As I sat down to watch Ryan Suter and the Minnesota Wild host Shea Weber and the Nashville Predators last night, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would write about for today. Would it be a game wrap up? No, fellow Gone Puck Wild writer, Scott Drain, does a great job with those in addition to game previews. Then goaltender Nik Backstrom had the game-losing gaffe in the third period and I thought that would be perfect to write about, but it’s hard to politely and professionally express your utmost anger and disbelief on paper or computer screen for that matter. Even though that was a very sour note to end on, there were a lot of positives to the game that I was amazed many Wild fans didn’t see last night and I will mention them below.
1. Ladies and gentlemen, Dany Heatley is back! In three games, Heater has scored three goals (two on the power play) and an assist. Sure it helps that he’s playing with Zach Parise and a healthy Mikko Koivu, but Heatley has seen a lot of time out on the ice with an assortment of Wild players and has been a very dangerous threat every time he hops the boards. At the rate he’s scoring, don’t be surprised if he eclipses his goal scoring total from last season…and this is a shortened season!
2. Speaking of Parise, doesn’t he look good in Iron Range Red and Forest Green? The Minneapolis, Minnesota native has been everywhere at once out on the ice, forcing turnovers, creating scoring chances and giving goalies and defensemen heart attacks. His no-quit attitude has clearly become infectious as all four lines have been rolling and performing quite well under his leadership.
3. Cal Clutterbuck—God bless him—has been an absolute beast so far this season. Not only has he thrown his body around, he has also created some great scoring opportunities and, paired with Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Kyle Brodziak, has turned Minnesota’s third line into a legitimate scoring threat.
4. Minnesota’s fourth line of Darroll Powe, Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell has been unbelievably outstanding. Every time they jumped the boards last night, it seemed they would then spend the next minute or so down in the offensive end of the ice. They were creating scoring chances, they were throwing hits and they just wore down the opposing team. They did everything a true NHL fourth line should be doing and I couldn’t help but watch with a smile on my face every time I saw them come out.
5. The Wild defensive corps has looked great so far this season. As of last night, they led the league in blocked shots. They’ve also contributed some offense from the blue line which is much needed from this group of guys. All six guys haven’t looked out of place on the ice and have stepped up when they’ve needed to. A guy Wild fans should keep their eyes on is Clayton Stoner. Considered a bottom pairing defenseman the past few seasons, with Marco Scandella out with an injury, Stoner has stepped up beautifully on the second pairing with Tom Gilbert. He also notched an assist on Heatley’s goal last night.
6. Mikael Granlund is going to be very dangerous in the NHL for a long time. Centering Devin Setoguchi and Matt Cullen, Granlund has been everywhere on the ice and has created some amazing scoring chances. The goals will come for him and, when they do, they’ll pile up quickly.
7. Niklas Backstrom hasn’t been the elite goaltender he was at first for a long time—since Lemaire left, in fact. Since 2009-2010, Backstrom has posted a 68-65-20 record, a .911 save percentage and 2.58 goals against average. Compare that to his 93-45-22 record, .924 save percentage and 2.20 goals against average in the three years before that. Some might argue it’s because there was no better coach than Lemaire, but I doubt that’s the reason. Minnesota finally has a better team to ice in front of Backstrom, but he’s still not performing like he should. Now Josh Harding has entered his goaltending prime and, even while fighting MS, his goal is to not just be a number one netminder in the NHL—no—it’s to be Minnesota’s number one netminder. I have no doubt he’ll be given every opportunity to do so, especially with Backstrom’s contract in its final year. And, if the job isn’t given to Harding, there are three elite goalie prospects waiting in the wings.
For the record, I’m not saying Backstrom’s a terrible goaltender–he isn’t–he just hasn’t come close to posting the numbers he did in the Lemaire era, though no goalie can keep posting numbers like that forever. Backstrom is a very good goalie, I’m just not sure he has long to go in a Wild sweater. Harding is going to do everything he can to claim the starter role and Matt Hackett is ready to back him up.
So don’t give up, Wild fans. The scoring is coming along, the defense is there and, if the great backup goaltender outplaying the good starter is our only problem, well then the Minnesota Wild are sitting quite handsomely right now. It’s time to sit back and let the good times roll.
Until the next shift,
Dakota W. Case
Editor, Gone Puck Wild