Give credit to Spielman for going off-script by being predictable

treadwellShortly before the Vikings made the 23rd pick in the first round of the draft Thursday, KFAN radio host and Vikings play-by-play announcer Paul Allen queried the crowd in attendance at the team’s draft party at the Minneapolis Convention Center. He first asked how many of them wanted the Vikings to choose UCLA linebacker Myles Jack. The applause was noticeable but not overwhelming. Then he asked if they wanted the Vikings to take Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell. The sound was a roar — a full 80 percent of the thousands in attendance, I would guess.

And a few minutes later, when Treadwell was announced as the pick, the roar grew even louder.

The point of this: by the time the Vikings picked at No. 23, Treadwell was the obvious choice for both value and need. He was the popular choice with fans because he plays an exciting position.

But he wasn’t necessarily the kind of choice Vikings GM Rick Spielman has made in recent years.

Spielman often has eschewed the obvious by trading up, down and all around the first round (as well as subsequent rounds). Between 2012 and 2015, he made 13 trades during the draft, some to accumulate his coveted 10 total picks and some to add extra first-round picks — blue chip talents who also have that fifth-year contract option he clearly covets.

The wheeling and dealing has generally been positive. The results of the players he has chosen has been more of a mixed bag, though there is plenty on the good side when you consider the Vikings are coming off an 11-win season with a young roster that is the envy of plenty of organizations.

Last night, Spielman — based on his history — surely was tempted to deal that No. 23 pick to another team starved for a wide receiver or some other coveted player. But in speaking with reporters after the pick was made, the Vikings GM laid out his reasons for going off-script by being predictable.

“I had four teams call, but we didn’t think the value that they were offering at our pick was worth trading back or trading down,” he said. “If I thought there was some value, it would have to be pretty rich to pass up a player like Treadwell.”

Again, that might sound somewhat basic and obvious. But still: kudos to Spielman for recognizing there is a time to deal and there is a time to be patient and take a player who can help in both the near-term and long-term.

The Vikings are a team with deep playoff aspirations and plenty of free agents set to play in 2016. Now is not the time to get cute or risk quality for the sake of quantity. That’s not to say Spielman couldn’t get both sometime during the next two days of the draft. But with the way round 1 played out, the Vikings handled it exactly as they should have.

An important draft leading into a critical 2016 season for the Vikings

gerhartThe last time the Vikings won the division prior to 2015 was 2009. In the draft following that season, in late April 2010, the Vikings acted like a team that already had plenty of good players on their roster and didn’t need much immediate help.

They traded out of the first round, chose cornerback Chris Cook with the second-round pick acquired in the deal, and later traded back into the second round to take running back Toby Gerhart — even though they already had an in-his-absolute-prime Adrian Peterson. The most productive player ended up being fourth-round pick Everson Griffen, who really didn’t do much until 2012 and didn’t become a major impact player until 2014.

The Vikings cannot afford to hold a similar opinion or strategy about this year’s draft. Because while the 2009 and 2015 Vikings are quite different — the first being a veteran bunch built to win now, the second being a team with a longer shelf life — the current Vikings 1) have plenty of holes to fill and 2) will soon start to feel the intensified burden of expectations in ways this franchise hasn’t felt since 2010.

If you don’t believe that second part or recognize what that burden can do — particularly with an imperfect roster plan — look at the slow start from the 7-15 Twins or the disappointing drop-off from this year’s Wild … or look at the 2009 to 2010 Vikings, who went from the cusp of the Super Bowl to a six-win mess with almost all the same players.

So yes, this is a Vikings team loaded with young talent and promise already. But the work cannot be finished. This organization cannot even hit the pause button. This is a very important draft leading into a critical season.

This is the year the Vikings find out, once and for all, which offensive linemen they want to keep and which they plan to move on from. The vast majority of the important linemen are either easily cuttable, in the final year of their deals, or both. New line coach Tony Sparano will be tasked with getting more out of them, while free agency at least added some talent and depth. But more needs to come from this draft. Not necessarily from the first round, but certainly by the third round.

If they are able to at least turn their offensive line into an adequate unit, this will be the year the Vikings find out a whole lot, too, about third-year QB Teddy Bridgewater. It feels like analysts and fans have graded his first two years all over the curve, but his true grade is incomplete. He hasn’t been given many of the tools to succeed. He’s succeeded in some ways in spite of that and failed on his own in others. But he needs, and will get, more help.

Part of that will most certainly come in the form of a wide receiver. I would be flabbergasted if the Vikings don’t take a big wideout with their No. 23 pick, unless Laquon Treadwell, Josh Doctson and Michael Thomas are all gone when they choose. Particularly if either of the first two are there, this seems like a no-brainer — and a need so strong that a trade up a few spots, with a coveted wideout in their sights, would not be out of line.

This is the year the Vikings will likely begin the transition from an Adrian Peterson-focused offense to a Bridgewater-focused offense. This transition seemed set to begin in 2015, and it really didn’t . It will be incumbent on Peterson and a slew of offensive coaches to figure out how to use everyone’s talents.

As Matt Vensel laid out today, you could make a case for the Vikings choosing a player from any number of positions in the first round. That underscores the vulnerabilities that still exist on the roster and the importance of rounds 2-7 Friday and Saturday.

In the NFL, if you think you’re good you’re quite possibly going to be proven wrong. And if you aren’t moving forward fast enough, you’re going to get passed. The Vikings are built for the long haul, but that’s still within the context of a brutally small window of opportunity in this league.

If the Vikings botch this draft, like they did in large part in 2010, the results will be felt both immediately and in the long-term.

If they nail it, everyone has permission to think big inside that fancy new stadium.

Twins’ 2016 bullpen woes continue to mount

johnryanmurphyThe 2015 Twins were spoiled, in the first half of the season, by two fairly significant (and linked) bullpen events.

First, closer Glen Perkins was nearly unhittable before the All-Star break, posting a 1.21 ERA and going 28 for 28 in save opportunities.

Perkins’ dominance was part of an outlier month of May for Twins relievers, who posted a 3.40 ERA that month while the team won 20 games and vaulted to the American League’s best record after a dreadful first week in April. The Twins’ bullpen ERA in every other month last season ranged from nearly half a run to a full run higher than it did in May.

Perkins was beset by injuries and ineffectiveness (the two were linked, too) in the second half, but Kevin Jepsen (and a host of others) picked up much of the slack. The hope going into 2016 on the part of the Twins was that A) Perkins would be healthy and regain his form and B) Jepsen’s two months of work in 2015 (ERA: 1.61) would carry over to a similar performance this season instead of him being more similar to his career numbers (ERA: 3.64).

And, well, the Twins are paying for their optimism in critical situations. Their bullpen looked an arm short even before Perkins went on the disabled list. Compounding matters is the rough first 21 games for Jepsen.

He has three blown saves and three losses already in 10 appearances. Included in the blown save category was Tuesday night’s game in which he gave up the tying home run on a high fastball with two outs in the ninth. This time, the Twins bailed him out with Miguel Sano’s game-winning hit in the bottom half.

The interesting thing is, the Twins’ overall bullpen ERA of 3.18 is better than average (11th in MLB). Some of the perceived problems have mounted because relievers have been pitching late in games with little margin for error. The Twins have played 21 games this season, and 10 of them have been decided in the game’s final at-bat (Minnesota is 5-5 in such games).

That suggests the overall sentiment about the bullpen could change if the Twins start handing relievers leads of larger than a run or two.

For now, though, the late-game woes from the ‘pen — fair or not — really stand out.

Spielman predraft: Of smokescreens and wide receivers

vikingsdraftsmokescreenVikings General Manager Rick Spielman held his annual predraft news conference Tuesday afternoon at Winter Park. It’s a useful enough event, and I believe Spielman attempts to answer all the questions to the best of his ability.

But it’s also annually an event — keep in mind, this is two days before the start of the draft — in which it is in the opposite of Spielman’s best interest to give away any real information. He achieves this not via misinformation but by crafting answers that make it hard to zero in on any one thing. In short, he wants to create more and varied information, just in case his words wind up in the hands of 31 other NFL teams.

As such, we found out:

*Two teams have called the Vikings just today, inquiring about making a deal for the No. 23 pick. So if you’re reading out there, the Vikings might make a trade.

*I asked Spielman if there is a single position the Vikings absolutely would not choose in rounds 1-7, the complete draft. He said no, there are no positions off the table — including punter and kicker. You could choose to read that as Blair Walsh and/or Jeff Locke, who both struggled in some capacity last year, have been put on notice. I choose to read it as Spielman not wanting anyone to cross a single player off his board.

*When asked if coming off an 11-5 season makes it more tempting to choose players based on need rather than long-term planning, Spielman again wouldn’t bite. The Vikings, he reiterated, just want to take the best football player.

So if the goal was to leave the podium 20 minutes after he started talking without giving away much information of value, Spielman succeeded. This particular year, though, nobody should worry too much about it — at least when it comes to the first round.

The Vikings sure appear headed toward that wonderful convergence of immediate need, long-term need, the right players available and the right value for the pick in the first round when it comes to wide receivers. They might value one over another, but there are a bunch of impact guys slotted in the general area of their pick. In particular if bigger wideouts Laquon Treadwell or Josh Doctson is available at No. 23 (and none of those callers has persuaded Trader Rick to part with the pick), this should be a no-brainer.

He tried to dissuade us from that notion, saying Tuesday the Vikings have not “honed in on a receiver in the first round. We’ll look at the best potential player, regardless of position.”

But let’s be honest, go get some rest and wait until 9 p.m. (or so) Thursday rolls around.

Wild head coach candidates: a closer look

carlyleThe Star Tribune’s Michael Russo outlined several key issues facing the Wild this offseason in a great piece today. Of particular note to me, though, is the impending coaching search. This is the most important decision the Wild will make this season because the roster figures to be pretty similar (again) to what it was last year. It will be up to a new coach to get more consistency and production out of the same group of players.

Russo tossed out several names of potential candidates and divided them into categories. I won’t pretend to attempt to add to this list, but let’s work through those names a bit in an attempt to guess what direction the Wild will and/or should go.

PROVEN RETREADS

Randy Carlyle: The 60-year-old won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007 and would bring a strong voice to the locker room. His all-time coaching record of 364-260-80 in more than 700 career regular-season games suggests he is a solid choice. On the other hand, Carlyle has also been fired twice (by Anaheim and Toronto), and his teams have tended to play better earlier in his tenure than later. For a Wild team that will be trying to win in the short-term, though, he could be a good fit — with the organization willing to live with the potential for future regression.

Marc Crawford: Had a great first run as head coach, winning the 1996 Stanley Cup with the Avalanche. But that was 20 years ago, and his last three coaching stops have been far less successful. With Vancouver, he didn’t make it past the second round of the playoffs in six full seasons. With the Kings and Stars, he missed the playoffs all four combined seasons (two with each team). More recently he’s had success coaching in Switzerland, but he hasn’t been an NHL head coach in five years.

MIDDLE TIER

Paul MacLean: Coached Ottawa for parts of four seasons, making the playoffs twice before getting fired during his fourth year in 2014-15.

Guy Boucher: Took Tampa bay to the Eastern Conference finals in his first season (2010-11), but the Lightning slipped from 103 to 84 points in his second year, and he was fired early during his third season. Wikipedia says he has a Master’s Degree in sports psychology, which might be an interesting thing in the Wild locker room.

Kevin Dineen: Similarly, Dineen made the playoffs with Florida his first year (2011-12), had a swift regression the next year and was fired early in his third year.

Kirk Muller: Missed the playoffs all three seasons with Carolina.

UP-AND-COMERS

Travis Green: Has compiled an impressive minor league record but has no NHL experience, even as an assistant.

Phil Housley: Minnesota native who coached Team USA to the World Junior Championship in 2013 and is a well-regarded Nashville assistant but again has limited experience.

Luke Richardson: Another coach with a good minor league track record in the Ottawa organization. He’s been a head coach with their affiliate since 2012-13, and he turned down an assistant position with the Senators to remain in that role.

THE INTERIM

John Torchetti: A career grinder whose only NHL head coach chances have come in an interim role, Torchetti is a character who came in and did a credible job to at least get the Wild to the postseason.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

As Russo noted, this isn’t an overwhelming list of candidates in terms of strength, though one has to imagine the Wild would be able to land pretty much anyone from this list.

I’d consider Torchetti a long shot. The team needs an overhaul, and even though he did a decent job this season it feels as though the Wild needs to go bigger with this hire than the status quo. The middle tier doesn’t excite me, with the possible exception of Boucher.

GM Chuck Fletcher has tried two up-and-comers already for his two full-time hires (Todd Richards and Mike Yeo), and they have produced mixed results. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t do it again. One has to imagine that if this coaching hire fails to produce results, Fletcher will be out of a job, too. So he can feel free, in a sense, to pick the best candidate possible instead of feeling like he needs to go against the grain of what he previously did.

That said, this also seems to be a team in need of a strong locker room presence — a veteran coach that commands respect. Given what we know about the Wild, it would be awfully risky to give the job to someone who hasn’t proven he can deal with NHL egos. In that sense, a retread with a track record in the NHL might actually be the best fit for this team.

Carlyle would seem to be the most attractive of this kind of candidate, at least among those available now. His message might wear thin after 2-3 years, but that’s the Wild’s window to be competitive as currently constructed.

Twins will use Prince songs as walk-up music; Mauer goes with “7”

The Wild had a pregame tribute and moment of silence for Prince on Sunday. Minnesota United had a “moment of applause” for him before their game Saturday.

And just like many other teams around the state (and country), the Twins are planning to honor Prince. They have a host of things scheduled Monday during their first home game since the singer’s death.

Per a news release from the team:

As a tribute to the late Minnesota icon, the Twins will hold a moment of silence during the pregame ceremony, play Prince music throughout the game and infuse the graphics with Prince’s signature color: purple. In addition, Prince’s tour DJ Dudley D will play music pregame. Fans are encouraged to wear purple in remembrance of this Minnesota icon.

Twins PR maven Dustin Morse updated that with a tweet this afternoon stating that all players will use Prince songs as walk-up music tonight. Joe Mauer, appropriately enough, will go with “7.”

The current forecast looks a little dicey, though by this evening things look a little better. We’ll see if the Twins — coming off an ugly 1-4 road trip punctuated by a rough 16-inning loss at Washington on Sunday — can ride any of Prince’s energy tonight.

After its Prince tribute, Minnesota United defeated the New York Cosmos for the first time. And the Wild, using “Let’s Go Crazy” as its goal song, played it four times during a frantic third-period rally that came up just short Sunday in front of a raucous Xcel Energy Center crowd.

Wild postgame: This team’s biggest problem is … ?

This year’s Wild team could be summed up almost perfectly by Sunday’s 5-4 loss, with a lifeless 40 minutes to spot Dallas a four-goal lead in an elimination game at home, and then a frantic final surge that came within a half-inch or so of sending the game to overtime.

This team made you sorry you turned the TV on and just as sorry you turned it off.

What we shouldn’t lose sight of, though, is this: this is an organization with a lot of flaws right now; the problems were there when the score was 4-0 and they were still there at 5-4. When I asked observers on Twitter what the single biggest problem facing this franchise is, the answers were so varied that a consensus is impossible.

Among them: they’ve overvalued their young players, signed free agents whose play is a notch below their pay grade, and the mix of the two has left them a level below elite teams while hard-pressed to improve because of salary cap woes. You could attribute that to general manager Chuck Fletcher.

They lack a pure goal scorer, and in this series against Dallas two of their closest approximations and two of their biggest free-agent splurges — Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek — were injured.

Beyond that, responses correctly delved into harder to define areas of mental toughness, leadership, the inability to have a sense of urgency until pressed and inconsistency.

If you’ve concluded that it’s impossible to pick just one thing, you’re not alone.

Veteran defenseman Ryan Suter and interim coach John Torchetti first pointed to inconsistency as the team’s main problem when asked Sunday. Looking at all the team’s losing and winning streaks this season — and the way the Wild can go from on fire at the end of Game 5 to sleep-skating to start Game 6 to electric at the end — this makes sense.

The problem with labeling a problem “inconsistency” is that it’s sort of a blanket that covers almost all of the other things mentioned above. Torchetti, to his credit, circled back on the answer and pointed to mental toughness as a major component of that inconsistency.

“When you’re being pushed, you’ve gotta want to be pushed,” Torchetti said. “You’ve gotta want to do it for each other.”

If mental toughness is, indeed, the biggest problem then an impending decision on a permanent head coach will be the most important decision the Wild can make this offseason. A coach, over the long-term, can make a difference in that area.

If inconsistency turns out to be nothing more than a nice way of saying the Wild just doesn’t have the right mix or talent level to compete with the best teams, then the past four years are going to be about as good as it gets. Making the postseason, maybe winning a series and at least throwing a scare into a better team is nothing to apologize for, but it’s not the stuff of parade routes.

In the smaller picture, it was good that a crowd of 19,310 — the largest at the X this season — saw Sunday’s game. The Wild might want to believe the final 20 minutes defines how it can play, but the full 60 defined this season.

Wild Game 6: Prince tribute, questionable penalty, Dallas up 4-0

princetributeI detected some strange annoyance among some Wild fans when Minnesota rallied to win Game 5 and force Sunday’s Game 6. Almost like, “Really? We’re still doing this?”

Whatever perceived annoyance was wiped away by puck drop today, though, as Wild fans in the X were completely jacked for Game 6 against the Stars, with the Wild trailing 3-2 in the series and again facing elimination. A nice pregame tribute to Minnesota music legend Prince — this was the first home game since his stunning death Thursday — contributed to the mood.

And then … fans DEFINITELY became annoyed by an early penalty call against Charlie Coyle, who was sent off for elbowing even though it appeared Dallas defenseman Jason Demers used an elevated Coyle elbow as an excuse to dive — or at least embellish — on the play. Marco Scandella took a high sticking penalty shortly thereafter, and the Stars’ John Klingberg cashed in with a blistering one-timer on the 5-on-3 power play at 5:56.

Jason Spezza tacked on a rebound goal a little more than three minutes later to put Dallas up 2-0, and Patrick Sharp delivered a gut punch with by beating Devan Dubnyk high blocker side on a 2-on-1 with less than two minutes left in the first period for a 3-0 lead at the break. The Stars hold a 13-6 advantage in shots on goal. Fans booed as the teams left the ice — and did again at the end of two periods with Dallas ahead 4-0.

Of note: Dallas went back to Kari Lehtonen in goal after Antti Niemi gave up five goals in Game 5. Lehtonen started the first three games of the series before giving way to Niemi for the next two.

The Wild dressed the same 20 players it did in Game 5, with Jordan Schroeder and Jarret Stoll sticking in the lineup.

Terry Steinbach’s son hits grand slam that breaks his dad’s car window

steinbachFile this under: truth is stranger than fiction.

Former Gophers and Twins catcher Terry Steinbach has a son, Jake, who plays baseball for St. Thomas. He has served in a utility role this season and came up to bat for the first time this season on Saturday with the Tommies ahead 17-3. The bases were loaded. He took two called strikes and then … as Gene McGivern from St. Thomas explains, the magic happened.

Steinbach lifted a fly ball to deep right field. The wind normally blows in at St. Thomas, but on this day it was blowing out. The fly ball carried all the way over the fence for a grand slam — perfect, since his parents, Terry and Mary, were out in that part of the ballpark and got to witness it.

Well, almost perfect. The ball carried so far and at such an angle that it smashed the window of a nearby parked car. And it wasn’t just any parked car.

It was Terry Steinbach’s car.

At least it was easy to retrieve the home run ball.

We were going to go out to eat after the game, and I noticed the ball was sitting in the back seat.” Jake Steinbach said. “My dad had to drive to a gas station that had a vacuum because there was broken glass everywhere. It’s a good thing it was a warmer April day, as my parents had to drive home 30 miles with the window broken out.”

You can read more about the tale here.

For kid in need of a glove, Twins’ O’Rourke saves the day

thumbsupdownThe Bailey family lives in Marshall, a Minnesota town about three hours southwest of Minneapolis. But even with that great distance to travel, they are no strangers to Target Field.

Cam, the father, estimates he’s been to almost 50 games at Target Field since it opened — often kids in tow. There are four of them now, all 7 or under. The oldest, Trae, is developing a love for baseball. When he was selected as a contest winner this past Sunday, getting free tickets and the chance to be on the field before the Twins played Angels, the Baileys packed up the whole clan.

It happened to be a giveaway day — Brian Dozier kids’ gloves to the first 5,000 fans 14 and under.

Pretty cool, right?

Yes, but in the family’s haste to get inside they neglected one detail: all of the gloves they were given upon entrance were for right-handed throwers. It wasn’t until the middle of the game — when Cam asked Trae, a lefty, to put on the glove — that they realized it was for the wrong hand.

A lot of people might have shrugged and said, “Oh well.” Cam Bailey decided to try one long shot idea instead: He took a picture of Trae holding the glove and giving a thumbs-down sign and tweeted it with an explanation of the mishap at the three lefties who were on the Twins’ roster at the time: Glen Perkins, Taylor Rogers and Ryan O’Rourke.

Bailey has interacted with Twins players on Twitter before, to the point that Trevor Plouffe sent the family tickets for a game last year. Still, he didn’t figure on getting a response. But the same day, O’Rourke tweeted back at him: “I have an extra lefty one. Come tomorrow and it’s yours !!! Making another three-hour trip to Minneapolis wasn’t in the cards, so O’Rourke took the extra step of having the glove shipped to Marshall — along with a personal message to Trae and an autograph on the glove. “How cool is that?” Bailey said Thursday. “For a Major League Baseball player to respond to you is great.” It adds to a growing collection of Twins autographs and bobbleheads that Cam Bailey has amassed over the years. He used to say it was his collection, but Trae corrects him now: it’s their collection. And the thumbs down went to a thumbs up in a hurry.