Danecdotes: MN pro teams have few highlights in '21
2021 pro sports highlights had some good moments, but maybe not many
With the new year comes my annual assessment of Minnesota’s “big four” sports team in the past year.
I would say 2021 was a bit of a mixed bag for the Minnesota teams, but as someone who considers himself primarily a Twins and Vikings fan, this past year doesn’t feel too great.
Let’s get right into it, shall we?
Now that the Vikings’ season is over - I mean, there’s one more game left, but it’s over - I have to say they were at times a stressful team to watch and at other times an outright bummer.
The Vikes are 7-9 with one game left to play and have been eliminated from playoff contention for the second year in a row. It is the first time in head coach Mike Zimmer’s tenure the team has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
The team’s woes can be slightly blamed on injuries - star defensive end Danielle Hunter and wide receiver Adam Thielen have missed significant time - but only slightly. Kirk Cousins has been having a career year statistically, receiver Justin Jefferson has set records in his first two seasons and the team on the whole has been in every game but one for the whole time.
Therein lies the stressful part of this team: 14 of the 16 games this team has played this season have been decided by just one score. That wouldn’t be a huge problem if the team won most of those games, but they have sadly lost eight of them.
In a handful of those games where the Vikings won, they were against teams who on paper shouldn’t have been playing the Vikings as closely as they were. That was a huge problem all year - the Vikings consistently played to the level of their opponent, even if their opponent was not a good team.
Lose a close one to Arizona? That’s understandable. Fall to the Rams by eight points? The Rams are a good team with a talent-packed roster.
Beat the Lions by two on a last-second field goal? Why was the game that close in the first place? Barely scraping past the lowly Carolina Panthers in overtime? Why couldn’t they just put teams away?
With one meaningless game left on the docket, I have to assume we are just a few weeks away from Zimmer’s departure. With all of the money invested in the team and all the talent on both sides of the ball, Zimmer and the coaching staff don’t really have a good excuse for the underperforming that has been on display.
This means the Vikings are the biggest question mark in Minnesota. Next season will likely be played with a new coach, probably a new general manager and maybe some key positions on the roster (maybe it’s time to move on from Cousins?).
I guess we will have to stay tuned.
I know the Vikings have been underachieving like crazy, but the Twins absolutely have to be the most disappointing Minnesota team of 2021.
This team was supposed to run away with the division title - after all, they won it in 2019 and 2020 while maintaining most of the roster for opening day of the 2021 season. Heck, I think a decent number of people had the Twins as their sleeper pick for the World Series.
That notion crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. After finishing first in the division in 2019 and 2020, this year saw the Twins go 73-89 on the season, drop all the way to last in the AL Central and have a fire sale with their talent at the trade deadline.
Nelson Cruz was shipped off to Tampa. Jose Berrios? Gone to Toronto. It was apparent by July the Twins had given up on succeeding in 2021, understandably so.
Part of the team’s hardships were due to injuries, as center fielder Byron Buxton was having an MVP-caliber early season before spending the majority of it out of commission with a few different injuries.
Despite the issues and the dumping of talent, I don’t think the Twins are ready to blow the whole thing up and rebuild from scratch. If Buxton can remain healthy and third baseman Josh Donaldson can get back to his MVP form, there is something to work with - that is to say nothing of guys like Miguel Sano and Max Kepler, who can be huge cogs for this team if the stars align.
Also, if uber-prospect Alex Kirilloff can stay healthy, he could become a major piece for the team.
Maybe things will be better in 2022. Let’s hope so, because if they don’t improve, I expect some big changes in 2023.
The one team that I feel is meeting expectations in Minnesota is the Wild, although they are in a bit of a slump as of late.
The Wild are currently third in the Central Division with a record of 19-10-2 (40 points). That is not too shabby, but it is softened a bit by the fact the team has lost five straight, most recently falling to the St. Louis Blues in the Winter Classic at Target Field.
Part of the team’s success is thanks to young star Kirill Kaprizov, who maybe has no idea what a “sophomore slump” is, tallying 39 points in the team’s first 31 games. Last year’s Calder Trophy winner (rookie of the year, for those who don’t closely follow hockey) has been perhaps the most exciting young athlete in Minnesota pro sports, and that is saying something because this state has plenty of exciting young athletes.
But I don’t think the team can chalk every good thing up to “Kirill the Thrill” (I’m not sure I’m on board with that nickname, but it has kind of stuck). Guys like Ryan Hartman, Alex Goligoski and Mats Zuccarello are having very respectable seasons as well.
You know what happens when a team has some success? Coaches get fat contracts, and last week head coach Dean Evason signed a multi-year contract extension. Since he has been coach, the Wild are 62-29-7 and have the fourth-most goals in the league.
Are they Stanley Cup contenders? I don’t know about that just yet. There are several really good teams they would have to go through, but that doesn’t change the fact that this team looks like a team that is doing good things now and may continue to do so.
I expected this team to be pretty good, and they have been pretty good. Is this what it feels like to be a fan of non-Minnesota teams? It’s kind of nice to have no drama.
The Wolves have been the one pleasant surprise of the big four. That is a weird thing to say about a team currently hovering around .500 - a team that will probably miss the playoffs for the 17th time in the last 18 seasons - but that’s better than this team has been for much of the past two decades, so pardon me if I am more than a little excited.
The team currently sits at 17-20. That is by no means a stellar record, but this is the Timberwolves we are talking about. If I were a Lakers fan and they were at that record (actually, they are close to it), I would find a reason or two to complain.
When your team has finished last or next-to-last in its division every year but one since 2005, winning as many games as you lose calls for a celebration. Maybe I’m just easy to please.
Maybe the reason for the team’s improvement has been the development of young stars Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards. Towns and Russell were the top two picks, respectively, of the 2015 draft.
Towns has always been an efficient scorer both in the paint and from the perimeter - incredibly rare from a 7-footer - but has often been criticized for his defensive prowess as he tends to struggle stopping other teams’ bigs from getting to the basket.
Russell came in a trade in 2020, with the Wolves giving up Andrew Wiggins and a draft pick. I don’t think Russell is as talented as Wiggins, but he seems to work harder and actually wants to be here. Those things matter.
Edwards was the top overall pick of the 2020 draft, and he burst onto the scene with his high-energy play style and his likable personality. Many would argue he should have been 2020’s rookie of the year, myself included, but he finished second to Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball.
Maybe that is a good thing, though. If he is highly athletic, energetic and feels like he has something to prove, that makes for a stellar athlete.
The more those three develop together, the better the on-court product will be.
Maybe the team’s improvement can be linked to the arrival of head coach Chris Finch. After replacing Ryan Saunders as head coach midway through last season, the team seems to be more dynamic and cohesive.
Time will tell, obviously, but I feel like this hire is working out, at least a little bit.
Maybe it’s simply the fact that the team has stayed relatively healthy, apart from the COVID-19 issues much of the league is dealing with at the moment. Since the Wolves traded for Russell at the 2020 trade deadline, the team has struggled to keep him and Towns on the court at the same time, with one of them usually out for some stretch of time.
When those two are on the court together with Edwards, this team isn’t half bad. In fact, they might be a decent, possible playoff-caliber team in a year or two.
So no, I am not expecting huge things from the Wolves in 2022. Maybe they will sneak into the postseason, but I don’t think we need to start planning a championship parade anytime soon.
That said, this is a fun team to watch, and its stock is trending upward. Maybe there are some good things on the horizon.
Dan Determan may be reached at 218-855-5879 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan.