[b]After futile second half, Wild Have Tame Off-season[/b]
Despite a long-overdue injection of actual live humans into the front office in February, the wheels of the sausage-making process by which professional sports franchises are managed seemed content to grind into neutral, warm the engine and see how the rest of the season played out. It did, at that, and the Wild stayed on the course they set out on, in draft lottery territory but not so bad the tides of fate saw fit to award them the big prize.
Management was not completely idle-- All-star defender Ivan Provorov was sent down to Sunrise in exchange for the stout-but-unremarkable Ryan Pilon, Prospect Evan Vierling and a 1st in 2024. The Blues sent over Kristian Vesalainen in a swap of tweeners, the big-boned Finn contributing 6 points in 30 games to end the season with the Wild. Incumbent starter Calvin Pickard, on an expiring deal, was sent 1-for-1 to the Sens for Dylan Wells, the 25 year old netminder more or less took over the starting job for the remainder of the campaign.
So the Wild finished 25th. Alexis Lafreni??re matched his rookie season, tallying a team-leading 30 goals. Provorov's exit seemed to cripple the team's transition game, Alexei Marchenko not quite up to the task without his blueline partner. Staring at the final tally of player stats is trying to glean an upside is an excruciating exercise in spin.
So, the Wild finished 25th. Did not win the Conor Bedard sweepstakes, had the top player on their draft board taken right in front of them, and then, with grim but dutiful determination, retained many of the expiring contracts, perhaps cynically but not incorrectly guessing that luring free agents to St Paul in the current climate was going to be... a big ask. A trade, bringing in depth defenseman Cam Dineen and a long summer of static.
Perhaps fittingly, none of the braintrust could be reached for comment. Perhaps Panthers fans who survived the previous Haslam glacial epoch could write in with words of courage and hope. Anything involving 'key dates' and being aggressive, competitive or quick on the draw seems... a little far fetched.
[b]6[/b] Ryan Leonard - formerly of the US NDTP, Leonard was ranked 4th by central scouting and by most accounts should grade out as one of the top prospects of the class, a well-rounded centreman who compares favourably to Alex Turcotte with more physicality. Leonard was one of the few Wild prospects to score a real goal in the pre-season, for his efforts he'll start his professional career in Des Moines.
[b]34[/b] Oliver Bonk - Canadian-born son of Radek, who curiously played over 900 NHL games but retired promptly just before the EHEC ascendancy/the 2010 Dragon Break. Not the son's issue, clearly. Bonk projects as a very solid defense-first blueliner, not a dazzling upside but something approaching a safe bet.
[b]64[/b] Trey Augustine - the second-ranked netminder by Central Scouting, Augustine was the third selected. Despite being from Michigan, he's technically sound, has sharp reflexes, awareness, puck sense... but goaltenders are famously brutal to project your hopes and dreams on, so it's best to forget all about him until he gets the call.
[b]74[/b] Brandon Svoboda - ranked 49th, Svoboda is a workmanlike center with good size and a willingness to take the body. Luckily he's pretty good at it, and that's his best route to the show.
[b]81[/b] Easton Cowen - auspiciously named, diminutively sized, Cowen is a work in progress but has shown consistency in the work he's putting in. Scouts we talked to say he interviews well, which is only slightly less pseudoscientific than the ugly girlfriend test, but at 81st overall you do like hearing about determination.
[b]94[/b] Hunter Brzustewicz - one usually sees a Polish-American name like Hunter Brzutewicz and assumes 'bone crushing lineman.' This kid projects rather more like a decent two-way defenseman who will make the most of his potential working on the transition game.
[b]145[/b] Kocha Delic - At the very end of the draft there are usually a handful of 'showed us something' prospects who are worth at least having the rights to. Scouts did not share with this magazine what it is, exactly, that Kocha Delic showed them, but they spoke about it in the sort of hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for retrospective re-appraisals of a prog rock band's back catalogue.
Leonard immediately becomes the #1 ranked prospect in the Wild system, easily edging out last year's top selection, defenseman Denton Mateychuk.
[b]Rumours and Innuendo at Training Camp[/b]
37 deep, intent on breaking ground on a new season of hockey in a series of skirmish matches against other training camp rosters, the Wild finished the (meaningless, utterly meaningless, truly) pre-season with one win in 9 chances and but a scant few interesting stories to be told.
1- Mateychuk is ready. Or ready enough. Presumably not as ready as he'll ever be, but he's ready to start getting ready to be as ready as he'll ever be. The tenth selection in 2022, The Dentist was given top pairing duties through a gruesome pre-season and didn't look at all out of place against any opponents, which is more than can be said for any of his partners in the blueline 'prospect' group. His overall outlook still looks well shy of stardom, and Mateychuk had a rocky under-age season in Iowa last year, but growth comes in spurts, and he now looks like a decent bet to stick with the top team.
2- The Wild have won more than 30 games just twice in the last twelve seasons, missing the playoffs every year. Looking at the roster, you'd get pretty long odds to bet the over, but also, save your money.
3- 2020's first overall pick, Alexis Lafreniere signed a new four year deal in July worth $29.6 million dollars. Minnesota is a wealthy state, and the per capita income averages out to about $41,000/yr. Now, Alexis is a gifted hockey player, and has spent his young life maximizing his abilities at ice skating, passing, stickhandling and shooting a rubber puck and avoiding getting brain injuries. And for good reason, since a Minnesota hockey fan will pay between $59 and $360 to see that sort of thing, in addition to their municipal taxes being levied against the interest accruing on the outstanding tens of millions in bonds the city of Saint Paul still owes for subsidizing the cost of the Xcel Energy Center. (And an $140 million dollar police budget.) It is of course, useless to ask whether the young sports playing guy works 180 times harder than the average Minnesotan, because obviously the average Minnesotan does not generate the sort of spectacle-driven revenue as a professional athlete, and of course Laf is only attempting to recoup a small percentage of the total profit that he and his teammates generate for Craig Leipold, now worth about $4,000,000,000, who of course made his initial millions via telemarketing, a just and noble profession, and owns a very sinkable yacht valued at about the same as Laf's new contract.
4- This reporter looked on in stunned horror and admiration as one Manix Landry refused to back down from a challenge and continued to eat concession items ferried down to the bench between shifts during the pre-season opener in Denver. I've never seen a man eat so many chicken wings. Landry is, of course, Iowa bound, but the fortitude...
5- You hope to be surprised, you hang on to hope. In this life you are constantly given the choice between comfort and risk, knowing ambition comes with pitfalls, disappointment follows hope, but also knowing that without hope, despair catches you just the same. We all work fervently to preserve what we have, but is it everything that we need to thrive? Can you possibly live with anything less? The Wild have a few good players, but most teams do. The Wild are young, but most teams are young. They play the games for a reason, but do they?
El Periodista Amarillo, out.