Had the Wild been healthier this season, giving management more time to assess the roster’s potential as is, the team’s outlook as it nears the NHL trade deadline may have been different.
But with a lineup that’s been at full strength in only five games approaching mid-February, team brass is still making evaluations.
And that has the Wild in wait-and-see mode before the window to incite change closes Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. Twin Cities time.
“Our thought is let’s see what we have here,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “We believe we have the answers here, and we are playing better. We need to continue to work on our consistency on the road, but I believe we are trending in the right direction and there’s another level we can and need to get to. I think we’ve shown that when we’re on our game, we’re a pretty good hockey team.”
Even though the Wild is still down a player — defenseman Jonas Brodin is out for up to a month to recover from surgery that fixed the fractured left hand he suffered Tuesday against the Blues — it can get a comprehensive read on its current look.
The forward group is intact, giving coach Bruce Boudreau the flexibility to experiment up front. Captain Mikko Koivu and wingers Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund continue to emerge as a top-line trio, while Eric Staal-Nino Niederreiter and Zach Parise-Charlie Coyle look like workable duos. But how the remaining holes are filled intrigues Fletcher.
“We’d like to sort of see what we have in terms of line combinations and which players would have chemistry and kind of go through that process,” Fletcher said. “We’re kind of in that right now.”
Brodin’s absence doesn’t alter the Wild’s patient plan. Instead, it’s allowing the team to watch youngsters Gustav Olofsson and Mike Reilly — bubble players who have been in and out of the lineup this season as the sixth defender. The team can also explore its options in the minors.
That depth, both on the blue line and up front from the American Hockey League, could end up providing the personnel for the Wild’s late-season tweak.
“Sometimes it’s better to look within than look outside,” Fletcher said.
But the Wild is still open to change, even though Fletcher doesn’t spot any glaring needs currently.
And the team’s performance during its five-game homestand could sway the team’s strategy — an opportunity that started with a setback after the team fell 4-3 in overtime to the last-place Coyotes despite building a three-goal lead.
“If a need emerges or if there’s some obvious hole that we need to fill, then we’ll have to talk about that,” Fletcher said. “But my mind-set is we have a lot of the answers here internally.”
Chatter is ongoing with other GMs, as each studies a market that is still taking shape with few known sellers. That is the reality when so many teams are within striking distance of a playoff spot.
As a cap team, the Wild doesn’t have much wiggle room; absorbing pricey contracts or parting with young talent is unrealistic. So this roster was equipped to make its playoff run back when it was assembled in the offseason.
Offensive talents like Granlund and Niederreiter were re-signed, role players in veterans Matt Cullen and Daniel Winnik were added, and the support staff in Iowa was beefed up.
There’s still time to make adjustments, but it certainly looks like the Wild’s fate will be determined by the familiar faces already in tow.
“We don’t feel any urgency to do anything,” Fletcher said. “But we’re certainly open-minded. We’re excited to see some of the guys we have here perform.”
• Expect the Rangers to be active leading up to the NHL’s trade deadline Feb. 26. The team announced Thursday, in a letter posted on its website, that the Rangers will seek to acquire “young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character” — potentially at the expense of losing “familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect.” It’ll be interesting to watch who the Rangers part with; winger Rick Nash has already submitted his no-trade list to the team. But kudos to the organization for being up front with its plans.
• What an epic performance Oilers superstar Connor McDavid had Monday against the Lightning, scoring four goals and adding an assist. The output rocketed McDavid from tied for 13th in league scoring to tied for third. It’ll take more than McDavid’s magic to catapult the Oilers back into contention, but he remains a reason Edmonton is entertaining.
• It was a neat scene in Pittsburgh on Tuesday when Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury returned for the first time since Vegas selected him in the expansion draft. Fans lined the glass with signs during warmup to show their appreciation for the three-time Stanley Cup champion, and the team welcomed him back with a tribute video. The emotion in the building was palpable, a cool reminder how much athletes can mean to the communities they represent.
WILD'S WEEK AHEAD
Tuesday: 7 p.m. vs. N.Y. Rangers
Thursday: 7 p.m. vs. Washington
Saturday: 1 p.m. vs. Anaheim
Tue. FSN Plus; Thu. and Sat. FSN
Player to watch: Alex Ovechkin, Capitals
Ovechkin entered the weekend pacing the NHL in goals, with 32 — the 13th straight season in which he’s eclipsed the 30-goal plateau.
“That’s not good enough. Pretty simple. … You’re fighting for your playoff lives and you come up, and you blow a 3-0 lead to a team that isn’t going to be in the playoffs. You can’t be successful if you do that.”
Bruce Boudreau after Thursday’s 4-3 OT loss to Arizona