The version of the Wild that was supposed to contend this season was assembled months ago.
Key contributors like wingers Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter were re-signed.
Veterans Matt Cullen and Daniel Winnik were brought in to bolster the team’s experience, depth additions that usually appear as rentals three-quarters of the way through the schedule.
And spots were left open for youth, an opportunity that is flattering center Joel Eriksson Ek more and more.
These decisions carried a hefty price tag, leaving the Wild without much room for change. But they also ensured the group had time — to overcome personal slumps, survive a first half ravaged by injury and establish a rhythm so that it could surge when it mattered most.
This approach, of going all in with the current nucleus, also suggested minimal maneuvering by the Wild before the NHL trade deadline expired Monday, and the team stuck to that script by making just one move, shipping defenseman Mike Reilly to the Canadiens in exchange for a 2019 fifth-round draft pick that initially belonged to the Capitals.
The team also lost veteran winger Chris Stewart, who was claimed off waivers by the Flames.
“We left the core of our team intact, and I think they’ve earned that right,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “I think our team is trending in the right direction. We have a lot of work to do, a long way to go. [But] I like the way individuals are playing.”
While nothing is guaranteed, the Wild certainly has settled into a groove of late that could bode well for its future.
It entered a Tuesday meeting with the Blues at Xcel Energy Center in the midst of a season-high four-game win streak while occupying the No. 3 seed in the Central Division. Defenseman Jonas Brodin is expected to return after missing nine games following surgery Feb. 7 to repair a fractured left hand.
“That will obviously be a tremendous boost to our club,” Fletcher said.
Goaltending has been solid and scoring has come from everywhere — with center Eric Staal, who was named the NHL’s first star of the week Monday after racking up four goals and seven points in four games, potentially closing in on a 40-goal campaign. The team’s ability to rally has also been exemplary.
Still, reinforcements are coveted as the Wild chases a playoff berth, and it now can usher in those resources from the minors like it wants after subtracting Reilly and Stewart — moves that upped the team’s cap space to approximately $2.6 million, according to capfriendly.com.
How soon the Wild could call on the likes of Luke Kunin remains unclear, but the team does plan on tapping into its depth the rest of the way.
“We think we have players that can bring some youth and some energy and some grit and compete,” Fletcher said. “I don’t think we can understate those attributes down the stretch for our team.”
The cost for this flexibility was cutting ties with two fringe players ready to embrace a fresh start elsewhere.
Losing two contributors
Reilly had been with the organization since signing as a free agent out of Minnesota in 2015 but after 84 games, a span in which he amassed four goals and 18 points, the 24-year-old never found a steady role on the blue line.
Just this season, he was stuck in the seventh spot and was frequently a healthy scratch — a fate that got tougher to shake amid the emergence of Nick Seeler, whose size and strength alongside Nate Prosser allows the Wild to roll out a more rugged third pairing. The Wild did assign Seeler to Iowa before the deadline to make him eligible for the American Hockey League playoffs but recalled him, using up one of the four non-emergency recalls the team has the rest of the season.
Ryan Murphy and Carson Soucy are other options on defense in the pipeline.
“If it’s not going to work here, we needed to give him a chance to get his career going,” Fletcher said of Reilly.
The same applies to Stewart, who will get an opportunity to play for Calgary. After signing a two-year deal as a free agent to begin his second stint with the franchise, the 30-year-old was a regular in 2016-17 but skated in just 47 games this season — chipping in nine goals and totaling 13 points.
“They got a couple young guys here that they want to bring up,” Stewart said. “I get it. There’s definitely the political side of the game. That’s just evolution. That happened when I was coming up, too. It’s just time to move on. There’s no ill will to this organization. They gave me an opportunity, and I was thankful for it.”
Keeping its picks
While the Wild approached the deadline with what Fletcher dubbed “pretty modest” goals, the team was still engaged in “interesting conversations.” But team brass was careful, cognizant of the ripple effect change can have on the existing group and sensing there weren’t any significant upgrades.
The team’s cap situation also prohibited it from getting involved in certain pursuits. Its first-round pick, Fletcher said, was not available.
Elsewhere, though, roster turnover was substantial — especially in the Central. The Jets improved after acquiring center Paul Stastny in a swap with the Blues, and the Predators beefed up its offense by adding winger Ryan Hartman from the Blackhawks.
That activity, though, didn’t influence Fletcher, who is confident the current roster can remain competitive and execute the vision that took shape when this lineup was constructed in the offseason.
“We knew some of these teams would make big pushes,” Fletcher said. “But for us, it’s just about our group. If we play the way we can play, we’re a very competitive team. Obviously, you have to hope you’re healthy and jelling at the right time.
“But we can control only what we can control. We do like our group.”