With the Wolves and Wild churning their rosters during the offseason, the putrid Twins about to blow up theirs at midseason, and the Vikings looking to form theirs at the edge of the preseason, now is a great time to examine our favorite groups of lovable losers.
Timberwolves: While a typical Wolves offseason causes me to yawn my way into a deep boredom coma, this one not only hasn’t totally sucked, it has actually piqued my interest. The draft, which landed them UCLA scoring machine Shabazz Muhammad and Louisville defensive stalwart Gorgui Dieng, received mixed reviews. (Even within one website, whose writers’ assessments spanned the spectrum from “B+” all the way to “absolute disaster“.) The depth of contribution these two top picks will be able to provide is yet to be determined, but there is no denying together they will boost the team’s outside shooting and defense.
The Wolves big splash into the free agency pool appears to be the biggest reason for optimism. Being an atrocious 3 point shooting team last season, the team added Kevin Martin and resigned Chase Budinger, two players who can score from the outside. To help on defense, they brought back former top pick Corey Brewer, and all indications are that restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic will resign with the team.
With a healthy Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio next season, there are now enough legitimate parts around them to form a playoff team. Here is the projected depth chart for next season:
PF: Love-Derrick Williams-Dante Cunningham-Chris Johnson
C: Pekovic-Gorgui Dieng
SG: Martin-Alexy Shved
PG: Rubio-J.J. Barea
I’m not saying the Miami Heat will look at this roster and just forfeit the entire season out of fear, but clearly this is an improved team, and provided they stay mostly healthy, these Wolves will make the playoffs and may surprise a team or two when they get there.
Rubio, now a full season removed from knee surgery, has more options to receive his pretty passes. Love should be happier and more motivated playing on a winning team, and with the attention he and Pekovic can draw towards the basket, Martin should get his share of open shots. (Not to mention Rubio’s ability to pass a guy open.)
The hiring of Flip Saunders as VP helped attract new talent and dissipate the stench of the David Kahn debacle. Coach Rick Adelman will likely be enthused to get to work now that he has better tools at his disposal. And if the Wolves do indeed live up to expectations, Target Center will be a raucous, energetic environment, something it hasn’t been in a decade.
It should be a fun season.
Wild: The Wild, not to be outdone by their underachieving counterparts across the Mississippi, also did some serous cut-and-pasting to their roster. Gone are Cal Clutterbuck, Tom Gilbert, Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, and Justin Falk; re-signing are Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, and Nicklas Backstrom; and joining the team are Nino Niederreiter, Matt Cooke, and former Gopher Keith Ballard.
The lowered salary cap hit the Wild especially hard, as signing Cullen-the only one of the four subtractions I’m sad to see go-was impossible. But even if the additions turn out to be smart moves, this season will really be about the young guys. Players like Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, and Mikael Granlund will be given the opportunity to establish themselves as true NHL contributors. Other prospects such as former Gopher Erik Haula, former UMD Bulldog Justin Fontaine, Zack Phillips, and last year’s top pick Matt Dumba will also be in the mix to make the team.
I am fully confident the big-bodied Coyle will build off his solid rookie season and the speedy Zucker will score his share of pretty goals. However, I still harbor serious doubts about Granlund, although the smallish Finn has tons of talent and the light could come on for him at anytime, making him the top 6 player he has always been projected to be. If two of these three make a meaningful contribution, and if just one of the other prospects jumps up, then the Wild will be a team to reckon with.
Let’s also not forget Jason Pominville is an excellent player and will have a full season to build chemistry with his teammates and provide more leadership for the young bucks. There is talent on this roster, and if the goaltending holds up, we fans should absolutely expect an improvement over last season.
If you want to look even further into the future, there are rumors in both print and over the airwaves that the Wild are positioning themselves for a run at Thomas Vanek next offseason. The Wild will have significantly more cap space, Vanek’s buddy Pominville is expected to re-sign with the team, and Vanek already lives in MN during the offseason. Intriguing to say the least.
But I get ahead of myself. I don’t expect the Wild to hoist Lord Stanley’s cup next June, but I do expect solid improvement, a deeper playoff run, and a horizon that continues to shine brighter.
Vikings: Training camp starts in a week and I must admit my feelings about this season’s prospects are mixed. On the one hand, the additions of Greg Jennings, Matt Cassel, and rookies Sharif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, and Cordarrelle Patterson to last season’s playoff team have me excited. But on the other hand, the losses of Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield combined with the fact that the Vikings will not benefit from an easy schedule such as they did last season have me worried.
Is the overall talent improved on this team? No doubt. But will key players get the job done at crucial times to propel the Vikes back into the playoffs? I’m not so sure. How good will the rookies be? Will they make a difference in their first season? Will the additions of Jennings and Patterson pull the passing game out of the depths of loserness in which it was trapped for most of last season? Will the young secondary be up for the challenge of six games versus top division QBs Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Matt Stafford? Will new punter Jeff Locke be as competent at both kicking and holding as was his big-mouthed predecessor?
These are all burning questions, but they are all dwarfed by the one big unknown: Christian Ponder. Yes, Ponder did play well down the stretch when it mattered last season, an important fact that should not be underestimated. But we Vikings fans watched Ponder poop out some of the worst QB performances in team history last season. Awful interceptions, sickening inaccuracy, and happy feet in the pocket plagued our young QB for stretches last year, and frankly, I’m suffering from QBPTSD. I’m so scarred by the bad performances that the good ones are clouded from my memory.
Fortunately GM Rick Spielman added a legitimate 2nd option when he signed former Pro Bowler Matt Cassel. If Ponder regresses to his errant ways, head coach Leslie Frazier should waste no time in making the switch. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, let’s hope Cassel can at least be an average NFL QB.
Twins: I don’t want to say too much about the basement dwelling Twins for fear that I may puke on my laptop keyboard, so I’ll keep it brief. What interests me most about this crappy team are the possible trades which may happen before the July 31 deadline.
First there is Justin Morneau. At first look it may seem that the Twins should be willing to move him for whatever they can get, given that they won’t re-sign him next season. But I think that unless the Twins can get something of real value in return, they should keep Morneau, and here’s a couple reasons why:
1. Morneau may get hot over the second half and get closer to the player he was before, in which case it would make sense for the Twins to try and re-sign him, albeit at a lower price.
2. Morneau may be willing to re-sign for less to stay with the Twins, and even at his current production levels, he is better than a Parmelee, Plouffe, or any other possible replacement now on the roster. Miguel Sano is still likely two years from the majors, so why not keep Morneau. (Once again, given the price is reasonable.)
3. Morneau can be a steadying force in an otherwise rapidly decomposing locker room. We know Joe Mauer isn’t a vocal leader, so keeping Morneau around could help prevent a major implosion within the clubhouse if the team continues to suck the rest of the way. If the Twins are to make a run to respectability this season (i.e. not last in the division), such a run is much more likely with Morneau around.
I know these aren’t the most convincing reasons in the world, but if the only thing GM Terry Ryan can get in return for Morneau is the low-level prospect equivalent of a couple used baseballs and a bag of jock straps, then gambling on one of the above scenarios makes more sense. Whether you trade him or let him walk in the offseason, his salary is no longer on the books, so that money can be directed towards other needs. (Starting pitching, anyone?)
I better end the Twins talk here, I think I’m gonna be sick.
Other than the Twinkies (Stinkies?), optimism reigns for our major MN sports teams. In the next couple of months we will get to see if this positivity is supported by any empirical evidence, and if it isn’t, I will be buying Pepto-Bismol by the case.