Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said, “It’s been incredibly disappointing,” watching a team that fancies itself as a Stanley Cup contender fade outside the playoff picture 24 games into an 82-game season.
“Right now, the focus has got to change,” Fletcher said Wednesday. “And if it doesn’t, then this is what we are. We’ll win one, lose one, get blown out occasionally, and [the goalies] are going to have a lot of long nights.”
After getting outscored 13-5 in losses to St. Louis and Winnipeg, the Wild faces the NHL’s stunning expansion success story Thursday, when the Pacific Division-leading Vegas Golden Knights visit Xcel Energy Center.
Fletcher shook things up Wednesday by waiving veteran defenseman Kyle Quincey, even though Jared Spurgeon will miss at least two more games because of a groin injury. This will open consistent playing time for young defensemen Gustav Olofsson and Mike Reilly.
The Wild also was encouraged when Zach Parise skated for the first time since his Oct. 24 back surgery. Parise told Wild.com, “Most importantly, nothing hurt. It was a really good day.” But the former All-Star remains weeks from returning.
For now, Fletcher said the biggest issue has been the forwards’ turnover-prone play, using the example of the team’s fourth line — Marcus Foligno, Matt Cullen and Chris Stewart — surrendering three goals in Monday’s 7-2 loss at Winnipeg.
“Until our forwards, in particular, start to play the game the right way, we will not win,” Fletcher said. “It’s somewhat surprising that Monday’s result hasn’t happened sooner.”
Fletcher said the team wants creativity and skill from the forwards but expects them to recognize when three or four opposing defenders are ready to create turnovers in the neutral zone.
“To think that you can make east-west cute plays through them, I think we’ve seen the results,” the GM said. “All you do is make your defensemen flat-footed. You turn pucks over, and you give skilled teams [rushes against] your ‘D’ and on your goalies, and the results are fairly predictable.”
After a scheduled off day Tuesday, coach Bruce Boudreau sat his players through an elongated video session Wednesday morning. Then he pushed them through a fast-paced, physical, 75-minute practice.
“We really needed it, and I think they really got it, which is even better,” Boudreau said.
The Wild is 11-10-3 and has given up 30 goals in seven games since Devan Dubnyk posted three consecutive shutouts.
Quincey posted a minus-6 rating over his final four games and was a square peg for a round roster hole. He shoots lefthanded — as do Reilly and Olofsson — but has experience playing right defense. The Wild hoped he’d handle right-side duties alongside one of the youngsters.
“Well, in training camp, [Quincey] didn’t want to play the right side,” Boudreau said. “We had a dilemma in that none of the defensemen were comfortable playing the right side. And then Mike Reilly stood up and said, ‘I’ll play the right side.’ ”
Reilly and Olofsson, combined, have been healthy scratches in 16 games this season.
Right-shot defensemen are hard to find, but another interesting one hit waivers Thursday, in Nate Prosser. The Elk River native played parts of eight seasons with the Wild before signing a two-year deal with St. Louis in August.
For now, the Wild sound committed to giving Reilly and Olofsson more playing time.
“The most important thing is they don’t have to look over their shoulder to see if they’re playing,” Boudreau said.
With the Wild sitting two points behind Chicago for a playoff spot entering Wednesday, Fletcher said he’d continue exploring trades. But the biggest roster decisions came last summer.
“We built the team a certain way, and we did whatever we could, to be honest with you, to keep [Mikael] Granlund and [Nino] Niederreiter and not be forced to lose [Eric] Staal and [Jason] Zucker and keep four [defensemen].
“So this is what we wanted, and if it doesn’t work, you can blame that. But I think we kept the right guys.”