Kevin Fiala

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Kessel rumor paints strange picture for Wild’s offseason path

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The first big trade rumor of the offseason (it is currently the offseason for 29 NHL teams) was centered around a potential blockbuster that would have reportedly seen the Pittsburgh Penguins send Phil Kessel to the Minnesota Wild in a deal that was thought to have included Jason Zucker (with the possible inclusion of a Jack Johnson for Victor Rask swap).

The rumored deal was reported by several outlets, including both the Minnesota and Pittsburgh chapters of The Athletic.

It now seems likely that the deal is not going to happen, seemingly because Kessel does not want to waive his no-trade clause to go to a Wild team that is probably pretty far away from a championship.

Based on everything that has come out of Pittsburgh in the aftermath of its Round 1 sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, there is going to be some change this summer and a Kessel trade will likely be a significant part of that. At this point it is just a matter of when it happens and where he ends up going. It is not a surprise to hear his name in trade speculation, and it should not be a surprise when he eventually goes.

The surprise is that it was the Wild that came the closest to making a deal.

[Related: Can the Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?]

There is no denying that Kessel could probably help them because for all of his flaws he is still an elite offensive player.

He can still score goals, he is still an exceptional playmaker and passer, and any team’s power play could run through him and be better for it. Given that the Wild were 28th in the NHL in goals scored and 14th on the power play this past season he is, in theory, the type of player they could use.

But these types of situations do not exist in a vacuum. What is so strange about the Wild making a play for Kessel is that it seems to run counter to everything they did in the second half of last season when they started to strip their team of core players, trading Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle, none of whom were pending free agents or needed to be traded when they were.

The return on that trio was mainly Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala, a sequence of transactions that shed some salary off their cap and made the team slightly younger. The Rask, Donato, and Fiala trio is, on average, three years younger than than the Niederreiter, Coyle, and Granlund trio.

It seemed to be a sign that the Wild were looking to turn the page on a core that hadn’t really won anything, seemed to have reached its ceiling, and was looking to get younger and cheaper. General manager Paul Fenton again emphasized the team’s desire to get younger in his end of the season press conference. Whether or not the moves they made were the right ones remains to be seen (the Niederreiter trade was definitely not the right one) but it was probably a path that had to be taken at some point.

Throwing their hat into the Kessel ring, however, obviously runs counter to all of that.

The rumored trade, assuming it also included the Johnson-Rask swap, would have only saved them $500,000 against the cap and it would have made the team significantly older. Even if a team is looking to rebuild or retool (or whatever they want to call it) it still needs players to put a team on the ice, and you never want to turn down the opportunity to acquire good players when the opportunity presents itself.

But the Kessel pursuit, even if it ultimately failed, creates a number of questions for where the Wild are headed this summer.

Among them…

  1. Is this team, as it is currently constructed, a 32-year-old Phil Kessel away from being a contender in the Western Conference, and especially in a Central Division that includes Nashville, Winnipeg, an emerging power in Colorado, and a current Stanley Cup Finalist in the St. Louis Blues? If it is not, what are you trying to make that type of splash more for? And if you can not get him, are you going to pursue another comparable player?
  2. If you think it is just one of those players away, why the sudden rush to trade a player like Niederreiter (at what was probably his lowest possible value at the time) for an inferior player in Rask, or to make any of the moves you made at the trade deadline? What changed your mind in these past couple of months that you went from selling veteran players under contract to suddenly deciding you need to go get another veteran winger that can score?
  3. Beyond all of that, the most important question might be what this all means for Zucker’s future in Minnesota, as he once again found himself at the center of another trade rumor and another trade that almost happened? Why is one of your best two-way players burning such a hole in your pocket that you are seemingly desperate to trade him or try to use him as a trade chip?

When everything is put together it just seems to be a team that is kind of lost in what it wants or where it wants to go.

On-the-fly rebuilds do not usually work, especially when it is a team that is already lacking high-end talent at the top of the lineup. That path almost always seems to end up resulting in a complete rebuild anyway, only just a couple of years after it should have already started (see, for example, the Los Angeles Kings).

Not only are the Wild lacking in impact players, just about all of their top returning scorers from a year ago (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu) are going to be age 35 or older this upcoming season. Their best days are definitely far in their rear-view mirrors.

Trying to re-tool around mediocrity or aging and declining talent only extends the mediocrity and leaves you stuck somewhere in the middle of the NHL.

Successfully acquiring Kessel might have made the team slightly better (at least offensively), but probably not enough to have moved the needle in a meaningful way. It just would have added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has too many players like that.

But what it really would have been is just another strange, questionable transaction after a season full of strange, questionable transactions that didn’t seem to be necessary.

Where the Wild go from here this summer will be seen in the coming weeks, but the continuing trend of questionable transactions should be a cause for concern for the team’s fans when it comes to this new front office.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Wild aren’t firing Boudreau, and they aren’t rebuilding

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The Minnesota Wild’s Tuesday press conference was notable for a number of things, but chiefly, one thing the Wild is doing (keeping Bruce Boudreau), and one thing they’ve decided against (not doing a rebuild).

Wild GM Paul Fenton made it clear that he’s not firing Boudreau — you know, at least through the 2019-20 season, which not so coincidentally represents the last year of Boudreau’s current contract. Tellingly, he didn’t really explore the question of a contract extension.

“Bruce is my coach next year. I have total confidence in him,” Fenton said. “If you look at his track record, it’s amazing … he’s going to be the guy that’s going to lead us back to where we want to go.”

If you’re the type to read too much into body language, you might enjoy watching the full press conference, which kicks in around the seven-minute mark of the video above. Considering the rumblings about Boudreau being Wild owner Craig Leipold’s “guy,” and Leipold not wanting to pay Boudreau to not coach the Wild next season, you may enjoy trying to read if Fenton’s truly happy about this path, or kind of stuck. Also, if you’re like me, you’ll giggle at the upside down Wild lapel pin.

Also of note in what could be a dysfunctional relationship:

(There were some chances to the staff, however, including the departure of Andrew Brunette.)

The presser was also notable because Fenton provided this update: the Wild are deciding to “do this on the fly, without having a rebuild.”

Fenton emphasized a few things in that regard.

  • Getting younger. In a somewhat amusing moment, Fenton noted that the Wild entered the 2018-19 season as the oldest team in the NHL, and now are somewhere around “25th.” That’s really not a bad improvement, but it still seems like a modest-enough gain to also be pretty funny.
  • People have criticized plenty of the Wild’s moves, which include transitioning from Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle to Victor Rask, Kevin Fiala, and Ryan Donato in trades. Fenton defended his moves, stating that he believes the Wild would be in this position, even if the trades weren’t made.
  • Fenton emphasized injuries as a factor, bringing up Matt Dumba multiple times, along with players like Mikko Koivu.
  • He also noted that the Wild should have a lot of cap space entering the off-season, and that’s indeed an interesting point. Via Cap Friendly, the Wild have a bit less than $62.5 million devoted to 14 players, and not a ton of must-pay free agents, beyond someone who might not be too expensive in Fiala. With the cap ceiling projected at $83M, Minnesota could indeed make some splashes, though Fenton himself warned against spending just to spend.

Is this really the right path?

An optimist can find a lot to like here.

Boudreau is, by just about any fair measure, a fantastic coach. While his playoff lows have been stated – and often overblown – Boudreau’s been a success basically everywhere he’s been. From the high-flying Capitals to the grind-it-out Wild, he’s been a versatile coach, rather than a one-trick pony. Boudreau isn’t far behind Jon Cooper (.644) and Scotty Bowman (.657) when it comes to his .641 points percentage as a coach.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If you’re goal is to win as much as possible, in the short term, then Boudreau’s your guy. I’d argue that he got every ounce of usefulness out of Minnesota’s limited roster this season.

But maybe that’s the point: there might not be much jelly left in this donut. There can be a curse disguised as a blessing by having a really good coach: Boudreau might just delay the inevitable rebuild, or even maximize results to the point that the team might be misled into believing that a rebuild isn’t necessary.

It’s not that this Wild roster is outright putrid. The truth is likely more confusing for someone trying to run the team: the overall talents ranks somewhere in between good and bad. With that, you risk getting stuck in purgatory.

Dangerous half measures?

The Wild are going with a plan to “rebuild on the fly,” basically hoping to eat their cake and have it too. They want to get younger and compete, which requires quite a juggling act from their GM. Can you plan for the future and the present, without spreading yourself too thin and hurting yourself in both regards?

This “a little from Column A, a little from Column B” plan seems like it can work out if the goal is to be respectable, or a hockey answer to Minnesota Nice. But if the goal is to aim higher than making or barely missing the playoffs each season, to actually win division titles and Stanley Cups, then the Wild might be wiser to hit the reset button, at least as much as they can.

(To be fair to Fenton, former GM Chuck Fletcher left behind issues, such as the contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, that Fenton is almost certainly stuck with — whether he wants them or not.)

***

Ultimately, Fenton seems like he might be poised to echo the team he’s running: having to grind things out, with the risk of minimal gains. In the case of the 2018-19 season, it sure felt like the Wild were simply a team with a low ceiling, and not a high-enough floor.

The question is: can Fenton succeed where his team failed? For better or worse, that seems like the Wild’s plan.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

What’s in store for Wild after disappointing season?

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The Minnesota Wild need a miracle.

Without one over the next five days, their season is going to come to a bitterly disappointing end that not only snaps the team’s six-year run of consecutive postseason appearances, but also spoils the guarantee from coach Bruce Boudreau that the team would, in fact, make the playoffs.

What has to make this season so disappointing for Minnesota is where the team was coming from the previous two years, and just how wide open the playoff race in the Western Conference turned out to be.

You may not have looked at the Wild as one league’s top teams before this season, but keep in mind only three teams in the NHL recorded more points than Minnesota’s 207 during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, while they topped the 100-point mark in three of the past four individual seasons. It may have never resulted in a meaningful playoff run, but the Wild were always good enough to matter, even if they weren’t quite good enough to actually do anything that would make them stand out come playoff time.

Add in the fact that the second wild card team in the West is likely to finish with one of the lowest point totals any playoff team has had in the salary cap era and it is kind of stunning that this team is almost certainly going to fall short, even when you take into account the injuries that have sidelined Mathew Dumba and Mikko Koivu for most of the season.

They should still be better than this.

That is almost certainly going to lead to more changes for an organization that has already undergone significant change over the past year.

The first big question is probably going to be the fate of Boudreau, and given the circumstances it is worth wondering if he is coaching his final games in Minnesota this week.

Anytime you have a team that will (again, barring a miracle) be now going four consecutive years without a postseason series win, and is likely to miss the playoffs by regressing by nearly 20 points in the standings, the job security of that coach, no matter their credentials in the league, is going to be in question. That is especially true when the team in question has a new general manager (Paul Fenton) that is almost certainly going to be looking for an excuse to bring in their own coach.

Realistically speaking, it is going to be awfully difficult for the Wild to find a better coach than the one they have now (unless they can convince Joel Quenneville to take their job, if it becomes available) so there is definitely going to be a risk there if that is the direction they go. And that is a concern.

But no matter who the coach is the future of the franchise is going to come down to the players Fenton and his staff are able to assemble.

And that is where the real red flag should be for Wild fans.

In his first full season as general manager Fenton dramatically overhauled the core of the team by trading Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund in an effort to get younger. That also seems to have been the only primary objective because there is not much to suggest the team got better as a result of that sequence of trades.

The early returns, especially in the case of Niederreiter (traded straight up to Carolina for Victor Rask), are looking … poor.

It is not necessarily the results of the trades that is most concerning right now, but the process behind them.

In all three trades the Wild were trading core players, all of whom still had term remaining on their contracts beyond this season (meaning the Wild shouldn’t have felt pressure to trade them when they did), at what was arguably their lowest possible values.

If you are going to trade such significant players you need to make sure you are maximizing the return of that asset as best you can, and there is plenty of objective evidence to argue that the Wild did no such thing.

You don’t need to dig very far to see just how concerning the thought process was in these moves.

At the time of their trades, all of Niederreiter, Coyle and Granlund were stuck in down years that could probably best be described as unlucky.

Niederreiter, a proven 25-goal scorer that plays a heck of a two-way game and can drive possession, was getting just 14 minutes of ice-time and had what was the second-lowest PDO of his career (PDO simply being the sum of a player’s on-ice shooting percentage and save-percentage during 5-on-5 play). Everything about his season and his career should have indicated that he was due to bounce back at some point, whether it was this season or next season. The bounce back began almost as soon as he arrived in Carolina where he has been one of the Hurricanes’ best and most productive players. He looks like the player he has always been, and one that the Wild could absolutely use both this season and in future seasons.

In return for that, the Wild received Victor Rask  who is roughly the same age as Niederreiter, with a lesser resume in the NHL, and a career that seems to be trending in the wrong direction.

It was the same situation for Granlund, a forward that scored at a 70-point pace over the previous two seasons and was one of the few difference-makers the team had at forward.

And while the return for Granlund (Kevin Fiala, a long-time favorite of Fenton going back to his days as Nashville’s assistant general manager) looks better than the return for Niederreiter, it’s still worth wondering how much better it makes the team in the long-run.

The only trade that is looking overly promising at the moment and could be a decent upgrade is the Coyle for Ryan Donato swap.

Given that almost all of the Wild’s roster is still under team control for the foreseeable future (Koivu, Eric Fehr, Brad Hunt, Anthony Bitetto, J.T. Brown, and Jared Spurgeon are the only players eligible for unrestricted free agency over the next two years) it is almost a given that any other significant overhaul of the roster is going to have to come through trades, and the early look into his process there is, again, concerning.

If the Wild are going to turn things around in the short-term they are going to need to see significant steps from young players like Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek, while also hoping that Fenton and his staff gambled correctly on the likes of Fiala and Donato and don’t continue to sell core players at their lowest value.

Without any of that that it’s hard to see better days being on the horizon for the Wild.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL on NBCSN: Sharks look to take bite out of Wild’s playoff hopes

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As of right now, the Wild and Sharks are both sitting in a playoff spot in the Western Conference. That’s right around where the comparison between these two teams ends. The Sharks have all but clinched a postseason berth, while the Wild are fighting for their playoff lives.

Minnesota GM Paul Fenton was pretty active at the trade deadline, as he shipped Charlie Coyle to Boston and Mikael Granlund to Nashville. They got back some pretty good players in Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala, but there’s no denying that they took a step back in order to get a little younger.

Many were inclined to believe that those moves would result in the Wild falling out of the playoff picture, but here they are. Now, it’s important to realize that they are far from being in an ideal situation. Minnesota has 74 points in 69 games. The teams behind them are right on their heels. The Coyotes have 73 points in 68 games and the Avalanche had 72 points in 69 games.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

In fairness to the Wild, they’ve had a tough stretch of games since the start of March. They opened the month by beating the Flames in Calgary and they dropped a pair of shootout decisions against the Nashville Predators on Sunday and Tuesday before surprisingly taking down the Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-0. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Friday’s 6-2 loss to Florida was devastating.

“It just felt like we weren’t ready when the puck dropped and we got behind early and we weren’t able to get the shifts back to back to get the momentum back,” said veteran forward Eric Fehr, per the Wild’s website.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened. It seemed from the start of the game we didn’t bring any part of the game we brought last night. It’s unfortunate. This was a game we needed to win and we let it go.”

The good news for Minnesota, is that Victor Rask is expected to make his return to the lineup tonight. He’s been out for almost a month with a lower-body injury.

This is a huge stretch for the team. Starting tonight, they’ll begin a five-game home stand. Four of the teams they’ll be hosting are in or near a playoff spot, as they’ll take on the Sharks, Stars, Rangers, Islanders and Avalanche.

This will either make or break their season.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Wild aren’t going away, despite injuries and trades

You’re to be forgiven if you had already written off the Minnesota Wild this season because, well, it was a pretty easy thing to do.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that they were in the middle of a stretch where they had lost nine out of 10 games, were on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture and surrounded by a pile of teams that all seemed to be in a better position to make a run at a playoff spot than they were, and the roster was in the process of being torn apart by trades and injuries.

Already playing without one of their top defenders in Mathew Dumba, they also lost their captain, Mikko Koivu, for the remainder of the season.

As if those two injuries were not enough, there were the trades that saw Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund all get shipped off in exchange for Victor Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala. Those trades allowed the Wild to get younger and a little cheaper, but it didn’t seem to make the team much better in the short-term (or even the long-term where a couple of those trades are still questionable moves).

There was every reason to believe the season was teetering on the edge of collapse not long after coach Bruce Boudreau all but guaranteed a playoff berth.

Somehow, even with all of that adversity and roster upheaval, the Wild have managed to collect a point in seven consecutive games (winning five of them) and still have a hold on a playoff spot in the Western Conference, sitting two points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche for the second Wild Card spot and only two games back of the St. Louis Blues for the third spot in the Central Division.

Their past five games alone have been against Calgary, Winnipeg, St. Louis, and Nashville (twice) and they managed to come out of that stretch with eight out of a possible 10 points. That is three of the top teams in the Western Conference and a fourth (St. Louis) that is one of the hottest teams in the league. And they came out way better than could have reasonably been expected going in.

What is driving that recent success?

For one, starting goalie Devan Dubnyk deserves a lot of credit for playing some outstanding hockey over that stretch, posting a .935 save percentage and a 5-0-1 record. If you get a .935 save percentage (and let’s not forget backup Alex Stalock posted a .953 mark in his one appearance during that stretch, too)  you are going to have a chance to win a lot of hockey games no matter what the rest of your roster looks like or who you are playing on any given night.

They have also received some big contributions from some of their newest acquisitions.

Since arriving from Boston in the Coyle trade Donato has been one of the team’s best offensive players with two goals and five assists in seven games.

Fiala also had a big game on Tuesday night with a pair of goals against his former team to help the Wild secure at least a point in the standings.

Eric Staal has also been on a role as of late with nine points over the past seven games.

[Related: Zach Parise having sneaky good season for Wild]

Put all of that together and suddenly the playoffs don’t just seem to be a possibility for the Wild, they seem to have a great chance to punch their ticket even with all of the chaos that has happened within.

It certainly helped that they caught Calgary, Winnipeg, Nashville when they did, because while all three are the top teams in the West, none of them have really played their best hockey as of late.

It has also helped that the competition for the two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference has thinned out dramatically.

Vancouver, Chicago, Edmonton, and Anaheim — teams that were all within a point or two of a playoff spot just a couple of weeks ago — have fallen back out of the race and now sit as many as seven points back. None of them, realistically speaking, are a serious threat to the Wild (or anyone else in the playoff race, for that matter).

The two biggest threats on the outside remain Colorado and Arizona, while Minnesota still has a head-to-head game remaining with each.

A couple of weeks ago the Wild were a battered team whose roster was in the process of being broken apart and were one of nine teams fighting for what would only be three playoff spots.

Today that potential playoff race has been whittled down to just five teams fighting for the same three spots.

The Wild are not only one of the five teams still in it, they are probably sitting in a better position and playing better than at least three of them. That might be all they need to get in the postseason and give themselves a chance.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.