It’s not huge, but it’s a start.
Yesterday, the Minnesota Wild traded minor league defenseman Brian Connelly to the Chicago Blackhawks for rugged role player Brad Winchester. Connelly, the Iowa Wild’s leading scorer of five goals and 32 points in 50 games, is no stranger to the Blackhawks organization, having played parts of four seasons with minor league affiliate Rockford prior to signing with Minnesota as an undrafted free agent. His best season in professional hockey came in 2010-11, when he scored 11 goals and 41 assists for 52 points and a plus-3 rating in 80 games for the IceHogs.
Winchester comes to Minnesota having scored 37 goals and 31 assists for 68 points and a negative-42 rating in 390 career NHL games in parts of seven seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks. In 55 games with Rockford this season, Winchester has 16 goals and 14 assists for 30 points.
This doesn’t seem like a big trade, and it really isn’t. However, Winchester brings some much needed size to Minnesota’s lineup at 6’5″ 230-pounds. When reading between the lines, it’s easy to see Wild GM Chuck Fletcher is gearing up for a deep playoff push that will likely include a fierce and bloody battle with the always physical St. Louis Blues at some point down the stretch. Minnesota has some smallish players in Zach Parise, Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville and Jared Spurgeon–all important players that could break a playoff series should some goon get too physical on the ice and cause them to fall to injury–ahem, here’s looking at you, Dustin Brown. Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter are talented big boys that can take care of themselves, but bruisers and scrappy players like Winchester, Mike Rupp, Matt Cooke and defenseman Clayton Stoner are needed to protect the rest. This move just adds to the overall depth of the team and makes it possible to roll four lines on a consistent basis.
That said, it’s possible Fletcher is just getting warmed up. The team needs a reliable backup goaltender, and Niklas Backstrom’s ongoing abdominal issues have made him anything but. Rookie Darcy Kuemper has been phenomenal–he’ll make his 13th consecutive start in net tonight–but what happens if he goes down, too? There are a few options: Washington’s Michal Neuvirth, Anaheim’s Viktor Fasth, New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur and even Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, but is there a way to acquire a quality goaltender without mortgaging the future of the franchise? My gut tells me one of these four goaltenders could be wearing the Red, White and Green this time next week, but it’s highly, highly doubtful that it will be 2010 Vancouver silver medalist Miller.
Then there’s defense. It never hurts to add another defenseman, and, with Marco Scandella still battling a lower-body injury, it would certainly be prudent to carefully consider all available options on that front. Dan Girardi is said to be on the market in New York City.
Finally, Minnesota wants to add another scoring forward. Such options could be Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler, Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis, Buffalo’s Matt Moulson, Colorado’s PA Parenteau, Winnipeg’s Olli Jokinen and, of course, the Islanders’ Thomas Vanek. For the most, everyone knows Fletcher is content to wait until free agency this offseason to snatch up Vanek. No use in giving up quality assets for a guy you can just sign in a few months. But Minnesota does need to add another scorer.
If there’s a way to collect Jokinen from Winnipeg, Fletcher should do it. He’s good sized and, while definitely on the wrong side of 30, can still put the puck in the net and play well in a rugged third line role. Assuming Heatley is determined to be expendable and flipped for something at the deadline, a trade for Jokinen could give Minnesota a forward corps that looks a little something like this:
Parise – Granlund – Pominville
Niederreiter – Koivu – Coyle
Cooke – Jokinen – Zucker/Justin Fontaine
Rupp/Winchester/Stephane Veilleux – Kyle Brodziak – Torrey Mitchell
That’s a team four lines deep and worth pursuing.
We’re less than a week away from the March 5th NHL Trade Deadline. A lot can happen, so hang tight.