Wild at the break: Playoffs in the stars?
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
As the All-Star break ends and the true "second half" of the season looms, the Minnesota Wild sits on the brink of a playoff spot. Of course, the actual second half is well underway, with the Wild having played 49 of 82 games this season.
With a 25-19-5 mark thus far, the Wild sits in third place in the Northwest Division, just a point behind the second-place Colorado Avalanche and a point ahead of the fourth-place Calgary Flames. If the playoffs started today, the Wild would just miss out on the fun, as the team's 55 points have it in 10th place, one point back of both San Jose and Chicago, which would get the 7th and 8th spots in the postseason.
In this time of Oscar buzz, it seems fitting to look at all aspects of the Wild's game and see where we find four-star performances bound for the red carpet, and where there are one-star stinkers bound for the direct-to-video pile.
Offense (2 stars)
All-Star Martin Havlat was the subject of much ire in the early goings of the season, as the Wild struggled to score goals and many fans looked at the high-priced import as one who was not pulling his weight in terms of putting pucks in the net. Since that time, Havlat's game has stepped up, and linemates have learned to thrive alongside his puck-moving skills. Although he leads the team with 146 shots, Havlat is not one to drive to the net on every shift, and seems more comfortable carrying the puck into the corners of the offensive zone and looking to set up others, as is clearly evidenced by the fact that his team-leading numbers include more than twice as many assists (30) as goals (14).
Beyond the attention-grabbing Havlat, there is considerable point presence in the likes of captain Mikko Koivu and physical presence Cal Clutterbuck, who is fast becoming a fan favorite by tying for the team lead in goals while hitting everything in a jersey that does not match his when on the ice.
But this team is still very much lacking an opponent-scaring presence who looks to be a scoring threat every time he is on the ice. The Wild has several very good complimentary forwards and several more role-playing forwards, but not the "put this guy on the ice late in the game when you desperately need a goal and he will deliver" guy. They lost that a few years ago when Marian Gaborik headed for free agent money in Manhattan. If this team is serious about the playoffs - not just getting in but staying in - that will be something to look for at trade deadline time.
Defense (2 stars)
While grabbing a rare (for this franchise) All-Star invite, Brent Burns has held the team lead in goals at many points this season, and is clearly the leader on a defensive unit that has equal parts promise and holes. Burns and Marek Zidlicky are the biggest offensive threats, although Zidlicky has been out of the lineup for a month after getting hurt right before New Year's.
The true shut-down defensive stalwarts are Nick Schultz and Greg Zanon. Neither provides much offensively, but that's not their role. The holes most prominently come in the form of Cam Barker, who has never shown the skill or promise the Wild thought it was getting when he was acquired in a trade with the Blackhawks last March. Beyond him there's a lot of short-term help in folks like Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner and Jared Spurgeon, who have bounced back and forth either from the injured list or the minor league team in Houston depending on the situation.
This is a good, not great defensive unit, which could be another spot in need of some shoring up if the Wild is a buyer, not a seller, at trade time.
Goaltending (3 stars)
When Josh Harding was lost for all of 2010-11 due to a preseason knee injury, few thought that depth would be the team's biggest attribute in goal at this point in the season. But with Niklas Backstrom anchoring things, former All-Star Jose Theodore looking very, very good in his official "backup" role, and youngster Anton Khudobin looking NHL-ready during the stretches he's been called up from Houston, the present and future look bright between the pipes.
The biggest issue is health, with both Backstrom and Theodore missing recent time due to injury - Backstrom's a recurrence of the hip problems that have plagued him in the past - which forced Khudobin into emergency duty, where he thrived. If the Wild decides to sell at trading time, one of that trio - most likely Theodore - could be moved to a Stanley Cup contender, although his playoff flame-out with the Capitals last season will likely have at least a few general managers casting a wary eye.
Special Teams (3 stars)
When there's a penalty box occupant, the Wild seems to thrive. Especially when that occupant is wearing the other team's colors. The power play unit has flirted among the top of the NHL for a few stretches this season, and is currently ranked 6th in the league, up there among clear Cup contenders like Detroit and Vancouver.
The effectiveness comes from a nice mix of puck-moving forwards and blue line snipers. The most notable presence on the back end is newcomer Matt Cullen, who plays forward when they're 5-on-5, but is often moved to the point on the power play where he effectively shot the puck starting back in 2006 when he was part of the Hurricanes run to the Stanley Cup championship.
The penalty kill unit has been less effective but still ranks in the top half of the NHL standings. That's the place where you see those true shutdown defensemen, and the work of the goalies.
Coaching (3 stars)
Some said Todd Richards appeared to be in over his head a year ago, in his first season as the Wild's head coach, which was also his first season as a NHL head coach. The team's horrendous October, which doomed the playoff hopes despite a turnaround later in the season, was exhibit A for that argument.
When a veteran coach like Rick Wilson was brought on board, some even suggest that an insurance policy in the case of Richards' dismissal was now on staff, and another rough start would mean a new face behind the bench before Halloween. But in the true style of a coach learning how to win at this level, Richards has found ways to adjust his style, and the team's approach, to work with what he's got.
For example, that "up tempo, post-Lemaire" style that had everyone excited has been tossed out the window, out of necessity, on several occasions, this season. On a team without a true goal-scoring star, and heavy with goaltending talent, winning with defense is what works, and what we can expect to see for the future, at least with this crew. Richards has figured that out, and looks more secure with his hometown team. The more important addition to the coaching staff, as it turns out, may have been former Gopher and former Wild Darby Hendrickson, who has given the players an ear they can turn to and helped keep things light in the locker room.
Front office (2 stars)
We're tempted to award an "incomplete" here for general manger Chuck Fletcher, as most of his moves thus far have involved flights to and from Houston to deal with injuries and other inconsistencies. He's directed two notable transactions that have caught our eye, and has a 1-1 record in that department.
The trade of future prospect Nick Leddy, and a draft pick, to get Cam Barker, was looked upon warily when it happened, and looks worse now. Barker has not been an impact defenseman, while Leddy - a Mr. Hockey winner from Eden Prairie - went from the Gophers a year ago to significant time with the defending Stanley Cup champ Blackhawks this season. That's not a trade that will be mentioned in Fletcher's media guide bio in the future.
On the flip side, credit Fletcher for not resting on Khudobin as a backup when Harding went down. Instead, a few phone calls got a former star like Theodore to man the gap behind the goal crease, and gave the team instant credibility in the back-line department.
Of course, the real challenge for any g.m. is coming up, as the trade deadline is not only a test of skill but the ultimate message to the fans about whether this team is "in it" or not. Suffice it to say that if this club remains in the playoff hunt, a Doug Reisbrough-like stand-pat move (Chris Simon, anyone?) will not cut it.
Overall (2½ stars)
So far, this looks like one of those movies with a great storyline, undone by a few casting errors. The Wild has looked brilliant for stretches, especially on the road, and headed into the break after another impressive road trip that has many fans hopeful. At home, they've looked more human, and the not-automatically-a-sellout-anymore crowds have gotten understandably restless due to some awful no-shows in St. Paul.
From now until the playoffs begin, the Wild plays 17 home games and 16 road games. We'll be grabbing some popcorn and getting seats close to the screen, wondering if this often exciting and often confusing movie has a happy ending.