Kevin Fiala

Getty

Kessel rumor paints strange picture for Wild’s offseason path

5 Comments

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.

Fenton ramps up roster revamp as Wild still chase playoffs

1 Comment

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The patience Minnesota Wild general manager Paul Fenton exercised last summer during his first offseason in charge has yielded to a more aggressive approach.

Fenton’s conclusion about the roster he inherited has become clear: The Wild needed to change their core of forwards before making some long-awaited advances down the Stanley Cup championship contending track.

Over the last six weeks, Fenton has dealt Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund leading up to the NHL trade deadline that passed Monday and served notice that the reshaping process will likely resume once the season is over.
Reaching the playoffs six straight times to match Anaheim for the longest active streak in the Western Conference has only produced two series wins, and Coyle and Granlund were on all six of those teams. Niederreiter was on all but one.

“That’s what I was brought here for, to make some changes,” Fenton said, later adding: “It has nothing to do with cap space or anything. It has to do with the talent level and where we are.”

Niederreiter, Coyle and Granlund, all of whom were drafted in the first round in 2010, were each shipped off at age 26, just entering their prime years, but they each fetched a forward in his early 20s. By average age at the start of the season, no team in the league was older than the Wild.

“We were trying to get younger, faster and more skilled,” Fenton said, “and the last couple of acquisitions have done that.”

Here’s the twist: The Wild are still in control of a postseason spot. They’re tied with Colorado for eighth place with 19 games remaining for each team, taking a three-game winning streak to Winnipeg for a matchup Tuesday with the Central Division leader.

“I think that this team has the potential to make the playoffs,” Fenton said, “and if you make the playoffs, you never know.”

Niederreiter was sent to Carolina on Jan. 17 for Victor Rask (age 25), who had only one goal and one assist in 10 games after the trade until suffering a lower-body injury that has kept him out of the last six games. Niederreiter, meanwhile, has nine goals and six assists in 16 games for the Hurricanes.

But on Wednesday, Coyle was swapped for Boston’s Ryan Donato (age 22), who has one goal and three assists in three games. Fenton said he noticed a “different energy” since that deal. Granlund went to Nashville for Kevin Fiala (age 22). The trades, plus the season-ending knee injury to captain Mikko Koivu , have elevated the roles of youngsters Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin.

Predators coach Peter Laviolette moved Fiala, who has 32 points in 64 games, up one line the past two games to play with Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen. Fiala had two overtime goals in the playoffs before turning 21 and scored five times in his first 18 playoff games, but he broke his leg in a second-round game against St. Louis in 2017 when Nashville reached the Stanley Cup finals. Fiala followed up with a career-best season in 2017-18 with 23 goals, 48 points, 13 power-play points and 80 games, but the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft is a dismal minus-11 this season with only 10 goals.

Fenton drafted him as the assistant general manager for the Predators, however, and remained sold on his potential to provide the unique skill and speed on the rush that the Wild have been lacking.

“He’s got an electric stick. His vision is unique,” Fenton told reporters Monday at team headquarters. “He’s got this ability to find people in really close quarters.”

Fenton, who also reached a deal with center Eric Staal on a two-year extension after deciding not to trade him and his expiring contract, apologized for the timing of the Granlund deal. His fiancée went into labor Monday, expecting their first child. Granlund also had his 27th birthday Tuesday.

“We wish them nothing but the best, especially, hopefully, with a happy, healthy baby,” Fenton said.

Granlund, who was second on the Wild with 49 points, but like Niederreiter and Coyle never quite fulfilled the potential he came with, spoke optimistically after the Wild’s overtime win over St. Louis on Sunday about keeping the team intact.

“It’s a whole new feeling in the locker room. It’s much more fun,” he said. “We’ll just try to keep it up.”

___

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Trade: Predators make splash with Granlund, Wild get Fiala

3 Comments

When rumors about the Nashville Predators moving Kevin Fiala really started to build, the worry was that they’d sell-low on a promising, but struggling, young player. Luckily, the Predators knew at least one person who’d appreciate Fiala’s skills: Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton.

With keeping up with the Winnipeg Jets in mind, the Predators made a bold move, sending Fiala to Minnesota for a very nice forward in Mikael Granlund. The deal appears to be one-for-one, according to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, and other reporters (including The Athletic’s Mike Russo.)

Predators receive: Mikael Granlund.

Wild receive: Kevin Fiala.

Predators keep pace

The Winnipeg Jets added a needed center in Kevin Hayes, so the Predators were smart to go out and get one of their own, and Mikael Granlund is a very nice find.

One nice bonus is that, unlike pending UFA Hayes, Granlund’s also not a rental — or maybe he’s one of those weekly rentals that old video stores offered. (R.I.P. Blockbuster, although those late fees were not cool.)

Granlund, 26, carries a $5.75 million cap hit through 2019-20, so Nashville gets him for two potential playoff runs.

Granlund generated 69 points in 2016-17, 67 last season, and has 49 points in 63 games. He’s a proven commodity with nice possession stats on what was a pretty sturdy possession team in Minnesota. The Predators’ second line had been struggling mightily this season, and while Kyle Turris‘ struggles have probably been exaggerated by injuries, the bottom line is that Nashville gets better down the middle.

It was clear that Fiala was losing favor with Peter Laviolette/the Predators in general. Maybe Fiala will be a great piece in the future, but the Predators get more of a sure thing in Granlund, and they didn’t just throw away the speedy winger for one run. GM David Poile sure knows how to make trades, huh?

Wild get younger

At 26, Granlund isn’t ancient, but Fiala’s four years younger at 22. There are certain underlying numbers that indicate that we haven’t seen Fiala’s ceiling yet, and in the long run, the difference between the two might not end up being as big as it seems today.

The Buzzer: Capitals, Predators even their respective series

Sunday’s results

Washington Capitals 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (series tied 1-1): The Capitals built up another lead on Sunday, but this time they didn’t let it go, tying up the Eastern Conference Second Round series in impressive fashion, although not without controversy. Washington got off to a fast start again with Alex Ovechkin scoring 1:26 in. From there, the Caps built up a 3-0 lead before Kris Letang pulled one back. Washington would add the empty netter to tie up the best-of-7 series. Lars Ellers had three assists in the game. Braden Holtby made 32 saves for the win.

Nashville Predators 5, Winnipeg Jets 4 (2OT — series tied 1-1): A thriller from beginning to end, including three regulation periods and 25:45 of overtime. Frantic action back and forth and a double-overtime winner from Kevin Fiala that sent Nashville into the stratosphere. The game had it all and the Predators avoided having to head to Winnipeg down 2-0 in the series. Ryan Johansen scored a pair, as did Mark Scheifele, and the latter has four goals in two games in the series. Nashville needed the line of Fiala, Kyle Turris and Craig Smith to show up in the series, and they left their mark on the game-winner.

Three stars

Braden Holtby, Capitals: Holtby had a solid bounce-back game, making 32 saves as the Capitals evened their series with the Penguins in a tidy 4-1 win. Holtby simply needs to be great if they want to beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs, and he was certainly that and more on Sunday afternoon.

Ryan Johansen, Predators: Call the Game 2 a must-win and then scored 27 seconds into the game for a quick lead. In the third period, he dipsy-doodled around Toby Enstrom to put the Predators up 4-3.

Mark Scheifele, Jets: Scheifele, like Johansen, scored twice in the game, including a massive goal with 65 seconds left in the third period to force overtime. Scheifele has four goals over the first two games of the series.

Highlights of the Night

Kevin Fiala’s beauty game-winner in double overtime:

Johansen did Toby Enstrom dirty on this one:

Here’s Dustin Byfuglien ragdolling two grown men with ease:

Matt Murray didn’t get the win, but he did get this save:

World class release:

Factoids of the Night

Monday’s action

Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (NBCSN) — Bruins lead series 1-0

Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks (NBCSN) — series tied 1-1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Predators’ Fiala notches winner in double overtime to even series with Jets

4 Comments

Ryan Johansen called Game 2 of the Western Conference Second Round between his Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets a must-win.

A little early for the distinction? Perhaps. But the thought of heading back to Winnipeg — and into the Whiteout — down 2-0 had to be a daunting thought.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

In a game defined by the resiliency of both teams, it was the Predators who outlasted the Jets as Kevin Fiala scored on a deke past Connor Hellebuyck on a 2-on-1 rush at 5:45 of double overtime even the best-of-7 series 1-1.

Simply put, it was a massive goal, a massive win and maybe a little redemption after a dominant performance in Game 1 left the Predators wanting in Friday’s 4-1 loss.

The majority of the 25:45 of free hockey that was played was a lesson in how manic the game of hockey can be. Chances, near-misses, desperate saves — all contained in some of the most exciting hockey thus far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The game arrived in overtime after a frantic battle between two determined teams in regulation.

If Game 1 didn’t live up to the hype after a lopsided game one way resulted in an unlikely win in the other direction, Game 2 certainly made up for it.

Mark Scheifele‘s goal with 1:05 remaining in the third period, with Winnipeg’s net vacant, capped it off and ensured the hype train would keep chugging along.

Prior to that, Johansen scored his second goal of the night to give the Predators a 4-3 lead with 14 minutes and change remaining in the game.

His first came two periods earlier, just 27 seconds into the game to give the Preds a quick 1-0 lead. The lead wouldn’t hold and the Jets scored twice in 29 seconds before the period was through, including Scheifele’s first of the game.

Nashville rallied in the second period, scoring twice to take a 3-2 lead into the third period. Brandon Tanev tied the game at 5:11 of the third, only to watch from the bench as the Johansen scored a beauty 34 seconds later to retake the lead, one that would last until Scheifele’s crucial equalizer at 18:55.

Pekka Rinne made 46 saves when it was all said and done, just 48 hours after he was removed from Game 1 following a poor outing.

Game 3 of the series shifts to Winnipeg on Tuesday night


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck