The Minnesota Wild have dealt with big injuries to key players, yet still have somehow found a way to stay afloat in the National Hockey League’s wild, wild West. Still, it’s become quite clear it’s either the 7th or 8th seed or bust as Minnesota has fallen a good 10 points below the Central Division’s third place Colorado Avalanche. Fortunately, with just two games to go until the Olympic break, the Wild should resume the regular season with most of their key players in the lineup. That hasn’t stopped Wild GM Chuck Fletcher from at least testing the trade waters.
It would be foolish to expect Minnesota to pull another blockbuster like they did last year for former Sabres captain Jason Pominville. The talented winger’s name had been floated around the rumor mill leading up to the deadline, and the Wild were said to have the inside track on any deal involving him as the day wore on. Fletcher finally bit, sending a 2013 first round pick, a 2014 second round pick and two blue chippers in center Johan Larsson and goaltender Matt Hackett–an extremely steep price to pay for a player who had the right to leave after a season and a half. Luckily for Minnesota, Pominville signed a new five-year extension, and currently leads the team in scoring with 22 goals and 39 points.
In the end, it wasn’t a bad deal for Minnesota to make. However, no team can make deals like that annually without mortgaging their future, and Minnesota isn’t the exception. As such, Fletcher is looking for a deal that will benefit his team in the short term without negatively affecting the long term outlook. It also needs to be for the right price both in value and contractually–a major issue when you consider the dramatic decrease in the salary cap. The Wild can’t afford to take on a bunch of salary if they’re going to dip into the free agent pool this summer (not saying any names, but here’s looking at you, Thomas Vanek). Former two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley is in the final year of his contract and will give Minnesota some serious breathing room to sign a scorer like Vanek. In fact, it’s likely Heatley will be gone at or before the trade deadline as he might as well be flipped for some other asset.
In the meantime, that’s exactly the kind of player the Wild could use as they look to make the playoffs for just the second year in a row since 2007-08. There are a number of names on trading blocks around the league, namely Vanek, Buffalo’s Matt Moulson, St. Louis’ Chris Stewart, Winnipeg’s Olli Jokinen, Calgary’s Michael Cammalleri, Nashville’s David Legwand, New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan and an oft-injured Columbus sniper by the name of Marian Gaborik–maybe you’ve heard of him.
The return of Mikko Koivu will be huge for Minnesota, but his absence hasn’t been as devastating to the team with young blue chip centers like Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle stepping up and contributing in a big way. With that in mind, barring a can’t-miss opportunity, Fletcher could be perfectly happy to sit tight when it comes to his forward corps.
If that’s the case, does the defense need to be addressed? After an unparalleled rookie season by a Wild defenseman, Jonas Brodin has settled back to earth a bit, but he’s still impressive nonetheless. If he’s having a sophomore slump it’s only on the defensive side of the game because he’s Minnesota’s third-leading scorer amongst defensemen with seven goals and eight assists for 15 points and a plus-3 rating while skating an impressive average of 24:45 a night. No, he’s going to be a rock star for a long time to come. And, of course, there’s Ryan Suter–need I continue?
Behind the top defensive pairing, though, there’s just a lot of youth and inexperience. Jared Spurgeon is a rock solid top-4 NHL defenseman when healthy, and Marco Scandella is quickly developing into one himself. But there’s a serious gap in defensive talent. Spurgeon and Scandella are just entering their minute-munching days, but there isn’t a legitimate second pairing veteran defenseman to help guide them. In their defense, Minnesota did have one in Tom Gilbert last year, but a season-ending injury to Heatley forced the team to use one of its compliance buyouts on Gilbert instead of Heater. Keith Ballard was signed over the offseason in an effort to regain what the team lost, but he’s had some major highs and major lows during his time with the team.
As such, Fletcher could be in the market for a defenseman. If so, Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen have been mentioned as possible options. The Rangers’ Dan Girardi could also be an option, but is said to be close to signing an extension with the club. Then, of course, there are former Wild blue liners Nick Schultz (Edmonton) and Marek Zidlicky (New Jersey).
A USA Olympian, Orpik is a sturdy left-shot shutdown defender at 6’2″ 219-pounds and has been averaging 21:11 per game this season. A defender of his caliber would compliment the diminutive yet offensive Spurgeon on Minnesota’s second pairing. He would also likely be considerably cheaper than Matt Niskanen.
A smaller right-shot defender at 6’0″ 209-pounds, Niskanen is on pace for his best season yet, leading all Penguins defensemen with seven goals and 25 assists for 32 points and a league-best plus-28 rating while skating an average of 20:19 per game. In a sport dominated by lefties, you just can’t have too many right-shot defensemen, and that’s especially true when you’re like Minnesota and only have two in your defensive corps. Niskanen would certainly be a welcome addition to the Wild’s top power play unit and would play a huge role in boosting team scoring from the blue line. To acquire his services, however, would likely take another first round pick. It could be well worth the risk, though.
Niskanen, 27, is still relatively young, but he does have the valuable experience gained via 465 career games and 153 points under his belt. He also has four playoff campaigns under his belt–one with Dallas, three with Pittsburgh–and would transition almost flawlessly into Minnesota’s system, which is designed to fit closely with the one currently used by Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. Acquiring Niskanen–and signing him to an extension, of course–doesn’t hurt Minnesota’s 5-10 year window of Cup contention. In fact, it only increases the odds of a deep playoff run sooner rather than later. And, to me, that’s quality worth attaining.
That said, the biggest concern for the team may lie in net. Josh Harding is out and no one knows for certain just exactly how long that may be. Niklas Backstrom has seen much better days, but is still a serviceable starter/borderline backup. Until anything changes for either one, it’s the Darcy Kuemper show. Kuemper has made nine straight starts, going 6-3-2 for a .913 save percentage, a 2.63 goals against average and a shutout in 13 games this season. For the most part, he’s played confidently, and the Wild brass have rewarded his confident play with more starts.
While it’s doubtful the big goalie has seen the last of the American Hockey League, his play has made Fletcher quite comfortable to continue to roll with Kuemper and Backstrom if it comes down to it. If need be, there are trade options available for Fletcher, and there’s still free agent Jose Theodore to consider, too. Just don’t expect a blockbuster deal for Buffalo’s Ryan Miller.
It’s going to be an interesting trade deadline across the league. There will no doubt be some excitement and surprising moves, but Wild fans shouldn’t be too disappointed if Minnesota doesn’t make much noise. It means management and coaching staff are confident with the team they have in place to get the job done. Maybe those teams are the real winners of the trade deadline.