Tuesday November 24th, 2009

The current State of Hockey is suspended animation.

The Minnesota Wild is running on a treadmill to nowhere. The Wild does not look like a playoff contender, despite a reasonable back end with goalie Niklas Backstrom and credible defensemen, but neither does this team look like a no-hope bottom feeder even as it sits last in the Western Conference. It is a mediocre bunch that is a little too promising to be favorites in the Taylor Hall/Tyler Seguin draft sweepstakes that will occur next June. Stuck in the vast middle, the Wild neither remotely good enough nor flat terrible enough to have a solid Stanley Cup run or a gilt-edged draft in its future.

So what's a new general manager to do?

Chuck Fletcher, who was hired after the Wild stagnated under former GM Doug Risebrough and coach Jacques Lemaire, is taking a middle-of-the-road approach. He says he considers Minnesota a legitimate playoff hopeful -- after a horrific start under new coach Todd Richards, the team is nine points out of a playoff berth -- but won't trade "assets for another five wins." If you parse those words, Fletcher sounds like a man who will err on the side of long-term planning despite his public optimism, because bottoming out -- "I've heard those arguments," he says -- might be the best way to fix a lingering Minnesota malaise.

There are two ways to be good in the NHL: either be smarter than everyone else -- like Detroit and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia, New Jersey and San Jose, teams that maintain a talent base without the luxury of high picks (Philly's James vanRiemsdyk in 2007 excepted) -- or be demonstrably worse than everyone else and wait for the draft, which paid off in Pittsburgh (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-André Fleury) and Washington (Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom) and seems to be finally yielding dividends with the New York Islanders (John Tavares, Kyle Okposo).

Fletcher has beefed up and revamped Minnesota's scouting operation in an effort to be one of the smart teams in the coming years, but the temptation must be great to tear things down in order to rebuild them. The problem is the pipeline of Wild prospects has slowed to a trickle.

The top two picks in 2008 (No. 23 Tyler Cuma and No. 55 Marco Scandella) likely will be on Team Canada's defense at the World Junior Championships next month while the 2009 No. 1, high school star Nick Leddy from local Eden Prairie (now out of the University of Minnesota lineup due to a broken jaw), also projects as a useful player. But there is not one forward in the system that figures to have an impact on the NHL level. (Colton Gillies, the 2007 first-rounder who was with the Wild last season, has been playing at Minnesota's AHL affiliate in Houston.)

Since the fabulous and fragile Marian Gaborik left for the New York Rangers via free agency in July, the Wild's annual struggle for goals has been exacerbated. Only St. Louis, Carolina and Nashville have scored fewer. Free-agent Martin Havlat, who was supposed to cushion the blow of losing Gaborik, has two goals and is -14 in 19 games.

Fletcher moved to correct the problem on Monday when he traded Benoît Pouliot to Montreal for Guillaume Latendresse, a swap of problematic forwards. Pouliot was the fourth player taken in the 2005 draft, a position in which the Wild reasonably could have assumed getting a significant player if not a franchise-changer. (Fletcher, then with Anaheim, which took Bobby Ryan at No. 2 behind Crosby, said the Ducks had defensemen Marc Staal and Jack Johnson on their list above Pouliot, but the 6'3", 200-pound center was in a group with Jack Skille and Gilbert Brulé -- "certainly a top 10 guy on everybody's list.")

Pouliot never provided any meaningful offense, netting nine goals and nine assists in relatively short minutes in 65 NHL games -- an indication of how Lemaire felt about him. Latendresse is a glacial skater, but he has size and decent hands. If Richards can unburden Latendresse of his oversized sense of entitlement -- the winger went straight from junior hockey into the NHL -- and get him to use his 6'2", 230-pound girth around the net, it should be a modest upgrade.

But neither Latendresse nor Chuck Kobasew, whom Fletcher acquired from Boston earlier in the season, is going to start a box office stampede. The Wild continue to sell out the magnificent Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, but demand, judging by the availability of single-game tickets advertised on Wild broadcasts, has begun to soften. The hockey sophisticates in the Twin Cities, who once practically held open the door to allow the North Stars to move to Dallas, adore the sport, but do not represent a captive audience. There are simply too many other hockey amusements, including at the college and high school level, for the Wild to feel comfortable with its place in the market.

So what's a new GM do? Does he abandon this season in hopes of a faster rebuild, or is he captive to the goodwill of a fan base that has seen little in the way of progress since the shocking run to the Western Conference final in 2003? Does he tinker in hopes that the team slips into a playoff spot and the scouts do a better job of identifying talent in the middle ranges of the draft? Does he hope that college or NHL free agents provide a booster shot next summer?

"I think our fans understand the direction we want to go," Fletcher says. "But it takes some patience. Ultimately we will have an entertaining, winning product, but I think people realize that this is a team in transition."

In other words, fans are stuck in the middle with him.

Colin Campbell, vice-principal of Gary Bettman's School for Miscreants, gave Montreal's Georges Laraque a five-game suspension for kneeing Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall. If Campbell really wanted to punish the Canadiens, he would have mandated that Laraque play at least 16 minutes per game for the next five games.

Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green was a Norris Trophy finalist last season, a player blessed with vision and creativity. But even after rededicating himself to the game following a terrible performance in the 2009 playoffs, he is playing himself off the Canadian Olympic team with his unreliability. Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman and coach Mike Babock want players capable of being on the ice in all situations. If Yzerman saw Green make a feeble mid-ice poke check on Ottawa's winning overtime goal on Monday, he probably drew a short stroke through the defenseman's name.

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