On Nov. 17, the Minnesota Wild fell to last place in the NHL. With just seven wins in their first 20 games, no team had fewer points (16) than Minnesota.
The Wild were looking like a veteran team weighed down by too many bloated (and regrettable) contacts. Their big free-agent acquisition, Mats Zuccarello, wasn’t producing. Goaltending looked suspect. It appeared Minnesota was much closer to entering a rebuild than it was to contending. General manager Paul Fenton had been fired in late July, less than 15 months into the job. Bill Guerin, who won two Stanley Cups as a player and two more as a member of Pittsburgh’s front office, was hired as a replacement in August. And it sure looked like he had a huge mess to clean up.
But even as the losses piled over the first six weeks of the season, Guerin stood pat. Fans were calling for the Wild to fire coach Bruce Boudreau, or make a seismic trade to shake up the roster.
But Guerin did nothing. And all of a sudden, the Wild started winning. With an 11-game points streak — and five-game winning streak, both of which were snapped in a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday — Minnesota miraculously climbed into playoff contention.
“I’m happy for the guys. They did this,” Guerin told ESPN in a phone interview Saturday. “I’m glad I didn’t do any knee-jerk moves or anything like that.”
Guerin spent the previous five seasons as assistant general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and was considered a strong candidate for several GM openings before landing in Minnesota. Upon taking the job, he tried to spend as much time as he could with the coaching staff. “The most important thing for me was to just to get to know everybody,” he said. “I came into a situation where I didn’t hire anybody.”
He also scheduled as many one-on-one meetings as he could with players. Guerin asked them to share their feelings about what went wrong the previous few years. He asked them how they felt about playing in Minnesota. Guerin then relied on advice from his mentors.
“I worked for Jim Rutherford, I worked for Ray Shero, I consider Lou Lamoriello a mentor and a friend — he’s taught me a lot over the years,” Guerin said. “The biggest thing I heard from a lot of GMs: They preached patience to me. Brian Burke even reached out. Guys like that, giving good, solid advice. A lot of them said, ‘Don’t rush into anything.'”
And so Guerin resisted temptation. “There are good players here. I’ve said that since Day 1. There’s potential here,” he said. “You want to help them. You want to make this team as good as it can be. So you think of changes you can make or improvements you can make. So yeah, I had to pull my finger off the button a couple of times, but I’m glad I did.”
Asked how close he was to make a coaching change or pulling off a trade, Guerin said, “Well, not the coach, I’ll tell you that. There are always things that come across your desk. You’re always talking to other GMs. But my message to the team was, they’re going to get the opportunity to prove themselves as a group. I didn’t feel the need to put my personal stamp on this team just to make a trade, just because. I didn’t feel the need to do that. This group is proving that they’re a good hockey team, they’re a close group of guys that like playing together and like playing in Minnesota.”
The Wild averaged 3.5 goals per game during their points streak; prior to that, their season average was around 2.6. Zuccarello, the longtime New York Ranger who signed a five-year, $30 million contract in free agency, started producing. He has 10 points (four goals, six assists) in his past 10 games after tallying just seven points in his first 16.
“When I was in Pittsburgh, we really liked Zucc, too; I just think the world of the guy,” Guerin said. “He’s got a presence about him, he’s got that swagger that we’re looking for, and he can make plays. But when you sign a big contract, going to a new team, and you’ve been somewhere for a long time, it takes a while to adjust. The most pressure put on you is from yourself. I think it took him just a little while to get used to things. But we’re seeing the way he can play now.”
Goaltending has been a question mark for this group, and starter Devan Dubnyk is currently on leave from the team as his wife, Jennifer, is dealing with serious medical issues. It doesn’t sound as though Guerin is looking to add to the goaltending group. In Dubnyk’s absence, the team has looked to his usual backup, Alex Stalock, and also called up 23-year-old rookie Kaapo Kahkonen, who shined in his first two NHL starts, going 2-0 with a .950 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average. He was especially impressive in a 44-save victory against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.
“The way I see it right now, with Duby being away, it’s an opportunity,” Guerin said. “It’s an opportunity for Alex, for Kaapo, and they’ve taken advantage of the opportunity. Devan is away for personal reasons, he’s not injured or anything like that, but he’ll be back. So I see it as an opportunity for those two to play more to prove more and see what they can do. They’ve done a great job of filling in to the No. 1 and No. 2 spot.”
The Wild went through a grueling road schedule early. They’ve already played half of their season’s road games, with 30 nights in a hotel in 39 days. (Only one other team, the 2005-06 Chicago Blackhawks during the circus trip era, has played 20 of its first 30 games on the road.) Fenton and team president Matt Majka told the NHL they were comfortable with the early road-heavy schedule, and signed off on it. After all, the team didn’t exactly have great home success last season, going 16-18-7 at the Xcel Energy Center.
The Wild now have new challenges, as exposed in the loss to Carolina, as they are now without two of their best players (captain Mikko Koivu and defenseman Jared Spurgeon) due to injuries. Both players are expected to miss at least a couple weeks.
“To me, getting through that tough part of the season and realizing you’re not in that bad of a spot gives them a lot to play for,” Guerin said. “They’ve proven to themselves, and to me, that they’re a good team. But we’re only 20-something games in. They’ve got to keep going. Now the expectations are higher than they were before. And we can’t just be happy with where we are now. Nobody stopped playing because we started winning.”
Emptying the notebook
The team the Wild — and everyone in the Central Division — has to chase is the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. What they’ve been able to do with major injuries to the lineup (Vladimir Tarasenko is out until at least April, while Alexander Steen has been out a month and Oskar Sundqvist is battling a lingering injury) is quite impressive. They’re 13-5-3 since Tarasenko went down, good for fourth place in the NHL in that span, with 29 points. I caught up with Blues GM Doug Armstrong last week to ask how his team was persevering. “We always said as an organization, death by a thousand cuts,” Armstrong said. “We feel comfortable by our depth. We’re getting great play from key positions. Our goaltending has been outstanding, and our defense has been very good, and that keeps us in a lot of games.”
Armstrong said he’s still confident Tarasenko will be able to join the team for a playoff run. Tarasenko had surgery on his dislocated left shoulder Oct. 29, and the team set a five-month timetable for him to be reevaluated. “He’s diligent with his rehab,” Armstrong said. “I know that he works very hard. We actually tried to slow him down a little bit. We told him to spend time with family, take vacations, because when we get into January and he can start going full barrel, we want him to. Five months will be April 1. Season ends April 4, and we’re hopeful he’ll be on that timeline.”
Since Tarasenko is on long-term injury reserve, the Blues have approximately his entire salary-cap space ($7.5 million) available. Of course, that means cash out of pocket for ownership, since St. Louis is still paying Tarasenko. The team also has to get back to being cap-compliant if Tarasenko returns before the end of the regular season. So how creative does Armstrong expect to get with the cap space? “There’s no player we’re going to get that’s as good as Vladdy,” Armstrong said. “So I’d rather get Vladdy back than spend that money. But also, it’s not an injury where you can come back exponentially earlier than the doctors say, because it’s just a healing thing. It’s not a strength thing. So I think we’re looking into the first round anyways.”
How do all of the early-season injuries affect the Blues at the trade deadline? “This group, last year we did nothing at the deadline,” Armstrong said. “This year, we made a major acquisition in Justin Faulk. We’re having a really good look at some of our younger players — [Nathan] Walker is in there as guys have gotten hurt, he’s played well. Jordan Kyrou is a top prospect we’d like to get in here, too. So what we’d like to be able to do between now and the trade deadline is find out how advanced our younger players are, to see if they are actually able to help us as we push for a playoff spot, or do we have to look outside?”
It hasn’t been the easiest transition for Faulk, whom the Blues acquired right before the season. He has just seven points in 31 games. “It’s been an adjustment for him,” Armstrong said. “As it has been quite honestly for Colton Parayko. When you have four right-shot defensemen — most teams are lucky to have two — and you’ll see in the NHL, a lot of lefties can play the right side, but not a lot of righties are asked to play the left since there is such a shortage. So we’re putting guys in off positions.” Because the Blues have so much defensive depth, they haven’t been able to get consistent defensive pairings. “We’re trying to win, but keep everyone happy with their ice time,” Armstrong said.
There was no much self-imposed emphasis for the Coyotes to make the playoffs this season. So it’s neat to see them tied for first place in the Pacific Division. This is the latest in the season they’ve held that spot since the 2010-11, when they won the division. The Coyotes have a plus-14 goal differential — the second-best mark in the Western Conference — and the biggest reason why is stout goaltending from Darcy Kuemper (.935 save percentage) and Antti Raanta (.926).
Three stars of the week
The Johnny Norris campaign hasn’t slowed down. Carlson scored six points in three games this past week (three goals, three assists) as the Caps swept their California road trip. Two of his goals were game winners.
After a rough November spent battling injuries and inconsistency, Tuch is bouncing back in a big way. In four games this past week, he had six points (three goals, three assists), including scoring twice in four minutes against the Rangers, which doubled his season goal total.
Eichel has improved in every season as a pro, and is on quite an impressive stretch right now for the Sabres (41 points in his first 30 games). That includes seven points (two goals, five assists) in four games this past week.
What we liked this week
Laila Anderson was a source of inspiration for the Blues during their Stanley Cup run last spring. The 11-year-old, battling a rare autoimmune disorder, became a de facto member of the team, and even got her own Stanley Cup ring. On Thursday, Anderson got another surprise: she met her bone marrow donor for the first time. Anderson and Kenton Felmlee formed an instant connection, and two days later, they attended the Blues game together:
Video of Laila Anderson meeting her bone marrow donor, Kenton Felmlee, is shown on the jumbotron. The two then embrace at the game. Awesome moment. pic.twitter.com/kj39SVKjat
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) December 8, 2019
Fun times at RCI. pic.twitter.com/1njfOwFN15
— Cory Lavalette (@corylav) December 6, 2019
It’s true, Alex Ovechkin is on fire these days. I recommend taking the time to watch Ovechkin and teammate John Carlson sit down last week with Linda Cohn for this In the Crease special. It was a fun interview, and both guys’ personalities are on full display. Cohn asked Ovechkin what would happen if he passes Wayne Gretzky as the NHL’s all-time leading scorer. “You probably never gonna see me on the ice again.” Instant retirement? “Yeah, right away,” Ovechkin said, doing a salute. “See ya!”
Alex Ovechkin says if he becomes the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, there’s a good chance he’ll never be seen on the ice again. For more In the Crease, sign up for ESPN+ today at https://plus.espn.com/.
The Penguins have endured so many injuries this season that a fan sent a package of California white sage to their office, and asked if someone could “walk around the arena to exorcise some evil spirits.” Andi Perlman, the Penguins’ director of new media, was up to the task:
And what did you do on your lunch break today? pic.twitter.com/DiN9wu8Kwl
— Andi Perelman (@AndiPerelman) December 4, 2019
Kevin Hayes (@KevinPHayes12) mic’d up is everything and more. 😂
— NHL (@NHL) December 4, 2019
You either love these jerseys or you hate them. There is no in-between.
Us: 🖤🧡💛 pic.twitter.com/JkJPZ069mp
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) December 7, 2019
What we didn’t like this week
Among the allegations that Mike Babcock verbally abused players, the most disturbing has to be around Johan Franzen while they were with the Detroit Red Wings. It’s especially troubling considering the issues Franzen has been dealing with following his playing career. Franzen, 39, is under contract with the Red Wings through 2019-20 but has not played in the NHL since 2015 as he deals with lingering problems with post-concussion syndrome. Franzen has opened up recently to say he fights a daily battle with depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
Chris Chelios first shed light on the relationship between Babcock and Franzen in an appearance on the “Spittin Chiclets” podcast. “Some of the things [Babcock said to Franzen] on the bench, I don’t know what he said to him behind closed doors one-on-one, but he blatantly verbally assaulted him during the game on the bench,” Chelios said. “It got to the point where poor Johan, no one really knowing he was suffering with the concussion thing and the depression thing, he just broke down and had a nervous breakdown. Not only on the bench but after the game in one of the rooms in Nashville. That was probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
Franzen corroborated the story in an interview with a Swedish outlet, Expressen.
“I get the shivers when I think about it,” Franzen told Expressen. “That incident occurred against Nashville in the playoffs. It was coarse, nasty and shocking. But that was just one out of a hundred things he did. The tip of the iceberg. … He would lay into a couple of the other players. The nice team players, the guys who don’t say very much. When they left the team he went on to focus on me. It was verbal attacks, he said horrible things.”
There is some fuzziness with the timeline of the Chelios anecdote. Then-GM Ken Holland told the Detroit Free Press that “the situation Chelios described had nothing to do with Franzen. They were separate situations. That happened after a game in San Jose, when someone had said something on a telecast about there being unrest in the locker room. I told players they could come to me if they had anything to say. No one did.”
Nonetheless, the fact that Franzen — and Chelios — are still scarred by the interactions to this day is telling, and tough to hear.
Games of the week
These two teams are trying to establish playoff position in the West. Could make for a great goalie matchup, as Marc-Andre Fleury has returned from his personal leave while grieving the death of his father, while Ben Bishop has been red-hot for the Stars.
Canadian angst is on full display when these two teams — both aspiring to snap Canada’s 26-year Stanley Cup drought — face off. Auston Matthews versus Connor McDavid is always a fun one. And who would have predicted that the Oilers would have more points than the Leafs at this point of the season?
The Lightning and Capitals rank No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in goals per game. Get ready for offensive fireworks. Plus, it looks like Nicklas Backstrom should be back this week after a long absence, meaning the Caps could have a full, healthy lineup for the first time this season.
Quote of the week
No quote this week, but with two beloved players coming back to their old stomping grounds, we got some nice tribute videos.
Thanks for the Cups, the laughs, and the thrills.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 7, 2019
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) December 5, 2019