By Dave Campbell (AP Sports Writer)
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Their hold on a spot in the playoffs hardly firm, the Minnesota Wild’s streak of six straight postseason appearances took a hit when captain Mikko Koivu tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee .
For the 35-year-old Koivu, who has never advanced past the Western Conference semifinals and has just a 16-39 record with the Wild in the playoffs, this severe late-career injury was a most unwelcome development even for a determined, intense player like him.
For the Wild, the absence of their second-line center and best defensive forward will be impossible to cover up.
For general manager Paul Fenton it created an unexpected complication to an already unclear picture about how to approach the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 25. Is this a postseason-caliber team, with the opportunity to make some noise in a tournament that’s one of the most unpredictable in sports? Or are the Wild bound for mid-April vacations and a higher-than-usual draft pick? Throughout his first season on the job, well, Fenton has acknowledged his own uncertainty.
Should he try to buy and bring in a veteran center for the final push? Or start selling to restock the prospect pool? Stay tuned was Fenton’s answer to that question on Thursday morning, before the Wild hosted Edmonton.
”I’m going to watch them play here a little bit. I actually have meetings with our staff to talk about where we are and how we are going forward here,” Fenton said. ”I’m not trying to be mysterious. You guys watch our team as much and you look at the standings. Everybody is in it. It isn’t like we can say ‘Yes,’ or ‘No,’ or ‘You’re definitely in,’ or ‘You’re definitely out.’ It’s going to be a dogfight right to the end.”
The Wild entered play Thursday in fourth place in the Central Division and in control of the first wild card spot, with one game in hand and a three-point lead on Vancouver. They haven’t produced a winning streak longer than three games since a five-game run that ended on Oct. 29, and in the first three games this month out of their bye week they snagged just two of six points.
”It’s an opportunity for somebody else to step up and to make their mark,” Fenton said.
”We’re really going to miss Mikko, because he might be the best player this franchise has ever seen,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. ”But if you sit and pout and go, ‘Woe is me,’ you’re going to be all done.”
Koivu, who will have surgery Friday, did not speak to reporters. Fenton declined to speculate on his readiness for training camp in September, but the typical recovery timeline for an ACL would put his availability for the 2019-20 season opener in doubt. That’s the final year on Koivu’s contract, with a $5.5 million salary cap hit.
In the meantime, his defense will unquestionably be missed the most.
”That’s my favorite part of his game,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said.
Koivu missed just three or fewer games in eight of his first 13 seasons in the NHL. This one will be his career low for a non-lockout schedule.
”I’m sure there’s a lot of teams in the league that play against this team that are thinking that, ‘Finally, we don’t have to play against that weight and size that he brings to the game,’ because he’s a very competitive guy,” Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock said. ”I’ve seen him wear down a lot of good centers.”