The Minnesota Wild are riding into the 2016 offseason in complete disarray. From impending decisions regarding the coaching staff to fleshing out a roster that was exposed for its lack of quality depth in the playoffs, the upcoming break is a pivotal one for the organization.
Some issues will naturally take priority. The Wild’s salary cap space, or lack there of, will be a focal point as it will create a ripple effect throughout the entire offseason. Choosing a head coach will also be on the forefront of everyone’s mind as well. But while those things may take priority in terms of urgency, there is something else that might trump them in importance.
The Minnesota Wild need a top-line center.
Mikko Koivu’s reign as the Wild’s No. 1 centerman has been fruitful. Even thru the dark ages of the post-Gaborik years he was a rock down the middle of the ice, always displaying a sturdy two-way presence. But how much longer can Minnesota expect him to be their safety net at center?
Koivu, who turned 33 in March, has logged 12,088 minutes of ice time over the past 10 regular seasons. That total slots him in at 16th for all NHL forwards and eighth amongst fellow centers. Just this past season he accumulated 1,634 minutes which was the third most at his position, only trailing Sidney Crosby and Anze Kopitar.
The constant grueling work load raises a very obvious question; how much longer does Koivu have before the weight of this responsibility begins to wreak havoc on his performance? And wouldn’t a lesser role, perhaps as the No. 2 center playing against lesser competition, be a more suited role for a guy who is transitioning into his twilight years?
Based upon the organizations past actions, they tend to agree with that notion. They’ve been trying to hammer Mikael Granlund into the No. 1 center role with the ferocity of a one-year-old trying to fit a square peg into a triangular hole.
The fact of the matter is that putting Granlund in that role is passable, in the same way that using a piece of sliced bread instead of a bun for your hot dog is passable. Will it work? Yeah, if you're desperate, but it’s going to have disappointing results.
Besides Granlund, the Wild don’t have many other options within organizations to fill the void. Erik Haula hit his stride under John Torchetti’s reign but the buzz around those performances is only matched by the dread that he could return to his 2014-15 form at any moment.
Charlie Coyle is an intriguing alternative considering his development over the course of the 2015-16 campaign. But the caveat with him is that he has spent a very small amount of time playing down the middle in the NHL, and a shift towards the center spot on a permanent basis could kill the momentum he has built up. The fact that he has a career win percentage in the faceoff dot of 44.8 doesn’t help either.
With internal options being scarce, the only real option at Minnesota’s disposal is to look beyond their walls and into the trade market for a permanent solution.
This wouldn’t be the Wild’s first attempt at venturing into the trade market to grab a top-line center. Their pursuit of Ryan Johansen during the regular season was well documented by the national media, as was their defeat at the hands of the Nashville Predators. But even in defeat they signified a willingness to chase after something the roster desperately needed.
A player with Johansen’s combination of past success and promising future doesn’t hit the market very often, but there will likely be some alternatives in play in the upcoming offseason. Edmonton has already declared open season on their roster and centerman Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is assumed to be one of the Oilers favorite trade chips.
Any potential move by Minnesota will come at a heavy cost though. The blueline that finished the playoffs could look very different than the one that takes the ice on opening night. Jonas Brodin’s name was floated around during the Johansen festivities and during the deadline, making him the favorite to be moved. Matt Dumba carries the largest value amongst the young defensemen due to his offensive upside that Minnesota has yet to fully tap. Even Marco Scandella could be moved if a suitor preferred his cap friendly deal and playing style.
Of course the defense might not be the only position targeted in a deal. Depending upon the player being sent Minnesota’s way, anyone from Jason Zucker to Mikael Granlund could be sent packing. Or, God forbid, Nino Niederreiter or Charlie Coyle. The price will be reliant on who is available and who the Wild management views as expendable.
Everything will be looked at by a deal-by-deal basis, but make no mistake, this kind of move is a necessity for the Minnesota Wild. Not only is it necessary for the longevity of Mikko Koivu, who is signed for two more seasons, but it’ll be beneficial for the roster a whole.
Adding a top-line pivot would allow both Granlund and Coyle to slide to the wings, a role that both have looked more comfortable in. It would also give Haula the continued role as the third-line center, freeing him up to head a change of pace line that can create mismatches across the ice. The added flexibility would be a godsend for an organization that has lacked it for most of its existence.
Such a move might not lead the Minnesota Wild towards the Stanley Cup in the next season or two, but at the very least it would be massive step in the right direction. And for a franchise that has made a multitude of missteps as of late, any kind of positive momentum is greatly needed.