Each team’s fate is forecast by how it slots into the NHL’s hierarchy, a snapshot that can change daily and yet is the most reliable gauge.
But there is another barometer.
Decisionmaking at the trade deadline.
The contenders usually add and the bottom-feeders subtract to recoup assets for the future, with this trend already emerging before the window closes at 2 p.m. Central time Monday. Playoff-bound groups like the Penguins and Flyers have improved, while the Senators and Rangers are purging their rosters as their seasons approach a finite expiration date.
Not every team with a chance to contend, though, could end up as an active buyer.
A case could certainly be made to keep a lineup intact that has succeeded enough to be in the hunt at the end of February, and chemistry will be considered by Wild brass as it approaches the deadline.
“We’re trending in the right direction,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “You can’t always look outside your group for answers. Sometimes you need to allow your group time to come together and continue to play, particularly if there’s upside within your group. And I think that’s always gotta be a discerning factor.”
The team’s recent surge, which included sweeping its three-game road trip through New York and New Jersey, hasn’t changed management’s outlook on the deadline.
Fletcher is engaged in talks with other clubs, getting a feel for who’s available and who’s not. But whether this due diligence results in a deal of major significance is unclear.
And if the Wild operated conservatively, it wouldn’t be surprising.
“We got a pretty good group in here that’s been playing well together for a long time,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “I don’t think you ever hope for anything. You never want to see anybody go at the trade deadline. I’d be more than happy to see nothing going on.”
As a team near the salary-cap ceiling, there isn’t much flexibility and parting with prized prospects isn’t in the team’s plans. Making player for player moves from the current roster, then, would seem like a logical option, but the candidates seem limited.
Impending unrestricted free agents such as Matt Cullen and Daniel Winnik are usually the obvious choices, but their roles are typically vital in the playoffs. Actually, bringing in more depth may be the team’s preference, an addition one league source could envision the Wild making in exchange for a midround pick.
Either way, the organization’s decision to beef up the lineup or leave it alone isn’t an indictment on the group’s potential. And the players are confident in who’s already in the mix.
“We believe we’ve got a good team,” center Eric Staal said. “We’ve got a team that’s competitive. We can play against anybody. We got some games here left to keep trying to climb the ladder, so our focus is on that whether Chuck decides to add or whatever he decides to do by Monday. But for us, we’ll try to do our jobs and be ready to go.”
This is a group that does seem to be trending positively, with its recent showing on the road a microcosm of that progress. The Wild was resilient, easily erasing deficits. It had solid goaltending and production from everywhere.
But teams with similar realities have tweaked their looks to varying results.
“I don’t think you can blame someone for trying to add and make it work,” winger Zach Parise said. “Everyone’s trying to make that big playoff push, but I’ve seen both. I’ve seen sometimes where you don’t do anything and you just leave it, and it works great. And I’ve seen you add a small piece that you were missing — maybe it’s a righthanded player. All of a sudden, everything just clicks.”
The objective is to lift the Stanley Cup, and that pursuit tends to require teams to address needs and make changes.
Evaluating what it would take to improve the Wild is the focus, regardless if it results in any roster turnover.
“Sometimes it’s best just to do nothing and leave it be,” assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. “But we’ll see what the next couple days bring us and if we have a chance to make a couple moves, we may. If not, we’ll be content to stay status quo.”
• Front-runners for this season’s Hart Trophy as league MVP aren’t hard to spot. The Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov continues to pace the NHL in points. Nathan MacKinnon has been a key catalyst in the Avalanche’s revitalization. And, of course, Alex Ovechkin is headlining the Capitals’ pursuit of the Metropolitan Division title. But maybe Devils winger Taylor Hall deserves some attention. He stretched his personal point streak to 20 games Thursday against the Wild, and it’s clear he is that team’s pulse. If the Devils can make the playoffs, after drafting first overall just last summer, a case could certainly be made for Hall.
• Not since the early 1980s has an NHL club won three straight Stanley Cups (the Islanders hoisted four from 1980 to 1983), but the Penguins are a legit contender for the rare feat after adding center Derick Brassard on Friday in a three-team trade with the Senators and Golden Knights. Brassard bolsters Pittsburgh up the middle, slotting in behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and he has a history of delivering in the postseason.
• The times keep getting tougher in Montreal. Defenseman Shea Weber is done for the season, as he’s set to have surgery to fix a torn tendon in his foot, and a concussion has sidelined goalie Carey Price for the foreseeable future — all this while the team loiters near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Last season, the Canadiens were playoff-bound, but their slide this season positions them as a team to watch to see how much change it tries to incite to improve.
WILD'S WEEK AHEAD
Tuesday: 7 p.m. vs. St. Louis
Thursday: 8 p.m. at Arizona
Friday: 8 p.m. at Colorado
Tuesday: NBCSN. Thursday-Friday: FSN
Player to watch: Antti Raanta, Coyotes
After turning aside 123 of 126 shots last week to go 3-0 with a 0.90 goals-against average and .976 save percentage, Raanta was crowned the NHL’s second star of the week — a fitting recognition for how he’s helped stabilize the Coyotes of late.
“He’s a guy that since he came into the league has been an impact player. It’s fun to see him have a bit of a resurgence here in Minnesota. He’s been leading the way for us.”
Center Matt Cullen on teammate Eric Staal recording 900 career points.
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and NHL hockey for the Star Tribune.