Craig Leipold was on the edge of his seat. The Wild owner leaned forward, literally at the edge of his personal seat inside his suite at Xcel Energy Center.
Leipold’s face turned a shade of red that left no ambiguity about his mood. He was ticked. He smacked the palm of his hand with a rolled-up piece of paper.
Something on the ice upset him. A bad play by his team. It happened in the first period. The first period of a preseason game a few years ago. The owner, who doubles as a super fan, was not happy.
Wild fans honestly expect this guy to tank?
The owner who asked for “tweaks” upon firing his general manager after last season’s playoff flameout?
Leipold’s organization is at a crossroads, and he’s smack dab in the middle directing traffic. Buy or sell, that is the question the Wild faces as the NHL trade deadline looms.
Actually, the more pertinent question should be, sell or stand pat?
This is a tricky spot for Leipold and new General Manager Paul Fenton. The Wild is good enough to be a playoff team but not good enough to win the Stanley Cup. It’s also difficult to envision the Wild being bad enough to land a top-five draft pick, barring an all-time tank job.
In that regard, the organization is stuck.
The Wild’s lackluster return from the All-Star break coupled with Mikko Koivu’s season-ending injury has provided a sense of impending doom. Fans who are tired of the same old, same old are becoming increasingly agitated. The chorus grows louder after each loss: “Trade everybody! Tank!”
One problem: The Wild’s playoff fate won’t have crystal-clear clarity by the Feb. 25 trade deadline. The NHL’s point system is designed to keep as many teams in the playoff hunt as long as possible, usually until the final few weeks.
The Wild continues to hold the No. 1 wild-card spot in the Western Conference after Saturday’s 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils. Even if the team slips to, say, No. 9 or 10 in the West, the point differential will remain close enough that a playoff berth is realistic.
So would Fenton essentially be willing to concede defeat by trading veterans? Better yet, would Leipold agree to turn an eye toward the future when his team still might make the playoffs and earn the owner another round of postseason revenue?
Leipold doesn’t come across as a fold ’em kind of owner, but he’s also probably realistic about his team’s chances. The organization also knows its fan base is restless.
The roster isn’t championship caliber as constructed, especially with the injury situation. A teardown this offseason will be prudent, to the extent that significant roster moves are possible.
Playoff appearances become less appealing if they are followed by quick exits every year. And nothing to date this season suggests anything other than another quick exit if the Wild extends its playoff streak. The roster looks slow and lacking firepower, for starters.
Fenton’s first attempt to shake things up — trading Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for Victor Rask — hasn’t exactly produced banner results. Rask centered the fourth line Saturday while Niederreiter has found his scoring touch in Carolina. That doesn’t mean Fenton was wrong to trade Niederreiter, who had plenty of opportunities to prove his value in a Wild uniform.
At this point, the Wild isn’t in ideal position to act as buyers. The team doesn’t appear equipped for a lengthy playoff run, and Fenton can’t take on any more bad veteran contracts.
Yet selling while in the playoff picture would be bad optics. Hurting your own chances by weakening the roster runs counter to the primary objective in sports.
A segment of fans has grown tired of simply making the playoffs, only to see the Wild fizzle out. Leipold’s competitive nature would never accept outright tanking to improve draft positioning. But if his team doesn’t catch fire quickly, trading a veteran might become tempting, even in the heat of a playoff race.