With nine games left in the regular season (so few games it’s proper to write the whole number out in letters) the Minnesota Wild is fighting for its playoff life after falling 1-0 in brutal fashion to the Chicago Blackhawks last night at the Xcel Energy Center. Sure, Minnesota didn’t score, but they were playing exceptional defense…until Clayton Stoner made a beautiful pass to Chicago’s Marian Hossa who scored the eventual game-winner. That’s right; Stoner—a Minnesota Wild defenseman—made a beautiful centering feed to an opposing player.
This is just the latest in a string of defensive lapses amongst the Wild defensive corps—mostly all on Stoner. Bad passes, penalties, turnovers, own-goals etc. It’s been brutal. Minnesota has lost five of their last 10 games and is just five points ahead of the surging Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets. Was there a bright side to last night? You bet—for Chicago to score their only goal of the evening on a lucky break is incredible. Minnesota did a great job of shutting down Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Co. by forcing them to the perimeter. The only thing that fell in their favor was the timing of Stoner’s nightly gaffe. Aside from that, Minnesota was impressive in the way they handled the Hawks and goalie Niklas Backstrom had one of his best games of the season.
Can Minnesota get into the playoffs? Their remaining schedule says yes. Can they get past the first round? Their secondary defense says no. The fact of the matter is that you can’t win a playoff series with a guy like Clayton Stoner as your No. 4 defenseman. Does Stoner still deserve to play in the NHL? Absolutely, but not in the current role he’s been forced into. Stoner is a bottom pairing defenseman, but the fact of the matter is that Minnesota has four, maybe five such blue liners on their roster. Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon and maybe Tom Gilbert are the only Wild defensemen that could be considered top-4 defenders. That leaves Stoner, Justin Falk, Nate Prosser and Brett Clark as the No. 5, 6, 7 and 8 on the outside looking in.
To be fair, it doesn’t help that Stoner has been putting a lot of pressure on himself either. Do you think he likes his mistakes? Heck no! He certainly made that clear to the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo last night after the loss.
Stoner on Hossa turnover: “I pride myself on trying to play mistake free. That was a costly one. I feel bad for letting the team down.”
— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) April 10, 2013
Minnesota is missing that No. 4 guy that can step in and log big minutes on the second pairing with Spurgeon. Realistically, this should have been addressed by management at the trade deadline. However, the brass felt it was more important to acquire Jason Pominville instead. I’m not saying that was a bad trade, but that shouldn’t have been the only trade made by GM Chuck Fletcher. The Wild play St. Louis tomorrow night, a team that has been acquiring top-4 defensemen like a squirrel collects nuts. It’s what a smart team does heading into the playoffs. Because of their acquisitions, St. Louis is not only going to be a tough adversary tomorrow night, but in the postseason as well.
So, what are the options? Well, first of all, if Minnesota is going to make a call up, Dany Heatley or Josh Harding will have to be placed on long term injured reserve to increase cap space. Then, you have a few options: 1. Call up a guy like Marco Scandella or Steven Kampfer—promising young guys that have seen a decent amount of NHL action; 2. Call up Tyler Cuma, Minnesota’s first round pick in 2008, and give him a shot; or 3. Call up 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba once his season ends in Red Deer and give him a chance.
While the first option is more likely, considering they’re older and seasoned in comparison, Dumba is quite promising and is already playing playoff intensity hockey now—albeit in the WHL. He’s a clutch player and would make for an enticing second pairing with Jared Spurgeon. His right-shot howitzer from the point would also be welcomed on the second power play unit. Yes—Dumba is very young at 18—but he was drafted so high for a reason: he’s an elite talent. He’s an explosive player that would still supply Minnesota’s roster with plenty of grit and may add some offense along with the defense. Plus, the experience gained even from just one game will only enhance his development.
Much like the 2009-10 playoffs was the coming out party for Montreal’s P.K. Subban, the 2013 playoffs could be the same for Dumba. There’s a reason he very nearly made the Wild roster right out of training camp. Whether or not Dumba makes his NHL debut this season, he’ll likely join Houston for their playoff run once his current run with Red Deer is over. With the Rebels down three games to one in their second round series, that could be sooner rather than later.
Regardless, Minnesota has to make a decision on their defense. There is no way this team can make a deep playoff run with Clayton Stoner as the No. 4 defenseman—that’s just not the kind of player he is and he shouldn’t be forced into being something he’s not. It doesn’t matter which way you cut it, Stoner, Falk, Prosser and Clark aren’t top-4 defensemen and Gilbert has clearly been off his game lately. This team can’t rely solely on Suter, Brodin and Spurgeon. The team needs backup. With the trade deadline exactly a week behind us, that backup has to come from within the organization. Very few Wild fans are fine with watching Stoner and his nightly gaffes.
Something has to give. Wild fans keep giving blood, sweat and tears to this organization, they expect something in return—a winning product on the ice. If that means benching Stoner and giving a guy like Scandella, Kampfer, Cuma or Dumba a shot, so be it. Let’s put it this way, any other option is likely better than Stoner at this point. The Wild defense can only go up from here!