One of the notable moves at this year’s trade deadline was the Minnesota Wild shipping long-time defenseman Nick Schultz to the Edmonton Oilers for puck-moving blueliner Tom Gilbert.
It was another in a series of bold moves Wild GM Chuck Fletcher has made since the 2011 June draft, shipping right winger Martin Havlat and defenseman Brent Burns to the San Jose Sharks in separate deals for left winger Dany Heatley and right winger Devin Setoguchi.
The question is, will this latest bold move have better results than those previous ones?
It’s apparent Fletcher wants to change the culture of the Wild, shifting them from their long-entrenched defensive style to a more fast-paced offensive one.
The change seemed to be working from Oct. 29 to Dec. 10, when the Wild won 17 of 21 games, pushing their record in their first 30 games to an impressive 20-7-3, putting them atop the Northwest Division and challenging for first in the Western Conference.
Since Dec. 13, however, after a 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, the Wild have gone 8-19-6, sliding to fourth in the Northwest and dropping to 12th in the conference, six points out of a playoff berth.
Their woeful offensive production has been a significant factor in the decline. The Wild are currently the second-lowest scoring team in the league, with the lowest shots-on-goal average (26.6 per game) and among the bottom third on the power play.
Injuries contributed to their decline, especially among their scoring forwards.
Center and captain Mikko Koivu has been in and out of the lineup with leg and shoulder injuries. Concussions once again waylaid left winger Guillaume Latendresse and center Pierre-Marc Bouchard, while Setoguchi lost 12 games to an ankle injury.
The disappointing performances of Heatley and Setoguchi also factored into their slide.
Brought in to bolster the Wild’s anemic offense, Heatley is on pace for 24 goals and 57 points, his lowest numbers since his final, injury-shortened season with Atlanta in 2003-04, when he netted 25 points in 31 games.
Observers found it curious San Jose would swap Heatley for an injury-plagued Havlat, but it appears Sharks management knew something Fletcher didn’t, for the 31-year-old Heatley looks like a spent force.
Setoguchi, despite his early-season ankle injury, is on pace for his fourth-straight 20-plus goal season, but showing no signs of returning to the 31-goal, 65-point numbers of 2008-09, when he benefitted from playing on Joe Thornton’s line.
Only 25, Setoguchi is about to reach his prime, so there’s still time for him to evolve into a top-line winger, but at this point the results aren’t encouraging. In the eyes of many Wild fans, he wasn’t worth parting with popular Brent Burns.
Fletcher shopped in vain for scoring forwards, but rival clubs wanted him to part with promising prospects like centers Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle (acquired from the Sharks in the Burns deal) and defenseman Jonas Brodin. As badly as Fletcher needed scoring, he refused to mortgage his future for a quick fix.
It was also apparent the Wild missed Burns’ contributions from the blueline.
Veteran blueliner Marek Zidlicky struggled with concussion symptoms and clashed with coach Mike Yeo. Sophomore Jared Spurgeon, 22, has shown promise – he’ son pace for 27 points – but he’s a long way yet from filling Burns’ role.
That explains why Fletcher dealt the stay-at-home Schultz for the more offense-minded Gilbert at the trade deadline and picked up defenseman Kurtis Foster when he shipped the unhappy Zidlicky to the New Jersey Devils.
Even the Wild’s once-vaunted defensive game collapsed over the course of the season. Though they possess the 10th-best goals-against average and 10th-best penalty kill, they’ve also given up the third-most shots-against (31.6).
If not for goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, those GAA and PK numbers would be much worse.
Barring a surge down the stretch, the Wild will miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
With more than $43.7 million invested in 13 players for next season, Fletcher will have sufficient cap space – depending on the salary cap levels under the next collective bargaining agreement – to seek more offensive depth during the off-season via trades or free agency.
A growing number of Wild fans are pinning their hopes on Fletcher convincing New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise, a Minnesota native, to come home by waving a fat contract at him.
Wild fans must remember Parise’s claim that playing for a Stanley Cup contender is also important to him. Fletcher could have a difficult time convincing Parise the Wild are on track to becoming Cup contenders.
Healthier seasons from Koivu, Latendresse and Bouchard would help. Koivu stands the best chance of a bounce-back season, but the post-concussion symptoms plaguing Latendresse and Bouchard add urgency to Fletcher’s need to bolster his offensive lines this summer.
It’s also possible an additional boost could come from Granlund or Coyle, if they’re ready to make their NHL debuts next season.
For now, however, looking ahead to off-season moves and the promise of their prospects is a disappointing way to end a season that began with so much promise.
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.