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Wild add Zuccarello, Hartman, as GM seeks more ‘hardness’

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild zeroed in on Mats Zuccarello as free agency approached, desiring his competitive drive and playmaking skills for a top-six forward group in need of a new look.

With a five-year, $30 million contract the right wing agreed to Monday when the market opened, Zuccarello has given the Wild another thirtysomething core player on a major deal. Even following their first postseason absence in seven years, though, general manager Paul Fenton was noticeably upbeat about the makeup of his roster.

”You’ve got to have a team that you’re going to field and let these young guys grow with it, so to me it’s just an insulation,” Fenton said, adding: ”He doesn’t have a ton of miles on him if you really look at it. He’s been a healthy player.”

For the fourth line, the Wild also agreed on a two-year, $3.8 million contract with right wing Ryan Hartman, who was not tendered a qualifying offer by Dallas last week. That’ll probably be the extent of the summer maneuvering, Fenton said, with the post-injury recoveries of center Mikko Koivu (knee) and defenseman Matt Dumba (shoulder) now the most important developments leading into training camp.

Zuccarello has 355 points in 511 regular season games, including a combined 12 goals and 28 assists in 48 games for the New York Rangers and the Stars in 2018-19. The 31-year-old has 42 points in 73 career playoff games. The 5-foot-8, 184-pound native of Oslo who is one of only eight players in NHL history born in Norway , according to online database Hockey Reference, played his first eight-plus seasons with the Rangers.

In his first appearance with the Stars, Zuccarello registered a goal, an assist, and a broken right arm suffered while blocking a shot . He needed surgery and missed 17 games. Returning in April, Zuccarello had four goals and seven assists in 13 postseason contests for the Stars, who took eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.

”The way that this guy competes is going to be contagious for our team,” Fenton said, adding: ”I would like our team to play with a little more hardness and passion and excitement, and I think he’ll not only do it himself, but he’ll bring people along with him.”

With left wing Zach Parise, defenseman Ryan Suter, Zuccarello and Koivu, four of the Wild’s top six salary cap charges this season will be carried by players 31 and older, but Zuccarello categorized himself as an ”in-between” guy on a team grooming an under-23 core of forwards Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek.

Zuccarello, a self-described ”hockey nerd,” was eager to immerse himself in a hockey-savvy market with a conveniently significant amount of residents with Norwegian heritage. He could also form a uniquely alliterative first line flank with Jason Zucker around veteran center Eric Staal.

The Wild scored just 210 goals last season, the fifth-fewest in the league.

”It’s a really good mixture of players, and I think hopefully with the pieces we got this summer we can be a contender,” Zuccarello said.

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.)

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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.

Predators reclaim top spot in Central, Wild pick up huge point

At some point you have to think all of the players the Minnesota Wild have lost over the past few weeks, whether by injury or trade, is going to catch up to them.

Even though they fell to the Nashville Predators in a shootout on Tuesday night, 5-4, they still managed to pick up a huge point in the standings by taking the game to overtime and extending their current point streak to seven games. They are 5-0-2 during that stretch and are guaranteed to remain in a playoff position in the Western Conference through the end of the night on Tuesday.

Considering what this team has gone through this season it is a pretty incredible accomplishment.

They’ve already lost Matt Dumba and Mikko Koivu to injury.

They traded Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund.

On Tuesday they got another scare when forward Jason Zucker had to briefly leave the game with what looked to be a fairly significant injury only to see him return to the lineup.

Given where the Wild were in the standings when they started trading off players, and at one point had lost nine out of 10 games leading up to the trade deadline, they probably should have been out of this race long ago. But here they are, still hanging around. By this point we know the bottom of the Western Conference field is as weak as it has been in years, but it is still impressive this team has overcome the adversity it has over the past couple of weeks to still have a shot to get in.

Kevin Fiala, who was acquired from the Predators on deadline day in exchange for Granlund, played a big role in helping to keep them afloat on Tuesday when he scored a pair of goals against his former team, including the game-tying goal late in the third period.

But let’s not forget about the Predators here because this was a huge night for them, too.

Their win, combined with the Winnipeg Jets’ 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, put them back into the top spot in the Central Division for the time being. They have not been playing their best hockey as of late, but they have still won five of their past eight games to keep going back-and-forth with the Jets at the top of the Central.

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: Wild flirting with playoffs, but big picture should be GM’s focus

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

While Bruce Boudreau is still believing he can guide his Wild team into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, his boss is focusing on reshaping a roster that he inherited that’s been quite inconsistent with results.

As NHL trade deadline approaches, Paul Fenton is in listening mode, having already moved Charlie Coyle, which brought in Ryan Donato from the Boston Bruins. There’s still more he can do before 3 p.m. ET Monday. Eric Staal, who owns a modified no-trade clause, is on an expiring deal, as is defenseman Brad Hunt, who was acquired in January from the Vegas Golden Knights. Beyond those two pending unrestricted free agents, there could be value in moving a Mikael Granlund or Jonas Brodin (both signed through next season) or a Jared Spurgeon (tied up until 2020), but are those pieces the GM wants to build around or use to bring back future assets?

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Following two straight wins heading into Sunday’s meeting with the Blues, the Wild are a point out of a Western Conference wild card spot and seven points behind St. Louis in the Central Division. Fenton has said he’s been waiting for his players to dictate what he’s going to do before Monday afternoon.

The handcuff on a major clean out is, of course, the contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Both are signed through the 2024-25 season and eat up nearly $16M in cap space a season, which hampers things even with a cap ceiling that has been rising every year. The current roster hasn’t cut it, so changes will have to be made.

There is certainly opportunity in the wide open bottom portion of the West. But as a new GM, Fenton has to think of the long-term picture of his team. This is also a roster that will be without Mikko Koivu and Matt Dumba for the rest of the season. A reset is needed, and even the owner is behind whatever moves are necessary, even if it costs them a playoff spot.

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’) will have the call from Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen with Keith Jones and Anson Carter.

Boudreau feeling confident about Wild’s chances to earn playoff spot

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With one victory in their last seven games as they cling to the final wild card spot in the Western Conference, Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau is feeling confident about getting in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and putting up a fight.

Appearing on the Paul Allen Show on KFAN Thursday morning, Boudreau went all Mark Messier on us.

“I can tell you right now; I’m not Joe Namath, but we are going to make the playoffs,” he said. “And we’re going to be somebody hard to deal with … I’m making that prediction right now.”

He followed that up later in the morning after the Wild’s skate ahead of their Friday game against the New Jersey Devils.

“We’re going to make the playoffs,” Boudreau said via the Star Tribune. “That’s about as elaborate as I want to get. You want me to predict how many wins we’re going to have in the last month and a half? No. But we’re going to make the playoffs.”

The Wild currently have a two-point cushion as the West’s second wild card, leading a crowded pack at the bottom of the conference standings. There are six teams within six points of Minnesota, and just to show how nutty the playoff picture is even the last-place Los Angeles Kings are eight points behind.

They’ve made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, but have been unable to get out of the first round since 2015. But right now Boudreau said he feels his team is “on the edge of things being really good rather than being very mediocre.”

It hasn’t been an easy second half for Boudreau or the Wild, and it should make the upcoming NHL trade deadline interesting. New general manager Paul Fenton is still taking stock of what he has as he looks to reshape the team’s future. 

“There will be some hard decisions to make come the trade deadline, but in the next 10 days or so, it will be determined by just how people play,” Fenton told Dan Rosen of NHL.com last week.

Eric Staal, Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks, Brad Hunt, and Anthony Bitetto are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. Does the value of moving any of them for future assets outweigh that of keeping them and attempting to put up a fight against potential opening round opponents in Winnipeg, Nashville, San Jose, or Calgary? They’re already without captain Mikko Koivu and defenseman Matt Dumba for the rest of the season due to injury, and are in need of Jason Zucker picking it up offensively. The Nino Niederreiter trade is not off to a good start from Minnesota’s perspective either.

When asked if the Wild’s current cushion remains tight come Feb. 25, the day before the trade deadline, Fenton put it simply.

“Then I’ve got a hard decision to make, a very, very hard decision,” he said. “To evaluate this team the next little bit is certainly the reason that we’re having this conversation right now.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.