Friday, September 8, 2017

The Game: Five Keys To The Wild's Season

By Nick

We are at the front door of the hope springs eternal section of the sports calendar.  It's great that the Twins refuse to die, but football has started, and hockey, and basketball, are just close enough to be annoying.  So I've been doing some thinking (always dangerous), and I've come up with the Five Keys To The Wild's Season.

1. Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker in contract seasons.

A central theme to these keys is that this Wild team is no longer a veteran team with a few promising kids sprinkled in.  The Wild is now a team with a solid core in the middle of their prime years, with a few veterans mixed in for seasoning.  In fact, the Wild sits right in the middle of the central division in terms of average age of its players (per CapFriendly).  Older than Colorado, Winnipeg, and Nashville.  Younger than Dallas, St. Louis, and Chicago.

How much incremental lift can we get from what the likes of Granlund and Nino did last season?  In particular Granny had his breakout season.  And, if he starts the season at less-than 100% from his ankle injury...

Coyle, Dumba, and Zucker have not had that breakout season yet - at least we better hope they haven't.  I realize that Zucker doubled his production from the prior season to last season.  But, if he wants to get paid like a T6 forward, I'd like to see more than 47 points.  What elevates Dumba and Zucker over Coyle in this case is that they're both playing for a new contract and Charlie isn't.  I'll say 30-25-55 for Zucker, and 20-20-40 for Dumba as my targets for them.  That's not a projection.  That's what I'd like to see them produce, in a contract year.

2. Who is the backup goalie, and how many games will he start?

Over the past two regular seasons only one other goalie in the NHL started more games than Dubnyk.  And didn't he start nearly every game after he arrived in the '14-15 season?  Regardless, we've ridden Dubnyk hard and put him away wet since we got him.  I don't know if that wore him out, and he certainly wasn't the reason the Wild lost to St. Louis in this playoffs (1.86/0.925).  But, could getting him a little more rest down the stretch be a bad thing?  Or maybe before the stretch, so he and the team can "get hot" at the end of the season and try to emulate what Nashville did this year?

More than that, it would be really nice to have a backup in whom the boys are confident.  So, in the absence of that last season, if the result was that Duby played probably more than Bruce would have wanted in an ideal situation, and the rest of the team played more games with a higher degree of anxiety than everyone would have wanted, ideally (read every time Kuemper was in goal), then that situation was bad for everyone, not just Duby.

It would also be nice to have a viable backup if Duby got, you know, hur.....sorry.

3. Speaking of which: Depth

The Wild, not being blessed with an elite scorer, must have depth in their roster - in all positions.  It seemed they were one of the healthiest teams last season.  Was that balancing the scales after several years of shitty luck with health and other random calamities, or setting up this year for a return to even just a league average amount of man-games lost?  If the latter: they need depth.  The good news is that they appear to have said depth.

As mentioned above the Wild is right in the middle of the division, in terms of average age.  Three teams younger, three teams older.  (See my prior post for more numbers.  Lots more numbers.)

Up front, what this amounts to is whether or not Eriksson Ek and Cullen can replace or exceed what Hanzal and Haula did last season, and whether they ever choose one position for Coyle and let him settle into it and maybe, just maybe, develop some momentum there.

On the back end, the key here is whether Dumba takes the aforementioned next step, and if Reilly and/or Olofsson can earn (and keep) a job with the big club.

4. Scott Stevens

More accurately, the absence of Scott Stevens.  Russo said on a podcast recently that Bob Woods is a defensive coach, and that's great.  But the theory on defense last season was that Stevens would command respect - from all the defensemen - while helping the younger guys improve.  Scandella may have been the best defenseman for the Wild against St. Louis, and now he's hanging out at the Anchor Bar.  So the key here is the extent to which Stevens impacted the defense last season, and in his absence the extent to which Woods can replicate that impact this season.  And, if Suter doesn't buy what Woods is selling, look out.

5.  Is this a good regular season team, or a playoff contender?

Initially, we were told by Fletcher that last season was still successful because they were so good during much of the regular season.  He has since undergone sensitivity training because his comments at the State Fair with Russo were much less tone deaf.  But those initial comments did offer a potentially key peek into the mindset of the team's front office/ownership dynamic.  And remember: Fletcher is the man who doesn't believe in windows of opportunity in which teams are contenders.  So at least he's consistent.

I've made my feelings clear on this blog on the degree to which I expect this team to be a contender at this point.  But, heading into season six of the PariSuter era, having established themselves as a playoff team, this must be the season in which they take the next step toward contending.  Another first round loss, in other words, must not be acceptable - regardless of whether or not they set records for regular season performance again.  And, just looking at the roster, not taking the next step this year could result in significant change to the roster for next season - just looking at Mikko's contract situation if nothing else.

With another season's worth of data on this point in the offing, against what feels like a building sense of anxiety from the fanbase, it's easy to see that this will be a critical season in the Wild's existence.

What's your take on this?  Join in the discussion on our message board.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

And Another Thing: Access

By Nick

The debate between and around Souhan vs. The Bloggers may have been downgraded to a Category 1 or even a Tropical Depression at this point, but I still have some thoughts on it.

I'm not going to re-hash the details.  There are good points on both sides, and there were displays of unprofessionalism on both sides as the thing peaked.

I've been a blogger around the Wild scene for a long time, at least relative to the history of blogging, and the lifespan of the Wild blogging scene.  What took the wind out of my sails was the realization that game or team "coverage", without access, wasn't going to provide any additional value above what the actual pros who were covering the team with access provide.  And, at that point, all I had was opinions.

There's nothing wrong with that.  But I ran out of opinions about the Wild that I wanted to explore via the majesty of the written word.  Maybe some of that is because the Wild has played out the same performance arc for what seems like every season since PariSuter appeared on the scene.  That set list of opinions just became different shades of the same color.  Or reruns of the same episode with different commercials.  But some of it also was due to a growing feeling that I was simply singing the same song over and over again.  I would have gotten bored reading someone else singing the same song over and over again, I assumed people were getting bored with me for doing it.

Here's where I come down on this debate:

There are circumstances in which what I want to read about the team will be enhanced by the author having (and using) access to the team.  Quotes - better to be able to read what a player/coach/GM actually said, as opposed to what someone imagined they might have said.  Informed analysis about team strategy/thinking/actions.  That kind of thing.  Insider stuff.

But there's also a time when what I want to read about the team would not necessarily be enhanced by the author having/using access to the team.  Ruminating on trades.  The efficacy of the GM.  That kind of thing.  We're all armchair QBs.  That is part of being a fan.  I'm generally willing to read someone else's armchair QB analysis/opinions.  But you just have to accept that, if that's all you're doing - armchair QBing - then you're just putting forth your opinion.  Which is totally fine.  Where I think some glorified armchair QBs (read bloggers) get ahead of themselves is when they lose sight of the line between informed analysis and uninformed armchair QBing.

What has really blurred that line is the emergence of analytics.  Now you can "know" things about team and player performance without even watching the game - as long as you can compile the data after the game.  And, once you know things, you can blog about them, presenting them as analysis without need of access.

I feel like I'm right smack dab in the middle of the analytics acceptance spectrum.  But the critical juncture for me is the perversion/engineering of statistical metrics analysis that goes on.  As soon as your process becomes coming up with a theory and then hunting and pecking for statistics that confirm your theory, and then claim that your theory is fact - as opposed to coming up with a theory and then invoking the sports analysis version of the scientific method to prove - or disprove - that theory, accepting whatever the outcome is, you're done.  You've got nothing.

In hockey, stats/60, extrapolated to indicate greater value for 3rd and 4th line forwards, or bottom-three defensemen, is one of those things to me.  You simply cannot say that a player who performs at a certain level while receiving an average of a handful of minutes of ice time, would continue to perform at that same level if their ice time increased.  You can't.  I'm not saying you can't run the math.  You obviously can.  You just can't make the blanket assertion that actual performance would follow the mathematical extrapolation.  Not if you know anything about how hockey is played.  Not if you're aware that, as a fourth-liner, so-and-so gets materially less time on the ice against the opposition's better defensemen than he or she would if he or she was a 1st or 2nd liner, for example.  And, if you don't know that, you shouldn't be writing about hockey in the first place.

That kind of analysis leads people to claim breath taking things like "so-and-so fourth liner performs at the level of so-and-so star player, on a /60 basis.  Ergo sum, so-and-so fourth liner is under-utilized, and probably under-paid.  And so-and-so GM and so-and-so coach is an idiot for not realizing that and either paying or playing so-and-so fourth liner more."  Every bit of the foregoing has been written by hockey bloggers among the analytics/non-access set.  One thing that having access does for the pros is it enables them not to have to resort to such Tom Foolery.

I don't think access is the only criteria by which to judge sports writers.  I don't think access gives sports writers licence to claim superiority over those without access.  But it does lend credibility to what they're saying, if not how they say it.  Credibility that the rest of us don't have.  We can voice our opinions.  But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that that's all they are: opinions.

As always, we want to hear your thoughts on this topic on our message board.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Hobby Lobby: I Guess I'm A Cruise Fan

By Nick

I grew up landlocked.  In Minnesota.  Surrounded by water - most of which was frozen for long stretches of each year.  I was lucky: my parents loved Hawaii.  So I got to go there a handful of times.  Vacations were typically someplace that was warmer than MN, which was not often difficult to achieve.  But, until three years ago, I had never been on a cruise ship.  I suppose I had a common perception of cruising: old people, shuffleboard, iffy food, Gopher, Isaac, and Doc.  Not my bag.  Plus, you're confined within a ship.  I've never felt really comfortable on a boat.  I've canoed all over the BWCA and the southern Quetico.  But I was like Hoops in One Crazy Summer - just waiting for Demi Moore to come into my life and [EDITED FOR APPROPRIATENESS].

But then I married a Disney fan.  And then we had two daughters, each of whom contracted the Disney disease like their mother.  And we started spending our vacations in... Orlando.  All of them.  It may be called the Happiest Place on Earth, but it's really the Bataan Death March of family vacations.  My wonderful wife, however, was reluctant to give up the Disney ghost altogether.  But I needed a break from the Magic Kingdom.  We had heard about Disney cruises from some other people with our approximate family dynamic.  So we gave it a try.  That was 2014.

We have now been on four cruises, have booked a fifth for next summer, and *may* surprise the kids with a sixth this November.  We've done three Disney cruises and one Royal Caribbean cruise.  We are, in other words, in.

I've been thinking about what it is that I like about cruising.  Because I definitely like it.  I like the efficiency.  On our last cruise, we started in Florida, made stops in Haiti, Jamaica, and Mexico, before returning to Florida.  But we didn't have to pack up our shit, much less get in a car, on a train, on a plane, etc, once from embarkation to disembarkation.  Especially with kids, not having to pack all your stuff up every night, or every other night, is huge.  And then traveling is tiring, and stressful, and a pain in the ass.  Getting on and off a cruise ship at a port of call is easy.

I like how much you get for the one price.  Maybe it's not materially cheaper than a land-based vacation, all in, but it's not materially more expensive, either.  And not having to worry about paying for meals and entertainment a la carte also lends itself to a low-stress environment - which is a good thing when you're on vacation, no?

I like that, as opposed to the HPOE, your kids aren't tethered to you the whole time.  As our kids have grown up over the past four years, they've earned more and more independence on board.  We don't look at a cruise ship as a massive floating babysitter.  But when our kids want to go check out the kids club, or a karaoke thing, that allows us to do something that we want to do.  You get that flexibility at a much younger age on a cruise ship than you would at the HPOE.  That's why it feels so much more like a vacation for everyone.

We have only had positive experiences with dining on our four cruises.  Is the food outstanding?  No.  But it's not gross, either.  And we've learned that cruises that embark out of a U.S. port must adhere to USFDA regulations, to the extent that they cannot even take on additional provisions at a non-U.S. port.  We have also found our service teams to be professional, proficient, and charming and engaging.  Look, are there slobs gorging themselves on cruise ships?  Of course there are.  Are there drunken idiots making asses of themselves on cruise ships?  Definitely.  But there are slobs and drunks at every other vacation spot I've been to - including the HPOE.  There is probably a Xanadu of vacation perfection that is free of that kind of Tom Foolery, somewhere on the planet.  But does it have twin FlowRider simulators, 25 places to eat, and a zip line on board?

Royal's Allure of the Seas, on which we sailed this summer.  Staggering number of things to do on board.

I'm not here to sell you on trying a cruise.  The cruise industry is doing fine, and frankly I'd prefer it if you didn't take a cruise because that would make it easier (and cheaper) for me to book one I want.  

But I'm definitely surprised I ended up a cruise fan.  There are limitations, but they don't feel significant to me, and certainly don't diminish the things I do like about cruising.  

And, if you are Cruise-curious, feel free to ask me some questions.  Beyond not being as lame as I imagined, they're actually a heck of a lot of fun.

As always, please drop by our message boards to discuss topic.

The Game: Central Division Stats

By Nick

I'm working on a longer piece that will outline the keys to the season for the Wild.  But, in the process of putting that together, I crunched a bunch of numbers.  It occurred to me that some other people might be as into this kind of data as I am, and if I posted them, it could serve as a reference point for the season keys piece.  I used CapFriendly and hockey-reference as sources.  This means the ages are a snapshot (as of mid-August).  And some data points are missing (Foligno's cap hit, for example).  I used goalies for purposes of salary cap expenditure, but not for GP.  This will be worth updating once opening day rosters are set.

Here's the Wild's profile:

Forwards: Parise, Koivu, Granlund, Niederreiter, Ennis, Staal, Coyle, Zucker, Stewart, Cullen, Kunin, Eriksson Ek, Ferraro, Foligno.

Defense: Suter, Spurgeon, Brodin, Dumba, Quincey, Olofsson, Murphy.

Goalies: Dubnyk, Stalock.

Average Age
All Players: 27.39
Forwards: 27.50
Defense: 26.29
Goalies: 30.50

Salary Cap 
Total Expenditure: $70.36M
% Total Cap Hit to Forwards: 61.48%
% Total Cap Hit to Defense: 31.43%
% Total Cap Hit to Goalies: 7.08%

'16-17 Season 
Total GP: 1,267
Total Points (G+A): 646

5 Highest Salary Cap Hit Players
% of Total Points (G+A): 41.18%
% of Total Salary Cap Expenditure: 46.66%
Average Age: 29.60

5 Oldest Players
% of Total Points (G+A): 47.06%
% of Total Salary Cap Expenditure: 54.03%
Average Age: 34.20

Now, here are the same categories, showing where the Wild ranks within the Central Division:

Average Age (1st = oldest, 7th = youngest)
All Players: 4th
Forwards: 2nd
Defense: 6th
Goalies: 3rd

Salary Cap (1st = greatest, 7th = least)
Total Expenditure: 4th
% Total Cap Hit to Forwards: 3rd
% Total Cap Hit to Defense: 4th
% Total Cap Hit to Goalies: 7th

'16-17 Season (1st = most, 7th = least)
Total GP: 3rd
Total Points (G+A: 1st

5 Highest Salary Cap Hit Players (1st = highest, 7th = least)
% of Total Points (G+A): 6th
% of Total Salary Cap Expenditure: 4th
Average Age: 2nd

5 Oldest Players (1st = highest, 7th = least)
% of Total Points (G+A): 5th
% of Total Salary Cap Expenditure: 2nd
Average Age: 2nd


The Wild is right in the middle of the division in terms of age.  Older than Colorado, Winnipeg, and  Nashville.  Younger than Chicago, St. Louis, and Dallas.

The Wild's cap hit expenditure is reasonable, both in general, and at the positional level (and Duby and Stalock are cheap).

The Wild's five highest-paid players accounted for a nearly 20% smaller percentage of the team's overall points than Chicago's 5 highest-paid players did (Chicago's were the highest in the division).  This suggests they're not getting enough scoring from the top of the payroll.

The Wild's five oldest players are not contributing on the scoresheet as much as the five oldest players from other teams in the division.  Yet, they take up a relatively high percentage of the total cap outlay, as compared to the other teams in the division.  And that group is relatively old, vs. the division.  However, we also know they scored a heck of a lot last season.  This suggests they are not as reliant on their top/oldest players.  In other words: they have depth.

As always, please drop by our message boards to discuss topic.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Game: Hockey Fans' Summer 2017 Outrage Guide

By Nick

Hockey fans, particularly the American variety, are used to defending their sport.  Pugilistically, if necessary.  That's what happens when your very legitimacy as fans of a sport is constantly under siege from the barbarian hordes of football and baseball fans.  Now that we've got Charles Barkley, it's only a matter of time until basketball fans assimilate.  So it's no surprise that hockey fans tend to have great capacity to drum up outrage over the perceived and real slights to their sport.  And, when the opportunities to outlet that outrage run dry, hockey fans cope by teeing off on fans of other hockey teams, and the business of their own team - lest ones' head explode from all the pressure.

For 29 teams' fans, the Stanley Cup Final is a chance to recharge their outrage batteries.  Well, 28 teams' fans.  Vegas fans have nothing to be outraged about at this point.  They always talk about the teams in the Final as having that short offseason to rest, recuperate, and get back up to speed before the season starts to ramp up in September.  But hockey fans have a short summer, too.  Because there are plenty of opportunities to vent outrage on the offseason schedule - especially this summer.

So, here's the hockey fan's guide to outrage for summer 2017.

June 15-17: Buyout Window Open

Buyouts have the ability to trigger fan outrage in a couple different ways.  First, nothing gets fans' blood boiling quite like a bad contract.  Either one that started bad, or one that became bad because the player didn't perform making the contract unappealing and, likely, unmovable.  Buyouts are a way for a GM to shunt a bad contract, although it's not without cost.  There is a protracted cap impact in a buyout situation, and that lingers like a fart in church if the team finds itself in cap distress while the buyout is still on the books.  It's also a constant reminder of the unsavory situation.

It is being reported that the Rangers are going to buyout Dan Girardi.

Wild fans have suffered their share of buyouts recently.  Matt Cooke and Thomas Vanek, for example.  Mention either of those names to most Wild fans and the reaction will probably range from ill-disguised contempt to outright disgust.

Hockey Fan Outrage Meter: 2 out of 5 Mr. Furiouses.

June 16: NMC Waiver Acceptances Due

One of the features of the Las Vegas Expansion Draft rules is that teams can ask players with no movement clauses to waive said clauses for the purposes of exposing them in the expansion draft.  The strategy here is to expose a veteran player with (presumably) a large contract in order to be able to protect a younger player.  Such requests were to have been made within 24 hours of the end of the SCF. Players have until 5pm ET on June 16th to decide whether or not to voluntarily agree to waive their NMC.  The Senators reportedly asked Dion Phaneuf to waive his NMC.  Phaneuf reportedly has declined/will decline to do so - which is entirely his right.

From a fan outrage perspective, while there's no guarantee the exposed veteran would be chosen by Vegas, the optics aren't great.  Maybe the player becomes offended by being asked to waive his NMC (that the team gave him, by the way).  Phaneuf said all the right things the other day, for what it's worth.  But this could trigger the same fan backlash as having to buyout a player.  And, if the player in question is popular among the fan base...

Hockey Fan Outrage Meter: 2 out of 5 Mr. Furiouses.

June 17-18: Expansion Draft Protection Lists Submitted/Released

By now you know about the different permutations of how many of what position can be protected, and what kind of contracts must be protected.  We don't need to rehash that here.  What's important is that this is a point of anxiety for fans.  And why shouldn't it be?  Losing a player without recompense can't be any better than it sounds, and it sounds bad.  Especially if you root for one of the teams that, by virtue of current roster composition, is going to have to expose several good, young, players any of whom would be attractive to Vegas.

Teams are required to submit their lists by 5pm ET on June 17th, and the lists will be made public on Sunday, June 18th.

This is situation that is ripe for producing fan outrage.  "How DARE [insert GM name] risk the future of this franchise by exposing [insert player name]?!  The incorrigible rapscallion!  What if Vegas takes him?!  This team is SUNK without him!  Sunk, I say!"  This situation is exacerbated because some teams are working out deals with Vegas to dictate who they take.  If your GM doesn't make a deal, or if that deal looks ugly in the light of day, fan outrage will soar.  Plus, this is exactly the kind of thing that hockey fans freak out about.  Something they can nitpick and analyze in hysterical fits of academic impotence and myopia.

Hockey Fan Outrage Meter: 5 out of 5 Mr. Furiouses.

June 20: New Jerseys Released

Armed with a fresh new opportunity to sucker NHL fans into buying new jerseys apparel merchandising deal with Addidas, NHL clubs will begin rolling out new sweaters next week.  There's a subset of NHL fans who get all the way off on uniforms.  They will undoubtedly become supremely exercised about the new jerseys.  Significantly more NHL fans won't get too worked up until teams start selling space on jerseys for advertisements.

Hockey Fan Outrage Meter: 2 out of 5 Mr. Furiouses.

June 21: Home Openers, NHL Awards, Vegas Roster 

The longest day of the year may feel like the Mayan apocalypse to NHL fans.  Home openers isn't that big of a deal, but the NHL Awards show is outrage primetime for fans.  And it matters who gets snubbed because that is an indictment of that player, coach, GM, team, and fanbase, right?  Hashtag eyeroll.  But teeth will be gnashed.  Adding to that will be the release of the names of the players chosen by Vegas.  The combination of the award show and the Vegas roster has the potential to send fans into orbit. But, after all the wrath when the protected lists come out, when fans realize that they only lost one player, and that was no more players than any other team lost, maybe that will somehow blunt the impact?

Hockey Fan Outrage Meter:  3 out of 5 Mr. Furiouses.

June 22: Full 2017-2018 Schedule Released

Fan outrage about the schedule is usually limited to reaction to long road trips, or challenging back-to-backs.  With no Olympic break, and no World Cup, next season's schedule may be less-condensed than this season's schedule was, too.  Still, hockey fans will find something to get worked up about.

Hockey Fan Outrade Meter: 1 out of 5 Mr. Furiouses.

June 23-24: NHL Entry Draft

The draft is such a weird thing.  You'd think it would be hard to work up much angst over your team drafting (or not drafting) some player you've never seen play in person, and who is maybe several years away from having a reasonable shot at the NHL lineup.  But that's what fans do, in every sport.  At least in football and basketball Americans have had a reasonable shot at seeing most of the draftees play on TV during their NCAA careers.  But the middle of the bell curve of NHL fans haven't seen the kid from Frolunda who their team took in the 5th round play even a second of hockey.

As far as outrage, the draft is also an opportunity to bemoan the GM who has traded draft picks for short-term help, and/or the GM who has wasted picks in the recent past.  Sometimes that's the same guy.

Hockey Fan Outrage Meter: 3 out of 5 Mr. Furiouses.

July 1-?: Unrestricted Free Agency

Which GM overpays?  Which GM is too cheap, or has spent himself into a corner previously, to be able to address needs (by overpaying)?  Which GM is always the bride's maid, never the bride?  And will a GM pull the dick move and sign a RFA to an offer sheet?  In the end, those most inclined to not be able to help themselves from overspending will overspend, those most shackled to a tight budget will sit quietly, and those most likely to resort to having to put lipstick on their own pig will try to find the shade that best brings out their eyes.

And fans will burn about all of it.

Hockey Fan Outrage Meter: 5 out of 5 Mr. Furiouses.

So there you have it.  There is no shortage of opportunities for hockey fans to rage about things over which they have no control this summer.  It's not even fair to call it an offseason.  For hockey fans, there is no break from outrage.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Game: Bottoming Out

By Nick

"With the first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Minnesota Wild is proud to select..."

If Wild fans are going to be able to hear Chuck Fletcher say those words, a lot will have to go either right or wrong - depending on what side of the "blow it up" argument you come down on - over the next couple years.  The only reason I'm even entertaining this idea is that I'm tired of the status quo.  I feel like the output over the past five seasons is enough of a sample size to indicate there is some kind of fatal flaw in this particular roster.  And therefore "they had a record regular season, give them another chance" is just unacceptably flaccid to me.

The rationale behind blowing it up is simple: the way to get the kind of high-end impact player that the Wild lacks is by drafting at the top of the first round. Think of the Penguins and Blackhawks.  The Wild, when it has been fortunate enough to have a pick in the first round, has been just competitive enough during the regular season to pick outside the money picks most of the time.  The one time it had a top-three pick, it used it on the franchise's all-time goals leader: Marian Gaborik.  That, by the way, was in the team's first-ever NHL entry draft.  This year's draft, in Chicago, will be the team's eighteenth.  Those Gaby memories are sweet, though, eh?

The Wild is a nice team of low-first-tier/high-second-tier (and lower) offensive talents.  Every team needs the kind of players the Wild has.  It's just that most contending teams also need some kind of game breaker - which the Wild does not have.  Even a plumbing company needs someone to go out and close business.

The downside in blowing it up is that it doesn't guarantee you that game-breaker.  Think of Colorado.  And that's assuming you hit with your pick - which is not a guarantee, given the Wild's draft history.  So, you could endure all the pain of sucking for a protracted period of time - measured in seasons, even - and then walk away with Nail Yakupov as your consolation prize.  Or, worse, AJ Thelen.

There is also the risk that you sacrifice revenue from fans if you lead them into the blow-it-up desert.

I'm of two minds about that when it comes to Wild fans.  On one hand, there is no shortage of good hockey to consume in Minnesota - even if not at the NHL level.  If the Wild tanks, one could easily see all those fans just go back to supporting their local college and high school hockey, eschewing the big league prices (to watch an uncompetitive product) at the X.

On the other hand, I want to say Minnesotans are so hockey-savvy that they would see the potential benefit of a blow it up campaign, and stick with the team throughout.  Or perhaps that they'll remember the cost they ultimately paid the last time they didn't support the local NHL team - regardless of extenuating circumstances.  Those feel like the less-likely scenarios, but who knows?

So, how would a blow it up even work?  And there's where it gets tricky.  There are no compliance buyouts anymore.  Contracts are guaranteed in the NHL.  And then there are no move and no trade clauses, not to mention contracts that are just so ugly that no one else would take them.

Trade The Vets?

One way teams bottom out is to shed high-priced veterans, garnering draft picks, while also performing poorly enough to maximize your odds of using those draft picks at the beginning of each round of the draft.  Especially those high-priced veterans who project to be past their prime contributing years by the time the re-build bears fruit.  The Wild, though, doesn't really have the luxury of that option.

Up front, there's one more season of Mikko ($6.75M cap hit).  Two more seasons of Staal ($3.5M cap hit).  Two more seasons of Pominville ($5.6M cap hit).  Parise's under contract for roughly 73 more seasons ($7.538M cap hit).  Mikko and Parise both have no moves.  Staal has a no trade.  Pominville, bless Chuck's heart, has both a no move and a no trade.  Isn't that like a Pope making Jesus Christ a saint?  St. Jesus, patron saint of....all the saints?

Defensively, for Suter see Parise.  Three more years of Spurgeon ($5.187M cap hit), with a no trade.

In goal, four more seasons of Duby ($4.333M cap hit), with a no trade.

Six of those players are both veterans and carry either a no move, a no trade, or both.  And they total  $40.446M worth of cap hit.  The other of those players, Spurgeon, is expensive and has a no trade, but is only 27.  And, as the greatest of the scant few hits of the Fletcher tenure, I think Chuck would move his own mother before he moved Spurge.  You're right, that's ridiculous.  His mother and a 2nd round pick.

But Who Wants To Eat Their Young?

The problem with being locked in on the vets is that it leaves the youth as the stockpile from which to select assets to move.  And, while none of the Wild's non-rookie youths is really distinguishing himself on a consistent basis, it's still galling to think of having to move them because you can't move the veterans on the team - who also aren't doing a hell of a lot to distinguish themselves.  And then you have to consider that any GM with whom Chuck tries to deal has to wonder what it is about [insert Wild kid name here] that Chuck knows that he doesn't know, that is making Chuck be willing to trade him in the first place.  Is it just that he forgot to give that particular kid a no move/no trade?  And, if it keeps the return value down, that's all that really matters to this discussion.

Conclusion One

I just don't see how you implement an actual blow-it-up strategy right now if you're the Wild.  In the first place, if a plan doesn't involve jettisoning a material representation of the veterans, can it be called a blow it up plan?  I'm going to go with "no."

Now, pro sports GMs have a penchant for believing that an underperforming player on another team is only a change of scenery away from ascending to the very height of their potential under the warm embrace of their organization.  So maybe you can get some other sap audacious GM to take that chance on our crusts.  And there's always the chance some other rebuilding GM will need to get to the cap floor which would put him in the market for one of our crusts.  And, maybe that's as close to a blow-it-up/re-build as we're going to come.  But, if it is, is it worth it?

How Would It Even Work?

Okay, let's sand table this exercise to see how it could even go down.  Obviously lots of wild cards and unknowns, far more than knowns, but what else are we going to argue over right now?

Summer, 2017

Try to trade Pominville.  Ideally not taking back any salary.  When you're ultimately forced to take back some salary, try to do so in the form of an ELC, preferably with waiver exemption remaining. And a unicorn.  And dinner with Jennifer Lawrence. When that ends up not happening, just try not to get fleeced.   Outcome: Pommer still on the team next October.

Don't re-sign Mikko.  If you want to bring him back beyond his current deal, he may not want to play anywhere else, even if you disrespect him a little bit by waiting to talk to him.  And he's 34.  As well as he played the first half of this season, he definitely cooled off down the stretch.  Once he's just a faceoff/defensive play guy, he's effectively a 3rd liner.  So okay, only re-sign him if he's willing to take a pay cut.  But even then, I wouldn't go longer than 2 years. Three, tops.  That may be a non-starter for him.  But, as far as risking him feeling disrespected, what's the bigger risk between waiting until January 1, 2018 to start talking to him, or low-balling him now?  Look, if he's reduced to a 3rd line role, he's more replaceable/less critical to us anyway.  Outcome: Mikko still on the team next October.

Think about leaving Staal unprotected.  His concussion in game 5 and the second year remaining on his contract may off-set the attractiveness of his strong regular season and relatively-cheap cap hit in George McPhee's mind.  You'd have to decide if leaving Staal unprotected or asking Pommer to waive all of his coats of armor is worse, optics-wise, as far as a signal to other potential UFAs of how we treat them here in Minnesota.  Outcome: Staal still on the team next October.

Plan to take at least one of Granlund or Niederreiter to arbitration.  This likely saves you in the short term of a couple extra years in term, and possibly some cap hit.  Outcome: Nino and Granlund both still on the team next October.

I trust you see the pattern here.

When it comes to the expansion draft, who knows?  Let's proceed with the premise that our young, unprotectable D are most-attractive to Vegas.  So, we're losing one.  As far as losing two young D this summer, if losing one in the expansion draft is going to happen, and losing another one (e.g. in a trade) frees up cap space to address another problem, then fine.  The whole point of a blow-it-up exercise is that the status quo is unacceptable.  So you're either willing to make changes or you're not.
But then you're still down two of your top 6 D from last season.  You need bodies.  Is Mike Reilly ready to stay with the big club?  What do we have in Olofsson - and does it even matter if he can't figure out how to stay out of the trainer's room?  But, if #Oneofus and Mr. Band-Aid aren't the answer on D, then you have to acquire some (free agency or trade).  That does fulfill the blow-it-up mandate, at least on D.

"With the first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Minnesota Wild is proud to select..."

Frankly, the most-likely route to an actual re-build would be to take both Nino and Granlund to arbitration this summer - assuming the team can get 2-year deals for both.  If the only option is a 1-year deal in arb this summer, it becomes less of a solution - even of the short-term variety.  (I'm not 100% sure of how the 1-year or 2-year elections work in arb.)  Do not re-sign Mikko, and plan to move on from him after next season (or trade him at next season's deadline when he's in the last year of his deal).  And plan to shop Staal and Pominville leading up to the trade deadline in 2019 - when they're in the last year of their respective deals.  In other words, target the 2019 entry draft as the one you're going to try to pick at the top of.

Conclusion Two

While that's the most-likely route and timeline to an actual re-build, once you start thinking that far out it becomes less-evident that you'll need to try to execute a re-build at that time in the first place.  Think about it.  If you're willing to wait two more seasons to start the damn thing, by that time Mikko's gone, and it's not like you're really accelerating the time frame by waiting until the trade deadline before both Staal's and Pommer's walk years anyway.  All you have to do is roll with the current lineup without making major changes between then and now.  That's highly unsatisfying against my "the status quo feels terrible" position way back in the first paragraph.  But I really don't see a faster route to an actual blow-it-up.

But, hey, Chuck says teams don't have windows.  So theoretically ours is still wide open.  Maybe Vegas will do us a solid and take a bad contract off our hands just because.  And maybe we'll find a back up who can give Duby some rest down the stretch next season.  And maybe Coyle, and Nino, and Zucker, and Granlund can find some consistency in their A-game.  And maybe Dumba will either find enough defense to be acceptable, or find enough offense to make his defensive shortcomings worth enduring.  And maybe Santa will bring Parise a new spine for Christmas.  And maybe Pominville....well, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

*All contract information from the good people at Cap Friendly.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Game: The Raging Impotence Of A Jilted Sports Fan

By Nick

I don't have a good reason why I think Chuck Fletcher should be invited to not continue as the General Manager of the Minnesota Wild.  But yet I do.

I've been in several good debates about this on Twitter since the Wild's season abruptly ended.  The team has a good core.  That's on Chuck.  The team got arguably the biggest steal in UFA last summer in Eric Staal.  That's on Chuck.  The team made a big deadline day deal to address a perceived hole.  That's on Chuck.

The team has solid younger players.  That's on Chuck.  The team has a very good coach.  That's on Chuck.  The team has an above-average starting goalie.  That's on Chuck.

The team has some intriguing prospects.  That's on Chuck.  The team just completed a record-setting regular season and has made the playoffs for five-straight seasons - all during Chuck's reign.  You read all that, and why the hell are we even having this discussion?

Well, the team's core is aging, and has not produced despite chances to do so, when it counts.  It's also largely unmovable for one reason or another.  That's on Chuck.  That UFA splash didn't produce in the playoffs, and looked tired.  Those deadline day rentals were a mixed bag.  I'm not as down on Hanzal as some others, but White was not additive, and it's possible - though not provable - that the trade itself disrupted the room.  (This is a minor gripe.  I distinctly remember how lame it felt when Riser did nothing (a.k.a. Chris Simon) on deadline day.)

The team has solid younger players who, while showing some regular season promise, were hit or miss in the playoffs.  Additionally, several of them are signed to relatively expensive contracts that would indicate a low value relative to overall performance.  That's on Chuck.  The team's coach is the team's coach because Chuck scape-goated his three prior hires.  The team has an above-average goalie who they have needed to drive into the ground the past few seasons because the alternatives were unsavory.  That's on Chuck (I'm not talking about the Kuemper contract deal so much as not addressing the issue sooner, and now we've wasted two more opportunities in part because Duby wasn't at his best which may have been at least partly because he was tired).

The team has some intriguing prospects, but none of whom were in a position to help this season, and Chuck decided to reverse his own decision and burn a year of Eriksson-Ek's deal in desperation as the ugly March wore on.  The kids are also weighted to the forward side, and less to the defensive side.  That's on Chuck.  The team just completed a record-setting regular season that would have been even more record-setting if their collective character flaw, that doesn't allow them to pull out of ugly slides sooner, hadn't reared its head again.  That's on Chuck, since it has been a trend and he hasn't rooted out the problem and addressed it.  The team has made the playoffs for five-straight seasons, but only advanced out of the first round twice, and never farther than the second round.  How much of that is on Chuck?  That's where Wild fans choose up sides.

Before we choose up sides in this post, let me stop and say: my internal accounting of all of the preceding sums to at worst a push, as far as Chuck goes.  Yes, the roster is inflexible.  But isn't roster/salary cap inflexibility a reasonable price to pay for that litany of merits in a team?  The team is certainly better now than it was when Chuck took over.  He has traded away a lot of assets, yes.  But it was always for some gain, and usually a defensible one at the time.  Some haven't worked out.  But, if he hadn't made those trades, I think I'd feel worse.  Sins of commission versus omission, and all that.

So then, why?

  • 2012-2013 lost in round 1
  • 2013-2014 lost in round 2
  • 2014-2015 lost in round 2
  • 2015-2016 lost in round 1
  • 2016-2017 lost in round 1

In the first place, making the playoffs for five straight years is not as remarkable as it sounds, given 54% of teams in the league, and 57% of teams in the Western Conference, make it every season.  It's a low bar, in other words.  Making the playoffs should constitute a base-level given for every team, every season.

But it's also the final outcome.  Compare our record the last five seasons to the Blues, for example.

  • 2012-2013 lost in round 1
  • 2013-2014 lost in round 1
  • 2014-2015 lost in round 1
  • 2015-2016 lost in 3rd round
  • 2016-2017 TBD, but no worse than losing in round 2

The Wild isn't improving.  And, you could argue based on final outcomes that it's moving the wrong way.  The problem with that argument is that it is difficult to quantify, and therefore difficult to address.  Those first three coaching hires speak to attempts - and failures - to address it via the bench boss.  I'm not prepared to get down on Boudreau at this point, but it's safe to say the issue isn't coaching.  Which means it's the players.  Maybe not individually.  There are better-defined roles for players now than maybe ever before.  At least in relation to the individual player's strengths and optimal usage.  So, is it that the collective organism of this group - with minimal significant changes over the past five seasons - is either missing some element in the elusive chemistry department, or has some characteristic that is self-inhibiting?  We'll never know that.

Those who cannot tolerate dwelling in areas where we can't know things look to the empirical analytical and take comfort and shelter from the output there.  It's great that the Wild is so good at Corsi.  And it might represent bad luck when you out-Corsi opponents without payoff for a while.  But all of March and most of April starts to stretch credibility as a run of bad luck and reaches the point of being that acceptable sample size that the stats-heads are so concerned about (when the stats don't show what they want them to) as to indicate that, maybe these guys just can't finish when it counts.

I was therefore disappointed to hear Chuck talk about being a good Corsi team in March, in his end-of-season presser.  The last time I checked you don't get to hang a banner for being the best Corsi team.

Ultimately this comes down to expectations.  Conveniently, Chuck also espouses the idea that there is no such thing as a window in which teams can compete.  Competitive cycles, if you will.  That is the narrative of the perpetually mediocre - again 57% of teams make the playoffs from the West.  It basically amounts to "We'll get 'em next year!"

If this was year one or two of the above run, that might work.  Heck, he probably said that in 2013 and 2014 after they lost in the first round.  But it's been five years now, and they're regressing.  Also, and I realize this isn't Chuck's baggage to carry, I'm 42.  Minnesota has had 3 or 4 major men's professional sports teams my entire life.  I've seen two championships - from the same team.

I have no tolerance for "We'll get 'em next year!" anymore from any of my teams' GMs, players, or owners.  I refuse to accept mediocrity anymore.  I realize I don't have any impact on the outcome.  But that doesn't mean I have to like it.  Every single person associated with professional sports says it's about the ring.  The banner.  The championship.  Every single person.  Why should we hold them to a lower standard?  Obviously life goes on if they lose - and they're more likely to lose than not.  But you can still harbor high expectations and be a good fan.  I expect championships.  I'm prepared to be disappointed.  But that's where I choose to set my expectations.  Regular season Corsi success is an absolute joke, and it was embarrassing to hear Chuck talk about it as though we should all take solace from it.  And, if that made you feel better about this season, then I say shame on you.  You're selling yourself short.

I don't believe that I'm owed a Cup.  Or a Lombardi.  Or the upside down popcorn bucket that they get when they win the NBA championship.  Or...whatever the hell the MLB trophy is.  But, by the same token, every year that goes by where the only banner in the X is the retired #1 for the fans, that banner takes on more of a mocking, jeering quality - especially when the building sits empty as April turns into May.

So, back to the top.  Chuck has had ample opportunities to build a team that takes the next step.  He has failed.  It's a performance results-oriented business.  His performance, when it counts, has been unacceptable.  It's like saying, I love everything about my car, but the brakes don't work.  Or, we built you your dream house, but the roof collapsed in on you your first night in it.  This is about winning championships.  The moment it becomes about something other than winning championships, I'm out of here.  Chuck has demonstrated he can't find the right combination of elements to keep the team moving forward toward that championship.  Worse, he has shown a propensity to get tracked into one strategy at the risk of falling victim to another set of circumstances - as building to beat Chicago only to not play them, and losing to St. Louis anyway would indicate.  Thank you, Chuck, for what you've done to bring us to this point.  Now, like the players on your team, it's time to find someone who can finish when it counts.