Less than a month ago, the Minnesota Wild were riding high.
As of Dec. 14, they were the best team in the NHL, perched atop the Western Conference with a two-point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks and had won seven of their previous nine games.
By Jan. 10, however, the Wild had fallen to eighth overall in the conference, holding a one-point lead over Dallas and Colorado. Since Dec. 12, they’ve lost 11 of 12 games (1-8-3).
The Wild’s steep decline can be tied to their lack of offensive production. They’ve tumbled to 29th overall in goals per game (2.19), while their power play has slipped to 24th. They’re currently 28th in the league in both shots per game (26.7) and goals scored (92).
Injuries have played a significant part in the offensive decline. Top-six forwards such as center Mikko Koivu, right winger Devin Setoguchi and left winger Pierre-Marc Bouchard have missed time, while left winger Guillaume Latendresse remains sidelined with concussion-like symptoms.
Another factor is the performance of left winger Dany Heatley, whose goal totals have been in decline since his career-best, back-to-back 50-goal seasons in 2005-06 and 2006-07 with the Ottawa Senators.
Heatley is currently on pace for a 25-goal, 54-point season, which would be his worst numbers since his injury-shortened 2003-04 campaign.
Wild management had hoped Heatley, acquired last summer from the San Jose Sharks, would mesh with first-line center and team captain Koivu, but so far the results have been disappointing.
Setoguchi, another summer addition from the Sharks, also struggled to adjust to his new club, with only 13 points in his first 28 games prior to the knee injury that knocked him out of the lineup for most of December.
The lack of production from the top line has also highlighted the Wild’s weakness in quality second-line scoring depth.
Centers Matt Cullen and Kyle Brodziak and right winger Cal Clutterbuck are among the Wild’s leading scorers. They’re certainly game, but aren’t capable of providing the kind of reliable offensive depth the Wild need at this point in the season.
Another problem is a lack of offensive contributions from the blueline. As Michael Russo of the Startribune.com recently observed, Wild defensemen have accounted for only six goals this season. They’ve failed to get shots through traffic, and when they do, they’re often well wide.
Another problem for the Wild is they entered mid-January tied with the Ottawa Senators for the most shots-against per game (31.9). For a team that’s long prided itself on strong defensive play, this is a troubling stat.
Thankfully for the Wild, their goals-against per game is the sixth-lowest (2.31), a credit to the goaltending tandem of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, though Backstrom has won only once in his past six games and appears to be showing signs of wear.
Russo recently reported Wild GM Chuck Fletcher “is monitoring the team closely,” but while Fletcher admitted he’s working the phones, he said he’s not interested in short-term fixes.
Fletcher stated he’s not afraid to be aggressive if needed, a trait he demonstrated last summer with his bold moves for Heatley and Setoguchi, though he admitted making similar moves during the season is more difficult.
He also said the health of his roster, especially that of power forward Latendresse, will determine what moves will be made in the coming weeks.
The Wild have been linked to New Jersey Devils left winger Zach Parise, but Russo believes they’ll pursue him as a free agent this summer rather than through a trade. Given the Devils’ improvement this season, they’re unlikely to part with Parise even if he’s still unsigned by the trade deadline.
Russo suggested Fletcher will draw from his depth of defensemen and goaltenders to address his need for more scoring depth. The Philadelphia Flyers might be in the market for a defenseman, while the Tampa Bay Lightning need goaltending depth.
Fletcher will remain patient for the time being, but if his team hasn’t pulled out of its skid in a couple of weeks, it will force him to shop aggressively for a deal to help the Wild secure a playoff berth.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.