With the Wild having 23 games in the season’s final 41 days once its “bye” ends Monday — and with a 16-game month of March around the corner — General Manager Chuck Fletcher echoed precisely what Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said before Tuesday’s Wild-Blackhawks game.
The Ottawa Senators losing three players in one game a night earlier was a chilling reminder you can never have too much depth.
If the Wild wants to survive potential injuries and fatigue during the stretch run and battle through what it hopes is four playoff rounds, improving the forward depth may be the team’s biggest need as next Wednesday’s trade deadline approaches.
“I think that’s fair. I think we’ve got more unproven depth up front than we do on defense,” Fletcher said, referring to beyond the Wild’s 10 proven NHL forwards. “We have [Jordan] Schroeder and [Tyler] Graovac, who are here, but the guys behind them [in Iowa] are a little more unproven.
“That’s why you’re always talking to see if somebody you can get can fit in and contribute and upgrade your depth. If you can do that, I think you need to do that.”
What makes this trade deadline more challenging than most is a lot of teams are thinking the same way.
In the East, of the eight teams outside the playoff bubble, six are within six points of a playoff spot. In the West, of the six teams outside the playoff bubble, three are within six points.
“There’s still a lot of teams in a wait-and-see mode,” Fletcher said. “There doesn’t seem to be as many teams right now actively selling. There are a lot more teams either holding or looking to buy.”
There are a few other key issues complicating matters: 1) Few teams, including the Wild, want to add term beyond this season because of the limited number of players who can be protected in June’s Vegas expansion draft and the fact this season’s $73 million salary cap is not expected to rise significantly — if at all — next season; 2) Buyers, like the Wild, don’t have a lot of available cap space for trade-deadline moves.
Entering Tuesday’s game, the Wild had enough space to add about a $2.8 million player or group of players without giving up salary in return. That increased to more than $4 million by sending Graovac and Gustav Olofsson to Iowa after the game, but that’s deceiving because the Wild will need to recall a forward Sunday to field four lines unless a trade is made before then.
“So if you want to add a $3 million player, you don’t have room,” Fletcher said before Tuesday’s game. “You’ve got to get creative. And, every time you have to get creative, it creates more wrinkles into the thing.”
The two ways Fletcher can get creative if he wants to add a player or players making more than $3 million: 1) Get his trading partner to retain cap space; 2) Trade a body or bodies off his current roster.
There has been speculation Fletcher would be willing to trade defenseman Marco Scandella ($4 million cap hit) or right wing Jason Pominville ($5.6 million cap hit, has a 20-team no-trade list), especially because Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter will command significant raises this offseason as restricted free agents.
But Fletcher insists, “I don’t think we have any interest in that type of thing right now. Our team has played so well this year, we’ve got pretty good depth. If we do anything, it would be to add to that depth or maybe add some pieces around the edges to give us some more insurance. I want to add to our depth, not take away from it, so I don’t think we’d be cutting out any core pieces at this point.
“You never say never, but it’s not something I’m pursuing.”
Who’s out there?
With cap space so limited, the Wild is believed to have interest in two players several others are also pursuing for the same reason: Dallas Stars winger Patrick Eaves ($1 million) and Tampa Bay Lightning center Brian Boyle ($2 million).
The Stars are close to being in sell mode, but the Lightning might not be. Tampa Bay is 5-0-2 in its past seven, is suddenly four points out of a playoff spot and expects injured Steven Stamkos back by the end of the season.
Other “rentals” the Wild could afford include Detroit Red Wings agitating center Steve Ott ($800,000), whom the Wild tried to sign in 2014; Edmonton Oilers winger Matt Hendricks ($1.85 million); and New Jersey Devils winger P.A. Parenteau ($1.25 million), although the Wild has chosen not to acquire him many times in the past.
The Wild also is considering signing Ryan Carter to a one-year contract in the $575,000 range.
Arizona center Martin Hanzal also makes sense, but the Coyotes want significant assets for the rental and at a $3.1 million cap, the Wild and Coyotes would have to get creative to make it work.
In deadlines past, the Wild has looked at adding different elements like goal-scoring and size. Leading the Western Conference puts Minnesota in a different spot this deadline, although the Blackhawks reminded the Wild on Tuesday night that a franchise with three Stanley Cups in seven years still stands in its way.
“We like the core of our team,” Fletcher said. “We’re not looking to reinvent our team now. It’s just more about making sure we have enough depth down the stretch.”