Welcome back, the NHL regular season kicks off right… NOW!
ST. PAUL… If you are like me, you have been waiting for this day with a lot of anticipation. I do enjoy the off-season, and I enjoy the summer break as a means to recharge my hockey battery because the last thing I’d ever wish to do would be to lose interest in the game I love so much. I don’t want to ever incur a dose of burnout on the game so I observe it substantially less in the off-season. I keep up on the important stuff of course. But my summer days aren’t built around it. And now, well I’ve been taking in news and notes, ramping up to the opening night that I look most forward to. I had contemplated going to St. Louis for their opener, and of course their banner ceremony will take place in the pregame. But, the Blues respectfully, are not my team and I decided not to attend.
The Minnesota Wild will open the season the night this edition of the Worldwide Duluth Reader comes out and I will be pacing the floor I’m certain. Last week I gave a bit of an optimistic view on the clubs chances within their own Central Division. And my feelings haven’t changed. If they avoid serious injury to any players, if they get some breaks from the hockey gods and boost their team play and possession time, I can see them sliding into the 8th position in the West and taking on the 2nd Wild Card spot for the Stanley Cup tourney. I know the NHL is getting younger by the season, but I still see veteran savvy and presence as counting for something and the Wild certainly have that in their favor. I can only hope that they don’t need so much of it that it hurts their opportunities.
On the other hand, few analysts share these sentiments on the Wild. In fact, many see them, in a league broken down by thirds, as a team in the lower third, and about in the middle of that group. I can appreciate that, and even if that bothered me as a fan, I understand their viewpoint. In the long run, a great many of them are guessing, just like me. Like them, I take in a lot of data and develop a “feel” for what I think could occur. But in this day and age, especially considering the perception of parity in the league, that leaves the door wide open for many different things to actually happen. Some go to great lengths with a small mountain of numerical study to support whatever predictions they may arrive at. That’s excellent. But in today’s NHL it will guarantee absolutely nothing. Statistical models are not ironclad in reliability.
The club has, for now, settled on their roster for the season opener. What is presumed to be the roster for Thursday nights game in Nashville versus the Predators is set with the 23rd roster position being left “open” for the time being. There is speculation that Wild GM Bill Guerin is shopping for a top level centerman, but that’s not going to be an easy find. As the roster is at this moment; on LW, Zucker, Parise, Foligno and Donato. At C, Staal, Kunin, Koivu, Eriksson Ek and Rask. At RW, Fiala, Zuccarello, Greenway and Hartman. Based on the training camp he had, Rask will likely be the “healthy scratch” on many nights, and apparently sending him and his contract to the Iowa Wild wasn’t workable at this time. The most likely defense pairings will be, Suter and Dumba, Brodin and Spurgeon with Seeler and Hunt being the third pairing. With Greg Pateryn starting the season on the injured list with a LBI, that means former UMD Bulldog standout Carson Soucy will serve as the 7th D-man to start the season.
Once Pateryn returns Soucy could be returned to Iowa, unless another roster move is made. Goal is set with Dubnyk and Stalock. I’d like to see Duby start about 60 games with Big Al getting the remainder. I also hope that he isn’t forced to sit on the bench for stretches between starts. Goalies play better when they are allowed to develop and maintain a rhythm. UMD Frozen Four star JT Brown was waived and will probably end up in Iowa.
A major factor with the number of vets on the club will be the schedule. It isn’t kind early and the team will not get a chance to “work into it”. Rather, they are going to have to be on their game immediately, because if they aren’t this season will get away from them quickly. The first half of the season is “road” heavy. The 2nd half is kinder with more home games. In October they will have 4H and 9A games, November features 5H and 8A. In December there will be 8H and 7A. January improves with 7H and 2A and the ASG break will be at the end of the month. Then February with 9H and 5A, March with 8H and 8A ending with 2A in April to conclude the regular season. The first 20 tilts could make or break the year. This stretch features 7H games and 13A. How will a team whose core is where the oldest veterans reside accommodate this?
The schedule does offer one type of “break” if you will, the number of back to back games is less than half of last seasons 14 total. This year the club will have only 6 of them. How did the team do last year in B2B’s? Considering whether they won both, split them or lost both, in 14 B2B situations the team was 2-9-3 in that regard. Translated to games won or lost, the team posted a 13-15 record in B2B games. Overall, from a schedule standpoint, if the team can maintain until New Years, it will favor them after that timeframe. Add in the break for the ASG and if the boys can make hay in the 2nd half of the campaign, perhaps my speculation on a Wild Card playoff spot just might work out.
Is my optimism unfounded? Is the analyst majority pessimism mistaken? That’s a hard one. Parity you know, injuries, age and those pesky hockey gods. Personally I’d say this team is due for an extra dose of hockey karma for once. It’s a sure bet they haven’t got a great deal of it over the years. Certainly some of that is self inflicted, driven by an overt desire to be a playoff team every doggone year, and keep the stands full, no matter if you have a real Cup shot or not. That in turn determines where you will draft, who you will draft, if you’ll ever get that franchise changer and so on and so forth. Pond hockey is a much simpler world. It just doesn’t have that big silver beauty 700 plus guys chase around every winter… PEACE