Vikings training camp will soon get underway, so now is a good time to take a quick look at the state of the purple. And as long as we’re here, let’s glance at our other Minnesota sports teams to see how soon we can expect one of them to win our first pro sports title since 1991.
Vikings: A new season always brings with it plenty of optimism. A new season with a new coaching staff overflows with optimism. But a new season with a new coaching staff and a new potential franchise quarterback positively erupts into a Mt. St. Helens-esque paroxysm of optimism.
The hope is that new head coach Mike Zimmer’s defensive genius and fiery attitude will elevate last year’s porous defense to respectability, while new OC Norv Turner will use his eons of offensive experience to push the offense to new heights. A dominant year and run to the Super Bowl is asking a bit much, but to me it is reasonable to expect a near .500 season while at least being a part of the playoff conversation.
The offense returns almost entirely intact from last season, which is a good thing. Matt Cassel will likely be at the helm, as Zim and Norv are giving him first shot at maximizing the talents of Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, and Kyle Rudolph. With these playmakers at his disposal, a solid offensive line in front of him, and Turner’s play calling magic, Cassel will have no excuse not to perform at a high level.
If Cassel can’t move the offense efficiently or if he throws too many passes to opposing players, then shiny new first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater will step in. The chance still exists that Bridgewater wins the job outright during the preseason, and if so, great. Vikings fans are already salivating over Teddy’s potential, and the sooner we can see what he can do, the better. Indeed, the only thing that will keep the purple masses from storming the gates at Winter Park in an attempt to put Teddy in power will be a division-winning performance by Cassel, which would be okay with me. ( And every other Viking fan.)
The defense is where the real work needs to be done. The additions of Lindval Joseph, Anthony Barr, and Captain Munnerlyn will certainly be a boost. However, much more will be needed to raise this unit from the depths of extreme, historical ineptitude to which they descended to last season.
But there are reasons to be optimistic that the defense can claw their way to respectability this season. First of all, Zimmer is a defensive guru. He has shown an ability to get the most from his players, especially underachievers. (get ready for a wake-up call, Everson Griffen.) Secondly, budding stars like Xavier Rhodes and Sharif Floyd will likely be greatly improved now that they are no longer rookies. And finally, outstanding safety Harrison Smith will be back after missing most of last season with an injury. The new players, healthy again players, improving players, and new coach can all add up to significant improvement.
Let us enjoy this time to swim in our sea of optimism, fellow Viking fans, for that devilish bastard we call reality may rob of us of our joy come the season opener on September 7th. Or he may not, because Zimmer and Bridgewater could finally be the coach and franchise QB that eventually lead the Vikes to their first Super Bowl victory. That’s the story I choose to believe.
Twins: What have the Twins shown us this season? Not too much. They are only slightly improved over the last few years of putridity. But, they do seem to have found solid starting pitching in Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes, and the bullpen has been very good. Unfortunately, the team has forgotten how to score runs consistently.
I’m guessing the team will again be sellers at the trade deadline, as GM Terry Ryan surely realizes this team won’t be contending for a playoff spot. I think he should continue to stockpile assets in exchange for guys like Correia or Morales. Continuing to build for the long term is the best option.
Soon, future hitting stars like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano will arrive. (If they ever get healthy.) Pitching studs like Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Kohl Stewart, and Jose Berrios are on track to be here soon. And established players like Brian Dozier, Gibson, Hughes, Glen Perkins, Kurt Suzuki and Joe Mauer still have years of productivity left in them. If current youngsters like Oswaldo Arcia, Danny Santana, and Eduardo Escobar continue to develop, then the Twins should be in great shape when all of these elements finally combine.
Yes, I know it’s a lot of “what if” in the future, but if you’re a Twins fan, what else have you got to cling to?
Wild: The Wild have finally become a contender. Instead of hoping to get hot in the playoffs and pull an upset, fans now expect this team to make deep playoff runs. After taking down a rising Colorado team and pushing a top Chicago team to the edge, the Wild showed they are ready to be taken seriously.
The Wild addressed their lack of scoring by adding goal scoring machine Thomas Vanek. The best part of this addition is that they got him at a reasonable price for a reasonable length of time (3 years, $19.5 million). With this team-friendly contract, the Wild can extract the rest of Vanek’s prime years without being handcuffed to him as his skills fade.
With a top six that now includes Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Vanek, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, and Charlie Coyle, the Wild have the scoring punch they need. (Especially as Granlund and Coyle continue to develop.) A third line of Matt Cooke, Nino Neiderreiter, and Erik Haula not only has the speed to defend the other teams’ top lines, they also have the skill to score plenty themselves. And with guys like Jason Zucker, Justin Fontaine, and other assorted lower line players chipping in, this team can become an offensive force. There will always be movement of players between lines, but the Wild now have the depth to put out a strong scoring lineup no matter the combinations.
On the blue line, superstar Ryan Suter is joined by playoff breakout stud Jared Spurgeon as defensive pillars. After a down second season, Jonas Brodin should rebound and return to playing at a high level, still with a high ceiling ahead of him. Marco Scandella has shown he can be a reliable player, and young studs Christian Folin and Matt Dumba are right on the edge of reaching the NHL for good. A decent veteran like Keith Ballard or another young prospect like Gustav Olofsson can really provide the depth should an injury or subpar performances become a problem.
Goaltending is an issue, even though the numbers might not say so. Josh Harding played great last year. Darcy Kuemper had a stretch of excellent performances. Even Ilya Bryzgalov got hot. This was the problem: the goaltending overall was pretty good, but no one player could stay healthy long enough to claim the job and bring some consistency.
With an aging and oft-injured Nicklas Backstrom on the roster along with an MS-battling Harding and an as yet to stay healthy Kuemper, the Wild have issues between the pipes. Backstrom is supposedly healthy now, so perhaps he and his fat salary will get the job to start the season. Harding might have been the best goalie in the NHL when he was healthy last season, but with the larger-than-hockey health issues he is dealing with, reliability is a huge question mark. The best answer, at least for the long-term, is Kuemper. If he can keep himself on the ice, he has the skills to be a franchise goalie. He is young and talented, now he just needs to show he is sturdy as well.
It’s hard not to be giddy about the upcoming Wild season. Adding Vanek to an already good squad whose youngsters are still improving has fans truly believing that the sky is the limit. A tough Western Conference be damned, Wild fans now expect greatness.
Timberwolves: Kevin Love wants out, and Wolves fans will be happy to see him go. If Flip Saunders can land an Andrew Wiggins or Klay Thompson as part of a larger trade for Love, by all means he should do it. But, if the Cavs or Warriors truly won’t give up these top young players for Love, then Flip’s best move may be to keep him.
I know it sounds crazy at first, but sometimes it’s okay to just let a free agent walk. Many Wolves fans get all bent out of shape when they hear this because they claim that you are letting Love go “without getting anything in return”. Wrong. By allowing Love to walk the team is getting a canyon-full of salary cap space and flexibility, which can be used to sign a superstar free agent not named Kevin Love.
Yes, Minnesota is not a prime destination for top NBA free agents, but let’s not forget that money does indeed talk. No top player would have to agree to a discount to come here (like they may have to to join a contender), they would get a max contract, no questions asked. Along with the prospect of making Monty Burns money, a potential free agent may feel that a supporting cast of Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Zach LaVine, and Gorgui Dieng is good enough to be a contender once they add themselves to the mix.
A lot of things have to go right for this scenario to work out, but I would much rather roll the dice on this than accept a trade where the Wolves get back a bunch of mediocrity that also cripples their salary cap flexibility. So if a trade doesn’t involve a Wiggins, Thompson, or other current or potential franchise player, then let’s all just sit back and savor watching Kevin Love squirm and pout as he plays an entire season in front of fans, teammates, and coaches that all hate him. The NBA…it’s fantastic!
P.S. I would love to see the Wolves make a deal with the Cavs, because then I could root against LeBron and Love at the same time, which would be delicious.
Summary: It’s a good thing hope springs eternal, because other than the Wild, that’s all we have as Minnesota sports fans right now. The Vikings could be a playoff team in 1-2 years, the Twins could be there in 3-4 years, and the Wolves should make their way up to an 8 seed right about the time the sun dies.
The future is indeed bright. I hope.