WINNIPEG – The group that became known for a constant loop of peaks and valleys began the season for the Wild but won’t finish it. Not after a disintegration of the core executed in the second half by first-year General Manager Paul Fenton.
A new roster now will try to get the team into the playoffs for a seventh straight spring.
But once the season ends, more changes seem inevitable. Fenton’s maneuvering so far has revealed an agenda targeting youthful skill and speed to help end the cycle of strong regular season starts and early playoff exits.
“As much as you’d like to pretend or think he’s going to come in here and just sit with the team that’s in here, that’s not his job,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “That’s not why he’s brought in here. He’s going to take his time to observe and watch, and then he’s going to make his moves and build us accordingly.”
With a contingent of veterans locked up on long-term contracts and the team poised to miss out on a top draft pick if it keeps hovering around the playoff cutline the rest of the way, this transition has the feel of a renovation rather than a full-scale rebuild.
Fenton’s moves suggested as much since each trade that’s subtracted a former roster fixture has brought in someone new.
Winger Nino Niederreiter was moved out in favor of a center in Victor Rask, versatile forward Charlie Coyle fetched 22-year-old winger Ryan Donato and a conditional fifth-round pick, Mikael Granlund netted another young winger in Kevin Fiala — one of the last trades before Monday’s deadline that extricated another link to the team’s competitive but stale past.
“I don’t know if it caught him by surprise,” Dubnyk said of Granlund. “I think it caught me, caught a lot of us by surprise. He’s been a great player for us. It’s sad when you lose guys like that.”
Despite Monday capping off nearly six weeks of turnover for the Wild, Fenton made it clear he’s not finished fussing with the lineup, and winger Jason Zucker certainly looks like a candidate to be the next to go.
The Wild received an offer from the Calgary Flames for Zucker before the deadline, a deal that would have secured it future assets, a source said, but the trade never came to fruition.
“I’m going to forget about it,” Zucker said. “I’m going to forget about it. I have no comment on that.”
Zucker signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract to remain with the Wild last summer, but he’ll be a name to watch once chatter picks up leading into the June draft. His deal has a modified no-trade clause that kicks in July 1.
There are other decisions to be made, though, that don’t involve the trade market.
Donato, Fiala and winger Pontus Aberg are restricted free agents up for new contracts; same with center Joel Eriksson Ek, who has blossomed in an enhanced role while captain Mikko Koivu recovers from a torn ACL and meniscus. Center Eric Fehr, and defensemen Brad Hunt and Anthony Bitetto are the unrestricted free agents, a class that shrunk once center Eric Staal signed a two-year, $6.5 million extension Monday.
So while the current setup is the one management has settled on for the present, it may not become the look of the future — perhaps just a makeshift rendition until the team completely takes on the identity of Fenton’s vision.
“At this point right now, you don’t brace for anything,” Staal said. “You brace for trying to make the playoffs. That’s the main focus. We’ll worry about that later on. Right now this is the group we have. We have good players here. We’ve got a team that has the ability to make the playoffs, and we’re in a spot right now. But we need to win games.”
• Columbus was among the most active teams before Monday’s NHL trade deadline, loading up as it goes all-in on a playoff run. Not only did the Blue Jackets snag prized rental Matt Duchene, but it also lassoed forward Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid – all of this in addition to keeping soon-to-be free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. It’s a bold strategy, keeping players who could walk for nothing in the summer, but it has the potential to pay off significantly for the team.
• Vegas hasn’t been as dynamic this season as it was in its debut when it waltzed to the Western Conference final, but its outlook improved Monday once it acquired winger Mark Stone from Ottawa. Stone was greeted at the airport by the Golden Knights mascot, a drum line and cheerleaders, a spirited welcome fitting for what Stone’s arrival signified. With 28 goals and 34 assists this season with the Senators, he’s primed to boost Vegas’ offense as it vies for seeding in the Pacific Division.
• Adding Mikael Granlund from the Wild wasn’t the Predators’ only move Monday; they also landed winger Wayne Simmonds from the Flyers. The Predators are battling the Jets for the top seed in the Central Division, and Winnipeg also beefed up its lineup by bringing in center Kevin Hayes and the experience of former Wild veteran Matt Hendricks. Which team recalibrates the best after these acquisitions will be intriguing to watch. It could determine who’s crowned the division leader and who’s the favorite in the West in the playoffs.
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and NHL hockey for the Star Tribune.