Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Guentzel Return a Boost to Gopher Fan Morale

The University of Minnesota men's hockey team is now three years removed from its last appearance in the NCAA tournament and hasn't won a game at the NCAA's since defeating Air Force 4-3 on March 24, 2007. Couple that with the recent revelation that Golden Gopher hockey season ticket holders will now be required to pay a premium simply for the right to buy their tickets and fan angst is at its highest level since the final morbid days of the Doug Woog era.

John Hill
Gopher fans desperately needed a shot in the arm and appear to have gotten it by way of assistant-coach John Hill's departure coinciding with the rumored return of former Gopher assistant Mike Guentzel. The news hasn't exactly pacified those calling for Don Lucia's head but it seems to have stirred some interest in a once-proud program which finished last season with consecutive home playoff losses to 'powerful' Alaska-Anchorage.

Rumored all weekend, the move was made official late Sunday night when the University of Minnesota released a statement saying simply that Hill would not return for the 2011-12 season. There were those at last weekend's NHL Entry Draft in St. Paul who suggested that recent contract extension discussions between Lucia and Gopher A.D. Joel Maturi  may have hinged upon an changes to Lucia's staff.
Don Lucia
Whatever the reason for the change it had to be made both from  P.R. and competitive standpoints. Prying Guentzel away from Dean Blais' side in Omaha to replace Hill is a scenario which for many Gopher fans could only be topped  by pairing Guentzel with Blais on Minnesota's bench.

Mike Guentzel
Unfairly or not, Hill has long been dogged by the reputation that Lucia's coattails were all that kept him afloat in the coaching ranks. Guentzel, on the other hand, has been looked upon as a coach with D1 head-coaching potential. In fact, Guentzel did sandwich one season as head coach of the USHL's Des Moines Buccaneers between a season as an assistant at Colorado College and this past year with Blais.

The facts are that other than the four years (2001-2005) in which he served as head coach of Alaska-Anchorage, Hill has been a member of the Gopher staff for eight of Lucia's 12 seasons at Minnesota. Unfortunately for Hill that four-year span also happens to include Minnesota's only Frozen Four appearances in the Lucia era. Hill returned to the Gophers for the 2005-06 season; a season in which Minnesota entered the NCAA tournament as the #1 seed but lost in the first round to . . . . never mind, it's not important.

On the other hand, Guentzel and current St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko were there for all three Frozen Fours including, of course, both of Minnesota's national titles under Lucia. Additionally, Minnesota recent streak of NCAA tournament futility began the season after Guentzel and Lucia not-so-amicably parted ways in the spring of 2008.

Since then the Gophers have played a frustratingly inconsistent and dispassionate brand of hockey especially considering the talent at Lucia's disposal. Minnesota badly needs an infusion of energy, heart, and guts to restore its mojo and regain its swagger. Guentzel is a coach who is capable of nurturing those attributes and aiding in steering the Gophers back toward the path to prominence.

I read a suggestion today that one thing at which Hill excelled was the between-periods interview on Fox Sports North and I agree he appeared comfortable in front of the camera. Considering the painfully embarrassing commentator du jour FSN forced viewers to endure last season John Hill might just be the right guy for that full-time gig.

Monday, June 20, 2011

2011 Frozen Ponderings NHL Mock Draft

With the 2011 NHL Entry Draft this weekend taking place a mere 15.5 miles from my home the proximity--along with some help from the NHL--is allowing me to cover the draft for the first time. In honor of the occasion I decided to craft my first-ever mock draft for the pure fun of it and see how it goes.

To be perfectly honest, I haven't seen a lot of these guys play but I've browsed a few of these things across the web and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in that regard. So I figured what the hell, why not jump into the mix? Without further adieu, I bring you the inaugural Frozen Ponderings NHL Mock Draft: 

1Edmonton OilersRyan Nugent-Hopkins, C, Red Deer (WHL)
2Gabriel Landeskog, LW, Kitchener (OHL)
3Jonathan Huberdeau, C, Saint John (QMJHL)
4Adam Larsson, D, Skelleftea (SWE)
5Dougie Hamilton, D, Niagara (OHL)
6Ryan Strome, C, Niagara (OHL)
7Sean Couturier, C, Drummondville (QMJHL)
8Nathan Beaulieu, D, Saint John (QMJHL)
9(via TOR)Ryan Murphy, D, Kitchener (OHL)
10Mika Zibanejad, C, Djurgarden (SWE)
11(via STL)Duncan Siemens, D, Saskatoon (WHL)
12Sven Baertschi, LW, Portland (WHL)
13Mark McNeill, C, Prince Albert (WHL)
14Joel Armia, RW, Assat (FIN)
15Mark Scheifele, C, Barrie (OHL)
16Joseph Morrow, D, Portland (WHL)
17Jamieson Oleksiak, D, Northeastern (HE)
18Zack Phillips, C, Saint John (QMJHL)
19(via LAK)Jonas Brodin, D, Farjestad (SWE)
20Boone Jenner, C, Oshawa (OHL)
21(via NSH)Nicklas Jensen, LW/RW, Oshawa (OHL)
22Tomas Jurco, RW, Saint John (QMJHL)
23Brandon Saad, LW, Saginaw (OHL)
24Oscar Klefbom, D, Farjestad (SWE)
25(via PHI)Vladislav Namestnikov, C, London (OHL)
26Christopher Gibson, G, Chicoutimi (QMJHL)
27Scott Mayfield, D, Youngstown (USHL)
28Alexander Khokhlachev, C, Windsor (OHL)
29Matt Puempel, LW, Peterborough (OHL)
30(via BOS)Tyler Biggs, RW, USA U-18 (USHL)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fletcher Tabs Yeo to Take Reigns of the Wild

Mike Yeo
With the Minnesota Wild reportedly naming Mike Yeo the organization’s third head coach on Friday morning I wanted to toss in my two cents on the subject. This is a crucial hire for General Manager Chuck Fletcher as it will have a profound effect on the length of Fletcher’s tenure in Minnesota. Fletcher can make all the shrewd personnel moves he wants but if Yeo, who coached the Wild's Houston Areos AHL farm club this past season, is not the right man to guide those players Fletcher’s work will have been for naught and it will cost him his job.

While I still feel that Todd Richards is a good man and a good coach who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, his hiring became strike one for Fletcher. I don’t see Wild owner Craig Leipold’s patience to be such that he’d be inclined to offer a third.

Hindsight will eventually tell us whether Fletcher’s decision to hire Yeo is an indication of poor judgment or testicular fortitude. I’m going to lean toward the latter in this case simply because I wasn’t all that enamored with the alternatives.

It appears Yeo was one of three finalists with former Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish thought to be the front-runner and NHL-retread Ken Hitchcock also in the mix. Here are my thoughts on the runners up:

Ken Hitchcock
  • Hitchcock was a disaster waiting to happen behind the Wild bench. With Minnesota’s cap issues and dearth of overall skill the team is going to have to go young and hope to grow into a contender the way the Blackhawks did. Although Hitchcock undoubtedly would have provided the structure and discipline the Wild lacked the past two years, his rigid style and abrasive demeanor do not lend themselves to breeding young talent. One veteran I spoke to who played many of his 1000+ NHL games for Hitchcock told me that Hitch was, “the worst coach he ever played for.” He added that one future NHL star in particular nearly had his career derailed before it got started under Hitchcock’s tutelage but began to blossom shortly after Hitch’s departure. Finally, his conservative style has not had much post-lockout success.

  • MacTavish was the “nookie blankie” pick. The safe choice. Just look at him with the graying, receding hairline combined with the glasses to make him look all cerebral. Who couldn’t trust this guy to lead your team? I know I could if it had come to that. None of the candidates had more championship experience than MacTavish and the guy has proven he can coach considering how much he got out of those Edmonton teams he had. But I wondered whether he would have the stomach for a rebuilding project with another small-market team at this stage of his career especially with his recent health issues coming to light. Wouldn’t he be a better fit for a team just a few puzzle pieces from contention?
Craig MacTavish

Yeo was clearly the “Wild” card in this coaching search. There is no doubt (copyright Jacques Lemaire) that Yeo’s hiring will draw inevitable comparisons to that of Todd Richards, albeit unfairly. As the Minneapolis StarTribune’s Michael Russo points out, their pedigrees and styles are vastly different.

Admittedly Yeo presents Fletcher with the greatest risk among the three candidates due to the unknown which comes with his relatively limited background. He could, however, provide the biggest reward for the same reason. No one knows yet how good he could be.

No one is more familiar with the Wild’s young talent base than Yeo who as coach of the Aeros guided players like Casey Wellman, Cody Almond, Marco Scandella, Colton Gillies, Brett Bulmer, and  Nate Prosser to within one win of the AHL’s Calder Cup in 2011. The players who will be charged with the task of getting the Wild back to the post-season know, and more importantly, believe in Yeo.

The question remains whether Yeo will be able succeed where Richards failed, in my opinion, to command the respect of Minnesota’s veterans in the dressing room. But I believe his considerable experience with a Pittsburgh team filled with strong personalities while making two runs to the finals should be enough to give him the credibility he needs, at least initially.

Like it or not Wild fans—and many won’t—Chuck Fletcher has hitched his wagon to another coach with no NHL head-coaching experience who will either guide the team to the playoff frontier or the bottom of the canyon…the hard way. I believe he’s handed the reigns to the right man for the job at the right time for the franchise.