Minnesota Wild: Drastic Times Call for Drastic Measures

Blake BenzelCorrespondent INovember 20, 2009

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 13: Owen Nolan #11 of the Minnesota Wild skates against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on November 13, 2009 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Hockey sticks beware: The Minnesota Wild are on the prowl.

At least, that’s what yesterday’s practice showed, according to Mike Russo of the Star-Tribune.

At the X yesterday, the Wild underwent an extremely physical practice that caused tempers to run high.  Sticks were broken, slammed against the glass, and, in the case of Mikko Koivu, airmailed to the fourth row.

Richards told reporters afterwards that he’s decided to change his tone after a sleepless night following the team’s loss to Phoenix.  Apparently someone has finally realized that coaxing this team to be better just doesn’t work.

Let’s be honest here.  Jacques Lemaire was 10 times the coach that Richards is at this point in his career.  Lemaire couldn’t do it last year, so why would Richards be able to do it this year?

Just as Brent Sutter awakened the Calgary Flames with a physical series of practices, Richards hopes to do the same to the Wild, and if there’s any team that needs it, it’s Minnesota.

On paper, this team isn’t much different from the team that was mere points from making the playoffs last season.  Its lines are even looking very similar to last year’s team at this point.  The most auspicious change was supposed to be the coach, who would take off the reins.

So far, the reins are off, but the results are much the same—only this time, the defense isn’t playing airtight like it has in the past.

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For a team that wanted to play a fast, physical style coming into this season (much like the Anaheim Ducks team that won the Stanley Cup), it has spent much of the season losing battles on a regular basis.  It has been very rare for a Wild player to come up with a puck that is contested in the corner.

But this “new” Richards might spark something in the team.  To my knowledge, the players have been coddled for most of their careers.  Just look at Brent Burns and Mikko Koivu.  When anyone talks about them, all you hear is how much potential these two young superstars have.

You always hear about how great of a leader Koivu is, or how dynamic a talent Burns is.

But you never hear that Koivu may not have been the best pick for the captain of the team this season, or how Burns tries to do so much on the ice that he is frequently not ready when the game starts going back towards his own end.

The Wild need a change, and the change needs to start at the coaching level right now.  The staff needs to stop coddling its golden boys.

Just look at James Sheppard.  His confidence is obviously very, very fragile right now.  He’s playing soft and he’s playing tentative—in other words, he’s not really playing.

But why not drive home the point with him in practice?  Why wouldn’t you send him into a puck battle drill with John Scott or Derek Boogaard, or even Owen Nolan?  Why wouldn’t you send him into a puck battle and tell him that he’s not stopping until he gets the puck?

Why wouldn’t you take a stick, tape it to Benoit Pouliot’s hands, and tell him that you’re not taking it off until he starts focusing on his shot and shooting like he’s capable of?  Why wouldn’t you do that with Martin Havlat?

All that has been talked about this season by the media is how bad this team is, but all that has been talked about by the team is how bad it's been playing.  There’s an obvious disconnect there.  This team doesn’t think that it's not good and, honestly, neither do I. 

But what needs to happen on a player level is that players need to begin taking accountability for their actions on the ice.

Yes, the coaching staff needs to give these guys a swift kick in the backside, but once that has been done the players need to step up and be accountable.

There is no better example than that of Brent Burns.

Mysteriously, Burns simply disappears after a poor performance.  He doesn’t talk to the media or even address them—he just disappears.

To be quite honest, running and hiding isn’t a trait you’d want in your worst player, let alone one who is supposed to be one of your superstars.

The team needs to stand up and be accountable for its actions.  This isn’t a mandate that needs to come from the coaching staff, however.  This is one that needs to come from within.

Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette.  These are the players this needs to come from.  Koivu and Havlat.  These are the players this needs to come from.

A locker room-wide mandate that, no matter what the outcome of the game is, you’re sitting at your stall after the game facing the music.  It doesn’t matter if you win 6-1 or if you lose 6-1, you’re sitting at your stall, answering questions.

But that’s not going to happen.  At least not yet.

For that to happen, the main offenders would have to have some modicum of mental toughness.

But the mental toughness won’t start coming until the team begins to show some physical toughness.

Maybe that’s what Richards wants to start stressing in his practices.  Physical, beat down, drag out wars.  I, for one, certainly hope so because I, for one, am sick of watching this team underperform on a nightly basis.

Hopefully the Wild will eventually get to the point where they are too.

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