It has become clear over the past two seasons that if the Wild is going to make a run at the Stanley Cup, the team probably is going to have to beat the Chicago Blackhawks, who bounced it out of the playoffs the past two seasons, including a four-game sweep in May.
But now that the Blackhawks have lost center Brad Richards, left winger Patrick Sharp and most importantly left winger Brandon Saad, Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher was asked if his team’s odds have improved in the Western Conference.
“We hope so, we hope so,” Fletcher said. “I mean, clearly they’ve set the bar pretty high for every team not only in our division but in our league, winning three Stanley Cups, and they’re clearly the best team in the league for the last six or seven years. It’s a challenge and we play them a lot, we certainly feel we match up pretty well with them, but they find a way.
“Last year in the playoffs, they found a way to be one goal better than us in each of those games. It’s a challenge, but we have a lot of young players that are continuing to learn and sometimes you learn through that adversity and you learn through your failures as well as your successes.
“With 12 young guys on our team 25 years and younger, they’re all only going to get better. Hopefully they all learned from that experience last year and we’ll be ready for them this year. It’s a tough challenge, but it’s an interesting league with the salary cap. Teams change so much from year to year and our team will be a little bit different and the Chicago Blackhawks team will be a little bit different. With the salary cap system, it’s hard to keep your team intact from year to year. We have to be better and hopefully things will bounce our way.”
The Wild recently held its development camp and Fletcher was asked who stood out.
“There has been a few of them,” he said. “We signed [defenseman] Mike Reilly, a young man out of Chanhassen that played at the University of Minnesota. We signed him as a free agent a couple weeks ago, and he has played very well. He is obviously a little more mature than some of the 18- or 19-year-olds that we have in here, he’s 22, but he has played very, very well and tremendous skill level and certainly looks like he’s very close to playing in the NHL.”
While Reilly could make the Wild roster sooner than later, Fletcher doesn’t envision that for some of their other high-round picks.
“Some of our young draft picks, [center] Joel Eriksson Ek was a young man we took out of Sweden in the first round, [left winger] Jordan Greenway, a young man headed off to Boston University next year, [winger] Alex Tuch, who is playing at Boston College, and a few others [looked good],” he said. “These kids have all come to camp in great shape, they’ve worked hard, and they played well, too. We have some good kids. Our scouting staff continues to do a very good job and we have some good talent in the pipeline right now.”
Fletcher said Eriksson Ek, 18, likely will play two more seasons in Sweden, where his father is an assistant coach for his team Farjestad in the Swedish Elite League. Eriksson Ek played there last season, but only on the fourth line at such a young age.
In the farm system, Fletcher believes they have a good young center ready to make the leap to the Wild and make that position stronger.
“We still have four really good centers from last year’s team with [Mikko] Koivu, [Mikael] Granlund, [Charlie] Coyle and Erik Haula and we have a young player in Tyler Graovac, who has been our best player down in Iowa for the last year or so, our leading scorer,” Fletcher said about the Wild’s seventh-round pick in 2011. “He’s 6-4 and a pretty responsible two-way player that can shoot the puck. I think Tyler is very close now. He’s 22, he’s paid his dues for a couple seasons in Iowa. He’s knocking on the door. We’re pretty deep right now with those five.”
Fletcher also reported on the state of the team’s goaltending now that Devan Dubnyk has signed his six-year, $26 million deal.
“Well we’re still very excited about Darcy Kuemper,” Fletcher said. “He’s a young man, and two seasons ago he had a tremendous year. Last year he was certainly more erratic. He started well and had a tough stretch in the middle of the year. Then Dubnyk came in and never relinquished the net. It was hard for Darcy to get any ice time at the end of the year.
“But he’s just turning 25, he’s got great size and athleticism, and we feel he’s a guy that can win games in this league. He has won games in this league. He won a playoff series against Colorado where he was the No. 1 goalie. This is a guy who has pretty good experience for a young guy and still has a lot of upside.
“With Darcy we feel very comfortable with him as No. 2 and Niklas Backstrom is under contract and right now he’ll be a No. 3 goalie. For a lot of the last two years, we’ve had to carry three goalies, and it looks like that’s how we’re going to have it to start this season as well.”
• Former Bloomington Jefferson standout Cole Aldrich will be playing with the Los Angeles Clippers next season after signing a two-year deal this week. Aldrich played in 61 games with the Knicks last year and started 16, the most of his career in both categories. He averaged 5.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. This will be Aldrich’s fifth team after stints with Oklahoma City, Houston, Sacramento, and the Knicks.
• Apparently the Vikings are serious about Kevin McDermott, giving 12-year veteran long snapper Cullen Loeffler a battle to remain on the team because they signed McDermott to a contract this week. Loeffler was the lowest-graded long snapper in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and special teams coach Mike Preifer has challenged Loeffler to improve. … The Hall of Fame made it official that former Vikings star quarterback Fran Tarkenton will introduce his ex-teammate, Mick Tingelhoff, when he is inducted into the hall Aug. 8.
• The cheapest tickets for Gophers football game vary according to the opponent. For TCU, it is $50. Kent State is $30, Ohio University is $30, Michigan is $60 and Illinois is $40. The home games against Nebraska and Wisconsin can only be purchased as part of a multigame ticket package and are not yet available as single-game tickets. A fan would have to buy a ticket to games against TCU, Kent State or Ohio to get access to single-game tickets for Nebraska and Wisconsin.
• Gophers junior outfielder Dan Motl was named to the Northwoods League All-Star Game, representing the Willmar Stingers. He is hitting .336, is fourth in the league in runs with 36 and tied for fifth in doubles with 12. The Burnsville native is the lone Gopher to make the squad.
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