Wild gain steam; Gretzky leaves for Torino

Updated: February 13, 2006, 7:30 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Every time we go to hammer the Minnesota Wild for being intransigent and operating in a frostbitten vacuum, they go on a tear.

Just as we prepare to blast the Wild for being cheap and denying their fans a competitive, playoff team, they light it up with their low-end but suddenly high-powered offense.

Gee, Jacques, give us a break will you?

GAMES TO WATCH
ESPN The Magazine's EJ Hradek
Unlike in the 2002 Olympic men's hockey tournament, no nation will get a free pass to the playoff round. This time around, four of the six teams in each of the two pools will advance to the quarterfinals on Feb. 22. Because of that change, the opening-round games will have a little more meaning. I'm looking forward to Thursday's tilt between the Sweden and Russia. I'm trying to get a handle on just how the Swedish team will look without Markus Naslund and (possibly) Peter Forsberg.

On the flip side, I'm curious to see the Russians. GM Pavel Bure has assembled a pretty explosive team. It's a team that could challenge for gold or be a complete bust. If the pieces come together, the tournament will be a lot more interesting.

Scott Burnside
Speaking of betting, what's the over-under on the Canada-Italy tilt Wednesday night in the opener of the round-robin portion of the Olympic tournament? We're guessing it's double digits.

The Wild's payroll is about $25.5 million, at the league bottom with the Capitals and Panthers. And earlier in the year, when we hammered the team for refusing to dip into the free-agent market in the offseason, GM Doug Risebrough patiently explained that it wasn't how they were going to do things. The powers that be have a plan, and they're sticking to it. That means developing from within and letting the chips fall where they may.

For much of the season, it appeared that strategy meant denying the loyal fans of the Twin Cities a playoff team because the one they had couldn't score and was inconsistent.

But with the trade deadline approaching and some key decisions to make in the coming weeks, the Wild are suddenly looking more and more like the dark horse in the Western Conference playoff race.

With the Kings in a free fall and the rest of the conference as tight as a tin of frozen of sardines, the Wild are suddenly getting a second wind.

That doesn't mean Risebrough is off the hook. In fact, the temptations will be even greater now that his team has reached the Olympic break in 10th place in the West, five points back of the eighth and final playoff berth. The Wild hit the break on a 4-1-1 surge and scored at least five times in three of those games. Go figure.

The dilemma facing Risebrough now is what to do with Dwayne Roloson now that Manny Fernandez has been handed the starter's role. The two solid netminders spent the last several seasons splitting time almost evenly.

Both are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Both would command a decent-to-hefty price on the market. The problem is that most of the goalie markets are in the Western Conference.

Does he send Roloson to Vancouver maybe for a Matt Cooke, surely a Jacques Lemaire guy, or Ryan Kesler?

What about the Oilers, who are still in the hunt for a 'tender?

Of course, the danger of trading Roloson in-conference is that he could then play a significant role in keeping the Wild out of the playoffs for the fourth time in five playoff seasons.

Then, there's the issue of maintaining the team's depth. When the Wild went to the Western Conference finals in 2003, Fernandez played in nine postseason games and Roloson 11.

Things were so much simpler when they were just mediocre.

Where will Nolan land?

NHL GMs looking to get in on the Owen Nolan sweepstakes had better not waste any time. It's expected Nolan, who is the prototypical power forward but is recovering from a contentious knee injury, is expected to sign as a free agent before the end of the Olympic break.

Owen Nolan
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesThe Senators are one team that could be interested in Owen Nolan.

There are three teams in serious contention for the 34-year-old's services. The most serious contender is believed to be San Jose, which is where Nolan has been rehabbing. The other bidders include another Western Conference team and one team in the East, perhaps the Ottawa Senators, who were interested in Doug Weight only to see Carolina snap him up several weeks ago.

Although San Jose seems like a perfect fit, given Nolan's turn there as team captain and the fact he continues to maintain a residence and business there, the Sharks have a long road to climb to make the playoffs. They entered the Olympic break having won three in a row, but had lost six of seven before that hot streak. They are 11th in the conference, six points out of a playoff berth, although they have two games in hand on eighth-place Edmonton and four games in hand on ninth-place L.A.

Nolan has a lot to prove, and he'd like to prove it right now. The Maple Leafs acquired him for Alyn McCauley, top prospect Brad Boyes and a first-round pick back in March 2003. But injuries limited Nolan to 65 games in 2003-04 and he missed the entire playoffs. He failed to score in seven games in the 2003 playoffs.

During the lockout, Nolan had surgery to correct what he said was a lingering injury suffered during the 2003-04 season. The Leafs insisted Nolan's injury was off-ice related and declined to pay him. Nolan is claiming the team owes him for the lockout season and for the current season, when he had an option to return to Toronto.

The grievances have no bearing on whether Nolan signs. If he does sign and the grievance is upheld, the Leafs would pay a prorated portion of this, the option year. The bigger question is whether a rough-and-tumble player who, when healthy, could turn the tide in a physical playoff series, can still take the tough going.

Someone is about to find out.

Will Forsberg play?

The good news for the Swedes is that Forsberg is coming to Torino. The bad news is they still don't know whether Forsberg and his gimpy groin will actually take part in any part of the '06 Games.

"He won't play the first couple of games, for sure. Hopefully, after he rests for a few days, he will be OK for the rest of the tournament," coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson told reporters after the Swedes held their first workout here in Torino.

Forsberg, who has missed the last eight games, was scheduled to be on an overnight flight out of Philadelphia on Monday and will arrive sometime Tuesday in Torino. The 32-year-old appeared much less confident about his prospects of suiting up in an interview posted on the Flyers' media line.

"Well, I'm going to fly over and see how it goes," Forsberg said. "It's still not 100 percent and I'm going to rest a few more days and see how it goes. It's not [certain] I'm playing over there, but they want me to come over and see if it heals up and if it feels 100 percent this weekend we will skate over there and get going and get ready to maybe play a couple of games. If it's not, then I'm not going to play. I'm just going to go over there and see how it goes."

The Swedes play Kazakhstan and Russia in their first two games, but Forsberg's presence will only become crucial for the Swedes when the quarterfinal games are played on Feb. 22.

With Forsberg in the lineup, even a hobbled Forsberg, the Swedes are a legitimate gold-medal threat. Without him, their chances decline precipitously.

"He's one of those guys that can win you a game," Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said Monday. "He runs the power play. It's a big boost for us."

Should Gretzky be in Torino?

A final word on Gretzky going to Torino, at least until Gretzky actually gets to the Olympic host city.

It is interesting how the debate over whether the executive director of the Canadian men's hockey team should attend the Olympic Games -- given his connection to the Rick Tocchet gambling ring -- runs along national lines.

In Canada, most columnists have applauded Gretzky's decision to join the Canadian team he built, even if it creates a monumental distraction (and, in part, because it might not be a bad thing if it does for a Canadian team that comes with the highest expectations of any team). "Bravo for avoiding the barking dogs of the American media" seems to be the party line for Canadian writers.

The point isn't that Gretzky doesn't deserve to be in Torino. The question that remains unanswered, especially as it relates to his wife Janet Jones, who reportedly will accompany Gretzky to the Olympics, is whether he has business that is more important than being at the Olympics.

If it turns out that Janet played a significant role in this betting ring (and reports are that she was into the syndicate for more than $500,000, including $75,000 worth of action on Super Bowl Sunday), then maybe the family's time would have been better spent talking to Bob Cleary, the NHL's investigator, and the New Jersey State Police trying to clear the air as quickly as possible. If they've already done that, then tell us that and open a nice bottle of wine. Presumably, we'll find out for sure when Gretzky and the rest of the red and white land in Torino on Tuesday.

Not enough time

Jim Johannson, USA Hockey team leader and senior director of hockey operations, said it would have been nice if the NHL schedule had allowed for one more day between the end of the league schedule and the start of the Olympic tournament. Still, he doesn't think the short turnaround will hurt the Americans.

"I don't know if worried is the right word. We're at the mercy of the system right now," Johannson said. "The good news for us is a lot of our players have played for us internationally and are used to it. We've flown players over several times for World Championships on late notice. Historically, we found the first day isn't the tough day. The second day is the tough day."

"We are skating at night [Tuesday] night, hopefully get them on the time clock as quick as we can and acclimated as quick as we can. Our medical staff and trainer will work hard at that. Part of that is controlling the schedule with meetings when you want them awake and downtime when you want them to sleep."

A little bit of country
The American women's hockey team received a surprise visit Monday from award-winning country artist Jo Dee Messina. Messina, a sports fan, is at the Olympics providing radio commentary and dropped in on the 2-0 American women after their late-afternoon practice.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.