Craig Leipold has owned the Minnesota Wild since 2008. Before that he owned another NHL franchise, the Nashville Predators.
“This is the best team I’ve had in 22 years of owning an NHL (club),” he told Sports Headliners. “It is the full package; very few weaknesses on this team. …It’s a special team and I think special things are going to happen.”
The Wild finished the regular season Friday night with a 53-22-7 record and second place in the Central Division. That’s the franchise’s best record ever. When Leipold owned the Predators they had best seasons of 51 and 49 wins.
The Wild open the playoffs at home Monday night against the St. Louis Blues. Even a casual Wild fan wonders whether this Minnesota team can make a deep playoff run and perhaps win the league’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup. That would be a first for the Wild franchise that started as an expansion franchise in the 2000-2001 season.
“It’s a fine line,” Leipold said. “It takes a lot of luck, let’s be honest. It takes a healthy team. It takes a hot goal tender. It takes very opportunistic goals at the right time. And we have the ability to do all of that.
“We don’t have many weaknesses—and our power play and penalty killing I guess would be the two. But five-on-five we’re in the top of the league. You play five-on-five for 80 to 90 percent of the game so I like our chances.
“The first round against the St. Louis Blues is going to be a really good series. If you’re a hockey fan, you’re going to want to watch these two teams play.”
A developing worry since Leipold spoke to Sports Headliners is Friday night’s injury to forward Marcus Foligno. He left the game against the Colorado Avalanche after being kneed in the first period. Part of a shutdown line, his potential absence in the playoffs would be a setback for Minnesota.
Leipold watched his team practice late last week and he saw energized players enjoying themselves, not a group worn down by the grind of the 82-game regular season. “You can tell, they’re just having a great time.”
Leipold hired general manager Bill Guerin in August of 2019. He has renovated the roster and installed former assistant coach Dean Evason as head coach. Guerin, who came from the Pittsburgh Penguins as assistant GM, has shown a discerning eye for both evaluating player talent and character.
Guerin has earned the owner’s trust and confidence in making moves like adding defenseman Dmitri Kulikov last summer. The 31-year-old veteran’s experience and skills were a welcome addition to the roster, and presumably, too, is the Russian’s fit in the locker room where he joined countryman Kirill Kaprizov, last season’s NHL Rookie of the Year.
“Billy knows he’s got the green light to do any of those kinds of deals,” Leipold said. “He doesn’t need my approval for that. He’ll just do that deal. …I was very happy to get a player like Kulikov on our team.”
There is something else about Guerin that impresses Leipold a lot and it’s the GM’s will to win. “He wants to win a Stanley Cup where he is the general manager. Where this is his team. …It’s great to have a GM and a leader in that department that is driven that way.”
Kaprizov led the team in regular season goals, assists and points. He is in the first season of a five-year deal. Kevin Fiala was second in goals and points, and the Wild face a salary cap crunch trying to re-sign the restricted free agent in the off season. “I can tell you when we look at players we want to sign next year, Kevin Fiala is on top of the list,” Leipold said.
The owner can’t be sure he and Guerin will be able to retain Fiala. “If we were unencumbered by a cap system, we would spend whatever it takes to get him. But we live in a salary cap world and Kevin has played himself into a very good contract for next year, and we’ll see where it goes.”
The Wild and other NHL teams went through the worst of financial times at the height of the pandemic when fans weren’t allowed to attend games. Now the Wild are playing before sellout crowds and that’s significant in the NHL where gate receipts are vital to the bottom line.
Leipold said all the home playoff games will be sellouts and his expectation is the same for the 2022-2023 season. “The fans are spectacular. They see in this team a special team as well.”
Anyone remember a Gopher player performing a song at halftime of a U spring football game? That’s what happened yesterday when sixth-year tight end Sam Pickerign sang on the field while a TV audience watched on the Big Ten Network.
Head coach P.J. Fleck also used his creativity showcasing wide receiver Michael Brown-Stephens who was targeted for numerous passes and also lined up in the backfield while his high school brother, Anthony Brown, watched from the sidelines. Brown is a four-star receiving prospect from Springfield, Ohio who has shown considerable interest in Minnesota.
Brown-Stephens was one of three spring game MVP’s along with defensive back Miles Fleming and kicker Matthew Trickett.
The maroon and gold defenses impressed in the intra-squad game, with defensive line redshirt freshman Austin Booker and Western Kentucky transfer cornerback Beanie Bishop among the standouts.
Byron Buxton apparently likes the month of April. Although the Twins center fielder missed some games with injuries, including yesterday, he played enough to lead the team in home runs and RBI (11). His six homers rank near the top among MLB leaders.
Buxton’s April a year ago was spectacular when he won the American League Player of the Month award. He hit .426, with eight home runs and 14 RBI. He scored 15 runs, with a .466 on-base percentage, an .897 slugging percentage and a 1.363 OPS. He set Twins records for March/April in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. His OPS broke a Twins record for any month, surpassing Joe Mauer’s 1.338.
Hall of Fame-bound Tony Oliva has signed a partnership agreement with Dan Stoltz and locally based SPIRE Credit Union. Oliva will appear in TV commercials and other promotions for SPIRE.
The baseball Gophers will host Nebraska next weekend for a three-game series at Siebert Field. On Saturday Minnesota will honor past teams including the 1960 Big Ten and NCAA championship team. The Gophers also won national titles in 1956 and 1964. No Big Ten baseball team has won the NCAA championship since 1966.
What will the Vikings do Thursday night in the first round of the NFL Draft?
Former Vikings GM Jeff Diamond offered advice in a Monday interview with Sports Headliners. “If they are wise, you don’t want to get locked into a certain position of need which we all know is a corner for them.”
Diamond, the NFL Executive of the Year in 1998 when the Vikings went 15-1, learned long ago that “especially in the first round” it’s not prudent to become overly focused on need at a particular position. Unless a team is after a quarterback, take the best player available, he said. Don’t pass on a great player and settle for a good one to fulfill a need.
Diamond, who learned that philosophy from Bud Grant, Jerry Reichow and Frank Gilliam from the Vikings, was president of the Titans after he left Minnesota. With both organizations he believed there are limited opportunities to select a player who was all but certain to become a Pro Bowl level talent. “We always felt there were eight to 10 blue chip players in every draft,” he said.
The Vikings have several needs going into this week’s three-day, seven-round draft. They could, for example, benefit from taking an edge rusher at No. 12. Sports Illustrated’s mock draft has Minnesota selecting Eden Prairie High School and Florida State alum Jermaine Johnson.
Diamond sees Johnson as a top four prospect among edge rushers in this year’s draft. “I think that he’s a guy that has got a lot of talent. I think he runs well and has good effort and all that.”
With the new Vikings’ 3-4 defensive scheme, and injury uncertain for veteran pass rushers Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith, the franchise could benefit from selecting an edge rusher in the first round and then choosing cornerbacks in the second and later rounds. Diamond suggests the club might follow that path and use the third round pick for a quarterback to compete with backup Kellen Mond (2021 draft).
Diamond describes it as “good strategy” to take a quarterback prospect in the third round. He doesn’t see the position as one of immediate need and rates veteran Kirk Cousins in the 10 to 15 range among NFL quarterbacks. With Cousins flanked by outstanding playmakers, and if the defense is upgraded, the Vikings can be a winner, Diamond said.
That’s not to say, though, the Vikings couldn’t improve their offense in the draft with a center, guard or tackle who is able to push existing starters or provide depth. With Tyler Conklin having been traded, and starter Irv Smith coming off a knee injury, Diamond sees the importance of adding a pass catching tight end in the later rounds.
Rounds four through seven may provide roster help at wide receiver, and multiple spots on defense including linebacker and safety. The Vikings are talented at wide receiver with their starters but adding a contributor in the draft can provide depth. “There’s a lot of talent at wide receiver this year (in the draft),” Diamond said.
This will be Kwesi Odofo-Mensah’s first draft as a general manager. Diamond’s guess is the Vikings won’t be wheeling-and-dealing during the draft and likely will retain most or all of their eight picks. He’s not an advocate of parting with your first round selection and not selecting a player until the second round.
“I am always apprehensive about trading out of the first round,” Diamond said. “A couple of occasions that we did it, it really didn’t pay off.”
This year eight franchises have multiple first round selections, meaning eight do not. Diamond can’t recall that circumstance before. The numbers could lead to trades involving both the 2022 or 2023 drafts.
Among the many players Diamond is following are former Gophers Boye Mafe and Daniel Faalele. Mafe has created unexpected offseason buzz as a potential elite edge rusher and has drawn late first round or second round speculation. Faalele, the 6-8, 384 pound offensive tackle, has prompted similar talk but Diamond said there is concern about the Australian native staying under 400 pounds.
Diamond is a senior consultant for the Minneapolis-based Institute for Athletes, an established agency representing players. He is involved with recruiting and is familiar with many prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft.
Diamond talking about the lengthy three-day draft: “To me the first couple rounds, (are) really fun to watch. Rounds four through seven a little tedious. And I kind of felt that way even as a GM and in the draft room because it gets so long and a little bit boring at times. …”
In Sports Illustrated’s mock draft top cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr., Ahmad Gardner and Trent McDuffie will be selected No. 7, 10 and 11 respectively. At No. 24 in the first round the prediction is the Cowboys will choose Mafe.
Rocco Baldelli, the 2019 American League Manager of the Year, is criticized for game strategy but a move paying off this spring is batting Byron Buxton lead-off where he can often have more plate appearances than hitting further down in the order. He was in position to win Sunday’s extra inning game against the White Sox and did so with a three-run home run that put the Twins in first place in the AL Central Division.
Inspiring to see 100-year-old former Gophers’ ticket manager Tom Swain and Vikings legend Bud Grant, who turns 95 next month, in attendance at the Twin Cities Dunker Fund Dinner at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Who will be the Wild’s starting goalie in the first game of the playoffs next week? There could be a goalie controversy in the postseason but the guess here is Cam Talbot gets the first start over Marc-Andre Fleury. Remember when the Wild made the 2003 Western Conference Finals using goalies Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez?
Wild home single game playoff tickets go on sale tomorrow at 2 p.m. via www.ticketmaster.com
The Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov, the NHL Rookie of the Year in 2021, turns 25 today.
Former Gopher footballer and ex-pro wrestling star Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell emailed about whether Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson will be a hero or heel in the WWE. “Dave, I’ve never met Gabe but because of his size and cockiness I believe he’ll be a natural heel or bad guy! If they decide to make him a baby-face, or good guy, he’ll be a Hulk Hogan type who’ll out wrestle his opponent. And when his opponent fouls Gabe, he’ll make a big comeback and pin him with some suplex for the cover! Who knows?”
As they so often do, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards led the Timberwolves in scoring last night, but there were other heroes, too, in Minnesota’s 119-118 playoff win over the Grizzlies at Target Center.
After the drama that evened the series at 2-2, guard Patrick Beverley gushed about the electric crowd who backed the team after a dreadful Game 3 loss Thursday evening when the Wolves blew a 26-point lead and lost 104-95. Talking to the Target Center crowd and the Bally Sports North TV audience, Beverley said the fans were the “reason we won this game.”
Coach Chris Finch praised the atmosphere and energy in the building while answering questions at his postgame presser. “It’s awesome. I’d like to play all my games at 9 o’clock, with a Twins game to get everybody warmed up.
“There’s been a great crowd all year. It’s been growing and growing and growing. It’s always been a tough place to play because the crowd is right on top of you here. …They were loud and our guys really responded well to it.”
Toward the end of Thursday night’s game at Target Center there were boos for the hometown team after the crowd had roared its approval for most of four quarters. Saturday night the fan base hadn’t forgotten the Thursday meltdown but was hopeful because of a season that has been a breakthrough for the franchise. Wolves Nation came alive this year as the team won 46 regular season games and made the playoffs for only the second time since 2004.
Target Center sellouts (19,832 last night) and crazed fans create positive vibes including for future owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez. Rumors of eventually relocating the franchise to another city are associated with their names. They have made it clear Target Center needs to be replaced with a new Wolves home in Minnesota but for now the support of the fans and their passion for this team has to influence Lore and Rodriguez who are buying majority control of the franchise from Glen Taylor.
Heroes among the Wolves’ players? Start where you want but Beverley deserves to have his name mentioned again. With 17 points, he was the team’s third leading scorer behind Towns’ 33 and Edwards’ 24. Just as noticeable was how the feisty guard dogged the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant, holding the regular season 27.4 points per game scorer to 11 points on four of 13 shooting.
It wasn’t just Beverley defending Morant, as the Wolves took a team approach to frustrating the All-Star point guard who had his fourth foul early in the third quarter and spent more than 14 minutes on the bench last night. Finch said the Grizzlies go “as Ja goes, and we did a good job of putting our body in his way.”
The most unlikely of heroes before the game was reserve guard Jordan McLaughlin who couldn’t be sure he would see any playing time. But he couldn’t have made more of his 14 minutes, making five of six shots including four-of-four three pointers. His 16 points was fourth best on the Wolves.
The winning team in the series each game has been the club with the most rebounds. Last night the Wolves not only had the most boards but held the Grizzlies to six offensive rebounds while limiting second chance points by Memphis.
Forward Jared Vanderbilt had eight rebounds, second for the Wolves behind Towns’ 14. Vanderbilt doesn’t concern opponents with his shooting but his physical style and hustle are intangibles Finch values. “We’re just a better team when he is out there,” Finch said.
The game Saturday night had all kinds of drama, including protestors who were quickly removed by security personnel. Of more interest to fans was seeing Edwards limping off the court about midway through the first quarter with an apparent knee injury. He headed for the locker room but by 3:41 in the quarter was back in the game.
Neither injury nor defenders have much success in slowing the gifted 20-year-old guard who has referred to himself as “Black Jesus.” He scored 20-plus points for the third time in the series and has been the most consistent performer of the team’s Big Three that includes Towns and guard D’Angelo Russell.
Edwards and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry (2013) are the only players in NBA postseason history to total four-plus three point field goals in their first four career playoff games. Edwards has 99 points through four those games and that’s more than any other Wolves player starting his playoff career.
It was “Ant” who made two free throws with eight seconds remaining in the game to put the Wolves ahead 117-112. Fittingly, Towns made two free throws seconds later to give Minnesota its final points in the narrow win.
The Wolves received 15 more free throw attempts than Memphis. Towns had a career playoff high converting 14 of 17 free throws. He scored 13 of his career playoff high 33 points in the fourth quarter. With his double-double in points and rebounds, KAT was the biggest of heroes last night.
In Beverley’s postgame TV comments, he quipped about his $31.6 million teammate. “We pay him all that money. We expect him to do that.”
For all the heroics and celebration last night, the game was close and not decided until the closing seconds. And in the four games so far there is this warning for Wolves’ fans: Memphis has outscored Minnesota by 22 points.
Tuesday night in Memphis one team will move ahead in the series but for now Wolves’ fans have satisfaction in knowing there will be a series Game 6 in Minneapolis Friday evening.