Mikko Koivu‘s season-ending injury is a brutal blow to the Minnesota Wild in 2018-19. There’s no getting around that. But it also might provide the push this franchise needs to make lasting changes that might make their future brighter.
Up to this point, the Wild have been middling at best.
To Bruce Boudreau’s credit, they’re a team that essentially grinds opponents to paste, limiting chances against and playing suffocating defense, allowing them to overcome what’s been a low-key disappointing season for Devan Dubnyk. It hasn’t been pretty to watch (their -4 goal differential captures the small margin for error), but it’s worked — enough. It flies in the face of the golden era of Boudreau’s love of ice cream and offense with the Capitals, but the Wild look likely to squeak into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Is just making the playoffs good enough for the Wild any longer, though?
Sometimes a bad break can actually force a team to do some soul-searching, and the truth is that Koivu’s injury should inspire new GM Paul Fenton to perform some roster surgery. As it is constructed, this team had a decent run, but this might just be nature’s way of forcing change.
(Considering all his mileage at age 35, you could glumly argue this was bound to happen for Koivu.)
Things to remember
The Wild currently don’t have picks in the fourth or fifth rounds of the 2019 NHL Draft, while they have an extra sixth-rounder.
Former GM Chuck Fletcher (understandably) sold off picks here and there to try to compete. In cases like the Martin Hanzal trade, it cost the Wild picks as valuable as a 2017 first-rounder. They lacked a first or second-rounder in 2017, didn’t draft in the second or third round in 2016, and so on.
A younger version of this core group didn’t make a big surge despite that spending, and the returns seemed to be diminishing even before Koivu’s season abruptly ended. And, it’s early, but the Nino Niederreiter – Victor Rask trade argues that the Wild might not be best served going for “lateral” trades.
It’s time to sell.
Trade targets both reasonable and bold
Let’s fire off some suggestions for Fenton, then.
- Eric Staal (34 years old, $3.5 million cap hit expires after 2018-19): Considering that Staal scored 42(!) goals and 76 points last season, there’s a scenario where Fenton would have been bolder, and put his stamp on this team by trading him heading into this season.
That would have been riskier, but it also would have been an example of selling higher.
Now it’s tougher, because they’d likely get less for the veteran center, and they also “need” him that much more in the context of this season. But, considering his age, the Wild’s middling station, and his expiring contract, it would be foolish not to try to get something for Staal.
It might hurt, because he’s not far removed from honestly underrated work. Staal’s also still a hearty possession player. But if the Nashville Predators were willing to cough up a second-round pick for Brian Boyle, imagine what a scorer with Staal’s two-way abilities might fetch, even in what’s been described as a crowded market? And, hey, Staal’s budget-friendly at $3.5M, and could be even more appealing if Minny decided to retain part of that cap hit.
- Zach Parise and Ryan Suter (both 34, both about $7.54M cap hits, both through 2024-25): I don’t think the Wild would do this, I’m not sure another team would fall for a sales pitch on either player, and both players sport no-movement clauses, in part to sign with a team close to home.
Still, if I’m Fenton, I’d at least float the idea as tactfully as possible. Those contracts have terms that are scarier than wondering through a dark hallway in “Resident Evil 2,” and there may never be a more palatable time to hit the reset button. Parise’s had a resurgent season (46 points in 52 games), and teams might be willing to look past Suter’s term in a desperate search for a minutes-eating defenseman.
Can’t hurt to ask/beg, particularly if they’re convinced they’d be able to contend elsewhere.
- Younger players like Charlie Coyle (26, $3.2 million, expires after 2019-20)
The pressing question any rebuilding team needs to ask when it comes to prime-age players is, “How long will it take us to contend?”
It’s a question that demands a high level of self-awareness, so the good news is that Fenton isn’t tied to years of decisions like Fletcher was. Where Fletcher might think to himself “if I cut ties with this player, it means I was wrong,” Fenton won’t have that same crisis of confidence.
So, how important is a player like Coyle to the rebuild? The Wild only get him for cheap, for sure, for one more season after this one. If teams really covet his versatility, potential, and manageable cap hit, then the Wild might want to make another tough decision.
If Minnesota decides they want to move Coyle, they should do it by this deadline, so they could sell the “two playoff runs” argument that worked well with Derick Brassard, and was squandered with Erik Karlsson.
Other moves to consider
The Wild really shouldn’t leave any stone unturned.
If Devan Dubnyk wants out, maybe that would be for the best. He’s had a rough season, but less observant GMs might not have noticed, especially since Dubnyk had a great All-Star performance.
(Seriously, there are probably a few GMs who would just remember the All-Star thing and ignore his more troubling recent numbers, such as a considerable drop in even-strength save percentage.)
Boudreau’s one of the best coaches in the NHL, yet it might get to the point where this resembles someone gripping sand as hard as they can, only to lose more and more.
As much as Fletcher boxed the Wild in with bold moves that provided middling results (and serious problem contracts for Parise/Suter), Fenton still has some room to maneuver. That won’t mean it will be easy, but then again, didn’t Fenton wait all this time for a challenge?
The status quo hasn’t really worked for the Wild, so the potential sweetness from the bitter Koivu injury is that they might be forced to make some changes.