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Wild life: Meet Minnesota, the best team in the NHL

The Wild's scoring-by-committee approach has provided enough offense for the hard-charging team. (Getty Images)

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The Wild's scoring-by-committee approach has provided enough offense for the hard-charging team. (Getty Images)

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika

The Wild's scoring-by-committee approach has provided enough offense for the hard-charging team.

Passive. That's one word that comes to mind for Mike Yeo when asked how his Minnesota Wild has been misunderstood.

"Just the word 'passive' really irks me, because there's nothing passive about the way that we play," said the coach, who read it in one article earlier this season. "What really ticked me off about it is, our guys deserve better than that, because shift after shift, our guys go out and battle and compete and work and never stop moving their feet."

This isn't the sit-back-and-trap Wild of old. Yeo's guys deserve a number of more accurate adjectives, starting with …

• Surprising. Few expected much of the Wild after it missed the playoffs three years in a row, let alone this. The Wild leads in the NHL in wins (18) and points (39), off to its best start since joining the league in 2000. The team has never sat atop the league standings this late in a season. It has won five straight.

"I don't know how we rate on the talent meter," said general manager Chuck Fletcher. "Other people can be the judge of that. But we're becoming a good team. Guys like each other and have bought into what Mike Yeo's preaching."

• Relentless. Yeo preaches puck control. He wants his guys to be aggressive – to get the puck and get going. Ideally, he wants them to keep it in the offensive end. Instead of "passive," he would use words like "physical," "pressuring" and "pursuing."

Another P-word: "Pittsburgh." Yeo spent last season as the head coach of Minnesota's minor-league affiliate, the AHL's Houston Aeros, advancing to the Calder Cup final. Before that, he spent several years as an assistant in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, going to two Calder Cup finals at the AHL level and winning a Stanley Cup in 2009.

When you think of the Wild, think of the Penguins without the star power of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company.

"We work our butts off in our end, but we also have the freedom to go and attack and get in on the forecheck, and I think guys have just been waiting for that opportunity to do that," said forward Matt Cullen. "A team like Pittsburgh, it's similar to the way that they play. If you go and attack, it's a fun way to play. There are a lot of guys who have been looking forward to playing like that."

• Balanced. Fletcher shook up his club offensively in the off-season by making two trades with the San Jose Sharks. In came Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi; out went Martin Havlat and Brent Burns. The Wild still ranks only 25th in goals per game (2.39), but at least the scoring has been spread out, so the team isn't sunk if the stars aren't producing.

Five players are tied for the team lead in goals with eight: Cullen, Heatley, Setoguchi, Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck. Four more have four or five goals: Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Nick Johnson, Mikko Koivu and Guillaume Latendresse.

"It's a different guy every night, kind of," Cullen said. "But I think the way that we play, we keep coming, and we kind of build the opportunities as we go."

• Stingy. The lack of offense hasn't hurt because of the defense. Opponents fire a lot of rubber at the Wild. But these guys block a lot of shots (first in the NHL with 468), and although a lot still get to the net (tied for 24th at 31.5 shots against per game), few reach the back of it (third in goals against at 2.14).

The Wild allows few odd-man rushes and keeps shots to the outside, and the goaltending has been excellent. Josh Harding's goals-against average is 2.14; Niklas Backstrom's is 2.15. Both have a .930 save percentage.

The Wild is 17-1-0 when allowing two goals or fewer, 1-6-3 when allowing three goals or more. It is 11-2-3 in one-goal games.

"Our guys compete," Yeo said. "That's one thing for sure. Around our net, they're physical. They're strong. They battle, the way that they go back for pucks, they take hits. They'll do whatever it takes to get the puck out, to execute or to defend."

• Resilient. Nothing rattles the Wild. Despite the lack of offense and several injuries, this team doesn't panic when it falls behind or loses a man. It often finds a way to win.

Sunday night at Anaheim, the Wild fell into a 2-0 hole but climbed out of it for a 5-3 victory, becoming the first team since the 2005-06 Buffalo Sabres to win three straight road games when trailing by at least two goals.

Then Tuesday night at San Jose, the Wild allowed a goal one minute into the game and then lost Harding to injury 11 seconds later. With Backstrom already out, Matt Hackett made his NHL debut and became the latest call-up from the Aeros to fit right in under his old coach. Hackett shut out the Sharks the rest of the way and – despite also losing Setoguchi – the Wild won, 2-1.

The Wild is 12-6-0 when allowing the first goal. These guys use the word "character" a ton.

"We've got a good plan, and we've got guys that are able to go out and execute it, and we do it on a consistent basis no matter the circumstance," Clutterbuck said. "There's just a collective calm on the bench that we're able to do it."

• Young. The Wild is one of the youngest teams in the NHL. Rookie defensemen Marco Scandella (20:16) and Justin Falk (19:50) have averaged a lot of ice time, and the organization has more highly regarded prospects on the way, including Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Grandlund and Johan Larsson.

Just because the Wild is off to a hot start doesn't mean Fletcher will mortgage the future before the trade deadline. He's looking at the long term.

"We want to be a young, energetic team that's evolving and emerging," Fletcher said. "Next year we'll have some other young forwards try to come in and compete for jobs. We're not all of a sudden going to blow up the blueprint and trade prospects and add a whole bunch of different players. It would be a disservice to the group we have here, anyway, because everybody here deserves a chance to continue to play well."

• Improving. This group can be even better as is. The Wild had one of the best power plays in the league the first half of last season. It ranks 19th (15.4 percent) now. But Latendresse (13 games) and defenseman Marek Zidlicky (10) have both been out for a while with concussions and are skating again, and the overall offense has been trending up. The Wild averaged 2.21 goals per game before Nov. 19 and has averaged 2.78 since.

"Over time, we'll have to get better," Fletcher said. "There are certain parts of our game we have to get a lot better at, and we have to generate more shots and more scoring chances as we go forward. But certain things we do do well. We're like every team. We're a work in progress. But we're very fortunate we've won a lot of games early on."

• Joyous. When you're winning – sitting atop the league standings after finishing 12th in the West last season, going after the puck instead of sitting back – well, there's nothing to be passive about.

"It's been really fun," Cullen said, smiling. "That's one word that comes to mind."

FIRST PERIOD

The NHL bought the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy more than two years ago. It seems there are two ways to look at the situation based on how long this has dragged on: A, the league is determined to keep the Coyotes in Glendale, Ariz.; or, B, time is running out.

Really, it's both A and B.

The league wants to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix and continues to work with two potential buyers: a group led by Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns the NBA's Chicago Bulls and baseball's White Sox; and, a group led by Greg Jamison, the former Sharks CEO who once rounded up investors in San Jose.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league had not set a hard deadline yet. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league does not even have the right to explore moving the team until Dec. 31 and doesn't "have an intention to at this point."

Jamison sounded optimistic as he took in a Sharks game Tuesday night. He indicated there might be some news within the next couple of weeks.

"People have worked to keep it there, and I think that they are going to continue to do that," Jamison said. "It starts with the city, and it emanates out into other people that have been interested in having it happen. But it's just, you've got to get through a lot of issues to make sure that it does happen. …

"I think there is a good chance it could happen. It's taken a while. It hasn't come easily, let's put it that way. Sometimes it doesn't in these situations. So we'll see. We'll see."

There remains uncertainty.

Daly said it is unlikely there will be another one-year band-aid to keep the team in Glendale. Is that because one won't be needed because a deal will get done? Or is that because the city won't make a third $25-million payment to cover the league's losses as it tries to close a deal? Or is that because the league will want to move on regardless?

The league cannot wait as long as it did to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg last season. An announcement wasn't made until May 31. That was possible only because Winnipeg had an ownership group in place running an AHL team in a building that could be easily upgraded to accommodate the NHL. The league has options this time, such as Quebec City and Kansas City, but none is turnkey.

As Jamison said, we'll see. When I asked one Pacific Division general manager about realignment – why there wasn't much resistance to having two eight-team and two-seven team divisions – he said: "Well, that's of today."

I was puzzled for a second, because I was thinking in general about some teams having one less competitor for a playoff spot than others. Then I realized he was speaking specifically about his team's spot. The four-conference format allows for more flexibility. The Coyotes, currently in the Pacific and slotted in the westernmost conference, could be moved east easily.

"There's franchises where we don't know where they're going to be," the GM said.

SECOND PERIOD

Brian Elliott had his worst outing of the season Saturday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, allowing four goals in a 5-2 loss. But the St. Louis Blues goaltender bounced back Tuesday night by allowing two goals in a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, and the more success he has, the less it looks like a fluke.

Elliott was awful last season. He went 13-19-8 with the Ottawa Senators, posting a 3.19 goals-against average and .894 save percentage. One scout said flatly that he couldn't play for them. He was traded to the Colorado Avalanche and was even worse: 2-8-1 with a 3.83 goals-against average and .891 save percentage.

He had to settle for a one-year, $600,000 contract with the Blues as an unrestricted free agent in the off-season.

And now?

He's 11-2-0, and his 1.56 goals-against average and .944 save percentage both lead the league.

"I think that Brian went through a tough year last year, and he knew that and he reassessed his game in the off-season, got himself into real good shape," said Blues president John Davidson, a former NHL goaltender. "He's one of the best conditioned goalies I've seen. And then he came to camp with the attitude of how he was going to change his style of play compared to the previous winter, and he went to work."

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Elliott, 26, has good size at 6-foot-3 and 201 pounds. He used to be too aggressive and get caught out of position on second and third shots. Now he has learned to be more patient, stay in position and let his size work to his advantage.

"I think when goalies get to be a little bit older, they start to understand that a little bit better," said Davidson, who was listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 himself. "It takes some time to go through all this as you develop into a goalie. All goalies are different, and now seems to be his time."

THIRD PERIOD

After NHL and NHL Players' Association experts criticized Boston University researchers for making claims unsupported by science in the past, BU was notably conservative in how it worded Tuesday's press release about Derek Boogaard – and it made the findings no less chilling.

The point here is not to bolster the argument for fighting or to trumpet that the evidence is inconclusive linking head trauma to degenerative brain disease. The point is to keep the debate in context. We have to be careful when speaking about scientific findings and precisely what they mean; at the same time, we have to keep our eyes and ears open.

BU describes chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a progressive degenerative brain disease that is triggered by repetitive head trauma, that can begin months or years after the end of athletic involvement, and that is associated with cognitive and behavioral problems.

The NHL and NHLPA experts' main criticisms have been that BU has a small, biased sample; that science has not proven what causes CTE or what the risk factor is; and, that science has not proven how the pathological changes in the brain – abnormal deposits of dark tau protein – relate to clinical symptoms.

The NHL and NHLPA experts' main concerns are that people will jump to conclusions and fear will be blown out of proportion, keeping kids from playing contact sports, even potentially contributing to suicides.

Boogaard died accidently May 13 at age 28 after mixing alcohol and painkillers. His brain was donated to BU, and he became the fourth deceased NHL player to receive a CTE diagnosis, joining Reggie Fleming, Bob Probert and Rick Martin. Like Fleming and Probert, Boogaard was a fighter.

BU reported Boogaard had "mild CTE," though "the severity of his brain changes was more advanced than most other athletes of similar age with CTE" that have been studied. The release said it is unclear how those brain changes are associated with Boogaard's symptoms, specifically the behavioral and memory problems he experienced in his past two years.

"His clinical symptoms occurred during the same time period he was exhibiting narcotic abuse," the release said. "CTE has been found in other deceased athletes who have died from overdoses or who had problems with substance abuse. It is unknown if the substance abuse is caused by the impulse control problems associated with CTE or if they are unrelated."

The release also said it is unclear whether the pathology of mild CTE found in Martin and Probert contributed to any clinical symptoms, though more severe CTE was found in Fleming, who displayed 30 years of worsening behavior and cognitive difficulties. Martin died of a heart attack in March at age 59. Probert died of heart disease in 2010 at age 45. Fleming died with dementia in 2009 at age 73.

The release included three quotes from co-directors of BU's Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy:

• Robert Cantu: "It is important not to over-interpret the finding of early CTE in Derek Boogaard. However, based on the small sample of enforcers we have studied, it is possible that frequently engaging in fistfights as a hockey player may put one at increased risk for this degenerative brain disease."

• Robert Stern: "Boogaard's clinical history was complex, so it is unclear as to if or how much CTE contributed to his behavior, addiction or death. However, CTE appears to be a progressive disease in some individuals, so even if it was not directly affecting Boogaard's quality of life and overall functioning before he died, it is possible it could have in the future."

• Chris Nowinski: "Unfortunately this finding does not contribute to our knowledge of the risks of normal hockey play for most participants, as very few hockey players engage in as many fights as Boogaard. Athletes and parents should know that anyone who experiences repetitive brain trauma may be at risk to develop CTE, but we are hopeful that risk is small in hockey.”

Nowinski added that two other young non-NHL professional hockey players studied did not show signs of CTE at postmortem examination.

In other words, the research is in its early stages and it's too early to make definitive scientific statements. But the theory is that repeated brain trauma can spark a degenerative process in the brain that can cause difficulties in life. And we know this: No one in hockey receives repetitive brain trauma like an NHL enforcer does.

POWER RANKINGS

TOP 6

Minnesota1. Minnesota Wild: Not only is the Wild atop the league standings, it has three more points than anyone else. That's impressive when you consider three points separates second from 12th.

Boston2. Boston Bruins: The defending Stanley Cup champions have a plus-35 goal differential. No one else is better than plus-22, but isn't it interesting that the runners-up in that category are last season's Stanley Cup runners-up, the Vancouver Canucks?

New York Rangers3. New York Rangers: Too bad the Rangers are so high in the standings with HBO's cameras filming for the upcoming "24/7" series. Wouldn't it be fun to watch coach John Tortorella during a losing streak? He'd be more blue than Bruce Boudreau. Then again, he might be, anyway.

Philadelphia4. Philadelphia Flyers: Here's hoping HBO helps raise the profile of Claude Giroux, who leads the NHL in scoring with 36 points. He's on a three-game goal-scoring streak in which he has posted seven points.

Pittsburgh5. Pittsburgh Penguins: Say it ain't so, Sid. We're going to refrain from assuming the worst with Sidney Crosby sitting out two games. The Pens are just being ultraconservative because their star player didn't feel 100 percent after taking a hit. He did pass a test. But this is Crosby, this is a comeback from a concussion and it's hard not to fear the worst – that this will continue to haunt him.

Florida6. Florida Panthers: Here's a sign that this team is for real. After a four-game trip across the continent – Tampa Bay, Carolina, Los Angeles, San Jose – the Panthers flew home to sunny South Florida with no time to rest before facing the Washington Capitals. They weren't flat. They won, 5-4. Now comes a bigger test: a three-game trip to Boston, Buffalo and Manhattan.

BOTTOM 6

Calgary25. Calgary Flames: Brendan Morrison can still play. After sitting out 12 of 14 games – partly because of injuries, partly as a healthy scratch – the 36-year-old got a chance to skate on the top line Tuesday night and had two goals and two assists in a 7-6 victory over Carolina.

Tampa Bay26. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts were one game away from the Stanley Cup final last season, but now they have lost five straight in regulation. Veteran Martin St. Louis is using words like "fragile," "beating" and "spiral." Steven Stamkos is still hot, but Vinny Lecavalier is cold.

New York Islanders27. New York Islanders: Figure this out: The Isles have gone 4-0-1 in their past five games, even though they lost five regulars to injuries during their recent four-game road trip. Matt Moulson is obviously on a tear with seven goals in four games, including four on Saturday night in a 5-4 victory over the Dallas Stars.

Columbus28. Columbus Blue Jackets: Coach Scott Arniel scratched Derick Brassard on Tuesday night at Montreal for the eighth time in 12 games, even though Brassard is from Quebec and had fans in the stands. But the coach and player met Wednesday and – thanks to an injury to winger Kristian Huselius – Brassard is supposed to back in the lineup Thursday night against the Nashville Predators. Brassard needs to play well to earn ice time – or to attract a trade offer so he can get out of town.

Anaheim29. Anaheim Ducks: Boudreau has gotten a couple of players going since taking over the Ducks. He moved Matt Beleskey from the fourth line to the first, and Beleskey has three assists in three games after going scoreless in 19. Bobby Ryan scored twice Tuesday night in Boudreau's first win – 3-2 over the Los Angeles Kings.

Carolina30. Carolina Hurricanes: At least the Hurricanes came back from that 7-6 loss to Calgary with a 5-3 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, giving Kirk Muller his first victory as an NHL coach. It was their first win in eight games.

PLUS/MINUS

PLUS: Give Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon credit. His Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning might have been the biggest losers in realignment, ending up in a division with Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. But he said it would give them no excuses. "Travel's not an issue when you're good," he said. "It's only an issue when you're not very good."

MINUS: Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle is struggling. Until he registered an assist Tuesday night against Minnesota, he was mired in a nine-game scoreless streak. He went minus-6 over that stretch. "He puts so much pride into his game, he's such a competitor, that sometimes he wants to do way too much," said Sharks GM Doug Wilson. "So you admire the reason and the logic behind it, but sometimes it's not the most efficient way to play."

PLUS: The NHL made another announcement Tuesday bragging about the growth of its business. It touted increased audiences on digital and TV platforms; increased merchandise sales; and, increased corporate sponsorships. Great stuff.

MINUS: Perhaps that's a signal that things are going too well to wreck with a work stoppage. But won't that make it harder to cry poor when the league enters into collective bargaining with the NHL Players' Association after the All-Star Game? The players won't want a smaller piece of a growing pie.

PLUS: The best way for the NHL to name the four conferences after realignment would be the old-school way: Norris, Adams, Patrick, Smythe. The next-best way would be to name them for the game's four greatest players: Howe, Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux.

MINUS: Daly said the league has not even settled on the process it will use to pick the names. But it seems the most likely way will be geographical. Booooring. The only thing worse would be something silly like the Big Ten's Legends and Leaders divisions.

@COTSONIKA TWEET

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A little perspective as the NHL's board of governors met in Pebble Beach, Calif. I would have added "by Jack Handy," à la "SNL," but I ran out of char …


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