Of all the news the Minnesota Wild could have received about Mikko Koivu, of all the possibilities after he left the ice nursing an evident knee injury following a collision in Tuesday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres, this was the worst. On Wednesday, the Wild announced that Koivu suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee. He won’t be back again this season.
Losing Koivu, who will go under the knife Friday to repair his knee, is a game-changer for the Wild. While from a statistical standpoint the 34-year-old isn’t exactly on pace to enter himself into the Art Ross Trophy race, in line for 13 goals and 47 points before falling injured, Koivu is a crucial piece in Minnesota, one of the league’s best — and undeniably one of the most underrated — two-way pivots in the NHL. He’s an asset Minnesota couldn’t afford to lose, particularly if the wild-card contending Wild had planned to take one final shot with this group before undergoing some necessary changes. With Koivu, there was at least a chance of making something happen come the post-season. Without him? That chance has all but disappeared.
Yes, as they wake up Thursday without the services of their captain for the remainder of the campaign, the Wild will find themselves in a playoff position, three points back of the Dallas Stars from the final Central Division berth and three points clear of the Vancouver Canucks, who are clinging to the final wild-card position in the conference. But for Minnesota, losing Koivu was a death knell of sorts, because if it wasn’t evident before, it sure is now: there’s no way forward for the Wild without taking a step backward.
To be sure, this isn’t an altogether new concept. It was less than one month ago around these parts that we noted Minnesota was in limbo in the Western Conference, stuck somewhere between playoff contention and spring tee times. However, at that point, it seemed all the more likely that Wild GM Paul Fenton would do what he could to give his group a jolt heading into the post-season, something he appeared to attempt with the swap that sent Nino Niederreiter to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Victor Rask. The Koivu injury, though, changes things significantly. Without a first-line center, and almost inarguably the most versatile skater in the lineup, the time to start the process of retooling this lineup has to begin now. There’s no reason to cling to playoff hopes now.
That means selling at the deadline, and potentially selling big. It’s not an ideal situation, no doubt, but neither is losing one of your best forwards in the stretch run. The positive, though, is that Minnesota has some nice assets that could be moved out ahead of the trade freeze. Eric Staal, for instance, should draw serious interest for teams looking for veteran, depth scoring with playoff and Stanley Cup experience. Staal, 34, has had somewhat of a career resurgence with the Wild, too, that could make him a decent-sized trade chip, worthy of a prospect and pick-type return. His 17 goals and 37 points put him 10th in scoring among pure rental — which is to say pending unrestricted free agent — forwards. There’s definite value there.
Also possessing value, admittedly to a much lesser extent, are pending UFAs Eric Fehr, 33, and Matt Hendricks, 37. Though some may chuckle at the suggestions, both could be decent fourth-line acquisitions for teams currently shoehorning an inexperienced and not-yet-ready youngster into the lineup or trying to round out their lineup by shoving square peg into a round hole.
The Wild’s deadline trade options don’t end at the pending UFAs, however. One of the more sought after pieces on the roster, and one who has been the subject of trade speculation in the past, is Charlie Coyle, whose contract expires following the 2019-20 campaign. The 26-year-old has attributes that many contending teams will desire, as he boasts size, skates well and can finish. In the right situation, he could truly flourish in a power-forward role. And on pace for 15-goals and 43 points this season, he’s going to draw some attention if Fenton decides to pull the trigger on moving what assets he can. Coyle could be the piece that fetches the greatest return.
Some will, of course, suggest that selling at the deadline is foolish, and there is indeed a reason we don’t often see wild-card clubs sell. Any team, at any time, can get hot and go on a run that takes them to the promised land so long as they get into the post-season. The reality, though, is that the team that does so almost assuredly won’t be the Wild. It simply won’t be the case. This is a team with far too many vulnerabilities to make a serious run despite presently sitting in a wild-card spot. They have stagnated offensively and they’ve been only mediocre in their own half of the ice. The loss of Matt Dumba didn’t help matters earlier this season, and losing a defensive-minded center who has helped drive play only further hinders this roster. The only hope, really, is Devan Dubnyk. Teams that are goaltending and goaltending alone rarely fare well in the post-season, though.
So, we ask, what exactly would the Wild stand to gain if they held onto rental assets instead of moving them along for picks, prospects or players who can potentially help in the future? A few post-season games that will add some extra revenue, sure, but a series that will end disappointingly early, in much the same way the past several trips to the playoffs have? That will do little for Minnesota now or down the line. That kind of post-season appearance is necessary for a team on the rise that craves experience or needs that taste in order to take the next step forward. But the Wild aren’t that team. Rather, they’re a veteran-laden win-now type team that simply doesn’t have the horses.
And the only way the Wild can really, truly reach that point, especially in the modern NHL, is by building a deeper prospect pool and starting the process of getting younger. Not everything must go, but what assets can be sold off, should. Adding picks and prospects can rejuvenate this club, and a few bullseyes when throwing darts in the annual pick-and-pray process known as the draft stands to accelerate that process more than throwing around money in free agency ever could.
Before Koivu fell injured, Fenton at least had an argument for delaying the process of cleaning up the mess — the salary cap situation, the mediocre prospect pool, the relatively geriatric roster — left behind by his predecessors. It’s hard to see now, though, how the Wild will have any choice but to start taking those steps in the immediate future.