Wild’s problem is simple: Too much talent out, not enough back in

An influx of youth and veteran talent arrived on the Wild during the labor-shortened 2012-13 season. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed identical 13-year deals over July 4 holiday. Jason Pominville was acquired during the season in a trade.

Defenseman Jonas Brodin debuted as a 19-year-old rookie that year. Forwards Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund also made their NHL debuts, while Jason Zucker got a longer look than the six games he had played the year before.

The Wild reached the postseason after missing the playoffs four years in a row.

The talent influx continued the next year. Nino Niederreiter, 21 at the time, arrived via trade. Marco Scandella became a regular on defense. Erik Haula played key minutes as a forward. The following season Matt Dumba and Thomas Vanek arrived and goalie Devan Dubnyk helped save the season when he arrived as a midseason trade. That was 2014-15, the third consecutive year the Wild made the playoffs.

Since then? Well, Eric Staal gave the Wild a nice lift last year, scoring 28 goals as a veteran upgrade over Vanek. He helped the Wild overachieve last year in reaching the playoffs for the fifth straight year before  a disappointing playoff loss to St. Louis.

But now Pominville is gone — traded away along with Scandella this past offseason as his decreased production and high cost pinched the Wild. Parise has dealt with injury woes that have kept him out this entire season and limited his effectiveness last year. Haula was lost to expansion. He has seven goals for Vegas this year, while Pominville has six for Buffalo.

Brodin, Dumba, Suter, Coyle, Granlund, Zucker, Niederreiter and Dubnyk are still here and are part of the core of this year’s Wild.

This year’s team is struggling at 11-10-3, having allowed 30 goals in its past seven games. The struggles were enough that GM Chuck Fletcher addressed the media Wednesday.

Our Joe Christensen reported this quote from Fletcher’s session regarding the decisions the team faced this past offseason as it faced salary constraints: “We built the team a certain way, and we did whatever we could, to be honest with you, to keep [Mikael] Granlund and [Nino] Niederreiter and not be forced to lose [Eric] Staal and [Jason] Zucker and keep four [defensemen]. So this is what we wanted, and if it doesn’t work, you can blame that. But I think we kept the right guys.”

That might be true. The real problem, though, is the lack of a recent talent influx. Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis, the players who came back in the Buffalo trade, have been OK but haven’t given the Wild what Scandella and Pominville did in previous years. Haula was a sneaky loss, leaving a hole 41-year-old Matt Cullen hasn’t been able to consistently fill.

And truthfully it’s been a while since a Wild prospect turned into a bona fide top-9 forward or top-6 defenseman to replace other fringe roster players.

Joel Eriksson Ek and/or Luke Kunin might be those forwards, but both were sent to the minors in Iowa last week after failing to completely seize opportunities here. Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson will be given every chance to be those defensemen after the Wild waived Kyle Quincey on Wednesday. But there’s no guarantee they will succeed.

As Fletcher said Wednesday, this is the team the Wild wanted – or at least the team it wanted based on the constraints it faced. But there’s a real talent deficit right now, and as a result a team that thought it was a Stanley Cup contender is back to scrambling to get back into playoff position.

Ranked: The 10 best seasons by backup QBs in Vikings history

As an organization, the Vikings are known for fearsome defenses and losing four Super Bowls.

A sneaky thing that is also part of their organizational lore: Seasons saved by backup quarterbacks. As such, here is a ranking of the best performances by backup quarterbacks in Vikings history, going from 10 down to 1:

10) Bob Lee, 1970: Lee went 2-0 in his two starts as a backup that season for the Vikings, who finished 12-2 but lost to San Francisco in the playoff opener. Lee went 9-2 in his 11 starts for the Vikings over the years and was also their full-time punter for two seasons.

9) Sean Salisbury, 1992: He took over for Rich Gannon down the stretch and went 3-1 as a starter, though he loses points for putting up a clunker as the playoff starter that year in a 24-7 loss to Washington.

8) Rich Gannon, 1991: Wade Wilson was the starter at the beginning of the year, but the Vikings lost three of their first five games — scoring six points or fewer in all three losses. Gannon started 11 games, going 6-5 while throwing 12 TD passes to just six INTs.

7) Gus Frerotte, 2008: The Vikings turned to Frerotte after an 0-2 start to the season by Tarvaris Jackson, and while his numbers weren’t great (12 TDs, 15 INTs) he played well enough to earn an 8-3 record as a starter that year. Jackson reclaimed the job late in the season and the Vikings finished 10-6, losing to the Eagles in the playoffs.

6) Brad Johnson, 1996: Warren Moon started eight games that year. Johnson did, too. The Vikings were 5-3 in Johnson’s games, and he threw 17 TD passes to just nine interceptions — much better numbers than Moon had that year. He helped the Vikings squeak into the playoffs at 9-7, where they were demolished by Dallas.

5) Brad Johnson, 2005: The only man to make this list twice, Johnson took over after Daunte Culpepper’s knee injury — when the Vikings were 2-5 — and somehow went 7-2 as a starter and kept the Vikings in contention until they ultimately missed the playoffs at 9-7.

4) Wade Wilson, 1987: Tommy Kramer was the starter going into the year, but injuries caught up to him. Wilson went 5-2 as a starter during the regular season and engineered two huge playoff upsets over New Orleans and San Francisco before falling to Washington in the NFC title game.

3) Jeff George, 1999: Randall Cunningham’s 1998 magic wore off quickly in 1999, so it was George to the rescue. He went 8-2 as a starter (with 23 TD passes to just 12 INTs) and won a playoff game over Dallas before the Vikings fell to the Rams 49-37 in the divisional round (a game in which George threw for 423 yards).

2) Case Keenum, 2017: The Vikings are taking their QB situation week-to-week, but for seven weeks in a row that’s mean wins with Keenum leading the way. Regardless of whether he gets to finish the year out or if Teddy Bridgewater takes over at some point, Keenum has saved this season and then some.

1) Randall Cunningham, 1998: Nothing, though, will top going from being Johnson’s backup to engineering one of the greatest offenses in NFL history after an early injury to Johnson. That’s what Cunningham did in 1998, throwing 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while getting the 15-1 Vikings within a whisper of the Super Bowl.

Timberwolves’ record after 20 games suggests they’re near-lock for playoffs

So here’s an interesting look at how the first 20 games of an NBA season have translated into full-season success in recent years via John Schuhmann, who works in advanced stats for NBA.com:

Schumann went back and looked at the records of every NBA team through 20 games for the last 10 full (82-game) seasons. He lumped all the teams that were 12-8 together, as well as all the teams 6-14 or worse, while teams with win totals in between were sorted solely by that single win total.

The takeaway: 102 teams in those 10 seasons have had at least 12 victories through 20 games. And 98 of them have reached the postseason. Broken down by conference, 60 of 63 West teams (95 percent) and 38 of 39 East teams (97 percent) who were at least 12-8 after 20 games made the playoffs.

In the West, 60 percent of teams with 11 wins made the playoffs. After that, the odds dipped below 40 percent. In the East, which hasn’t been as strong in recent years, there is more grace for a poor start as teams with 9, 10 and 11 wins at this point still reached the playoffs about two-thirds of the time. At eight wins or fewer, there was a steep drop-off (around 20 percent) in both conferences.

If you believe in history as an accurate predictor of the future and you happen to root for the Timberwolves, these are significant numbers. Entering Tuesday’s home game against the John Wall-less Wizards, Minnesota is 12-8. So the history of the last decade suggests the Wolves are near-locks to reach the postseason this year.

The Wolves have only been above .500 once in the last 10 seasons through 20 games, and they of course missed the playoffs that year (as they have every year starting with 2004-05)

That said, there are other mitigating circumstances. If we go just beyond the 10 full season window, we find the 2005-06 Wolves. They, too, started 12-8 before fading quickly and finishing 33-49 — well out of playoff contention.

This year’s Wolves are right at 12 wins, and you’ll recall that the 98 of 102 figure is for teams with 12 or more wins. That includes teams at or near the threshold but also includes teams like the 2015-16 Warriors, who started the year 20-0. It stands to reason that teams with several wins more than 12 help tilt the odds of the “12 or more” group.

It’s also notable that the West, which has already been tough, got even stronger in the offseason. The Wolves certainly improved by adding Jimmy Butler and several other players, but so did Houston and Oklahoma City. Golden State and San Antonio are still formidable. Other teams are on the rise. The Wolves are on close to a 50-win pace, and 41 was good enough to get the final seed last year in the West. It’s trending that way this year, but there’s no guarantee that’s how things will finish up.

That said, being 12-8 is certainly better than being 6-14 (as the Wolves were last year) or 8-12 (as they were two years ago). They’ve been 4-16 or worse three times in the last 10 years (and you’d think they had a similar record this year for all the grousing you hear from fans).

At least as they fight their own playoff history, the Wolves have some league-wide playoff history on their side.

Zygi? Mike Zimmer? Everson Griffen reveals name of baby boy born on Thanksgiving

Five days ago, when the Vikings defeated the Lions on Thanksgiving, the day carried far more significance for one Minnesota player.

Star defensive end Everson Griffen and his wife Tiffany had a son born that day (Griffen watched the birth via FaceTime from Detroit), and you might recall he wore a white shirt under his jersey — which he pulled out mid-game for millions of viewers to see — that read: “I just had a baby boy. What should we name him?

All sorts of suggestions poured in, of course — including one from a friend of mine who suggested the newborn should be named “Teddy Bridgewater Griffen.” Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph suggested “Rudy Griffen,” while coach Mike Zimmer said “definitely not Mike.”

Well, if you’ve been waiting in suspense to find out what the actual name of Griffen’s third child is, worry no longer. Appearing on NFL Total Access on Monday, Griffen revealed the name:

Zygi.

JUST KIDDING, though that’s what Griffen said originally on the program before revealing the real name:

Mike Zimmer Griffen.

NOPE, STILL NOT SERIOUS, though that was Griffen’s second joke. OK, now for the real name:

Sebastian Gregory Griffen. And that’s the truth. You can watch the 90-second clip below, which includes a photo of the newborn Sebastian.

Jimmy Butler is scoring more, and the Wolves are better for it

New Wolves wing Jimmy Butler played three consecutive games earlier this month during which he attempted just 25 shots total — twice not even topping seven in a game.

It was part of a rather passive start to the season in which Butler seemingly attempted to defer to teammates such as Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins as he worked to fit into the Timberwolves’ offensive system.

After that stretch, though, Butler declared he was going to start looking for his own shot more often. “I’m going back to putting the ball in the basket,” he said as the Wolves prepared for a game in Phoenix. “I like to put the ball in the basket. I think I’ve gotten really good at it over the years, so we’ll see a different player from here on out.”

Butler seems like a man of his word, and the statistics prove him to be such in this case. In the nine games since that declaration, Butler has attempted 16.2 field goals per game. He’s averaging 20.2 points, 4.4 assists and 5.9 rebounds in that span. In his first nine games this season (he missed two in that span with illness, and the Wolves lost badly in both), Butler averaged just 14.7 points on 12.1 field goal attempts per game.

The Wolves have gone 5-4 in their last nine games — after going 7-4 in their first 11 — but they generally have played better.

Their net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating, both of which measure production per 100 possessions) in those nine games is 3.7, good for 11th in the NBA in that span. For the season, their net rating is just 0.2, per NBA.com — 16th in the league.

Combined with other factors — including his recent quote in which he decried that the Wolves “haven’t guarded anybody all year long” and “have to eventually figure it out and want to play defense” — Butler’s imprint on this team is becoming clearer as the season goes on.

Please stop saying Vikings QB dilemma is a media creation

One of the most amusing and yet frustrating parts of the Vikings’ quarterback situation over the past few weeks is the preponderance of e-mailers and social media followers who keep suggesting that any dilemma in a decision between Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater is solely a media creation.

Just a couple examples:

I had one e-mailer asking me to “Get a life and find something else to write about; spare us your endless babble about the quarterbacks.”

Another on Twitter said a few days ago, “You media need to keep this subject alive week after week since there are no other interesting things to talk about vikes.”

Actually, there are tons of great things to talk about with this 9-2 team. But the QB situation is fascinating. I’m going to keep babbling because it’s pretty simple: The minute Vikings coach Mike Zimmer says Keenum is the starter, period, he will stop getting asked who is the starting quarterback and it will get less interesting.

But Zimmer continues to stop short of saying that. For a few weeks he has said he has a plan. And on Friday, a day after Keenum played very well (again) in leading the Vikings to their seventh straight victory, Zimmer would only say of Keenum, “He’ll be the starter the next week, yeah.”

Keenum now has posted three of the 10 best games of any QB all season in terms of Total QBR. But a long-term QB question still exists — one perpetuated by Zimmer and reported on by the media — presumably because 1) Zimmer doesn’t need to make a definitive decision, 2) Bridgewater looks amazing in practice, 3) Zimmer thinks going week to week keeps Keenum motivated … or any/all combinations of those reasons.

The Vikings QB conundrum is unusual, to be sure, but it’s not imaginary. The one person who could put it to rest simply has not done so.

Fleck’s struggles in 2017 show that a coaching change was the right move

The Gophers football team was shut out in its final two games this season, with bowl eligibility on the line, by a combined score of 70-0. In the game before that, Minnesota put up 54 points in a win over woeful Nebraska. Before that? 20 points combined in losses to Michigan and Iowa.

This thudding end to P.J. Fleck’s 5-7 debut season took another turn after the Wisconsin loss, when quarterback Demry Croft asked for his release from the program, which the U will grant.

Combine the poor finish with the rah-rah nature of Fleck — and, oh, 50 years filled with a lot of hard times for Gophers football — and you have a restless fan base wondering what the heck is going on in Dinkytown. In the most unscientific of polls — seriously, the flat earth guy launching himself in a rocket is deploying more science than we are here, so be wary — Star Tribune voters graded Fleck’s Year 1 performance. Out of about 1,000 votes, only 7 percent gave him an A or a B. That left 26 percent with a “C” grade and a full 66 percent at either D or F.

What I imagine those folks must be thinking is something like this: Didn’t this team win nine games, including a bowl game, last year under former coach Tracy Claeys? What in the world is going on?

Here’s the thing, though: This season was destined to be mediocre at best regardless of who was coaching the team. Because for all the chatter about changing the culture — real talk, don’t get me wrong — the biggest challenge Fleck faced in his first year (Year Zero, if we let him define it) was a stunning lack of talent, particularly on offense.

For all of Mitch Leidner’s inconsistency as a quarterback, there were two things you knew about him: 1) He was a better runner than passer, but he would pass well enough often enough to win you some games. 2) Though it seemed like he might play forever — 47 career games and 41 career starts don’t lie — there was no doubt 2016 was going to be his final year of eligibility.

Though it wasn’t necessarily for a lack of trying, the previous coaching staff created a shaky (at best) succession plan after Leidner was done. This offense was going to struggle regardless of who was coaching this year, and as Chip Scoggins notes it’s not just a QB problem. This team needs receivers and offensive linemen, too.

Had he remained the coach, Claeys with his defensive acumen and the continuity from year-to-year might have been enough for the Gophers to squeeze out another win this season against a soft schedule, allowing them to go to a bowl game.

And you could argue that by virtue of a 9-4 season in 2016 — analyzing just on performance, without any off-field controversy taken into account — Claeys deserved a chance to stay.

It’s impossible to know for sure how Claeys would have fared this year. The unknown is the fuel for almost every great sports argument/discussion that is worth having. But the suspicion here is the Gophers would have won been a far cry from nine wins this year had the old regime stayed in place, given the talent we saw on display in 2017.

We do know that every other coach in recent Gophers history who took over at the start of a season actually won fewer games than Fleck did in his first year: Jim Wacker (2), Glen Mason (3), Tim Brewster (1) and Jerry Kill (3). We know that Fleck seemed to inherit a better situation than most (if not all, with Brewster being the debatable one) of those coaches.

But the offense he inherited was a mess, and the defense he inherited lost a bunch of talent in recent years.

We don’t know yet if Fleck was the right hire. But what we saw this year, in Fleck’s struggle, was that a coaching change was the right move.

Travel-weary Timberwolves finally get a chance to unpack their bags

Here’s an interesting nugget tweeted out Wednesday by Timberwolves TV play-by-play voice Dave Benz, who is probably just as tired of being on the road as everyone else associated with the team:

In this era of generally cushy travel, having to get on flights a lot might seem overblown. Still, the Wolves’ early-season schedule has been pretty brutal.

They’ve played 10 of their first 17 games on the road. Of their seven home games before Wednesday, five were single-game affairs sandwiched between road games. Only once have they had two consecutive home games — Nov. 4 and 5, when they crushed Dallas and Charlotte. They also had two off days surrounding those dates, so they actually had a chance to be home for a few days.

Outside of that, though, they’ve been on the go for the first month-plus of the season, flying before every game.

That changes for the better with a four-game homestand starting Wednesday, with a five-game home stand slated for Dec. 10-18 and another five-gamer from Jan. 6-14.

Terence Newman is Vikings’ best asset in fight against complacency

The Vikings are 8-2 heading into their important Thanksgiving game at Detroit, and veteran defensive back Terence Newman isn’t complaining. It’s better than being 2-8. It’s better than almost every other record in the NFL right now.

But while a lot of the outside noise filtering into the Vikings locker room is glowing praise about what this team has achieved, Newman is happy to hold court anytime to remind his younger teammates that they haven’t done anything yet.

“I’m never too high. I’m old. I don’t get excited about much. All you have to do is look at last year. It’s that simple. Everyone was telling us how good we were, and things went sour. Then everyone told us how bad we were,” Newman said this week. “I’ll keep it in perspective. It’s a long season. Seasons aren’t determined by how you play after Week 8, Week 10, Week 12. You have to wait until all the chips have fallen.”

Newman was referencing the 2016 Vikings, who started 5-0 before losing eight of their final 11 games to finish 8-8 while missing the playoffs. But he can draw on any number of his previous NFL experiences to make his point.

Newman, 39, is in his 15th NFL season and third with the Vikings. He’s been to the playoffs seven different times — four with the Cowboys, two with the Bengals and once with the Vikings.

His teams have gone a combined 1-7 in those playoff games. He was on a team that started 7-2 but finished 10-6 and was one-and-done in the playoffs. He was on another that was 12-1 but lost two of its final three regular season games and its first playoff game. The 2015 Vikings were 7-2 and finished 11-5 before falling to Seattle in the playoff opener.

“It wasn’t a specific season, but the fact that I’ve been in the league 15 years and won one playoff game in my career — that speaks for itself,” Newman said. “Until you get to the playoffs and win in the playoffs, nothing else matters.”

As Newman said those words, fellow DB Xavier Rhodes interrupted our chat, put his arm around me and asked what we were talking about. Rhodes, 27, is a dozen years younger than Newman and has appeared in just one playoff game. But he nodded as his veteran teammate preached.

“By week 17, they’ll let us know where we stand,” Rhodes said. “Right now doesn’t mean anything. What does it mean?”

Newman noted his appreciation for Rhodes’ mentality, saying, “He definitely knows. He even takes it a step further.” He made sure to reiterate that he likes this current Vikings team, saying the team is “hungry” and “playing very complementary football, and that’s a big part of why we’ve been successful.”

The task now is to maintain an even keel without getting complacent. If anyone can reinforce that message, it’s Newman.

“We’re in a good position right now, but we could be in a bad position if we get comfortable being in the position we’re in,” he said. “It’s like someone who does well at a job for a long time and gets lackadaisical, chances are he’s not going to be good at his job anymore.”

Which young player(s) should Twins try to sign long-term this offseason?

Star Tribune baseball writer Phil Miller had an interesting story this week in which he broke down the Twins’ future payroll structure while also getting GM Thad Levine on record saying the organization will look to sign some of its young players to long-term contracts this offseason.

There are six such players who stand out. All of them are projected to be arbitration-eligible in either 2019 or 2020 — at which point they would be due raises from their current bargain salaries — and free agents in either 2022 or 2023. The Twins would like to lock some of them in long-term with the idea that it would be win-win — the players get more immediate financial stability while the Twins get cost-certainty and perhaps savings in the later years of deals over what the players could have earned in arbitration or early free agency.

A good question, though, is the pecking order — which players the Twins should really work to lock in long-term and which they should hold off on. Levine notes that “The risk, of injury or a drop in productivity, that’s something you don’t want to take lightly.” With that in mind, let’s prioritize the six players in question (all arbitration and free agency data from Baseball Reference:

High priority

Byron Buxton, 23: Arbitration eligible 2019, free agent 2022

Eddie Rosario, 26: Arbitration eligible 2019, free agent 2022

Miguel Sano, 24: Arbitration eligible 2019, free agent 2022

These three players represent what could be the heart of the Twins’ lineup for the next several years. They’re all slated to be arbitration eligible at the same time in 2019 and would be free agents at the same time as well. Each has tremendous potential — but each also carries some risk.

Buxton has yet to fully turn a corner offensively, even if he showed improvement last season. He’s a generational talent on defense, but he also plays with a breathtaking recklessness that leaves him exposed to injury risk.

Rosario runs hot and cold. Even though there was a good sample size last year showing he seems to have refined his approach, he could regress.

Sano missed most of the final six weeks of the season (and the playoff game against the Yankees) with a leg injury that required offseason surgery. And even though he continued to emerge as a dominant slugger when healthy, he also struck out 173 times in 483 plate appearances last season.

Still, all three of these players have already produced at a high level and have even more upside. They could get very expensive in arbitration, throwing payroll out of whack. Having them at a known cost would help the Twins, while a 2018 bump in pay would be a boon to the players.

Less urgency

Jorge Polanco, 24: Arbitration eligible 2020, free agent 2023

Jose Berrios, 23: Arbitration eligible 2020, free agent 2023

Max Kepler, 24: Arbitration eligible 2019, free agent 2023

Polanco helped carry the Twins down the stretch in 2017, but he was also hitting just .213 on Aug. 2. Berrios had a promising season (14-8, 3.89 ERA, 8.6 strikeouts per 9 innings) but he logged just 145.2 innings last season. Pitchers, too, carry a greater risk of injury. Both players could use another year to prove themselves before the Twins commit long-term, and since neither are arbitration-eligible until 2020 it might make sense to wait.

Kepler’s 2017 progress stalled with a season very similar to 2016. Perhaps most troubling was that the left-handed hitter batted just .152 against lefties, raising questions about his everyday credentials.

All that said, the Twins wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to sign any six of these players long-term if the deal made financial sense.