heatley who is willing and able to fire the puck early and often.
Just My Thoughts,