On Feb. 9 against Vancouver, when Jason Zucker suffered a season-ending broken clavicle and Ryan Carter was hurt a few shifts before with an upper-body injury, Chuck Fletcher wondered if he would have to pull off a significant trade to save the Wild’s season.
“By the same token,” the Wild general manager said a night later in Winnipeg, “every time you have an injury, you can’t just rush to the market and fill it via trade. Our first thought right now is just to provide this opportunity to the players that are here and we’ll go from there.”
The Wild has won six of eight since those injuries, and many of the players Fletcher named by name that Feb. 10 evening — Justin Fontaine, Jordan Schroeder, Matt Dumba — have “stepped up.”
The Wild, back inside the playoff bubble for the first time since before Thanksgiving, is an NHL-best 11-1-1 since the All-Star break. It plays host to Edmonton, a team that has won four of 36 games against the Western Conference, on Tuesday night.
With so many Wild players in elevated roles proving they are capable of playing well, it might have altered Fletcher’s trade-deadline thinking. Fletcher indicated Monday that his biggest objective now heading into the deadline is to improve the Wild’s depth.
“We’ve got some guys hurt and players have stepped up and played well, but if you sustain more injuries, you just want to make sure you have enough bodies to get through the season,” Fletcher said. “It’s such a grind. March is a tough month for everybody. We have a lot of games and play some tough teams.
“If we can upgrade a certain area, obviously we’ll always look to do that. But at a minimum, you want to make sure your depth is good. We have to make sure we know when our injured players are coming back. We could be fine. But I want to make sure.”
Zucker’s timetable for a return isn’t until mid-May. Coach Mike Yeo said Monday that Carter and Matt Cooke are still week-to-week. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon is day-to-day because of what is believed to be concussion-like symptoms.
In the past two games, the Wild has had injury scares with defensemen Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella. It was a reminder to Fletcher that even with Dumba, fellow rookie Christian Folin and Nate Prosser playing well, it may behoove him to acquire even a depth defenseman who can jump into the lineup if needed.
In Iowa, the only defensemen considered callup options remaining are Justin Falk and Jon Blum. Falk is the Wild’s only left-shot defenseman beyond Ryan Suter, Brodin and Scandella.
“A lot of teams are talking this way,” Fletcher said of acquiring a depth defenseman. “We’ve been very happy with the play of all our players. Prosser has played great. Dumba and Folin have stepped up and played very well for us.
“So if we made a move, it’s not because of the quality of their play. It’s just making sure you have bodies to get through. That’s the question we have to ask ourselves this week.”
With so many teams in the playoff hunt, there are only a half-dozen teams considered true sellers. That has created a supply-demand problem that is driving up prices for even mediocre players. So Fletcher doesn’t know what will transpire six days from now, but he’s excited to see so many of his own players improving.
Players such as Fontaine and Schroeder have lessened the urgency to force-feed a significant trade.
In Calgary last week, Yeo broke up his top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville so the Flames’ No. 1 defense tandem of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie, with last change, couldn’t play the entire night against that line.
Since the line changes, the Wild has gotten balanced scoring, with all four lines contributing nightly.
Fontaine, playing with Parise and Mikael Granlund, has especially been good, riding a three-game point streak with a plus-6 in those games. The longtime scorer at Minnesota Duluth and the Houston Aeros (relocated to Iowa), despite sometimes being in and out of the lineup or in a bottom-six role, never seems to miss a beat whenever he is promoted in the lineup.
Yeo says it’s because despite being skilled, he has got the hockey sense to not change his game and be adaptable in any role. Fontaine is not a typical second-year player. He is 27 years old.
“I think I’m both type of players and can play in both roles,” Fontaine said.