The first month of the season is over and, honestly, the Minnesota Wild are probably relieved.
After starting the season 1-6-0, the team finished the month by winning four of their last seven games, as well as breaking their eight-game road losing streak against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Had you asked me, after the team’s initial five-game road trip, what I would think of the team finishing the month with five wins, I would have told you that it would be a very large positive for them.
After watching the final two games of the month, I can tell you that it is much more than a large positive.
The team is finally playing together; they are playing tight defensively and loose offensively.
Their best players have started to show that spark that makes them their best players, and the mistakes that the team is making were no longer coming in the areas they shouldn’t be.
Plain and simple, they are beginning to look like a team that gets it.
With that in mind, here are my first month grades, as well as some first month awards.
Be honest. You didn’t expect to see Eric Belanger tied for the team lead in scoring after the first month, did you?
For those who said yes, you’re either his parents or a bald-faced liar.
All kidding aside, though, Belanger has been spectacular for the Wild so far and he’s one of a select few forwards that we can say that about.
Along with Belanger, Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan are probably the only other players that we can say have given consistent efforts throughout the first month of the season.
Even captain Mikko Koivu looked much less than impressive until he received the captaincy.
The team is still having a hard time finding the back of the net, but the important thing is that the players that were brought in to do just that (Martin Havlat and Petr Sykora) are looking like they’re starting to hit their strides after back-to-back strong performances against the New York Rangers and the Penguins.
The disappointments for the forwards, however, have been many. Antti Miettinen has not been producing like he did early last season, though he found the net against New York, and James Sheppard has continued to disappoint up front.
Early in the month, both Havlat and Sykora could have been counted in this group and still have a lot to prove after very slow starts.
The most pleasant surprise for me has been the play of much-maligned rookie Benoit Pouliot. Pouliot is starting to do the little things that Richards is asking him and the difference between the way he is playing now and the way he was playing at this point last season is night and day.
He is going into the high traffic areas and he is, most importantly, using his size and crashing the net with his stick down.
All-in-all, however, the team needs to figure out how to fill the back of the net. Despite the new “up-tempo” offense and despite peppering the goalie with shots, they are still not scoring goals. This will need to change in a large way for the team to keep winning.
October Grade: C+
Wow. Where to begin.
I’ll just put it this way. The defense looks absolutely horrific.
There is a distinct lack of communication on the blueline—something that has led to goals even in the last two performances of the team.
Both of our defensemen seem to get the same idea in their heads at the same time and both do exactly the same thing, which tends to leave someone open at some point.
In New York, it was both Schultz and Burns jumping up into the play too early. In Pittsburgh, it was Burns inexplicable desire not to cover the man in the slot.
Both resulted in goals.
I’ll be honest—I love the way that Brent Burns plays. I love the passion he plays with and I love the fact that he puts absolutely everything that he has into each and every game. But he needs a defensive partner capable of reining him in.
Keith Carney was able to do it his first season and Burns had a career year. Maybe that player is Shane Hnidy. Maybe it’s Greg Zanon. One thing is for certain, though. Burns will be a great talent, but he’s not quite there yet.
But apart from Burns, our defense has been spotty.
Marek Zidlicky is starting to play much better defensively. He has even started to cut down on his turnovers.
Kim Johnsson, like him or not, was playing quite well before his injury and was eating up minutes like a madman.
Greg Zanon and Shane Hnidy, our two offseason acquisitions, have been fantastic defensively for us. Zanon seems to get in the way of every shot that comes his way, and Hnidy is not afraid to take on anyone.
Nick Schultz is starting to stabilize after having a rough start to the season and is looking, again, like our most reliable defenseman.
And big John Scott is actually looking like he might replace Derek Boogaard as the team’s enforcer. He can skate, he can hit and he can fight. Good enough for me.
Overall, we still have a long way to go on defense and two games does not change a defensive culture that, this season, has been absolutely horrible.
October Grade: D
Wow. That's really the bulk of what I have to say. Wow.
All of the adjectives and hyperbole in the world couldn’t state just how important Niklas Backstrom has been to this team. In just about every game that he’s played in, he has been the reason why the Wild have had a chance to win.
In fact, I would wager that about 95 percent of the goals that have been given up this season by Backstrom are directly attributable to at least one defensive mistake.
Granted, could he maybe stop one or two of those? Probably. But he has looked absolutely stellar in net, making even the most skeptical Wild fan a believer.
The downfall of the Wild’s goaltending, however, has been on the bench.
Josh Harding has looked absolutely terrible—and that’s putting it nicely.
Both games that he has played have seen him fighting the puck and not making saves he should be making.
Plain and simple, he has to be better.
Backstrom has now played eight straight games, including two sets of back-to-backs. You’ve got to imagine that Harding’s number is going to get called again soon, and when it does he’s going to need to step his game up in a big way.
October Grade: B+
This one is a tough one.
On one hand, I think that the staff (Richards especially) are primarily responsible for the team’s early-season slide.
On the other hand, I think that the staff might have played a large part as to why the team clawed their way out of that early slide.
My criticisms for Richards remain the same. He often looks outmatched and lost behind the bench and I honestly don’t believe that he has ever gotten control of the locker room.
That being said, he has done a very good job in the last few games of getting the team out of their doldrums and starting to play together.
I maintain my position that he has a long way to go to repair whatever rift may have formed between him and the team to get them to this point, but he’s certainly started the process.
October Grade: D
Team MVP: Niklas Backstrom. I was going to go with Eric Belanger on this one, but Backstrom has been absolutely marvelous. The only stat that he’s struggling in is the win column, but that will come as the season goes.
If not for Backstrom, I don’t think this team has even three wins so far this season. He has stood on his head and given them a chance to win every night.
Top Forward: Eric Belanger. He has shown instant chemistry with Havlat and Sykor and he has played a lot more consistently than anyone else on the team’s roster so far.
He’s just about at a point-per-game pace and he’s going to make the coaching staff’s decision very hard once Pierre-Marc Bouchard returns from injury.
Top Defenseman: Greg Zanon. He might not contribute all that often on the scoresheet, but he’s probably one of Backstrom’s best friends right now.
He gets in the way of everything he can, he plays physical and he’s pretty much everything that the team has not had in a defenseman since losing Willie Mitchell.
So there you have it! Be sure to check back tomorrow for my game preview of the second meeting of the Wild and the Vancouver Canucks.