Friday, April 30, 2010

Penguins Open Up On Montreal

Friday night opened up the series between the Canadiens and Penguins and it got started in Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. The Canadiens rode a little bit of their Game Seven momentum early on in the game, but then the Penguins decided to flex their own offensive muscle, taking advantage of some quickly fatigued legs.  The Penguins won each period 2-1, easily taking the game 6-3 in the end.  The game within the game will be keeping down the attrition, which we will catch up on a little bit further down in this post.

The big players in the pool tonight all had 2 points each tonight and there was a bundle of those players between both teams.  Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Kristopher Letang, Alex Goligoski and Bill Guerin had a pair of points each for the Penguins, while Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez each had a pair of points for the Canadiens.  In a 6-3 game, we're definitely going to see a lot of key points for the pool, especially when all the best players come out to play.

New Playoffs Game Winner ButtonIt's too bad our winning goal was stolen from the pool again.  Craig Adams picked up credit for the Penguins' 4th goal of the game... well, not so much getting credit more than being on the other end of a beautiful pass from Pascal Dupuis and deflecting it into a wide open cage. This means the lead in the hockey pool bonus point doesn't change... for now.

Game-Winning Goals
Injuries are going to be a part of the game, but both the Canadiens and Penguins suffered major injuries in Game One.  The Canadiens lost their best defenseman in Andrei Markov, as he left the game with what appeared to be a right knee injury, falling awkwardly after colliding with Matt Cooke in the 1st period.  There was word that Markov was seen leaving the building on crutches and there is significant fear that the has yet another major knee injury involving ligaments.  Stay tuned to find out more.

The Penguins also lost a significant part of their line-up after Jordan Staal fell awkwardly in a collision with the Canadiens' PK Subban.  Staal seemed to favour his leg/ankle when he left the ice before the end of the 2nd period.  I haven't seen an update on Staal or his availability going forward, but I'm sure the blog will be updated when it knows what's going on.

Saturday's Games

Game One of the Flyers and Bruins series goes nice & early on Saturday.  The afternoon/morning game of this physical series should be a dandy.  Both teams have a bit of a physical history together and I think we're all expecting a few fireworks.  If you've read the preview for the second round, you'd know.

In the evening, the Canucks invade Chicago for some revenge of 2009 against the Blackhawks.  This game will also have it's fair share of fireworks, so this one will definitely be one to see.  I know I'll be watching and I'll also be micro-blogging on Twitter as the game goes on.  Stay tuned to my Twitter feed... @opiatedsherpa.

Pool Outlook for Dallas

The Dallas Stars didn't do a great deal of tinkering before the 2010 season began, they ended up losing out on their franchise defenseman (Sergei Zubov), injuries reared their ugly head and their number one goalie really struggled to keep the team afloat.  Overall, it was not adding up to a good season for the Stars, whether they liked it or not.   The Stars didn't fare so well in the season, finishing out of the playoffs in the Western Conference and in a lottery pick for the 2010 Entry Draft.  They have already outlined some plans to go in a different direction in the coming season, but let's quickly have a look at what transpired in the season just passed.

One of the few bright spots in the Dallas season was definitely Brad Richards, who led the team in pool scoring during the year.  He finished with 24 goals and 67 assists in 80 games, finishing better than a point-per-game and ranked 12th in the league among all players.   That being said, he was also suffering from a hip problem, which he will have undergone surgery to repair in this off-season, suggesting that he wasn't 100% for the better part of the year.  Richards should be considered a 1st round pick in next year's Draft, especially if his hip recovers fully.

There was definitely some improvement in the healthier forwards on the Dallas squad, as Loui Eriksson finished with 71 points (29 goals & 42 assists) in 82 games and James Neal had 55 points in 78 games.  Both players finished in the top 100 in pool scoring this year, Eriksson all the way up in 35th.  That's definitely a pretty good year to celebrate.  Rookie Jamie Benn scored 22 goals and 19 assists in all 82 games, which didn't get him into the Calder nods, but it's still a pretty good year.  Beyond those three, you can make some arguments for other players, but overall the depth did struggle with injuries, including Mike Ribeiro, who only figured into 66 games and Mike Modano, who figured into 59. 

The defense of the Dallas Stars definitely not as potent as years previous, as the top blueline scorer on the team was Stephane Robidas, who finished with 41 points in all 82 games for the Stars, ranking him 189th in the league scoring for the pool, his highest ranking on record. Before the season started, Robidas was rewarded (?) with a new contract extension, so he'll likely be the Stars best blueliner for a few more years.  Trevor Daley took a dip in pool rankings this year, only picking up 22 points in 77 games, Matt Niskanen and Karlis Skrastins also dropped, having 15 and 13 points, respectively.  Building up their blueline should be a priority this Summer.

Marty Turco was definitely a point of concern for the Dallas Stars in 2010, struggling for a good portion of the season. He did recover near the end of the season to finish with a 22-20-11 record, but it was the first time since the 2003 season that he didn't finish with at least 30 wins.  Turco finished with 56 points in the pool this year, ranking him 91st in the scoring race, but that wasn't enough for the Stars organization, as they have already announced that Turco's contract will not be renewed and he will be a free agent in the Summer.  Kari Lehtonen, who was acquired from the Thrashers this season, will likely take over the number one job.

2011 Season Outlook
It does look like a new direction will be taken in Dallas, as there are going to be some fresh faces in the line-up and likely some new ideas put forward as well, so it's really hard to say how good the outlook is going to be at this point in time.  We can definitely look at the building blocks that they have in place and make some preliminary predicitions, but they are nothing to hang our hats on utnil we get closer to a full line-up.

Brad RichardsStephane Robidas
Loui ErikssonTrevor Daley
Mike RibeiroKarlis Skrastins
Brendan MorrowMark Fistric
Jamie BennJeff Woywitka
Steve Ott
Toby Petersen
Tom Wandell
Brian Sutherby

I suppose the biggest question with this group of players listed above is whether or not they are going to be healthy enough to be a good core group. They are definitely cost-effective, counting only $35.9 million against the salary cap for next season and there is 14 names already on the list.  That leaves plenty of room to get their goalies signed, plus a defender or two and five forwards. 

The Stars have some work to do when it comes to their restricted free agents, with James Neal, Matt Niskanen and Kari Lehtonen leading the way as likely priorities for their Summer signings.  I'm curious to see how they deal with fellow RFA, Fabian Brunnstrom, who didn't have a great season with the Stars, not fitting into the system as they thought he might.  Niklas Grossman rounds out the semi-regular players that played for the Stars that also needs a new RFA deal this off-season.

Marty Turco, Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen may have all played their last games in a Dallas Stars uniform this season, all coming up as unrestricted free agents.  Of course, we already know Turco will hit the open market, we're waiting to see if Modano retires or not and I suppose there is still a chance that Lehtinen could be signed to another deal, but that might just go against the younger model being built up by managment.  I can't see any of them being part of the plan going forward, but that's just my somewhat-educated guess.

Looking at the Dallas prospects system today, there isn't really much that jumps out at me from the pages of the Future Watch put out by the Hockey News, but I do recognize some of the names and would definitley be interested in seeing how well they will develop.  Scott Glennie is currently playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL.  His WHL playoffs are done, but he will be playing in the Memorial Cup regardless, as the Wheat Kings are hosting the tournament this year.  Glennie was a 1st round pick in 2009 and should have a lot of upside. The Stars did get to show off Philip Larsen in the last couple games of the season and might get a long look at him at camp this Fall.

At the Entry Draft, the Stars will have the 11th pick overall and I would have to believe that they will be going for the most skillful player at the draft position of 11th, which has been their focus for the last couple years... or so I've been reading. 

What I said at this time last year: "There is plenty to be excited about in Dallas, especially from a pool perspective. With players like Brad Richards, Brendan Morrow and Sergei Zubov hiding among the mediocre players on the 2009 scoring list, they could be very good finds at your next Draft. A season under the belt of Fabian Brunnstrom should help his fantasy stock price a bit, while there are some new names to consider from the team, including Steve Ott. If I didn't have such club allegiances in the West, it wouldn't be so hard for me to pick Dallas Stars on my pool team, but at the right pick, they could all be a steal and that's how you can win your pool quite easily. Keep an eye on those Stars!"

I think the only I was right about last year was that Brad Richards was going to be a good pick as a guy that was hiding among the mediocre players in the Draft.  If you managed to snag Richards at a lower position, you would have loved his production this year.  Morrow didn't recover his scoring numbers fully, Zubov left for Europe, Brunnstrom was a bust, but I wouldn't say that the year was a complete write-off, as Loui Eriksson really impressed in 2010.

I have a feeling that more youth will be served in the 2011 season, but it might not be the most beneficial result right away.  Jamie Benn and James Neal will likely be focal points for the Stars, as they use their playmaking centres of Richards and Ribeiro try to find some chemistry with them.  Benn will be a sophomore in 2011 and the jinx has been a little stronger in the past couple years, so my expectations will likely stay low for him.  Neal was better in his sophomore year, so maybe there is hope for Benn.  I'm also expecting some growing pains with Kari Lehtonen becoming the new number one, I suspect he'll have a medium season, but likely look close to breaking out at a couple of points during the year.

First Night, Second Round

The San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings opened up the second round with quite the game. The Sharks managed to jump out to a big early start, only to have the veteran presence of the Red Wings claw back into the game and keep it close. When it was all said and done, the Sharks managed to hold off the Wings for a 4-3 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

If the Sharks are going to go all the way this Spring, they are likely going to ride on the shoulders of Joe Pavelski, who has carried them through the first round and again though the first game of the second round.  Pavelski led the way against the Red Wings with another strong effort, including 2 goals and an assist, not to mention eventually getting credit with the game-winner for a 4-point night in the pool.  

Other notable players in the game include, Dan Boyle (3 assists), Dany Heatley (goal & assist), Jason Demers (2 assists), Johan Franzen (goal & assist) and Pavel Datsyuk (2 assists).

It should come as no surprise when the injury listing for the evening says "undisclosed," especially when it's one of your team's top three scorers. Patrick Marleau was a scratch for Game One against the Red Wings.  According to the broadcast on Thursday night, he didn't take the skate with the team in the morning and was made a late scratch just before the start.  Of course there won't be any word on what his status will be for Game Two until just before the game. 

Tonight's Games

Just like the Red Wings the night before, the Canadiens didn't have long to wait before their next series got started.  Friday's only game will be Game One between the Penguins and the Habs in Pittsburgh.  You would have to think that the legs of Montreal are still buzzing after their thrilling Game Seven win over Washington, but the Penguins and their weathered legs must have enjoyed some time off from intensive game action before starting a new series.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pool Outlook for New York

We're now at the one-third mark of the Pool Outlooks and we have come to the New York Rangers, who were not terribly far off from making the playoffs in 2010, but just far enough to drum up some general concern for the 2011 season.  The Rangers will middle of the pack when it came to goal scoring and fairly decent when it came to keeping the puck out of their own net, so they do have something to build off when they go to work this Summer, starting to build another championship team.  They had to do a lot of shifting last Summer, so it could be a much quieter silly season by comparison.

To be fair, there were a lot of doubts surrounding Marian Gaborik when he signed with the New York Rangers.  I wouldn't say doubts about his skill, because that really couldn't possibly be the case.  Gaborik is one of the most offensively gifted players in the NHL.  No, the doubts were going to be around his health and I think there was some lingering concerns about how he would fit in with the Big Apple.  When concern yourself no more, as Gaborik exploded onto the season in the Big Apple and he came away with a team-leading 86 points (42 goals and 44 assists) in 76 games for the Rangers. He came in as advertised, but unfortunately, that wasn't enough for the Rangers to make it into the playoffs.

Behind Gaborik, there was a little bit of a depth issue in the forward ranks, as the Rangers only had two more forwards that scored 20 goals... not 20+ goals, 20 goals, period.  Vaclav Prospal and Brandon Dubinsky finished with 20 each in the year and they were pretty good for the most part, but nowhere near consistent.  The Rangers managed to snag Olli Jokinen out of Calgary, but that didn't turn out to be as big of deal as the Rangers may have wanted.  Jokinen finished with 50 points in 82 games between the two cities.  Ryan Callahan had a pretty good year with the Rangers, 37 points in 77 games as a 3rd line grinder, but his game is maturing a bit more and I expect good things from him in 2011.  There was a noticeable slip in production from Chris Drury this past season, as he only picked up 32 points in 77 games, dropping him down in the rankings just a little bit further.  Drury has been on the decline in the past four seasons.

What a prospect Michael Del Zotto turned out to be in the 2010 season, eh?  I did think he may not have been ready at this time last year, but he was definitely out to prove that he's an NHL-ready player and he did that by leading the Rangers in scoring from the blueline.  Del Zotto picked up 37 points in 80 games for the Rangers, which was by no means incredible, but he had to take it upon himself to do it.  Marc Staal also stepped up this season, picking up 27 points in 82 games, making strides to new career-highs this year.  Del Zotto and Staal are a pair that will grow well together in the years to come.  Matt Gilroy was also a pleasant surprise as a rookie, picking up 15 points in 69 games, showing that there is plenty of youth there.  Unfortunately, it was the veteran defenders that suffered in their play, as Dan Girardi, Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden were not as good as they should have been.

In goal, it was another year to lean on Henrik Lundqvist for the Rangers, which makes sense, as he is a pretty good goalie.  Lundqvist did have his own struggles this season, he wasn't as dominating as he has been in the past.  He had a poor-to-mediocre Olympics and he couldn't really recover in a hard-playing schedule, where he figured into 73 of the Rangers 82 games.   Lundqvist did win 35 games and pick up 79 points for the poolies, but being backed up by a myriad of keepers all year, didn't give the Rangers a lot to trust besides their number one guy.  The Rangers are desperately in need of giving that guy a hand.

2011 Season Outlook
There are parts of the Rangers I really like and would be really looking forward to in 2011, but there are other parts that the team still has to sit on, even past the 2011 season. The Rangers will be hard at work trying to fill in the gaps in their line-up with free agency and some prospects, but their core should be applauded, as it stands as one of the more impressive groups.

Marian GaborikMichael Del ZottoHenrik Lundqvist
Brandon DubinskyMichal Rozsival
Ryan CallahanMatt Gilroy
Chris DruryWade Redden
Sean Avery
Aaron Voros
Brian Boyle

This group listed above is the starting off point for the Rangers heading into the Summer. Unfortunately for management, it's not a very cheap group of players and those who are really overpriced are going to be impossible to move. Currently, the 12 players listed above come in with an annual salary cap hit of $43.4 million, which only leaves in the neighbourhood of $14 million for 11 players. That isn't exactly a great jumping off point, but if the Rangers are going to use some entry-level contracts to fill gaps, then they should be able to save space.

The Rangers will have some bigger names hit unrestricted free agency this Summer, as Vaclav Prospal, Olli Jokinen, Erik Christensen, Alex Auld and Jody Shelley are eligible to become free agents on July 1st.  My expectations are pretty low on the Rangers re-signing most of these guys, but I would expect Prospal to likely get an offer or at least have some sort of negotiations about staying.  I'm not 100% sold on it, but I could see it happening.

The Rangers have a lot of work to do with their restricted free agents coming up, as some key young players are coming up on their first big payday.  Artem Anisimov, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Brandon Prust will be priorities one through four, not in that particular order though.  There could be a lot of cap space taken by a couple of these guys, while depth should get paid as depth.  The cap crunch may hit the Rangers a little harder than you once thought.

The Rangers youth system took a turn for the better in the past 12 months, as they now have some more credible talent coming up the ranks.  Derek Stepan really made a name for himself at the World Juniors, as did Chris Kreider.  Those are two very thrilling forwards that the Rangers should get a good look at in camp this coming year.  Ryan McDonagh was picked up from Montreal during the Summer and Bobby Sanguinetti are big guys working on their blueline skills.   The Rangers are also expecting to see Chad Johnson in the back-up role for Lundqvist in a full-time sense, so he might be one to look at, if you're drafting for back-up goalies.

The Rangers hold the 10th pick overall in the Entry Draft this June and I would imagine they will just be going after the best available player at the time.

What I said at this time last year: "Other than Henrik Lundqvist, there really isn't a player that I would be in a rush to pick up, if I was doing a fantasy draft right now. Gomez is down... Drury is down...Rozsival is down... Redden is down... the Rangers have nothing of increasing value at the minute. There could be some hope with a new face or two in the line-up come next Fall, but I am having a hard time believing that the 2010 season will be much different. With cap woes on the horizon, we could see a different team playing in MSG altogether, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing."

I think that was a pretty fair assessment of the Rangers at the same time last year, don't you think?  Gomez was shipped out, saving him from some merciless jeers, Drury went down again, Rozsival indeed dropped, Redden fell again... and that was all before Gaborik & Del Zotto came to town.  Yes, there were a couple players that did come in on the rise, but they weren't huge number or big pool players, so it wasn't terribly noticable.  The Rangers did make the playoffs in 2009, but 2010 was a different story and change did blow it's way in.

As for 2011, the Rangers are still being weighed down by some heavy cap contracts in Redden, Drury and Rozsival, which likely cannot be moved easily, if at all.  The only player I expect better things from in 2011 is Rozsival, but even then it's a bit of a stretch.  The Rangers will definitely be in the hunt for the playoffs, either just making it or just missing it, but it's going to be close again.  The Rangers will ride heavily on their veterans to see the young kids through a grueling season, but improvements will definitely be in store for Del Zotto, Staal, Callahan and Gilroy.

2010 Hart Trophy Candidates

Well, the last major trophy to announce nominations for is the league MVP, the Hart Trophy, where players are picked because of their relative value to their team.  Usually, the debate centres around who the best player actually was, by citing scoring titles or certain records, but being most valuable to one's team  can sometimes be a little bit more than that, although the nominations may suggest a little differently.  Here are the three names chosen by the voters for the title as MVP.

It should come as no shock that Henrik Sedin got a nod for the Hart Trophy this year, as he did lead the league in scoring this year.  It's not only that he led the league in points, it is the effect on the Canucks that he had as well, especially with his brother Daniel, who they are known to play so well together and have more of an effect as a tandem, being injured and Henrik having to shoulder the load.  Not only did he shoulder the load, but played exceptionally well in his absence.  For those reasons, it is a solid nod.

The second nod goes to Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who ended up in a tie for the league lead in goal scoring this year with Steven Stamkos of the Lightning.  Crosby really took it upon himself to shoot the puck more, which lead to his 51 goals this season and he had to take on a bit more of the scoring role to lead the team, as he wasn't complimented as much by last year's scoring champion, Evgeni Malkin.  Crosby is the undisputed leader of the Penguins and this is his recognition for it.

The last nomination for the Hart Trophy went to Alexander Ovechkin, who went about his work, scoring 50 goals and leading the Capitals to the President's Trophy for the best record in the NHL.  Ovehckin was one of the more dominant scorers in the league, having the best points-per-game average among all skaters this year with 1.51 points per.  Ovechkin's 50 goals was third in the league in that category and was tied for second in points with 109.  He definitley was a key component to the Capitals success in the regular season.

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Second Round Matches in the East

All three division winners in the Eastern Conference have now been eliminated and that now makes the Pittsburgh Penguins the top seed in the East, gaining home-ice against the Montreal Canadiens, who played giant killers, by knocking off the Washington Capitals in seven games. There is very little rest for the wearied Canadiens, as they will immediately go into their second round series with Pittsburgh on Friday night, which will be shown on CBC in Canada and Versus in the USA (except for Sunday, an NBC telecast for Game Two).  In the pool, Sidney Crosby leads the way in scoring going into this series, he also leads all players in the pool, with 15 points.  The most popular player in this series is actually Evgeni Malkin, who has 21 selections, so he will be clutch for those teams trying to move out of the basement and pass the teams that had Capitals high up on their Sheet.  With only eight Habs taken in the entire pool, Marc-Andre Bergeron could be a wild card player, as he has five selections to his name, that could make some creeping up possible.

This match-up numbers-wise is all about the Penguins, but we have a real Cinderella story on our hands, so Pittsburgh should be very careful about who they are messing with.  A Penguins loss could be very devastating, as another 157 picks would be down the tubes and it would be a true upset kind of pool... in the Eastern Conference anyways.

In a battle of upsetting teams, the series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins has a very underdog feel to it. This series has really mixed up the East, but there are a good number of teams that were wise enough to see that both teams would be making it through to the second round, so they are in excellent shape for points going into this weekend's action.  If this is at all a long series, I would say that the teams with a large number of players left would have the advantage in the pool, because they should have some of these guys.  Brian Boucher leads this series coming in with 10 points in the pool, thus far.  Mike Richards is next on the list with 9 points, which I am thinking that this could be a big advantage for Philadelphia, not to mention the amount of rest the managed to get after beating New Jersey so early.  The Bruins are led by Patrice Bergeron, who had 6 points in the series against the Sabres, which is somewhat low, but the Bruins made it out of the round, so they can't complain.

The numbers match-up is quite low, so it should be a pretty good series.  The Flyers have an edge in picks of 57 to 46 and I don't believe there are too many teams with players from both sides, but I know there are a few.  The most popular player in this series is Kimmo Timonen, who has 14 selections to his name, but it might be the players with only five or less selections that may or may not make a difference. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Presidents Are Done, the First Round Concludes

It's still rather hard to believe that the Capitals will not be playing past the first round in these playoffs, but there ya have it. They are done.  The Montreal Canadiens have upset the President's Trophy team this year and there is plenty to talk about going into the second round.  First of all, we'll have to say goodbye to the Capitals and then we'll put together some posts to commemorate the first round and it's meanings.

It was another tight game, much tighter than a duck's rear end and the Habs hung on for dear life.  Tonight was a night where just a win was good enough to be the best player in the game for points, as Jaroslav Halak made another 41 stops to earn the clinching victory and the biggest 2 points of the playoffs so far.  It's truly too bad that there wasn't a Habs fan in the pool with the gumption enough to pick him.  We would have had the possibility of a 2006 replay, when this pool had one Oilers' fan in and had Dwayne Roloson all the way.  Easy money there, I tell you.

The Capitals were just shy of everyone in the pool having three each, but 165 of 168 possible selections will have to be enough... that's 98.2% of the possible amount of picks.  Only one team had the cohones to not pick the Capitals three times.  The 52nd place team, Derek B., was the only team not to have Capitals on his team, but that really won't matter going into the second round, it seems.  The Canadiens did have 8 selections to their name, making them a ridiculous underdog, but it happened.  For those people hedging their bets with some Montreal defense, you might be in for a treat.  The most popular player in the pool, Alexander Ovechkin, has been taken away from contention, making Sidney Crosby the ultimate player in this pool, which will likely lift quite a few teams over the others that didn't take him.

Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom led the Capitals in scoring in the 1st round series, both having 10 points.  The only player on the Sheet for the Capitals not to register a point was Jose Theodore, as he was dropped in favour of Semyon Varlamov earlier in the series.  This is such a huge blow to the scope of the pool, as we all thought that Ovechkin and Crosby would have a good duel, hopefully to the Conference Finals.

Game-Winning Goals
New Playoffs Game Winner ButtonWell, it was another game-winning goal stolen away from the pool again on Wednesday night, as Dominic Moore was the eventual hero for the Canadiens, scoring to actually make it 2-0 for Montreal in the 3rd period. It managed to hold up the Capitals onslaught, which only managed to score one goal late.

So, there we go... 9 game-winning goals was enough to have the lead after the 1st round. Russ and Carl are continuing to lead as the 2nd round starts on Thursday. In 2009, one team led the pool with 10 game-winners, so these two are not too far off.

PhotobucketSo, that's it... that's the first round.  No team has 24 players going into the 2nd round and only one team has 21.  Myles D., who currently sits in 19th place, 23 points out of 1st, is the only team with 21 players and has to have a huge 2nd round by his extra players to be in the conversation for some money at the end.

Neil B. will start the 2nd round with a 3-point lead in the pool over Allan S. and 5 points better than 3rd place, Kalenab G..  All three are in the conversation for the GWG lead as well, so you know those have worked well for them in this pool as well.

I should have the Eastern Conference match-ups ready for everyone tomorrow afternoon!  They get going on Friday.

Pool Outlook for Minnesota

The Minnesota Wild were a team also looking for a different identity in 2010, with the change in coaching, change in top-end scorer and a few other new faces in the organization, but in their look for that new identity, they had a hard time finding some wins and then found themselves on the outside looking in on the playoffs.  Today, we'll have a review of the season and maybe predict what and how their Summer may turn out, because they might need a little bit of a hand figuring it all out.

The Wild spent a fair bit of coin looking for someone to score in place of Marian Gaborik, who left the team via free agency last Summer, but ended up with a player from their own roster leading the way in 2010.  Mikko Koivu improved his numbers yet again, scoring 71 points (22 goals & 49 assist) in 80 games for the Wild, setting a new career-high in points and in pool ranking, finishing 36th among all pool scorers.   That would make him a solid 3rd round pick in the Draft this past year, if we picked in order of rankings using this year's numbers.  That's an impressive season for the coming-of-age Finn.

There was definitely some ups and downs among the rest of the Wild forwards in 2010.  Andrew Brunette had an up year, 61 points in 82 games; Martin Havlat had a down year, 54 points in 73 games; Antti Miettinen had a down year, 42 points in 79 games; Guilliaume Latendresse had a big up year, 40 points in 78 games; and Owen Nolan had a down year, 33 points in 73 games.  The Wild did look to Havlat and Miettinen to be better, especially Havlat, who signed a big contract to take Gaborik's job in the off-season.  Instead, their scoring suffered and they finished 11 points out of a playoff spot.  Of course, the season-long injury to Pierre-Marc Bouchard was a huge blow to the Wild offense, since he's been known to pick up 15-20 goals a year. 

The defense going into the 2010 season had a fair bit of promise attached to it, especially offensively.  Marek Zidlicky and Brent Burns were on the verge of having some pretty good seasons, but they didn't really break out the way the Wild were hoping.  Zidlicky finished with 43 points in 78 games, while Burns only picked up 20 points in 47 games.  You can point to the Burns injury during the year as a definite contributing factor, but they didn't quite meet up to expectations, especially for the hockey poolies out there.  The addition of Cam Barker at the deadline should be a positive one for the future, as he's rounded out to be a pretty good defenseman in the NHL.

Sharp definitely wouldn't be a word used to describe the goaltending for Minnesota during the season.  Niklas Backstrom was not playing at the level that we are generally used to see him play at, while Josh Harding wasn't the rock solid back-up we've seen out of him in the past couple seasons.  Without a doubt, things were a little bit shaky in the net for the Wild, but that's nothing a bounce-back season couldn't make you forget about, right?  Backstrom only finished with 26 wins and 57 points in 2010, ranking him 88th among all pool scorers.  That's way down from 11th in 2009 and 38th in 2008, so there were definitely some struggles. 

2011 Season Outlook
When 100% healthy, the Minnesota Wild have a very good core of players, which should be able to compete with any team in the league and make a good run to the playoffs.  Of course, that wasn't the case in 2010, but there should be plenty of hope for 2011.  As you can see below, the team that is put together so far, looks pretty good.

Mikko KoivuMarek ZidlickyNiklas Backstrom
Andrew BrunetteCam Barker
Martin HavlatBrent Burns
Antti MiettinenNick Schultz
Kyle BrodziakGreg Zanon
Cal Clutterbuck
Chuck Kobasew
Pierre-Marc Bouchard

To Minnesota's credit, they do spend the money allocated to them under the salary cap, as their 2010 number was nice and snug to the cap ceiling, so Wild fans can take comfort in that. Currently, the group of players listed above have an annual cap hit of $43.9 million and that includes a few franchise forwards, some pretty good defense and their number one goalie. This should suggest that they will use their $14 million (or so) remaining under the cap to bring some of their top end youth in and/or sign some above-average depth players.  This does look awfully good for the Wild.

There is a mighty fine possibility that the unrestricted free agent crop coming out of Minnesota will signal a bit of a cleansing of their operation.  Owen Nolan, Shane Hnidy, Petr Sykora, Wade Dubielewicz and Jamie Sifers are all likely done with the club, unless they can serve some minor ice-time purpose going forward.  I do expect to see Derek Boogaard and John Scott back and signed before they can get away, but otherwise it's time for some fresh thinking in Minnesota.

The Wild will also have to re-up some restricted free agent talent in the way of Latendresse, Harding, James Sheppard, Anton Khudobin and Nate Prosser (a mid-season signing) to help move their team along.  The toughest one of the bunch will be Harding, who was looking to be a number one guy somewhere by now I'm thinking and he'll want some sort of deal that sees to some more ice-time.  I could almost see him go somewhere in a Draft Day trade.

If there is one position that the Minnesota Wild have done well to stock up on, it's been defense.  They have a number of young defenders on the verge of making the jump into the pro circuit with the team and the Wild will likely be better for it.  Between Marco Scandella, Nick Leddy and Tyler Cuma, they could end up being a quick and agile bottom three defense set that earn their way up to some more solid minutes. The Wild do have five solid NHL defenders already signed on to their 2011 roster (see table above), so it could very well be a fight between these three for one, possibly two, spots on the blueline next season.  That should be a good battle to watch in training camp.

What I had said at the same time last year: "Beyond the obvious in Minnesota, this team will be hard to choose from come fantasy draft day. I also have a hard time believing that they will make the playoffs next season, unless the new coaching staff has an immediate rapport with the team that is already in place. This is a wait-and-see team, which has some potential, but not very much. Wait on Backstrom, wait on Gaborik, wait on Koivu... see where Foster goes and get him relatively high. There you have it. "

Well, my gut feeling about Minnesota not making the playoffs sure came true, eh?  Very nice.  Did you wait a bit on Backstrom?  He fell through a bit.  Gaborik moved to the Big Apple in the off-season, so he was pretty well fair game and if you didn't wait on Koivu and you made him into a higher pick, you probably were not disappointed.  There was a lot of wait-and-see at my Draft around the Minnesota Wild and I think that really paid off in the end for quite a few teams.

For 2011, I see it being a lot of the same, but just a little bit better.  The Wild do have some cap flexibility going into the silly season of off-season dealings, so they could very well improve to the extent of being a playoff team, but the pickings are pretty slim, so I don't forsee a big improvement, unless their youth can really take them to the next level.  I'm expecting Backstrom to respond to this mediocre season with a good push in the right direction and I have a good feeling about the defense putting up some better points in 2011 as well.  Do pencil in some Wild players as sleepers next Fall.