Thursday, September 29, 2011

UMD Ready to Hit Someone Else

For the defending NCAA champion UMD Bulldogs, a month or so of captain's practice is about to end. Official workouts start Saturday morning at Amsoil Arena, and that leads right into UMD's season-opening exhibition game Sunday against Lakehead University.

As head coach Scott Sandelin, entering his 12th season at UMD, said Wednesday, it's a chance for both teams to see what they have. He noted that Lakehead is still in the process of putting their roster together, so the Thunderwolves will be evaluating while they play two NCAA teams this weekend (they are in Houghton to play Michigan Tech Saturday).

UMD will be able to play all member of its roster Sunday, outside of sophomore forward Max Tardy. Sandelin said Wednesday that Tardy is battling an injury and is not expected to play. Because it's an exhibition, teams are allowed to dress more players than the standard 20 (12 forwards, six defense, two goalies, usually).

It's live action. More importantly, it's a chance for the Bulldogs to hit players who aren't wearing the same colors. That's always a vibe you get at this point in the fall. Guys enjoy their time together, and they enjoy being on the ice. But they get sick of hitting each other and battling each other. They want to see different colors and not be fighting their own teammates.

As for things you can potentially watch for on Sunday ...
  • Who will be on the top line? Sandelin used the phrase "work in progress" to describe the offensive lineup. You can plug J.T. Brown and Mike Seidel up there, but don't be stunned if a different combination works better with center Jack Connolly. UMD had its top line together for almost the entire season a year ago, a luxury rare in hockey.
  • Only three really experienced defensemen are back, four if you count senior Scott Kishel, who didn't play much last season. Juniors Wade Bergman and Drew Olson and senior Brady Lamb are also back, but there is a lot of youth. Freshman Luke McManus might be a first-year player in terms of eligibility, but the year he got last year as a redshirt is valuable.
  • If you're looking for freshmen who might make an impact, don't sleep on forward Caleb Herbert. The former Bloomington Jefferson star will be a goal-scorer for UMD before he's done. On defense, the bloodlines help, but Derik Johnson is just a big, tough kid who will play the position well. Sandelin likes Johnson, and said he was a guy who Penticton (BCHL) used last year against top forward lines, so he has a lot of experience against top talents.
The goaltending situation -- Kenny Reiter and Aaron Crandall both return -- could be interesting, but that's not getting solved Sunday. I think both guys will see playing time as we get started in the next few weeks.

There is a lot to do for UMD Sunday, as the team tries to get its feet wet while integrating a lot of new faces. It's step one for a team that's ready to get back to the grind and go after more national accolades.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Steve Bartman Legend Lives Forever, But No One Should Be Happy

After some channel-surfing Tuesday night, it dawned on me that ESPN's "Catching Hell" documentary was on, and I had really wanted to watch it.

Boy, am I glad I did. It was an incredible two-hour program, directed by Alex Gibney. The show focused on Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan who kept outfielder Moises Alou from catching a foul pop in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. After Alou failed to make the catch, the Cubs melted down, allowing Florida to score eight runs in the inning in an 8-3 win. Florida won Game 7 the next night to keep the Cubs from making their first World Series since the 1940s.

That Bartman became a bit of a celebrity was not a surprise. But anyone who remembers watching that game probably can recall the chilling images broadcast by Fox that night. Images of Bartman sitting in his seat near the friends he brought to the game, but looking like the loneliest guy in the stadium. The images of angry fans throwing beer and food at Bartman ... fans swearing at a guy they had never met and would never meet. Security escorting this then-anonymous Cubs fan from his seat -- not because he had done anything wrong, but for his own damn safety.

Eight years later, Gibney's fantastic documentary brought all those images back to the forefront. For this viewer, it was put together fantastically. I went to bed thinking about the stories that were told, and the pictures we saw. It brought back a lot of memories of sitting in a radio studio and watching the events unfold.

The next day, I did a talk show, and listened as callers -- one by one -- skewered Bartman as if he had actually done something wrong. It could only have been worse for those actually in Chicago. In the end, the majority of fans understood that Bartman only did what they would have done in that same position.

"Everyone else is/was doing it" is rarely an argument that can be used to justify behavior. In this case, it's the only argument you need.

Other fans in attendance were reaching for that ball. The fan who got it was proud of his accomplishment, and he profited about it. Bartman wasn't alone that night. He was simply the one the ball hit.

In the documentary, Gibney talked to many people who were sitting near Bartman. He shows amateur videos taken from inside the stadium, helping virtually confirm that Alou would have caught the ball had it not been touched by a fan. Since the ball was technically in the stands, fan interference was not going to be called, as the ball was fair game. Bartman didn't reach into the field of play, which would have led to an automatic out.

Bartman has lived in seclusion since, turning down multiple big-money offers to appear at events and/or tell his story. Somehow, he has avoided the celebrity that seemed so inevitable on that night, and he still manages to live in Chicago.

At the end of the documentary, the idea was brought up that it's not up to Chicago to forgive Bartman, but the other way around. After all the heat he took, all the abuse he got in the stadium and all the abuse people tried to direct his way in the aftermath, it's Bartman who gets to do the forgiving.

Based on his silence over these eight years, it doesn't seem he's too interested. Maybe he doesn't think it matters. But he doesn't seem interested.


It's a sad commentary on our society when it comes to our sports. People blame Bartman for what happened, easily forgetting Alex Gonzalez booting an easy double-play grounder, Mark Prior melting down as his pitch count rose, Dusty Baker leaving Prior in way too long, the Cubs bullpen failing to get anyone out, and the Cubs getting an awful performance from their pitchers in losing Game 7 the next night.

Why is it Steve Bartman's fault, when all he did was something most everyone around him was doing? If he hadn't hit that ball, someone else would have. And Moises Alou still would have been pissed.

The fan behavior was appalling. The only even remotely-related incident I can think of is how Aaron Rodgers was treated in Green Bay after taking over for Brett Favre. It wasn't Rodgers' call to make Favre retire and anoint Rodgers as the starter. Favre made himself retire, and the Packers' brass decided to move on. Rodgers was simply the guy who benefited, yet people acted as if he should have begged out of the job.

Unlike Bartman, Rodgers worked to win the fans over, and he did so very quickly. By the time Favre made his return to Lambeau Field as a member of the Vikings, Rodgers had the full support of nearly everyone in Green Bay. Yes, there were some who stuck by Favre, but it wasn't the majority, like it was at times in August 2008.

Bartman may never experience what Rodgers did in Green Bay, no matter the similarities -- passion, loyalty, tradition -- that exist with the franchises and fanbases. Part of it is that Bartman doesn't ever have to insert himself into the spotlight. The comparisons to Bill Buckner on Tuesday's documentary made that clear. Buckner was a public figure in 1986, and he continued to be a public figure. When he returned to Fenway Park after Boston's 2007 title, he was warmly received by fans who would have jeered him 20 years prior.

Even if the Cubs win a World Series, why would Bartman come out of hiding? What would he get out of it? Forgiveness he has never sought?

Bartman is a sympathetic figure because of how he was treated, and he remains one today because he has stayed away from his beloved Cubs. No one in Chicago that night should be proud of how that was handled, and his story remains a cautionary tale on the price of unwanted fame.

Gibney and ESPN should be saluted for the work done on this show. If you didn't see it, do what you can to watch or record a repeat. It's worth the two hours you will spend watching it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

WCHA Preseason Media Poll Notes

Like last year, I'm going to nerd it up and talk about some of the interesting aspects of the 94X WCHA Preseason Media Poll.

The full poll results can be found here.

We had four teams receive first-place votes (Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota, and Nebraska-Omaha). Among the 26 votes, there were only three (all having UNO picked seventh) that didn't have these four teams all in the top six.

Denver was picked in the top three on 24 of 26 ballots. Colorado College was in the top three on 21 of 26. North Dakota was picked in the top three on 23 ballots.

UMD is the fifth-place selection, somewhat comfortably ahead of Minnesota. The Bulldogs were picked to finish in front of the Gophers on 16 of 26 ballots. UMD was picked second on two ballots, while the Gophers were second on one ballot.

UMD was not an easy team to place, as they had the two second-place votes, two for third, seven for fourth, seven for fifth, three for sixth, four for seventh, and one eighth-place vote.

(This seems to be a trend. The national polls released Monday showed a high number of first-place votes for UMD, considering that the rankings show UMD in eighth and tenth place in those surveys. With as many first-place votes as UMD got, it's clear without seeing all the votes that the Bulldogs were not high on a lot of other ballots, and may have been completely left off a few.)

Minnesota holds down the final home-ice position, largely because the Gophers were picked to finish in the top six on all but three ballots.

Wisconsin and St. Cloud State are tied for seventh. The Huskies were only picked for a home-ice slot on five ballots, with one fourth-place vote. Four voters picked SCSU sixth. As for Wisconsin, the high-water mark was fifth place, and the Badgers received five sixth-place votes. The teams were separated by one spot on 15 of 26 ballots, and were no more than four places apart on any ballot.

Alaska-Anchorage has never hosted a first-round WCHA playoff series. One of our voters thinks it will happen this year. Two others voted UAA seventh.

After a run to the WCHA Final Five last year, Bemidji State isn't getting much respect. Their highest placement was eighth (two ballots).

Minnesota State is decisively in 11th place, ahead of Michigan Tech. The Mavericks were picked as high as eighth (one ballot - ninth on two ballots). Tech got two ninth-place votes and two tenth-place votes, but was picked last on 14 of 26 ballots. MSU was picked last on ten.

Despite being a clear choice for last place in the poll, first-year Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson received five votes for Preseason Coach of the Year, which was won by Colorado College's Scott Owens (nine).

WCHA Preseason Media Poll

Hope you're getting excited for hockey season. It's coming ... quicker than you may think.

The 94X WCHA Preseason Media Poll was released at noon Tuesday. Here is the full release, copied and pasted from my laptop to yours. Smiley


The Denver Pioneers, who finished second in the WCHA standings a year ago before falling to North Dakota in the NCAA Midwest Regional Final, earned the top spot in this year’s 94X WCHA Preseason Media Poll. The survey of media members covering the league was released today.

Denver received 15 first-place votes to top the poll, ahead of long-time rival CC, which received seven first-place votes. Third-place North Dakota and No. 4 choice Nebraska-Omaha each received first-place votes. North Dakota won the league’s regular-season and tournament championships last season, and advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four.

First-place votes in the poll were worth 12 points, second place 11, and so on. The teams were placed in order based on the voting average.

Defending national champion Minnesota Duluth placed fifth, followed by Minnesota. The top six teams in this year’s preseason poll all earned home ice advantage in last year’s WCHA playoffs. St. Cloud State finished seventh, followed by Wisconsin, Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and Michigan Tech.

In addition to predicting the league’s order of finish, the Preseason Media Poll also included votes on the WCHA Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and Coach of the Year. The media selected Denver sophomore forward Jason Zucker as the WCHA Preseason Player of the Year. North Dakota’s Rocco Grimaldi was chosen WCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year. The Preseason Coach of the Year is Colorado College’s Scott Owens.

For the first time, media members also selected a Preseason All-WCHA Team.

1. Denver (16 first-place votes) … 11.35 poll average
2. Colorado College (7) … 10.54
3. North Dakota (2) … 10.31
4. Nebraska-Omaha (1) … 8.31
5. Minnesota Duluth … 8.12
6. Minnesota … 7.73
7. Wisconsin … 5.54
(tie) St. Cloud State … 5.54
9. Alaska-Anchorage … 3.85
10. Bemidji State … 2.92
11. Minnesota State … 2.12
12. Michigan Tech … 1.69

Jason Zucker, forward, Denver (10 votes); Jaden Schwartz, forward, Colorado College (8)
Others receiving votes: Jack Connolly, forward, Minnesota Duluth; Justin Schultz, defenseman, Wisconsin; Drew Shore, forward, Denver.  

Rocco Grimaldi, forward, North Dakota (17 votes)
Others receiving votes: Seth Ambroz, forward, Minnesota; Scott Mayfield, defenseman, Denver; Sam Mellor, forward, Alaska-Anchorage; Kyle Rau, forward, Minnesota

Scott Owens, Colorado College (8 votes); Mel Pearson, Michigan Tech (5)
Others receiving votes: Dean Blais, Nebraska-Omaha; George Gwozdecky, Denver; Don Lucia, Minnesota; Dave Shyiak, Alaska-Anchorage  

Jack Connolly, Minnesota Duluth; Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College (unanimous selection); Jason Zucker, Denver
Others receiving votes: J.T. Brown, Minnesota Duluth; Rocco Grimaldi, North Dakota; Corban Knight, North Dakota; Danny Kristo, North Dakota; Drew Shore, Denver  
Ben Blood, North Dakota; Justin Schultz, Wisconsin (unanimous selection)
Others receiving votes: Gabe Guentzel, Colorado College; Brad Hunt, Bemidji State; Nick Jensen, St. Cloud State; Brady Lamb, Minnesota Duluth; David Makowski, Denver  
Aaron Dell, North Dakota
Others receiving votes: John Faulkner, Nebraska-Omaha, Kent Patterson, Minnesota

The following media members took part in the 94X Preseason Media Poll:
David Ahlers, KKAR Radio/University of Nebraska-Omaha; Stephen Anderson, Daily Mining Gazette; Roman Augustoviz, Minneapolis Star Tribune; Andy Baggot, Wisconsin State Journal; Mike Chambers, Denver Post; Bruce Ciskie, KZIO Radio/Bulldog Radio Network; Chris Dilks, Western College Hockey; Shane Frederick, Mankato Free Press; John Gilbert,; Kurt Haider, KENI Radio; Mick Hatten, St. Cloud Times; Dirk Hembroff, WKMJ Radio; Tim Hennessy, KQHT Radio; Ken Landau, 103.9 FM The Eagle Radio; Todd Milewski,; Dan Myers, College Hockey News; Jess Myers, Inside College Hockey; Joe Paisley, Colorado Springs Gazette; Kevin Pates, Duluth News Tribune; Brian Posick, WIBA Radio/Badger Radio Network; Chad Purcell, Omaha World Herald; Brad Schlossman, Grand Forks Herald; Wally Shaver, KSTP Radio/Gopher Radio Network; Jay Stickney, 87.7 The Ticket Radio; Eric Stromgren, Bemidji Pioneer; Mike Sullivan, KTOE Radio

(Note: Not all voting media members chose to participate in voting for the all-league team or individual honors. All 26 voters did submit a predicted order of finish.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

WCHA Preseason Media Poll Ballot

Since I'm conducting the poll, I suppose it would be a good idea to submit a ballot, right?

The annual WCHA Preseason Media Poll will be out later this week, in advance of exhibition games this weekend. Here is the ballot I submitted to the poll, along with a brief explanation of the picks. As usual, we're going to go backwards.

12. Minnesota State -- Lost a lot of good players, especially in the back. Will need top goaltending to make a run this season.

11. Bemidji State -- Beavers need more offense to help out goalie Dan Bakala, who could have a huge season.

10. Michigan Tech -- I've heard nothing but good things about Mel Pearson, and I think he'll get this program on the right track. Look for captain Brett Olson (Superior kid) to have a strong senior season.

9. Alaska-Anchorage -- Tempted to go higher, and wouldn't be surprised if the Seawolves were a serious contender for home-ice position. They've never had home-ice in WCHA playoffs.

8. Wisconsin -- Mike Eaves will coach the hell out of this team, and they'll be dangerous come March. But too many losses up front. Justin Schultz could have to carry this team, not that he would be incapable.

7. St. Cloud State -- Don't sleep on the Huskies. Mike Lee was outstanding in first-round playoff loss to UMD, and this team will be another riser that could steal a home-ice position if someone in the top six falters.

6. Nebraska-Omaha -- This is the year we see some real impact out of Dean Blais' recruits. I expect the Mavericks will make a second-half run to secure home ice.

5. Minnesota -- With all the hot seat talk surrounding Don Lucia, he made a huge addition in re-hiring longtime assistant Mike Guentzel. Expect him to impact the blue line and the recruiting trail, not that recruiting has ever been a huge issue for Minnesota.

4. UMD -- The defending national champs lose two-thirds of the nation's top forward line from a year ago, and while having Jack Connolly, J.T. Brown, and Travis Oleksuk back is nice, it's not enough to make the Bulldogs a title contender.

3. Colorado College -- I'm not an excuse machine, but think about what the brothers Schwartz had to deal with last year (watching the tragic situation with sister Mandi play out), and imagine their potential this season. It's kind of scary.

2. North Dakota -- I know they lost a lot, but they have legit all-league candidates up front, Ben Blood on the blue line, and that Dell guy in goal. I don't expect a serious fall-off.

1. Denver -- Jason Zucker, Drew Shore, David Makowski ... need I say more? There's a lot of pressure on Adam Murray in goal, but George Gwozdecky's team probably has the fewest holes.

Preseason All-WCHA team (alphabetical order where applicable)
Forwards -- Jack Connolly, UMD; Jaden Schwartz, Colorado College; Jason Zucker, Denver
Defensemen -- Ben Blood, North Dakota; Justin Schultz, Wisconsin
Goalie -- Aaron Dell, North Dakota

Preseason Player of the Year: Jason Zucker, F, Denver
Preseason Rookie of the Year: Rocco Grimaldi, F, North Dakota
Preseason Coach of the Year: Scott Owens, Colorado College

Pondering a Quarterback Change

I've watched a lot of football in my years on this planet. I have never seen anything like what the Vikings have done over the last three weeks.

In blowing 17-7, 17-0, and 20-0 halftime leads to go 0-3, the Vikings have created a fanbase so incredibly angry and frustrated that nothing they do now will make it better.

Minnesota is in a hell of a spot, with two NFC North teams at 3-0. They've blown two extremely winnable home games, and now there is a decision this organization has to make. Now.

There is a common thread in each loss, and it's the inadequacies of the quarterback. Donovan McNabb is just too inaccurate and too conservative to run this offense. The Vikings don't have the weapons or the defense to put up with a quarterback who isn't good enough.

It's time for a change.

McNabb has done what he can. He isn't as good as he used to be, and he was never really a game-breaking quarterback who could take over games by himself. What McNabb could do well is lead an offense that is keyed by the running game, chipping in the occasional deep throw and rollout pass play. The Vikings asked him to do that this year, and he's failing miserably, because his not-really-all-that-great accuracy has dwindled in recent years. It's at a point now where he can no longer be considered the best option for this team going forward.

A huge part of this team's second-half problems is the play of McNabb, who missed on a number of key throws Sunday. The biggest was an overthrow of Bernard Berrian on a play right before the Vikings tied the score to force overtime. Berrian beat one-on-one coverage, and a good throw wins the game for the Vikings. Instead, McNabb gave his receiver zero chance to make a play, and in came Ryan Longwell for the three points.

Blame the defense for not getting off the field, or for letting Calvin Johnson make a couple huge plays. Blame Toby Gerhart for not getting a first down on fourth and short. Or blame Bill Musgrave for not calling a play for Adrian Peterson in that situation. But looking at these three games, McNabb and his scattershot play has to be considered the common thread.

Now, the Vikings need to turn to Christian Ponder. It seems early, but this season is virtually dead already, so there is little point in sticking with McNabb and not figuring out what Ponder can do at this level.

The Vikings haven't developed a star NFL quarterback in a lot of years. We don't know if Ponder can be that kind of guy, but we know McNabb is no longer capable. I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that Joe Webb won't be that kind of player, either. He's more of a bit guy who can step in occasionally, but isn't a 16-game kind of player.

The organization drafted Ponder to take over and be a franchise quarterback. With the team off to an 0-3 start, it might as well see what he can do. He can't be worse than McNabb.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bowling Green Meets with AHA Schools, Buffalo

Greetings. Those who are Twitter followers ( got the first look at this news, but now that I have a spare moment, I figured I'd share it here for those who despise Twitter and all its evils.

According to a source, there might be a perfectly good reason Bowling Green hasn't yet accepted its WCHA invitation, and has apparently been given an extension on its 30-day window. This source tells me that Bowling Green has met with four schools that currently field Atlantic Hockey Association programs -- Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara, and Robert Morris -- about potentially starting a new league.

Also in on the meeting, per this source, was the University of Buffalo, which has a club team but no Division I varsity program.

The source also noted that RIT and Air Force were invited to the meeting, but RIT apparently wasn't interested, and Air Force, while interested, couldn't get a representative to the meeting.

The Buffalo angle sure is interesting. The Bulls are in the MAC in all sports, and their club team plays in an 1,800-seat building not far from campus. Robert Morris plays in a smaller building. Canisius plays in one the same size. My point? It's not like Buffalo would need a shiny new arena to be on a level playing field with the rest of these schools.

For Bowling Green, there are some perfectly good reasons why this might be a more attractive option than going to the WCHA, and much if it surrounds travel. Instead of flying to Alaska twice some seasons and always at least once, the Falcons would be able to board a bus for all their conference road trips (the farthest trip, Buffalo, is a smidge over 300 miles away).

There have been questions via Twitter and my e-mail about Alabama-Huntsville. Sadly, I still haven't heard that school connected with any conference. No matter where they end up (assuming they do), they're going to have to help subsidize the travel for the rest of the league. This new league is probably UAH's best option, assuming it gets past what appears to be quite the preliminary stage. The shortest road trip in this configuration would be over 500 miles to Bowling Green, but at least they wouldn't have to worry about going to Minnesota, Upper Michigan, or Alaska.

I'll keep you posted as I learn more.

The WCHA's Attendance Problem

Now that St. Cloud State and Western Michigan have accepted their spots in the NCHC, it's re-introduced all the arguments and conversations that we had upon the league's "formal" announcement.

("Formal" gets quote marks because that event looked about as formal as a pig roast. Just didn't strike me as the kind of event I thought we were going to get when these details started coming together.)

This move is seen as either the latest inevitable turn of events, or another sign of the end of college hockey. All depends on your perspective.

I'm not here to say that people shouldn't be worried about the futures of programs that have struggled. I'm also not here to insult anyone's intelligence. However, one of the major arguments that has been brought forward deals with attendance at home games for the teams not involved in either the Big Ten or NCHC.

Let's look at the list of teams we're talking about.

Bemidji State
Bowling Green
Ferris State
Lake Superior State
Michigan Tech
Minnesota State
Northern Michigan

I'm not an expert on all these local markets. However, I have talked to a few people, and I have looked at attendance figures for recent seasons.

More than anyone else, I think Minnesota State stands to be hurt the most when it comes purely to gate revenues. Bowling Green could also run into some issues there, but I'm mostly concerned about Minnesota State.

(None of this takes into account conference tournament revenue, where I think all the WCHA teams will suffer, and I question the NCHC teams until we know what their tourney plans are.)

Minnesota State averaged 3,711 fans per game last year at Verizon Wireless Center. The Mavericks drew five crowds of over 4,000 fans. Two came against Minnesota, one against North Dakota, one against UMD, and one against Bemidji.

Games against other WCHA teams averaged roughly 3,500 fans per game (estimate). There's no doubt that a struggling MSU program will have issues drawing fans with the home slate becoming what it will become in the new WCHA.

What we don't know is how Minnesota State would draw in this new WCHA if it becomes a perennial top team in the league. The Mavericks haven't had a winning season since 2007-08, and that was the team's only winning season since its only NCAA Division I Tournament berth in 2002-03. We don't really have any idea how the Mavericks would do at the gate if they could contend for an NCAA berth every year, and that's something that could become a reality in the new WCHA.

No matter the market, winning draws. Field a winning hockey program in any of these markets, and you'll put butts in the seats. No one wants to pay to watch a team constantly get its ass kicked by Michigan, North Dakota, or whoever.

Bowling Green averaged 2,169 fans per game last year. Early-season games against Michigan only averaged about 1,600 fans per night. Notre Dame averaged 2,300 or so. Miami drew 2,700 per night. A series against Ohio State averaged 2,500. Two versus Alabama-Huntsville drew an average over 2,000. With a team that hasn't won in years, it's really hard to figure out Bowling Green, largely because I don't live there and all. It seems they have struggled to draw for certain opponents you would think they might draw better for. Part of that might be because the Falcons simply haven't won much lately (again, what fun is it to watch your favorite team get stomped?).

The problem here is that you're taking Bowling Green out of a conference that has in-state programs Miami and Ohio State, and nearby Notre Dame, and big-timers Michigan and Michigan State. I think they'll have some issues that could only be cured by winning more games.

Alaska-Anchorage hasn't drawn well in years. That won't get taken care of until the Seawolves taste some serious success. Alaska does a'ight, from what I can tell, no matter who they play.

I think the Upper Michigan teams (Lake, Tech, Northern) will do better because of the regional rivalry they now have no choice but to develop. None of them have drawn appreciably better for "big-time" programs in their respective leagues in recent years.

In the end, the WCHA will be fine. It will be a competitive league that produces at least one NCAA team each year. But there is a lot of money that has to be made up for some of these programs to survive long-term. There lies the challenge for Bruce McLeod and the league's members as we move forward.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

College Hockey News Releases Preseason Rankings; Champs Not in Top Ten

We're going inside of ten days until the UMD Bulldogs play their first game of the 2011-12 season, an exhibition against the mighty Lakehead Thunderwolves of Thunder Bay.

It's about time that we see some preseason polls from the various sources of college hockey coverage. First to the plate is College Hockey News, which released a preseason top ten Wednesday.

In defense of CHN, managing editor Adam Wodon tells us this isn't really meant to look like a poll. It's one guy's opinion. Not only that, but the design is to try to look ahead at what the rankings will look like when it's all said and done.

That said, here are the rankings the site published.

1. Miami
2. Boston University
3. Notre Dame
4. Colorado College
5. Boston College
6. North Dakota
7. Denver
8. Western Michigan
9. Michigan
10. Yale

Also listed were some "teams to watch," a list that included UMD, Nebraska-Omaha, Lake Superior State, Holy Cross, Union, and Maine, in no particular order.

You might expect that a UMD guy would hate these rankings and think there's something seriously wrong with any poll that doesn't rank the defending champions No. 1, but that's not going to happen here.

I've said this before ... when you are handed a ballot and asked to vote on a top ten, you're picking the ten best teams right now. Not the ten best teams last season. Or, more specifically in UMD's case, the ten best teams last April.

(That's not a shot. It's reality. I saw every game UMD played last season. I'm probably the only person outside of the UMD players and staff who can say that, because not even our beloved newspaper guy was allowed to go to every game. And if you think UMD was the best team in the country from start to finish, you're crazy. That's not what the NCAA Tournament is meant to decide, or what it was ever meant to decide. Boston University in 2009 is a rare example of a team that was probably best in the country from October to April. Unless you're one of those who thinks that Miami and Bemidji State were among the four best in the country that year. It's antiquated and -- in my opinion -- backwards thinking.)

You could argue it's kind of silly to not have UMD in the top ten, but not many teams can claim to have lost the best (or one of the best, depending on your opinion) overall player (Mike Connolly), one of its top 20 all-time point producers (Justin Fontaine), a three-year mainstay on defense (Mike Montgomery), and a defenseman who developed into a force in just one year (Justin Faulk).

It's not insane to say that UMD isn't a top ten team. What's insane is blindly marking UMD No. 1 on a ballot without thinking about the attrition, or what other teams who were pretty good last season have coming back for this year.

Many fans will take this as a sign of disrespect. It's hard for me to see it that way.

Minnesota Wild: Why They Won't Be Better

Earlier this week, I did a post talking about why I think the Minnesota Wild will be better this season. If you haven't read it yet, it might be worth a look before you read this post.

Here, I'll discuss what I think are the extremely valid reasons to be pessimistic about this year's team.

Hockey games aren't played on paper. On paper, the Wild appear better. But we don't decide the games that way. When the chips have been down in recent years -- both under Jacques Lemaire and Todd Richards -- this team has perennially not played well enough and not done enough on either end of the ice to make a difference.

It can't all be Todd Richards' fault. And it's not all Doug Risebrough's fault, either.


What if the chemistry isn't right? Right now, the Wild appear to be going with Mikko Koivu centering the former Sharks, Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley. I'm not saying it's a bad idea, but what if it doesn't work? Heatley worked with Joe Thornton for the last couple years. Koivu is a very good player, but he isn't Joe Thornton. Will Heatley be able to develop the kind of chemistry with the Wild captain that he had with the Sharks captain?

And I know they're friends, but the fact that Setoguchi and Heatley are boys off the ice doesn't mean they'll be able to co-exist on the same line. They're both shooters, and shooters can sulk at times where they're not getting enough chances to shoot.

The defense won't be as good. New coach Mike Yeo wants to play an up-tempo, puck possession game. That's probably a good thing, because the best defense is not letting the other team have the puck. And the Wild aren't sporting a bunch of blue-chippers on defense right now.

Brent Burns was traded to San Jose in the Setoguchi deal, leaving Marek Zidlicky as the top offensive defenseman on the roster. Minnesota will miss Burns' slick puckhandling and passing, and no one who will make this team can replace either of those qualities. Nick Schultz and Greg Zanon will be effective as defense-first guys on the blue line who can lead and play a lot of minutes. They'll be surrounded by youngsters, with guys like Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser and Justin Falk all potentially making the team and playing a significant role. So far, former Blackhawk Jordan Hendry has looked good. He's on a tryout after blowing out his knee last season, and it would be really cool if he could make the team. He was on the Cup-winning Chicago team in 2010, and he could be a great steal for GM Chuck Fletcher, even if he ends up on a two-way deal.

In the end, there are just too many questions on defense to think the unit will be good enough to get this team in the playoffs.

Goaltending issues? Simply put, Niklas Backstrom wasn't as good as necessary last season. Too many soft goals and rough nights, even though his overall numbers weren't terrible. There were times that backup Jose Theodore looked more like the starter than Backstrom.

Josh Harding is back as the No. 2 this year, off a knee injury. With the defense in front of them likely not as good as it has been, there will be more burden on the goaltenders.

Of course, if the team takes to Yeo's system and plays it the way the coach demands, there might not be much of any significant pressure on the goalies, and that makes this all null and void.

In the end, I am very optimistic about this Wild team. I believe in Yeo's message more than I ever believed in Richards, and while it might be a hill of beans in the end, it seems the players have bought in so far.

The keys to the season are undoubtedly the chemistry up front with the new faces among the top six forwards, the ability of guys like Cal Clutterbuck, Darroll Powe, and Eric Nystrom to bring the pain, and improvement out of the defense, even without Burns.

If those things happen, Yeo's first season will be as much of a success as his first season in Houston was.

If they don't, the Wild will be just another lame Minnesota pro sports team.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

St. Cloud State and Western Michigan Reportedly Set to Join NCHC

Well, this sure is interesting.

According to a report from our friend Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan are going to get invites to the newly-formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

Western Michigan is no surprise. The school has been rumored to be potentially involved in the new league from the start, and it's nice to see minds finally made up.

As for St. Cloud State, well ... you might remember comments from school president Earl Potter, where he talked about the school not accepting an invitation that never came. He quickly backed off the remarks, which simply weren't very smart. From the day the NCHC was made official, I had heard talk that SCSU could be involved at some point.

In the last month, I heard more of that. Obviously, my first reaction was laughter.

Not laughter at the thought of SCSU getting in the league. It's been a good program for a long time, and this will help them in terms of attendance (presumably, at least, the fans there will be more amped to see UMD and North Dakota than they would Ferris State or Bowling Green). I don't doubt that St. Cloud State fits in this structure and can compete in the NCHC.

The laughter comes at the thought of some very loyal SCSU people backing off their criticisms and hatchet jobs at the NCHC and its founding teams. Will they still be more worried about the future of the WCHA than they are their own program? Will they still crab that the Big Ten and NCHC have conspired to ruin college hockey? Doubtful.

Perhaps I should answer with one of the many shots St. Cloud fans took at me via e-mail and Twitter.

Would you be saying this if your team wasn't involved?

Of course, we know the answer is "Yes" in this case, because these things were being said.

And there is school president Potter, who has egg all over his face after basically saying the school was invited when it wasn't, and intimating the school wanted nothing to do with the new group. Now they're invited, and it sounds like they'll accept. Potter gave his program's supporters the fuel to trash the NCHC and Big Ten, then turned around and joined the NCHC. Makes him look silly, quite frankly, even though this is a good solution for everyone involved.

This is a positive, especially for the NCHC and UMD. The Bulldogs were looking the potential of an eight-team league where they would fly to play all but one conference opponent (North Dakota).

(You could bus to Omaha, but it's not something that sounds like fun.)

Now, at least UMD has another close rival they'll be playing regularly in the new league. Fans here can identify with St. Cloud State and North Dakota, and games with Colorado College and Denver have always been fun. Rivalries with the rest of the league will grow, but it'll be easier for UMD fans to get excited to play St. Cloud State because of the history the two programs have, and the fact that they are league rivals in every sport the two play.

For the NCHC, it allows for the growth of a three-headed regional rivalry in and around Minnesota, with UMD, North Dakota, and St. Cloud State already with plenty of disdain for one another. You have Denver and Colorado College (UNO will presumably be "grouped" with them), and Miami has a natural rival in Western Michigan. If Notre Dame joins, it's all the better.

In the end, the NCHC should not stop trying to get Notre Dame. We don't know what is going to happen to the Irish football program, and we all know that is what is driving everything else at the school. But backing away from the chance to add that program to this league would be silly and counter-productive.

Welcome aboard, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan. Now, can someone tell us again why we didn't just add Miami and Western Michigan to the WCHA that already existed? Smiley

Monday, September 19, 2011

Minnesota Wild: Why They Will Be Better

There has been a lot of talk this summer about the Minnesota Wild. I was in the Cities to take in one of their two prospect camp scrimmages in July, and was surprised by the size and liveliness of the crowd. Seemed the Wild were surprised, too, as they were opening up additional seating sections as the people filed in.

Listen, I know it was a prospect camp scrimmage, but I (and others in attendance) took it as a sign the team was regaining some footing with its fanbase, a group that had grown largely frustrated and started staying home in before-unseen numbers as the team floundered to a third straight non-playoff finish.

Now, of course, the Wild have to prove some things on the ice. Another non-playoff year will leave the fans disenchanted and many seats likely empty come March and April. It's up to this team to make sure that doesn't happen.

Tuesday, I'll talk about the reasons you shouldn't believe in the Wild. But I am here now to present reasons why you should think this team will get better and be in the playoff hunt next spring.

Offense looking up. When Todd Richards was hired, there was all this talk of a new look for the team on the ice. They were going to play up-tempo, and Richards was going to turn his defensemen loose. It never really happened as advertised. It took players some time to grasp the system, and there were some really bad performances as the learning continued into Richards' first season.

While the team got better, it never turned around to the point of being acceptable, and it wasn't enough improvement to justify keeping Richards around.

Now, the Wild appear to be singing the same song with 37-year-old Mike Yeo taking over. However, it feels different. Part of that is because of two moves general manager Chuck Fletcher made during the offseason, plucking forwards Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley from San Jose in separate trades for defenseman Brent Burns and forward Martin Havlat.

Given Havlat's clear unhappiness in Minnesota, his pricetag and contract length, and the offensive prowess of Heatley, along with the young players Minnesota got with Setoguchi for Burns, the deals were no-brainers. They also turned Minnesota from a rebuilding team into an intriguing team.

Put your money on Heatley and Setoguchi starting the season on the same line, barring things changing in training camp. Right now, the Wild appear to be going with Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse as the wings for second-line center Matt Cullen, leaving captain Mikko Koivu in between the former Sharks on the top line.

Not sure this will work, but it's probably the best option going in. We'll see if shoot-first Heatley and shoot-first Setoguchi can get enough shots without getting on each other's nerves.

Either way, I expect this team will improve offensively. Guys like Darroll Powe, Cal Clutterbuck, and Kyle Brodziak aren't exactly bad players. Their ability to score and defend will be key in taking some heat off the top six.

Coaching. Yeo is not Todd Richards. In fact, he seems to have already had more of an impact than Richards had in two years, and Yeo hasn't coached a game yet. Where Yeo impressed everyone with how he managed his bench as a coach in Houston, Richards never really figured that part of the game out. He never seemed to connect with the players, and his messages often went either totally unheard or only temporarily heard.

Yeo has a confidence about him. He carries himself like a natural leader. He's the kind of guy who inspires excitement, because he seems to really "get it" when it comes to the game and how to coach it at a high level.

Of course, he hasn't coached a game yet. So maybe this is all wrong.

On the surface, Yeo will have this team playing hard and working hard at all times. It's something Richards could never say, and it's likely the reason Yeo is coaching here and not in Florida or somewhere else in the NHL.

These are the two biggest reasons to expect improvement out of the Wild. It's not rocket science, but it's a start. More than anything, it's reason to be optimistic about a team that hasn't done much of note in a long time.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Hockey Season is Starting

Regular readers of the blog (thank you, by the way) will know this already, but as the weather gets colder, many of the items you see in the blog become related.

It's not quite a total hockey blog, but I cover UMD hockey, so I blog about the team a lot, and I watch a lot of hockey during the winter, so I tend to write about it a lot.

We're getting close to that "transition" time, as teams are starting up practices and training camp and all the like. UMD's first exhibition game is two weeks-plus away (Oct. 2), and the home opener is three weeks from the day of this post (Oct. 7).

In advance of those all-important dates, here are a few things to note.
  • There will be a huge tailgate party outside Amsoil Arena before the opener against Notre Dame. The plan is to open the concessions inside the building at 5pm, and they'll have live music and that trophy UMD won last year outside. They'd like a big crowd for the event, so you can expect to hear more about it as we get closer.
  • UMD has been skating at Amsoil for a couple weeks now, and coaches were able to get on the ice with the players Thursday for the first time. They worked for about an hour.
  • For those wondering, the broadcast team for men's hockey remains the same. Check for a coverage map of the stations we broadcast on. You can also stream the games on that site.
  • Former UMD assistant coach Brett Larson is in town this weekend as part of his new gig. There are two USHL exhibition games at the Heritage Center, as Larson's Sioux City Musketeers battle the Green Bay Gamblers. Games are Friday at 7pm and Saturday at 2pm. The hope is that USHL exhibition games in Duluth become a more regular event.
  • The Minnesota Wild open training camp this weekend in St. Paul. Former Bulldog Justin Fontaine is on the 56-player training camp roster. Fontaine starred at UMD for four years before signing with the Wild this spring. I would expect him to start the season in Houston, but you can't rule out the possibility that he'll see time in the NHL this season if things go well with the Aeros. Former North Dakota defenseman Chay Genoway is on the camp roster and likely faces a similar path to the NHL.
  • The Wild will play seven preseason games and finish camp with a trip to Duluth. The team is going to spend a couple days practicing at Amsoil Arena Oct. 3-4 and also doing some bonding/team-building. There are no public events scheduled for the time they are here. It's all about bonding before the opener Oct. 8 against Columbus. If anything is added to the itinerary that the public will be invited to, I'll let you know when I know. Promise.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Prince Fielder, Francisco Rodriguez Use Mouths to Create Unneeded Distractions

I'm not one of those who thinks that one poorly-conceived interview can ruin an entire season for a team in any sport. I also don't think that honesty equals a guy being a bad teammate. And I sure as hell don't think people go out of their way to create distractions for their teams, in any line of work.

But despite that, I have to say that Brewers Prince Fielder and Francisco Rodriguez must not know much about timing.

Tuesday, K-Rod, as he's known, gave an interview to CBS Sports columnist Scott Miller, and he told the writer that he's not happy with his role on the Brewers.

"I'm not fine," Rodriguez said Tuesday. "They told me I'd have the opportunity to close some games, and we've had 20-some save opportunities since then and I haven't even had one."

John Axford has earned 19 of his 42 saves since K-Rod's arrival. In 24 appearances, Rodriguez has worked only one ninth inning, in what was a 5-1 cruise over St. Louis on Aug. 10.

"I'm a little disappointed in that," said Rodriguez, who is 3-0 with a 2.31 ERA for the Brewers. "But that's something that's out of my hands."

Rodriguez will be a free agent this winter and figures he will return to closing in 2012.

Until then?

"Suck it up, pretty much," he said.

Rodriguez was given a chance to backpedal Wednesday, but he chose not to.

"I wasn't lying," he said. "There’s been plenty of save opportunities, and I’ve pitched once in the ninth inning and it wasn’t a save. I’m not happy. That’s the bottom line for me. They told me one thing; they haven’t done it. And I stand by what I said.

"I’m not lying. I’m not creating something out of nowhere. I’m just saying the facts, and that’s pretty much it."

Rodriguez then continued.

"That’s something I should not be discussing with any of you guys," he said. "That I should be discussing with the manager in his office.”

Rodriguez was asked if he has.

“No, I haven’t," he said. "(Ron Roenicke) hasn’t approached me, and I haven’t approached him, either. That’s something I should go over there and talk to him about.

"I have thought about it. But it has to be the right moment, the right place to do it.”

I want to call him a moron, but that seems harsh. Still, why would you go verbal vomit to a reporter about being upset with your role on a team before talking to the guy who can actually do something about it first?

Roenicke handled it well, but you have to think he's livid over one of his players taking a gripe to the media before allowing it the chance to be handled in-house. You and I both know Rodriguez will get big money from the Phillies or Cubs or Dodgers or someone else who needs bullpen help and wants to blow $7 million a season on a one-inning relief pitcher. That's fine. For now, he needs to shut up and pitch. And if he has a problem, he should probably talk to Ron Roenicke about it before he talks to Scott Miller (with all due respect to Scott Miller, mind you).

If that wasn't enough, Prince Fielder gave an interview to TBS, which will air this weekend. In it, he reminds everyone that he's a free agent and will likely leave Milwaukee after the season. To an extent, he defended himself after the game, when the cat had long since departed the bag.

Pressed about his pregame comments to TBS about his imminent departure as a free agent this offseason, Fielder was frank about how this didn’t really seem like a current events revelation to him: “You guys said it last year. It is what it is. It’s the same thing I’ve been saying.”

The reality here is that Fielder wasn't breaking news. This has been an off-and-on topic all season, but no one expects Fielder to return, especially in the Brewers' front office.

That's not to say they won't make an offer on the big first baseman, but you'd be insane to think he'll be back. The odds are at least as bad as they were when CC Sabathia went free agent in 2008.

For the Brewers, the task now is to refocus the group. Get the players' minds completely off roles and contracts and free agency, as well as the fact that the lead that was more than ten games just a week-plus ago is now less than six.

Roenicke has done a very good job in his first year as manager, so there's no reason to think he can't get the job taken care of here. He needs to get Rodriguez in his office and remind the pitcher that he isn't the only guy in that bullpen, and it's not like Axford deserves to lose save opportunities or something.

If Rodriguez doesn't like it, maybe he should talk to his agent about that no-trade list he never bothered to submit.

No matter what, the Brewers have unneeded distractions in their push for a division title. These are veteran players who should know better than to pull this kind of garbage, and now we'll see how it affects the team as they try to pull out of a pretty hellacious and poorly-timed slump.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rick Adelman's Biggest Asset May Be Downfall of David Kahn

We don't follow the NBA much around here, largely because our favorite team, the Timberwolves, just can't seem to figure anything out.

After years of mainly-clueless leadership from Kevin McHale, the Wolves cleaned house a couple years ago, hiring a nobody named David Kahn to run the basketball operation, and eventually bringing in former Lakers assistant Kurt Rambis to coach the team.

Rambis was a square peg in a round hole, as his structured triangle system is a much better fit for a veteran, experienced team, and he had a young, athletic team run by a guy (Kahn) who was professing the desire to play a run and gun game.

After two years, 32 wins, a record 100 games under .500, and three months of twisting in the wind, Rambis was fired this summer, as the Timberwolves decided to move in another direction. With Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio coming to play this season, and Kahn still yacking about the run and gun game, it made sense he would hire a run and gun coach.

In Kahn's infinite wisdom, he interviewed former Atlanta head man Mike Woodson -- a defensive-minded coach -- for the job, and also talked to Larry Brown, who doesn't inspire the idea of run and gun basketball.

Owner Glen Taylor intervened in the process, making sure that former Timberwolf Sam Mitchell got an interview, but he also doesn't fit the mold that Kahn's players create.

One guy who does fit that mold is former Houston coach Rick Adelman. The 65-year-old completed a four-year deal with the Rockets last season, and had talked of taking a year off. When Taylor's money became attractive, so did the Minnesota job. It didn't hurt that Adelman has known Timberwolves star Kevin Love for years, going back to Love's days in high school.

What didn't lure Adelman to Minnesota, apparently, was David Kahn.

After Rick Adelman coached his final game with the Houston Rockets in April, Minnesota Timberwolves general manager David Kahn found the coach in the corridors of the Target Center. It wouldn’t be long until Adelman would be searching for a job, and Kahn a coach. Let’s talk this summer, Kahn was heard to tell him. This was a conversation that Adelman preferred to never have again in his life, but circumstances change. And money matters.

Privately, Adelman didn’t disguise his disdain for Kahn. They go back to Adelman’s glory days coaching the Portland Trail Blazers in the late 1980s and 1990s, when Kahn was covering the NBA beat as a sportswriter for the Oregonian. The idea that a bad sportswriter had turned into a brutal NBA executive troubled him, sources said. He couldn’t stand him then, and had no intention of resurrecting a working relationship with the man.

... “Rick would never agree to anything with Kahn,” one league official connected to Adelman said Monday. “This had to be [a deal] with Taylor. …Rick has talked many times of his dislike for Kahn.”

Adelman understands the coaching landscape has changed, and $5 million-a-year contracts are rarities these days. He talked himself into this job, because the owner coughed up the money, and because Kahn knows he effectively works for Adelman now. Adelman took the job despite Kahn, and the owner won’t let Kahn get in the way of what Adelman wants, and what he tells him needs to happen there.

Yes, this happened because Adelman finally found a way to justify the possibilities against the biggest drawback of the job: walking into the office and getting a daily dose of Kahn’s empty thoughts on basketball, his embarrassing management style. No, Adelman doesn’t come unless Taylor made a strong pitch of autonomy for the coach, unless Taylor paid Adelman like few small-market owners pay coaches in the NBA anymore.

Adelman has a longer contract than Kahn, and far more now. Taylor had to get Adelman, and had to overpay market value for him. He had no choice because his franchise has been a laughingstock with Kahn, and he needed the credibility of Adelman for a chance to re-sign Kevin Love.

Does this sound like a relationship that has any chance of working?

No. Of course not. But that's fine, because Wojnarowski is clearly saying that Adelman doesn't have to deal with Kahn. He deals with Taylor. I'd bet Adelman has more of a say in player moves now than Kahn does.

It's reasonable to suggest that Kahn has been virtually stripped of his power, and is simply collecting a paycheck to watch Adelman and Taylor take care of the basketball operation until his contract expires, or until Adelman decides he can't have Kahn around the building anymore.

At least, we can hope this is true. As bad as the Timberwolves franchise has gotten, Taylor's hiring of Kahn turned it into a consistent laughingstock. Until Kahn's power belongs to someone capable of not running the franchise into the ground and embarrassing it along the way, the Wolves have no hope of anything but marginal improvement.

Adelman's hire may have guaranteed that fans will get their way. He will coach a more wide-open style, and the increasingly-watchable on-court product will no longer be stained by David Kahn.

Now, about that lockout ...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Purple People Needn't Panic ... Yet

In a typical NFL Week 1, fans will go into a collective panic after seeing their favorite team lose. I expected reactions to be even less tempered after such a long lockout left people starving for action.

When that action came, some teams flourished (Baltimore, Chicago, Buffalo???). Some rookies outperformed expectations (Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Randall Cobb).

Other teams didn't get the job done. Kansas City fans are probably full-throat on this day, all over head coach Todd Haley after his team was embarrassed at home by the Bills, 41-7. There is probably not as much panic -- but still some gripping -- in Atlanta and Pittsburgh after their teams performed poorly. Surely, Tony Romo isn't a favorite son in Dallas anymore, after he coughed up the Cowboys' opener against the Jets.

In Minnesota, the sports-talk phone lines were burning Monday, full of fans wondering exactly how the Vikings' prized offseason acquisition could throw for 39 yards, or 383 fewer than Newton did in his NFL debut for Carolina.

39 yards was all Donovan McNabb could muster in 15 attempts, as the Vikings' offense sputtered badly in a 24-17 loss to San Diego. As radio voice Paul Allen noted on his show page, you really can't put this one on the defense, outside of making the generic "You have to get off the field" argument. It's on McNabb, and to a lesser extent offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

Watching the game back on DirecTV, the play-calling was simply miserable. The only thing worse was the execution. One thing that the game tape doesn't show you is what the play design was on a particular call. That's where the McNabb/Musgrave line becomes a bit cloudy. If McNabb was shooting at a five-yard dumpoff on a play designed to go 15-20 yards down the field, that's on either the receiver for not getting open, or on McNabb for not executing the play as drawn up.

When McNabb did throw the ball a bit downfield, he ended up missing low. A lot. He threw more bounce passes than Ricky Rubio. It was eerily similar to last season in Washington, where McNabb's accuracy suffered and he turned in his worst season as a pro.

This one is early, though. McNabb still has a strong arm, and he still has good mobility, as he showed on a couple nice runs Sunday. What has to change are a few things, starting with his throwing accuracy. McNabb has never been known for his pinpoint accuracy -- to the point that even Video Game Cris Collinsworth likes to call him out on it -- and he probably isn't going to start now. But he can be better than he was on Sunday, where his timing and accuracy both suffered on some of his throws.

He also has to get better timing. He held the ball too long on a deep shot at Bernard Berrian in the fourth, one that almost surely would have been a touchdown had the throw been on time and accurate. By throwing it late, McNabb allowed himself to be pressured, and it hurt his throw.

In the end, the Vikings had a few positives their fans could take out of the game. For starters, the defense competed their tails off for four quarters. No, they couldn't make a critical second-half stop, but they made a number of huge stops in the first half, keeping a very good offense to just seven points when they had a ton of yards. They got in Philip Rivers' face, forced bad throws, and had the quarterback frustrated as hell going into halftime.

Adrian Peterson looked strong, gaining 98 yards on just 16 carries. The Vikings need to feed him the ball more, even if it's at the expense of the Blazer set (Wildcat, Webb-cat, whatever). The Blazer had no business seeing the field when it did Sunday, and that has to be a lesson for Musgrave. Just because you have a toy doesn't mean you play with it. From a timing standpoint, it was akin to taking the motorcycle out for a ride in January. We know you want to show it off, but you should wait until the summer, and you know it.

Peterson needed more of the ball in the second half, and dusting off Joe Webb for a couple plays killed the offense's momentum and rhythm. I'm not an anti-Wildcat guy, but there is a time and place, and "third quarter of a close game where your offense can't do anything and your best player isn't getting enough touches" isn't it.

Musgrave is a capable coach, so he'll learn from it, and so will the team. I expect Webb to be effective in this package, because he is a throwing threat and that will make the whole deal more dangerous. At that point, maybe fans won't be so mad when it gets rolled out at a random point in a game.

All in all, it was not a bad performance by the Purple, and it was a close game against a good team. The next two games (Tampa Bay and Detroit) will tell us a lot. The Lions had a field day against what I thought was a good Tampa defense Sunday, and the Buccaneers struggled more on offense than I expected them to. But neither team is a world-beater, and if Minnesota is 2-1 after Week 3, all will be forgiven in the Twin Cities.

Chicago looked strong Sunday, but they benefited from some bounces, and I'm not sold that Atlanta is that good anyway. That said, it was a convincing win over an NFL team, and it sets the Bears up for a potentially interesting season if they can keep that momentum going. This isn't a cut-and-dried division race by any means, and Minnesota still has a chance to make some headway.

BlogPoll: Week 3 Ballot

Here's my BlogPoll ballot for this week. Commentary to follow.

Listen, I'm as much a fan of that Notre Dame-Michigan game as anyone. I thought it was fun. But that's not a top team in Ann Arbor. Probably not that close at this point.

Ohio State looked awful Saturday, but got a win over a Toledo team that I think will compete for the MAC title. The Buckeyes just don't have the kind of team they've had in previous years, and I think it will haunt them once they play a real opponent. And, hey, look ... they visit Miami Saturday. Of Florida.

Of the teams I watched Saturday, Alabama and Wisconsin were the only ones who looked really good. Alabama didn't blow out Penn State, but I was impressed with their defense, and I thought the offense really wore down the Nittany Lions, though Joe Paterno's team was competitive on defense for at least a half-plus. As for Wisconsin, the defense looked much better than it did against UNLV, and Russell Wilson made it abundantly clear that this team will have a passing game that keeps opponents from spending too much time on Montee Ball and James White.

Nebraska's somewhat hair-raising win over Fresno State says more about Fresno than it does about the Cornhuskers. Pat Hill has a team in the Valley this year, and the Bulldogs are going to make noise in a weakened WAC.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Aaron Rodgers Lets Play Do Talking, Then Lets Talking Do Talking

I've been loud and proud in my belief in the Bill Simmons Rules For Being A Fan, which call for a five-year grace period after a championship.

After your team wins a championship, they immediately get a five-year grace period: You can't complain about anything that happens with your team (trades, draft picks, salary-cap cuts, coaching moves) for five years. There are no exceptions. For instance, the Pats could finish 0-80 over the next five years and I wouldn't say a peep. That's just the way it is. You win the Super Bowl, you go on cruise control for five years. Everything else is gravy. 

However, my interpretation of this rule is that you have every right to complain if a guy on your favorite team does something off the field that irks you, or if he just generally acts like a jackass.

Thursday night, after an epic NFL opener that saw Green Bay beat New Orleans, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- the best in the business right now -- took the media to task.

Three times in his press conference, Rodgers pointed out the Packers looked pretty decent on opening night despite the lack of the ever-popular player-only workouts.

“It was a good start for us,” Rodgers said. “I was going to ask myself, what would have happened if we had had offseason workouts? I mean, could we have started any faster and scored more points tonight?”

I'm not saying that the media didn't have this coming. The talk during the lockout was that teams who held player workouts -- like New Orleans and New England, for example -- had a leg up on everyone else. And the Packers were indeed questioned about the players' decision not to hold such workouts.

Thursday's game doesn't debunk all of that. Let's face it. Rodgers is really good, and it's not like he's throwing passes to guys who couldn't make other teams. Greg Jennings is one of the best receivers in the league, and Jordy Nelson is emerging as a star. Oh, and there's that Jermichael Finley guy, too. They're talented, and they have a triggerman who knows what he's doing.

But did Rodgers have to keep pressing the issue? I'm going to vote no. Rodgers defended himself to Mike Silver of Yahoo!, and I will admit that he has a case.

Just to make sure his intentions were clear, Rodgers twice revisited the subject in similarly facetious fashion. When he walked back into the locker room to grab his stuff before heading out into the Wisconsin night, I asked him if, at any point over the offseason, he’d thought about getting his teammates together for a few days of workouts, if only to quiet the chorus of critics.

“Yes,” he said. “And that would have been the only reason.”

I will say that I thought the media criticism of the Packers' decision was silly.

But Rodgers gloating after one game was wholly unnecessary. Smacked of the kind of elitism that makes people hate the New England Patriots. And it seems to run contrary to how the Packers behaved last year.

Then again, maybe the Packers are using the workout flap as a bit of a motivational ploy. In that case, it's all about whatever it takes to get up for this title defense, I guess.

Still made me a bit uncomfortable ...

Thursday, September 08, 2011

NFL Season Predictions

Before I begin, I want to note that this is the most fruitless exercise in the history of fruitless exercises. That said, it's a fun way to kick off the season, so I'm going to do it, anyway.

Hopefully, by January, you'll forget this post was ever written, and you don't worry about looking back at the picks I made in September to see how horrifically wrong most -- if not all -- of them were.

With that in mind, let's get started on this NFL season. I'm ready for some football!

1. New England
2. N.Y. Jets
3. Buffalo
4. Miami

Look. I like Rex Ryan. I like his bravado, and I like what he brings to this division. It's made the Jets-Patriots rivalry fun for the first time that I can remember (at least from the perspective of a guy who isn't a fan of either team and doesn't live on the East Coast). But his team isn't as good as New England. They won a playoff game in Foxborough, and good on them for that, but I don't see them beating out Brady and Co. for the division title. Buffalo added some intriguing pieces to the defense, and I think Ryan Fitzpatrick is better than other people do. We'll see if they can run the ball well enough behind a potentially shaky line. Miami is a mess at quarterback, and I don't think their offense is good in general, outside of Jake Long and Brandon Marshall.

1. Pittsburgh
2. Baltimore
3. Cleveland
4. Cincinnati

When will this division not be defined by Pittsburgh and Baltimore? It will happen, I think, but not this year. The Ravens have a good team, but probably not quite good enough to take down the Steelers, who have enough guys returning from a team that felt like they let the Super Bowl get away from them. Cleveland should be better, but I'm not sold on the pieces surrounding Colt McCoy, specifically at wide receiver. Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis tries to avoid the jinx this year, but it seems Drew Brees did all right with that in 2010. Cincinnati is simply not a very good team, even if Carson Palmer walks back through that door, and I'm just not seeing that happening.

1. Houston
2. Jacksonville
3. Indianapolis
4. Tennessee

Peyton Manning's injury throws a king-sized monkey wrench into this whole division race. Sitting here, I have no earthly idea when we'll see Manning running the Colts offense again. Without him, I don't think this team can be nearly as good. Some teams are about the coaches and the systems they run. The Colts run a good offensive system, but Manning is the key guy. I liked Houston already, and the Manning news doesn't hurt. Of course, if Arian Foster isn't ready to go, that won't help matters. Jacksonville is in a make-or-break situation for Jack Del Rio. They can finish second, but that might not be enough to save the coach's job. Tennessee has Chris Johnson, but you know the holdout bit by now.

1. San Diego
2. Kansas City
3. Oakland
4. Denver

The Chargers were a top offensive and defensive team last year, but were swept by the Raiders and missed the playoffs last year. That should tell you plenty about the overall talent on the team, as well as the overall value of statistics. Kansas City was good last year, and they'll be good again, but they aren't as good as the Chargers. The bottom of this division is bad. Oakland lost its best players on both sides of the ball, with little effort made toward passably replacing them. Denver is rebuilding, and while I think Kyle Orton is a fine quarterback, the Broncos just don't have enough talent on defense to compete.

1. Philadelphia
2. N.Y. Giants
3. Dallas
4. Washington

This division is probably going to be close, and don't think I'm just buying into the "Dream Team" hype with Philadelphia because they are my pick. This is a solid team with a great set of cornerbacks, and they'll shut down a lot of offenses. I'm not as sold on their offense being gangbusters, but it shouldn't need to be most weeks. The Giants have a solid team that could win ten or eleven games, but I haven't trusted Eli Manning much in his career, and last year gives me no reason to just start now. Looking at Dallas, I see some potential, but is Tony Romo the right guy to lead them forward? Mike Shanahan is trying in Washington, but until someone steps up at the quarterback, they are a bottom feeder.

1. Green Bay
2. Minnesota
3. Detroit
4. Chicago

No matter how you slice it, a defending champion that gets back three starters who missed most of last season -- and only loses one key guy to unrestricted free agency (Cullen Jenkins) -- is going to be a tough team to pick against. The Packers have the division's best offense, and the defense might be tops, too. I like this Vikings group to finish second and contend for a playoff spot, but they have a lot to show me on the offensive and defensive lines before they'll be better than that. Donovan McNabb is a good bridge to the Christian Ponder era. Detroit has talent, but until they show they can be trusted to stay healthy, I can't pick them any higher than this. It's tough putting the Bears fourth, but the offensive line looks like it could be shaky, no matter what magic Mike Tice has in that pencil he carries around.

1. New Orleans
2. Atlanta
3. Tampa Bay
4. Carolina

Atlanta and New Orleans should be the best division title battle in the NFC. The Saints get the edge based on their defense. Atlanta was exposed a bit in the playoffs last year, and I'm not sold in their improvements there. No matter what happens, I sincerely hope Matt Ryan can get a playoff win this year, so he can get the hell away from all this "When will 'Matty Ice' Win A Playoff Game?" talk. As a Packers fan, I know how annoying that all is. Tampa is an intriguing young team that could steal a wild card spot, and while Carolina is not an intriguing young team, they'll be better than last year.

1. St. Louis
2. Arizona
3. Seattle
4. San Francisco

Sam Bradford will have a much more productive year with Josh McDaniels running the offense, and it doesn't hurt that he has Mike Sims-Walker to throw to. The Rams are my pick in a division that will improve this year, but still will be the scorn of many NFL observers. Larry Fitzgerald and Kevin Kolb won't be good enough to beat them out, but they'll be good enough to knock Seattle back to third. No idea what the Seahawks are thinking at quarterback. None. San Francisco has a new coach in Jim Harbaugh. Now they need to find a quarterback. How about Andrew Luck?

Wild Card
Houston over N.Y. Jets
Pittsburgh over Baltimore
New England over Houston
San Diego over Pittsburgh
New England over San Diego

Wild Card
St. Louis over Atlanta
New Orleans over Tampa Bay
Green Bay over St. Louis
New Orleans over Philadelphia
New Orleans over Green Bay

New Orleans over New England

Wednesday, September 07, 2011