Saturday, October 31, 2015

Minnesota's sports world turned upside down

What a week in Minnesota sports. There's a cliche line I'm sure everyone's already written. Sometimes though, you just have to shake your head.

It all started last Sunday when the Timberwolves announced Flip Saunders died, after his battle with Hodgkins lymphoma. Monday, Twins fan-favorite Torii Hunter officially declared he's retiring from baseball. Wednesday morning, University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill announced his retirement citing health reasons.

That's a lot of information to process in a 43-word paragraph. I think I'll save Torii for another time, but here are some thoughts on Flip and Kill.

Minnesota loses a sports icon
I was as shocked as I think a lot of Minnesotans were to hear the news that Flip died. We all knew he had cancer. What was surprising to me was that only a few days prior, the Timberwolves had just declared that Flip wouldn't coach this season. I also completely understand the family wanting their privacy, leading to a lack of public information. That's a non-issue for me, but I think it helps explain why everyone was taken by surprise.

I don't have some great memory of Flip and his Timberwolves. Mostly because basketball and the Wolves haven't been a top priority in my sports world. That's just the truth. I watch hockey during the winter, not basketball.

But I know enough as a sports fan to realize the importance and effect Flip leaves with his legacy. He was a Gopher, coached the Wolves during their playoff berths and then came back to Minnesota for another run with the team. It's such a Minnie thing to do, really.

He was 60 years old, which is way too young. Cancer. It's a nasty disease.

Kill abruptly retires
The Coach Kill news reached me as I did a quick, out-of-habit check of Twitter after I woke up. I was stunned. I was out and about that morning, so I missed the news conference. But as I later heard, watched and read about it, I realized just how intense this all was.

The emotion from Kill that day was unlike anything I'd seen in a long time. I think I heard someone rank it up there with the news conference when Kirby Puckett retired because of loss of vision in one eye.

I didn't go to the U of M, and I wouldn't call myself a Gopher fan exactly. I'm more of a casual observer. I'll watch some games, follow how their teams do each year, but I'm a little indifferent. Still, that doesn't mean I wasn't interested in this retirement news. The stories of Kill dealing with seizures and epilepsy have been well documented since he was hired here nearly five years ago.

Football was his life. That's all he's ever done. That was clear from his tears; he didn't need to say it. I don't think anyone wants to quit something unless it's on his or her own terms. I think he'd coach football for decades, if it weren't for the limitations his health brought along.

I wish nothing but the best for him as he moves on with life after football, takes care of himself, spends time with family and perhaps finds an additional passion he can work toward.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Expectations are still high for the Wild this season

Just as the regular season ended for baseball, the hockey season begins. That's what's so great about these two sports; they keep you busy for the entire year.

Not much has changed with the lineup; it should be pretty similar to last season. You've got the hard-working Zach Parise, minute-eater Ryan Suter, speedy-scorer Jason Zucker, captain Mikko Koivu, plus guys like Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Matt Dumba.

I'll probably save writing about Heatley Jr. - I mean, Thomas Vanek - for another time. He was terrible last season and has already set the bar very low for his production this season. We'll see what we get.

I'm expecting more of the same this year from a team that's played well enough to make the playoffs the past couple years. On paper, their performance should have been better throughout the season, but obviously it didn't work out that way. They barely made it, beat the tough St. Louis Blues in the first round and then lost to the Chicago Blackhawks.

They'll need continued production from the top lines, plus it would be a nice boost to see a few guys step it up, like Coyle, Granlund or Jason Pominville. Then there's the power play. It was a sore spot last year and ranked near the bottom throughout. I'm not sure that will change all that much because I haven't heard of any major changes to the personnel or the setup with the man advantage. If it produces, it'll be a nice surprise.

Goaltending is key, of course
It's no secret that the acquisition of goalie Devan Dubnyk last winter saved the Wild's season. He played extremely well and is the guy you point to when you think about how the Wild came back from the brink and made the playoffs.

The Wild kept him around this season, signing him to a six-year, $26 million deal over the summer. While I'm glad they decided to stick with him, the numbers of this deal make me nervous. Six years is too long. Three or four maybe, but not six. Sure, he was outstanding last season, but will he be able to keep up that pace?

I guess I'm worried about the second half last year being a flash in the pan for him. I don't think he'll go in the tank or anything, but I just don't know if we've seen enough of him to warrant a six-year deal. I also got the impression that it was a pretty typical deal for a goaltender these days, so I can understand why Chuck Fletcher made the move, to a point.

It's probably just apprehension after the Niklas Backstrom deal backfired, and that was only three years. They signed him to the deal at age 35, and now he's riddled with injuries.

There's also Darcy Kuemper, a guy I'm hoping will rebound after I think he got into his own head too much last season.

Can they avoid the slump?
One of the bigger frustrations that's now become rather routine for the Wild is what I'll call the New Years Slump. The past couple years, the team went into a downward spiral around the mid-December, early January time frame.

It's caused a lot of concern that Coach Mike Yeo would lose his job.

For me, this will be a test for the Wild. Now matter how the first couple months of the season go, the key will be this window in December and January. We've gotten used to a slump. We'll hold our breaths to see if they can prove us wrong and break out of this unfavorable pattern. It would be a small step forward if they can.

Even if they slump at another point in the season, which could happen, it might not be as bad if they can avoid history repeating itself. It may just be psychological, but I might feel a little better with a strong New Years winning streak, even if there's still a string of bad losses somewhere else on the schedule.

The goals
Before last season, I wrote about how the Wild needed to go deeper in the playoffs than losing out in the second round. That hasn't changed for this season. They need to win the second round.

Last year, they played so well when they needed to at the end of the season, just to get into the postseason, that I think they were worn out when they faced Chicago and were swept out of the second round. With essentially the same group coming back, the Wild should have their sights set on a deep run.

Easy for everyone to say. I mean, the end of last year surprised us, too. We didn't think the Wild would nearly hit rock bottom and then limp into the playoffs again. But they did. I'd really like to be hopeful and think that this team has moved past the point where they sneak into the top eight. Just shoot for the top-four in the still-tough Western Conference and save the fingernails of the fan base for once.

I'd like to see the Wild in the conference finals. Then again, in a conference so tight and competitive, they could just as easily falter under the pressure and missed the playoffs, too. But right now, I just want to watch some hockey.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Not enough at the end, but the Twins had a great 2015

It's over. The book has closed on the 2015 season for the Minnesota Twins. What a ride it was.

Coming into the last week of the season, the Twins had seven games left. Many thought they needed five or six wins to capture the second AL wild card spot, or even just to tie either the Astros or Angels. The Twins ended up with three wins, all in Cleveland and the last one was a comeback victory in the late innings.

Torii Hunter and the Twins addressing fans Sunday.

They came home still in it, ready for three final games against the AL Central Division Champion Kansas City Royals. The Twins were swept, with Friday's loss putting them two games back in the race and Saturday's loss mathematically eliminating them from playoff contention. They scored just one run in each of these three games and overall had trouble at the plate.

The hitting slump started in Cleveland. It was just a struggle to get any hits at all, let alone clutch hits or string together a nice rally. At the end of the season in the playoff hunt, that's a bad time to have the bats go cold.

The final countdown
Friday, the game was tied 1-1 in the 8th before Glen Perkins came in and gave up the lead. Perkins has admitted his second half this year was not a good one, after his stellar performance in the first half. But no matter how the opponent runs came across the plate last week, the Twins hitters didn't do enough. I mean, when Perk gave up those runs, the Twins had just two hits on the board. That's not going to get it done.

Meanwhile, the Angels and Astros (who eventually won the second wild card spot) both won this weekend. In fact, the Astros beat up on the Arizona Diamondbacks 21-5 Friday. That seems like a pretty good statement that their team is ready for a postseason run.

Glass half full, or glass half empty
Now, there are two ways to look at this season for the Twins. There are all the comments that the Twins exceeded expectations in 2015. They were supposed to lose another 90 games, not finish 83-79. They weren't supposed to be anywhere near a playoff race, so this season has just been all gravy, with extra mashed potatoes.

People don't want to beat up on the Twins for how their season ended, because look at all the positives and everything they accomplished. The steps forward. The great rookie performances.

These things are all true, and I'm not one to disagree with these comments. Who would have thought they'd still be in contention in game 161?

Things change, and that's OK
Still, that doesn't mean fans can't analyze how the Twins fell short of reaching the postseason. However it happened, the fact is they were in a position to contend for the playoffs. And even though expectations were very low at the start of the season, that doesn't mean expectations can't change either.

This was a team that rattled off 20 wins in the month of May, after all. It was the summer of resiliency for a team that would not quit and would not fade away. When races come down to the wire in a 162-game season, it's easy to magnify every game in September. Though it's also a good reminder of the cliche that every game counts. If you think a close 4-3 loss in April or a 12-0 blowout in June doesn't matter, it's simply not true. Every loss is still a loss.

But if you want to know what I'll point to when I think back to why the Twins didn't get it done, just look at their 4-6 second-to-last homestand in September. The Twins just didn't do enough. The Astros struggled during this week, too, so it would have been a good time to gain ground.

The Twins lost two of three to the abysmal Tigers. Then they lost three of four to the Angels, including blowing an early six-run lead and dropping a doubleheader. The homestand included two, 12-inning losses and a five-game losing streak. That stretch was not good enough for a team trying to make the playoffs, and it came back to haunt them.

All that aside, it really was a great season. I'm not as disappointed as I would be if they underachieved and missed the playoffs. Sure, of course it's always tough when your team's season ends, whenever that is, but there is so much to look forward to in 2016 and the years to come.

I'm excited to see where the Twins go from here.