Our periodic look-in on Minnesota's four favorite professional sports teams. Let's go in alphabetical order today, with the Timberwolves leading things off:
• You'd like to think that team owner Glen Taylor would conduct an actual search for a permanent head coach, but don't bet on it. Taylor oozes sentimentality and he's a "family" guy, and interim head coach Ryan Saunders is the late Flip Saunders kid, so he's family. While he still can't get his team to play defense consistently, the players love Saunders and they seem to respond to him. He willed some wins out of a roster that a fan earlier in the season would barely recognize.
For a little while after Jimmy Butler was traded to the 76ers, this team tantalized. Next to Karl Anthony Towns, Robert Covington soon became the most important player on the squad and the team was playing better defense and winning more than it lost. When Covington was lost for the season with a deep bone bruise, any hope for squeaking into the playoffs was essentially dashed.
But it's that period of time after the trade that the Wolves seemed to show us on the court what they could be.
The fear is that they're wasting Towns' talents. He stuffs the stat sheet a nightly basis, and for what? Yes, he signed a max extension so he’s here for at least five more seasons, but this team needs to be a playoff regular.
Will Andrew Wiggins be a part of that? That's the $148 million question. He signed a max deal, too, and, so far at least, doesn't look like a worthy investment. You can bet he'll be back and he'll dazzle one game and befuddle the next three. You can demand that the team trade him, but what kind of return are you going to get?
• For the second offseason in a row, the Twins brass signed some interesting ree agents to reasonable, short deals. Some, like second baseman Jonathan Scoop, were looking to rebound from a down season, while others, like C.J. Cron, seemed underappreciated by their previous teams.
I told a Twins fan who knows a bit more about baseball than I do that I was encouraged by the signings, and he wasted no time throwing last year's mostly disastrous offseason signings in my face. Logan Morrison, he said. Lance Lynn. True, I said. But Scoop can play. Cron can play. Nelson Cruz still has it, and seems to already be the leader-by-example in the clubhouse. Marwyn Gonzalez does many things well. And, I added, let's not forget one of last year's signings, pitcher Michael Pineda, is rehabbed from his Tommy John surgery and is throwing some nasty stuff.
The lineup, even without rehabbing Miguel Sano for a couple more weeks or so, is solid from top to bottom. There are no easy outs. They can hit the ball over the fence, and they hit a lot of doubles. Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Pineda and Kyle Gibson provide four solid starting pitcher options. If there’s a worry, it’s the shallow bullpen.
This team could win the AL Central this season. The Indians’ starting pitching staff is elite, but their bats aren’t.
• On a positive note, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau will be back behind the Wild bench for the final year of his contract next year. The team’s struggles are not his fault. He is a proven coach.
On a negative note, Minnesota’s NHL team continues to confound like no other. I did a little research and randomly read typical game stories from other NHL teams’ hometown sports pages, and while there is no shortage of cliche-ridden quotes about nights that teams performed well or not so well, it doesn’t come close to comparing to the number of games in which the Wild stink up the ice, and afterward in the locker room players say things like they were flat and they don’t know why, or that they just “didn’t have it” that night and they “just didn’t skate.”
It’s like there’s a toxin somewhere in the locker room that is released on a whim, causing the team to play poorly and give minimal effort for inexplicable reasons and without warning.
New general manager Paul Fenton has some salary cap room this summer, a luxury the team’s brass hasn’t enjoyed for years. Will splash moves be made, or will the team’s leadership finally admit that this isn’t a tweak or a retool, it’s a rebuild.
The biggest playmaker in the organization, Kirill Kaprizov, is still in Russia and a year away from joining the Wild.
Fenton this season traded so-called “core” players Nino Niederteiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund and got a couple promising young skaters, Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala in return. At least they like to shoot.
The biggest addition over the summer will probably be defenseman Matt Dumba’s return to the ice. He ripped his pectoral muscle during a stupid fight early in the season, when he was playing at an elite level. The team was a shadow of itself without him.
• Will the Vikings select an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft later this month? They should, but don’t bet on it. General Manager Rick Spielman is a big believer in the “draft the best player” mentality, regardless of the team’s top positional needs.
The team’s offseason approach seems to be that the right coaches will make the leaky offensive line better. New hires Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison will supposedly be able to get more out of these guys than previous coaches. It’s an interesting angle, but a scary one. We all saw last season what quarterback Kirk Cousins can do with a reasonably clean pocket, but near the end of the season when he was hurried more than any other NFL passer, his happy feet in the continously collapsing pocket were obvious.
The defense should keep the team in almost every game, and as long as they surprisingly signed linebacker Anthony Barr to a new contract, how about unleashing him on opposing quarterbacks more than a couple times a game? He’s really good at rushing the passer and sacking the passer. Why do critics say Barr is known to “disappear” in games too much? Because he’s not allowed to showcase his elite skills often enough.