Any offensive spark generated from the Gophers' lineup changes last weekend won't be recreated tonight against No. 1 Minnesota State in the first round of the North Star College Cup. Sophomore Vinni Lettieri is serving a one-game suspension.
A couple of weeks ago, John Munson reached out to me on Twitter with this sentiment:
Yo @RandBall why doesn’t someone analyze the impact of grief in The Wild’s undoing. There is a story there beyond memorializing JP methinks.
I go a ways back with John — 15 years now — to a time when one of us was a young writer covering general assignment sports for the Star Tribune and the other of us was the bass player for a little band called Semisonic. We were both part of a strange and wonderful pickup basketball game that ran every Tuesday and Thursday, comprised primarily of local journalists and local musicians. (Don’t let that description fool you; the quality of the ball was strong, and the games were always the right mix of intense and fun). The two of us chatted sports often during the breaks and down times of those games, and John’s sports opinions have maintained value through the years. He’s a sports fan who tends to think of things from a different — more human? — perspective than a lot of us.
I’ve thought about his tweet pretty much every day since he sent it, trying to get a better handle on it. Munson was referring to both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, two of the Wild’s best players, who have both lost their hockey-playing fathers in the past six months. Bob Suter — whom Ryan described not just his dad but his best friend – died a month before the season started of a heart attack at age 57. J.P. Parise died earlier this month after a battle with lung cancer at age 73.
Media members and fans have spent ample time dissecting the Wild’s coaching, the Wild’s goaltending, the Wild’s physical health — whether it’s on-ice injuries or the bizarre but impactful battle with the mumps. But true grieving? The loss of fathers? That’s much heavier, harder to quantify stuff. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it or ask about it even though the questions are hard.
So when I caught up with Parise on Thursday at a promotional event, I told him about Munson’s tweet and listened to him speak earnestly, again, about how tough things have been.
“It’s been really hard. I can’t speak for Ryan, obviously. I can only see what he went through,” Parise said. “But for me personally, it’s been really hard the last couple of months just seeing everything, and the way everything happened. It’s been awful. A lot of times at the rink, my mind wasn’t there.”
This is where we can all be reminded that athletes are humans. They are not a set of statistics to write in ink or a set of expectations to be mandated. Fans want answers and hate excuses, but life events are not excuses in the way that breaking a stick or having a puck take a funny hop are excuses. Life is a thing we are all living.
We are all fragile. We have all dealt with difficult things in our personal lives, and most of us have been asked to continue working or going about our day-to-day lives while also processing those difficult things. Most of us probably would agree that’s very tough. It’s not the kind of thing you’d be able to label and say it impacted you X percent at your job, but you know it did.
This is not even to say that the performance of Parise or Suter has declined this year. Parise leads the team with 19 goals; Suter, despite a recent hit to his plus-minus rating, is the team’s lone All-Star. Sometimes personal tragedy can be channeled into great performances, as sports history has shown us many times.
“That’s kind of the cool thing about hockey,” Ryan Suter said in September, when he talked about his father’s death for the first time. “You get to get out on the ice and you don’t really have to think about anything. You can just go out and be in your own little world.”
But sometimes life creeps back in, and we should all remember that. Getting back to Munson’s original tweet, the impact of grief on the Wild’s season … the only conclusive thing I would ever say about it is that it caused pain. Parise’s loss is the freshest, and he’s still working through it.
“It was hard to separate myself from what was going on. Mentally, I just wasn’t there and it was hard to play,” Parise said. “But it’s getting better, and hopefully it will continue to.”
Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, we will focus on the offensive line.
The Vikings figured that their offensive line would be a strength in 2014. After all, all five of their starting linemen were back for a third straight season and they figured they had one of the league’s better offensive tackle combos in former Pro Bowler Matt Kalil and big Phil Loadholt.
But offensive line play ended up being one of the team’s biggest weaknesses due to the struggles of Kalil and other starters, along with a bunch of injuries along the offensive line.
Right guard Brandon Fusco, who was rewarded with a contract extension before the season opener then was lost to a torn pectoral muscle two weeks later, was the first starter to go down. In Week 12, Loadholt, their right tackle, suffered a similar season-ending injury. Left guard Charlie Johnson, who struggled mightily in 2014, missed two games late in the season before returning for the finale.
Those injuries forced backup linemen Joe Berger, Mike Harris and Vlad Ducasse into action.
The offensive line played better late in the season, but the Vikings allowed 51 sacks on the season, the fifth-highest total in the league. Kalil was responsible for 12 of them, per Pro Football Focus.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Silver linings are a little harder to spot at this position group, but veteran center John Sullivan was solid in 2014 despite all of the moving parts around him and Fusco, who was becoming one of the league’s better right guards, will be back healthy in 2015.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: There are reasons for concern at left guard (they need to find one) and right tackle (Loadholt’s pectoral injury could sideline him until training camp), but they pale in comparison to what is up with Kalil. As a rookie, Kalil, the fourth overall pick in 2012, made the Pro Bowl and looked like a long-term answer at left tackle. He did not play as well in 2013, and after missing workouts this past spring due to offseason knee surgery, Kalil’s performance plummeted. He was one of the league’s worst tackles in pass protection and admittedly endured lapses in confidence. This spring, the Vikings must decide whether to pick up his fifth-year option to secure his services through 2016. It seemed like a no-brainer before the season, but now it will require careful consideration.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Sullivan, Berger, Fusco and Loadholt (barely) all earned positive marks, and Sullivan’s plus-5.6 grade was the highest among all Vikings offensive players. But only three NFL offensive tackles graded out worse than Kalil, who was a negative-29.1. Ducasse and Johnson also graded poorly at negative-14.1 and negative-12.1, respectively.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 55 — total pressures allowed by Kalil this past season, per Pro Football Focus. Only Dolphins rookie right tackle Ja’Wuan James surrendered more than Kalil, who gave up 12 sacks, seven other quarterback hits and 36 hurries in 16 games.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: Johnson is expected to be released, leaving an opening at left guard. Berger, Harris and Ducasse are all scheduled to become free agents. Bringing back Berger, who was solid as a replacement at center and guard, makes sense for both parties. Harris, who just turned 26, is a tougher call. And the Vikings can do better than Ducasse, who will likely be allowed to walk.
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: High. General Manager Rick Spielman recently said that the team has identified eight positions that need to be improved, and left guard has to be at or near the top of the list. Kalil’s struggles were compounded by the play of Johnson, and the Vikings will look to upgrade at left guard through free agency or the draft. They must also figure out what to do at the left tackle position. Kalil isn’t going anywhere, and the team will give him every opportunity to be the starter again in 2015. But it would be wise to add a reliable backup plan at his position, whether it is signing a veteran with starting experience or drafting another left tackle prospect. And with three backups becoming free agents, the Vikings will have to restock the bottom of their depth chart.