Sid Hartman: Win or lose, Wild appears set up to contend for years

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 28, 2014 - 4:42 PM

The team has taken a big step forward this year, regardless of how the first-round series with the Avalanche ends up.

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Minnesota Wild right wing Jason Pominville (29)

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Win or be eliminated from the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs with the Colorado Avalanche. Either way, the future has never looked better for the Wild.

Despite the fact that the Wild has lost two overtime games in Colorado, for the majority of those games the visitors looked like the better team.

The Wild trails 3-2 in the best-of-seven series with Game 6 Monday night at Xcel Energy Center, but there is no question that this team is in a better position overall than a year ago.

Wild owner Craig Leipold wants a championship badly, so he will provide the cash needed to acquire an addition or two to the present roster so that the team can contend for a Stanley Cup.

There is no comparison with the Wild team of a year ago — which lost 4-1 in the opening round of the playoffs to Chicago, winning one overtime game at home but often looking thoroughly outplayed in the others — and this year’s team, which is playing extremely competitive hockey against the second-seeded Avalanche.

The Blackhawks outscored the Wild 17-7 last year. This year, Colorado has 14 goals to the Wild’s 12 after five games.

A big reason for the Wild’s improved play this season has been the emergence of several younger players who are starting to reach their potential, and the continued successful play by several of the key free agents and trade pieces that General Manager Chuck Fletcher has brought to the team in recent years.

Jason Pominville, who Fletcher got from Buffalo last season in a deal for two first round picks and two prospects, was the leading scorer for the Wild this year, posting 30 goals and 30 assists, and he has three assists so far in the playoffs. Last year, he didn’t get in Chicago until Game 4 because of a concussion that sidelined him five games in all.

The Wild’s big acquisitions from two years ago, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, have continued their strong play into the postseason. Parise leads the team with six points in the series, including his first goal Saturday night. Suter leads all players in the league in average time on ice with 30:30 per game, after leading the NHL in that category during the regular season as well.

When it comes to the team’s younger players, there’s no question that Mikael Granlund has been playing like the highly touted star he was when the Wild drafted him out of Finland in 2010.

Last season Granlund scored two goals and had six assists in 27 games, and though the season was strike-shortened, Granlund still never looked comfortable in his first season in the NHL. But this year he was the Wild’s fifth-leading scorer with 41 points on eight goals and 33 assists in 63 games. In the playoffs he has had three points and is tied for the team lead in plus/minus at plus-2.

Charlie Coyle, whom the Wild received in the Brent Burns trade with the San Jose Sharks in 2011, has continued the offensive output he started in his rookie season last year. He leads all Wild scorers with three goals in the series after having 12 goals and 18 assists during the regular season.

The other major piece for the Wild has been the play of Darcy Kuemper in goal. The Wild selected Kuemper in 2009 but with Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding both on the roster for many years, he had never had much of a chance to play until this season.

This year, with Backstrom and Harding both sidelined, Kuemper started 25 games, posting a 12-8 record with a 2.43 goals-against average. Against Colorado he has only gotten better, with a .940 save percentage, giving up five goals over four games after returning from a concussion and taking over for Ilya Bryzgalov.

The Wild will have to win two consecutive games to defeat the Avalanche and move onto the second round of the playoffs, but the fans have to feel confident that these players can do it. And with their solid play in the postseason, it also looks as though Fletcher has built a team that should contend for years to come.

Twins surprises

Jason Kubel and Chris Colabello have been two of the great surprises for the Twins this season, and it might even be a surprise to the front office, seeing as how both came to spring training with just minor league contracts, a tryout for the big league club.

So far, both players are proving General Manager Terry Ryan’s instincts correct. Colabello is second in the American League in RBI with 27 and is hitting .308 with three home runs and 11 runs. Kubel is hitting .303 in his return to the Twins after hitting a combined .216 in 97 games last year between Cleveland and Arizona. He also has 12 RBI and 10 runs scored. He had 32 RBI and 21 runs scored in all of 2013.

The other big surprise for the Twins is how improved their plate discipline has been this year. They drew eight walks Saturday and have a major league-leading 121 on the season. That puts them in first place in the AL with six more walks than Oakland, despite the fact that the Athletics have played two more games than the Twins.

Last year, the Twins had only 80 walks through 23 games.

Jottings

• Under terms of the contract signed for the Paul McCartney concert Aug. 2 at Target Field, the Beatles legend keeps all ticket income, which will amount to several million dollars, and the Twins benefit only from the money taken in on concessions sales.

• Former Gophers quarterback Adam Weber signed with the Ottawa RedBlacks of the Canadian Football League. My prediction is that Weber will do so well given the opportunity that he will be back on an NFL roster in 2015.

• The Gophers men’s basketball team will play two nonconference games at home as part of the preseason NIT, and if they win both games they will play two games at Madison Square Garden in New York, where the team won the postseason NIT earlier this month. Coach Richard Pitino had agreed to play in the preseason NIT last fall.

• Former Twins closer Joe Nathan, now with the Tigers, got one appearance in this weekend against the Twins, pitching a scoreless ninth in Detroit’s 10-6 victory Friday. On the season he is 2-0 with four saves, two blown saves, a 5.59 ERA and 11 strikeouts over 9⅔ innings. For comparison’s sake, Twins closer and fellow 2013 All-Star Glen Perkins has six saves, one blown save, a 4.09 ERA and 16 strikeouts over 11 innings. … Another former Twins star now with Detroit, Torii Hunter, went 6-for-9 with three doubles in the two games at Target Field this weekend. He is on a six-game hitting streak where he is hitting .462. He has raised his batting average from .222 to .310 over that streak.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40, 8:40 and 9:20 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com

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