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Islanders Gameday: Where the Wild things aren't

If you loathe Jacques Lemaire for what he's done to hockey -- the mid-'90s leveraging of lax stick-foul rule enforcement, monotonous backwards-skating forwards, and passive hockey systems imitated by dull expansion teams everywhere -- then you might want the Wild to go down tonight, miss the playoffs and just possibly send Lemaire off into the sunset after a remarkable playing and coaching career.

Min-central_medium Stick-square_medium

Minnesota North Stars Wild (34-31-8, 11th/W) @ New York Islanders (24-40-8, 30th)

7 p.m. | Nassau [gloriously uncorporate] Coliseum | MSG+

Wilderness blog: Hockey Wilderness

On the other hand, if you think he's just a brilliant strategist who makes the most of what he's given -- who only did what NHL powers refused to stop -- I suppose you might want Lemaire to salvage something from this season and stick around for more. (Personally, it's hard to forgive him the '90s, even if he was simply the guy who best used the soft gap between rulebook and "let them play" enforcement to his advantage. But whatever.)

I've got a Minnesota-born buddy who prays at the altar of Lemaire (and, incidentally, still chafes that Kyle Okposo left college early). But get this -- he hardly watches NHL hockey anymore. He liked the idea of Lemaire's expansion results in Minnesota without necessarily being keen to watch how he gets them. On that note, Hockey Wilderness has a great riff on how the Wild are no more stereotypically boring than the Rangers -- although I fear Tortorella (whose team beat the Wild 2-1 last night) is changing that.

Regardless, something is curious about the Wild, now in their ninth season in the always tough Northwest Division.

What once seemed like proper, patient, ground-up expansion franchise husbandry now seems like complacency. They rarely make the splash to try to push Lemaire's team over the hump, and the combination of letting free agents Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra go, followed by the inert handling this year of UFA and original star Marian Gaborik, gives the franchise the appearance of treading water while rolling in that market's sellout machine. Not that long-term deals for those three are the answer, but the team knew it had to get offense from somewhere.

Two years removed from their only division title (and second consecutive first-round exit), it's hard to see what model Lemaire and GM Doug Risebrough are following. Yes, Lemaire can do a lot with a little -- but is that all there is? Can Risebrough not hand him more tools? Can Lemaire not handle more tools? Granted, the team is within $2 million of the cap this season, but a look at their roster makes you wonder how it all added up.

I've always wished the best for a market that should never have had the figurative "North" ripped from their sweaters nor the rest of the 1967 club ripped from their hands. With Lemaire/Risebrough leading NHL in Twin Cities: V.2, I thought they had the ideal, long-view tandem that hockey-wise Minnesota fans could patiently trust. But lately, I'm wondering if it's time for this regime to move on. (If Lemaire moves on, is Kevin Constantine the answer?!)

As a fan of some recently very bad teams, I know all too well how last place sucks. But worse than that is the constant, nagging feeling that you're not headed anywhere. Watching Lemaire/Risebrough from the outside, it's hard to read if there is an "anywhere" in their future. Personally, it again makes me happy that Garth Snow chose the aggressive Scott Gordon for his franchise restart rather than a stringently defensive coach.

Today and Tomorrow

So that was our way of finding meaning in tonight's game as a non-playoff season winds down. As for tonight's actual matchup, this is the second Islanders-Wild meeting of the season -- the NHL's way of filling the unbalanced schedule by matching two teams it finds unappealing while it fits in more Toronto/glam v. Western Canada/Big Market.

When these teams last met, the Isles had an awful, season-low 16 shots, and Brendan Witt had just given his fateful honest responses to Greg Logan's questions about Scott Gordon's system. After that mini-drama, who would have guessed that three months later, it would be the frank Witt still here -- while anonymous dissenters like Jon Sim, Mike Comrie, Bill Guerin and Chris Campoli would be gone? (Okay, except for Campoli, I might have guessed it, too. But it's still funny how things work out.)

Whether Joey MacDonald returns tonight or not, look for him and Yann Danis to make their last cases to get contract offers from NHL teams next season. Otherwise, it's as you were: More development time for the kids, with one eye cast toward the tanking standings (though that's taboo in the locker room), which are looking more and more like a lock.

Some fun with individual stats:

2008 - Marc-Andre Bergeron 63 11 17 28 0 30 5 0 2 0 122 9.0

2008 - Mark Streit 67 15 38 53 8 54 10 1 1 0 136 11.0

And in goal:

2008 - Niklas Backstrom 63 3606 32 22 7 3 142 2.36 1799 1657 .921 7

2008 - Yann Danis 24 1411 9 12 2 1 59 2.51 749 690 .921 2

As you've heard or guessed, the Wild don't score much -- more than only the Rangers -- at 2.45/GP, but only marginally less than the Islanders (2.49). Plus, they give up a lot less. Still, the Islanders' first-half stats should be thrown out the window. When Yann Danis is in goal and the young forwards are clicking, they show the signs of something around the corner. Facing a conservative system like Lemaire's is actually a perfect test for them.

The exploda-groin Gaborik is indeed back with the Wild, but heart and soul Mikko Koivu is out, possibly through the end of the season. Their leading goal scorer is Owen Nolan with 22, which gives them a very "Guerin's your go-to finisher?" feel.

Parting Thought

If you don't like the near-miss playoff bubble situation the Wild are in right now, just think: That's likely the best-case scenario for the Islanders next season. Meh, after a year in the gutter, I'll take it.

As always, a live game thread will be up here by the opening faceoff.