The timing, Chuck Fletcher said, was merely coincidental. Monday's swap of the underachieving Benoit Pouliot for Montreal winger Guillaume Latendresse wasn't meant to strike fear in the Wild locker room in the wake of an 8-12-2 start.

It will inevitably have that effect on some players. But the general manager sent a more hopeful message, too: that he stands ready and willing to upgrade his roster any time the opportunity presents itself. Only three trades involving NHL players have been made since the season began on Oct. 1, and Fletcher has made two of them, demonstrating a refreshing inclination to continually scrutinize his team and take steps to improve it.

Under former General Manager Doug Risebrough, the Wild rarely made trades during the season. Fletcher and coach Todd Richards said Tuesday they're prepared to act whenever they see an opportunity, a good sign for an evolving franchise.

"The timing of the [Pouliot] trade had nothing to do with our record or our schedule,'' Fletcher said. "There was no intended effect to create a jolt or impact on the team. This was a trade that made sense for both teams, and it would have regardless of our record.

"We still feel we have room for internal growth here. We have players on the roster who have been getting better offensively and creating more chances, and we feel they'll continue to do so. But any time we can upgrade our talent level, we'll take advantage of it.''

The ultraconservative Risebrough always erred on the side of caution when it came to swapping players. Last spring, when the slumping Wild was trying to claw its way into the playoffs, many of its rivals made deals at the trade deadline. The Wild did nothing, then lost 10 of its next 17 games and finished three points shy of the postseason.

Thus far, Fletcher hasn't shown any reluctance to pull the trigger. Less than three weeks into the season, he got Chuck Kobasew from Boston, and the winger has proven a good fit. Fletcher claimed Andrew Ebbett, expected to make his Wild debut Wednesday night against Boston, off the waiver wire on Saturday.

Latendresse, he said, will likely help the Wild more in the future than in the present. He expects Ebbett to have immediate impact by adding depth to the forward corps, giving Richards more lineup options and creating internal competition.

The coach welcomed the moves, as he shares Fletcher's philosophy of seizing opportunities as they come. "If you're looking to improve the organization, you do it whenever it comes up,'' he said. "We're all looking to make ourselves better. We won't make a trade for the point of making a trade, but if we really feel it makes the organization and the team better, that's the road we want to go down.''

While their willingness to deal could make some players nervous, defenseman Nick Schultz put a more positive spin on it. "I think it's good,'' he said. "[Fletcher] is trying to improve the team. It might get guys thinking they've got to play well. That's something where in the past, we maybe haven't had that nearly as much.''

Fletcher emphasized he isn't unhappy with the Wild in its current state. In fact, he said, he couldn't be more pleased with the way the team has played in its past 10 games. He lauded improvements in the Wild's cohesiveness, as well as its ability to execute the syle of play Richards has instituted.

He'll continue his daily conversations with other GMs around the league. But he wouldn't be disappointed if his team makes a case for maintaining the status quo.

"Our challenge is, can we play the rest of the season like we did the last 10 games?'' he said. "If we do, we'll be competing for a playoff spot all year long, and we'll be a team that will have to be reckoned with. If we can't sustain that level, we're obviously going to be in trouble.

"We're no different from a lot of teams. If we can upgrade our ability to score goals, we will. But I like the direction we're going.''

Rachel Blount •