The Wild are all in this year. As of the time of writing, the Wild have not yet made any other trades after acquiring Martin Hanzal and Ryan White for Grayson Downing and a handful of early round picks spread over the next few drafts. You can question whether or not Wild GM Chuck Fletcher gave up too much or got a fair deal (I don’t think anyone is arguing that Fletcher managed to fleece Arizona), but what you shouldn’t question is the underlying mentality.
The team has stellar starting goaltending, tremendous scoring depth, and a solid group of defensemen. They lead the Western Conference, are scoring and defending in the top five of the entire NHL. The fact that the West is weaker than it has been in years may help explain why the Wild is on top, but it also means that the road to the Final is also less steep than it has been.
The Wild’s core group of older veterans are staving off the inevitable decline brought on by age as best they can. All of them are still productive top 9 NHLers, but it seems like that won’t be the case for many more seasons. The younger veterans have seemingly come into their own as nearly all of them are having career years. However, their success is going to lead to increasingly costly contracts that likely means the Wild will lose one or two of them to free agency soon. In essence, the Wild’s window is open right now but it is starting to close.
The “window is open” is an interesting phrase. When you think about it, it actually has two meanings. The first is that a team’s prospects for seriously contending for the Stanley Cup are good. “Good” meaning the team is among the top five or so of teams that can realistically expect to find themselves still standing after the first couple rounds of the playoffs without needing a miraculous scoring run by one of their players or a goaltender stealing game after game.
The second meaning is that the current version of the team, built around a core of four to eight players or so, has reached its highest level of performance. The core players are delivering at the high end of their career averages, the goaltending is good, the role players are doing their job, and one or two of the young guns are making the next step. It can be said that the team’s window is open because that version of the team has reached its acme.
There is a problem with operating under the second definition: just because a team is playing at its highest level doesn’t mean that it is playing well enough to contend for the Stanley Cup. A hockey team might be playing the best that can be expected but still not be good enough. Some teams just have more talented players, better coaching, or both.
The Wild have been that team up until this season. The veteran core was good, the young players were making some (uneven) progress, and Mike Yeo was provided a strong defensive structure that could frustrate any team in the NHL... when the players were able to execute it. Yet, they were mediocre on offense and unable to keep up with the rigorous demands of Yeo’s defensive structure. All in all, the team was never really within striking distance of the Stanley Cup Final.
Why bring this up? It’s because the Wild of seasons past were making the mistakes that many teams have been making this season: mortgaging the future to stock up for the playoffs and try and make a run when the team was never going to make it. Take the Senators this season: they are second in the Atlantic Division with at least one game in hand on most of their division rivals. Superficially, they are in a good position to make some noise in the playoffs with a few improvements. In fact, the Senators have been actively trading prospects and picks to acquire a few forwards and increase their depth. It was a mistake. The Senators are scoring 2.57 goals per game (19th overall) and allowing 2.64 goals per game (12th overall). Viktor Stalberg and Alex Burrows are good NHLers, no doubt, but they are not going to make enough of an impact to vault the Senators over the powerhouses of the Eastern Conference.
The trade environment isn’t a vacuum. A GM can’t assume the rest of the league will stay stationary while they make moves to improve. It’s going to be a moving target. An already strong team like the Capitals or the Blackhawks are going to make trades too. If your team isn’t already among the best performing in at least your division, sending your picks and prospects away for a rental isn’t wise.
That isn’t to say a team can’t or shouldn’t make trades this time of the year. The trades that brought Jason Pominville and Devan Dubnyk to the Wild both improved the team that season, but also allowed the team to sign them long term. The trades to acquire Matt Moulson and Chris Stewart didn’t help the Wild improve the following season (or all that much when the trades were made for that matter). They just cost the Wild picks that could have been used to build the next version of the team.
Most teams are realistically already out of the hunt for the Stanley Cup. Those GMs would do well to accept that and make deals with that knowledge at the forefront of their minds. Nevertheless, several of them will gear up for the playoffs anyway and cost their team prospects and picks. Let’s be glad that Chuck Fletcher isn’t one of them this year.