Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Thoughts on "tanking," the state of the Wild and the future

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild coaching, Wild management, Wild news, Wild off-season news, Wild pregame skate Updated: April 3, 2012 - 11:16 AM

Morning from Nashville, where the Wild will play its final road game of the season tonight. The morning skate is in a few hours. The only potential lineup change will be Warren Peters entering for Cody Almond.
Peters was supposed to fly in yesterday, so if he’s able to play, Almond would have to be reassigned because he’s an emergency recall.
My guess is, if healthy (he’s been walking gingerly), Niklas Backstrom will start vs. backup Anders Lindback.

There’s been lots of talk lately about the Wild finally winning games and thus, potentially, ruining its draft position after such a disappointing season.
Hey, I get it. If you’ve read me for years, I’ve always contended that one of the Wild’s biggest problems throughout its history is the fact it’s always just good enough to get the 10th pick or the 12th or whatever. If you’re going to miss the playoffs, you might as well get a real, legit, bona fide consolation prize for it.
I talked to coach Mike Yeo about that yesterday. Yeo finds himself in the awkward position of defending the Wild … winning games lately.
You can read that story here.

My random thoughts in reaction to a couple things that have been tweeted or emailed to me by readers:

1) What’s Yeo supposed to say? His job is to win games, not lose them.

2) One of the things I agree with Yeo on: It does just come down to quality drafting, not necessarily where you pick (see Benoit Pouliot at No. 4 in 2005).
First of all, other than the first couple in this upcoming draft, there are allegedly no sure things. And as I pointed out in the article, years from now, we may find out that Mikael Granlund (at 9th overall) and Jonas Brodin (at 10th) were better draft picks than some of the guys taken ahead of them.
One big reason the Wild’s where it’s at isn’t so much the fact that it didn’t get top-5 picks (although it would have helped) but that the previous regime absolutely swung and completely missed at arguably five consecutive first-round picks (Thelen, Pouliot, Sheppard, Gillies and, maybe too early to declare, Cuma) and the new regime traded its first first-round pick, Nick Leddy.
I mean, just think about that: The Wild absolutely blew SIX consecutive first-round picks. You don’t recover from things like that very easily. Throw it the fact the Wild got squat for Marian Gaborik, and … thit is why the Wild’s got such little skill, such little depth at top-6 forwards, why it’s so far behind so many teams in this league.
Look at the Wild’s opponent on any given night and count how many of their OWN first-round picks are in the lineup compared to the Wild.
The Wild has ONE – Mikko Koivu. That’s completely unforgivable, and the terrible Leddy trade aside, this is why the Wild’s new regime needed to stockpile prospects with quality drafting (Granlund, Larsson, Bulmer, Zucker, Brodin, Phillips, Lucia), quality college and junior free-agent signings (Spurgeon, Prosser) and quality trades the last few years (Coyle).
Now, in the next few years, Wild fans will hopefully start to see those dividends.

3) The idea of tanking is impossible. I’ve written this so many times, but again, I keep reading comments, “Fill the team with minor leaguers, … bring up Hackett, … force Koivu to sit.” This stuff cannot happen. Years ago, the league and players’ union implemented a rule where you can only have FOUR post-trade deadline callups. Otherwise, it’s an emergency recall. That means, if you have 12 healthy forwards, they stay. If one forward gets hurt, an emergency callup can come up. When the one forward returns, that forward must go back. Same with goalies. So when Josh Harding and Backstrom returned, Hackett HAD to go back. Why is this? Myriad reasons: 1) Keep teams from shutting down NHLers and filling them with minor-league scrubs (union’s fairly interested in making sure its players don’t have jobs and ice time taken away); 2) The concept that the team you pass the deadline with should in large measure be the team you enter the playoffs with; 3) Since there is no roster limit after the deadline, it prevents gross stockpiling at the NHL level.; 4) It also protects the competitive integrity of the AHL season -- AHL would have major issue if there wasn’t some limit on number of recalls; 5) Similarly, protects the competitive integrity of the NHL season. I think last year the Chicago Blackhawks would have had a pretty big issue if on the season finale, the Wild dressed a bunch of ECHLers against Dallas.

4) On the concept, “Is the Wild building a culture of winning or is the Wild winning games because the pressure’s off,” I think that’s a great debate. I do agree with many readers that it’s mostly the latter. Where was this when the season mattered? Where was this great play by certain individuals when the season could have been saved? You see this annually: An out-of-playoff team suddenly playing well when it’s allegedly playing for pride and trying to save jobs. I talked to Yeo about that, and he says it’s a different kind of pressure, but it’s still pressure. I’ll try to squeeze in those quotes tomorrow or in the next few days.

5) On the idea that Yeo wants to build a culture of winning, yet a lot of readers have noted many of these guys won’t be back. I was asked a few times by fans whom I think will definitely be back.
Barring trades, the following will be back: Koivu, Setoguchi, Heatley, Brodziak, Powe, Zucker (NHL or AHL), Clutterbuck, Gilbert, Backstrom, Prosser, Scandella … and injured Bouchard (can’t buy out an injured player), Spurgeon, Cullen, Kassian (AHL or NHL), Kampfer (AHL or NHL).
Guys I could see being back: Stoner (unrestricted) and Veilleux on a two-way contract. Wild has decisions to make on restricted free agents, Justin Falk and Nick Johnson. I’d think you’d tender them qualifying offers, but Johnson in particular has been so lost defensively in the second half, it’s becoming a major issue and hurting them often in games. Because he’s restricted though, he I’d think they bring him back.
Christensen, though, is an unrestricted free agent. I don’t think he’s brought back despite the big goals lately. First, when they needed him, he went 15 games without a point. That game in Chicago doesn’t get to overtime without Christensen and Johnson being so poor defensively, and that’s been a common theme with Christensen. If you start penciling in potential free agent signings and the Granlunds and maybe Coyles and Zuckers next year, where does Erik Christensen fit? On the fourth line? Uh, no. Erik Christensen cannot be an effective fourth-liner. He’s skilled, not gritty. Also, the Wild will have plenty of shootout options next year with the kids. Let’s put it this way: I don’t see Christensen being re-signed before July 1. If he’s brought back, my guess is it’s because they missed on some things post July 1. I could be wrong, but that’s my sense.
If guys like Jed Ortmeyer and Warren Peters are brought back, it’ll be on two-way deals.
I don’t see the injured Latendresse coming back unless they get him on a quality one-year deal at a great price. But this is two years in a row the Wild’s been hamstrung by him missing an entire season with injuries.
The Wild will have to make a decision on Josh Harding, and part of that decision will be Harding’s.
Kurtis Foster won’t be back. Mike Lundin won’t be back. And like I said, I have my doubts that Christensen will be back.
6) Frankly, the Wild’s improved play of late, I think, proves just how big of a loss Mikko Koivu was. That’s why it’s incumbent on GM Chuck Fletcher to fix this problem. It’s inexcusable that the Wild annually is a Mikko Koivu injury away from disaster. I think the Wild could have survived Latendresse and Bouchard alone, but when Koivu went down with those two, and then it lost Devin Setoguchi, the Wild went from being a team with interchangeable parts to a team that couldn’t survive the loss of so many top-6 forwards. Players changed their roles and never got rediscovered that early season “stick-to-it-ness identity. Koivu’s presence stabilizes everything. His presence allows others to get better matchups, it allows others to play their appropriate roles, it forces teams to respect his line, it allows him to take the big faceoffs and play the big special-team shifts. This one player missing fouls everything up because the Wild, at least the past two years, didn’t have the depth. Hopefully, now that the Wild’s actually drafted well the past two years, the depth is on its way. That depth still will need to develop though. The Wild’s not going to be able to snap its fingers and just be good – barring the signing of a potential star forward and defenseman, of course.

OK, I'm out of breath. That was a lot of writing. Digest, and I'll be back after the skate to update this blog with the highly-anticipated, "Will Warren Peters play? and Who's in goal?" news.
 

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