Fire up the trade rumor mill as there’s about a month left before the NHL trade deadline on February 26. In the recent past, the Minnesota Wild’s general manager Chuck Fletcher has been an active participant, bringing in players like Sean Bergenheim, Jordan Leopold, David Jones, Chris Stewart, and most recently, Martin Hanzal and Ryan White. Apart from the deal that brought Hanzal and throw-in fourth liner White, none of these deals were especially splashy. Yet in these deals, the Wild have sent out a first round pick, four second round picks (if we include the 2014 trade that briefly brought rentals Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick to the Wild), a third round pick, a fourth round pick, a fifth round pick, a sixth round pick, and a seventh round pick. Even discounting the value of any picks that occur after the second round, that is a lot of future value to trade away for a group of players that didn’t stay with the team past the season of the trade. Sure, Chris Stewart was later signed as a free agent, but the Wild let him walk after the 2015 playoffs. I’m deliberately not counting the trades that brought first Ilya Bryzgalov and later Devan Dubnyk to the team because those trades addressed the immediate and desperate team need for goaltending and weren’t attempts to “stock up” for a deep playoff run.
Last season the Wild were one of the hottest teams in the entire league, so loading up made sense, even if the end result made the deal to get Hanzal seem like a huge waste in hindsight. Before that, they were a team that was at best a dark horse contender to reach the Western Conference Finals. This season sees the Wild are right in the thick of an absolute knife fight for a playoff berth, but outside of the past month, have not looked like a team that has it in itself to make a real go for the Stanley Cup this season. This has prompted some people to suggest the Wild should actually pack it in early and be sellers at the deadline. Others have argued that the Wild’s window is almost shut so it’s all or nothing now. Lastly, some have suggested that GMCF will probably stand pat because risking nothing is better than either of the alternatives.
Let’s take a look at the (realistic) best- and worst-case scenarios for each of these options. Just for fun, these options are going to require Fletcher to make what could be called a big move. No trading away Daniel Winnik and calling the Wild sellers at the deadline.
Sell at the Deadline
What it would look like: The Wild decide (or the other teams in the Central decide for them) that their prospects of succeeding in the playoffs this season are not worth pursuing and it would be better to cash in on the dreams of others. Players like Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Eric Staal, and Nino Niederreiter would all fetch big returns for the Wild from teams looking for additional scoring punch and either speed (Zucker) or size (Coyle, Staal, and Niederreiter).
Alternatively, a team lacking in defensive depth might try to pry away Matt Dumba or Jonas Brodin. While Dumba would likely be a non-start for the Wild given the team’s lack of depth on the right side, Brodin could possibly be acquired for the right price.
It seems reasonable to conclude that any of those forwards would garner the Wild at least a first round pick and either one or two more second-to-fourth round picks or a good prospect. Another possibility would be that the Wild make a deal with a team like the Montreal Canadiens who are heavily rumored to be looking around for a deal for center Max Pacioretty in a one-for-one “hockey trade”. The return on a trade of Jonas Brodin would likely not be quite as rich, but still see the Wild pick up a couple of early round picks or a good pick and a prospect.
Best-case Scenario: In the case of a forward trade, the Wild would call up Luke Kunin permanently to the big club. In a best-case scenario, he would perform well in the new role. The rest of the team would respond to the adversity of losing a top six or top four skater by playing the same strong, consistent team game that led them to an extended 12 game win streak last season. The effort sees them make the playoffs where hot play by Dubnyk and a game winning goal by Kunin sees the Wild and Bruce Boudreau put an end to their playoff demons, the Chicago Blackhawks and Game Sevens respectively.
The Wild’s new assets join Joel Eriksson Ek, Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Kirill Kaprizov as members of a future core that the team builds around to great success making Fletcher look like a genius and allowing Boudreau becomes the longest tenured coach in the NHL.
Worst-case Scenario: The Wild’s budding chemistry that has been building over roughly the last month is permanently thrown out of whack. Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin both prove to need more seasoning in the AHL but the Wild are forced to keep them, damaging their development. If Brodin is traded, the defense becomes incredibly top heavy with Ryan Suter back to nearly 30 minutes a night and both Jared Spurgeon and Dumba are close behind. The team fails to make the playoffs, but their reasonably good position before the trade deadline means they aren’t a lottery pick in the 2018 Entry Draft. The picks and/or prospects turn into busts while the Wild’s trading partner goes on to win the Stanley Cup thanks in part to their newly acquired player.
Buy at the Deadline
What it would look like: Fletcher once again convinces himself that the Wild are only one or two pieces away from being a real contender in a league where practically any team is capable of beating any other on a given night. The likeliest target would presumably be a right wing given the lack of natural right shooting wingers on the team. The Wild are likely giving up a first round pick again, hopefully though in the 2019 Draft as that year looks a little less deep than the 2018 Draft class and it would give Fletcher more time to recoup the pick if desired.
Best-case Scenario: The Wild manage to hold onto their second round pick for the first time in years, giving up their 2019 first round pick instead or a collection of mid-range picks and prospects. The newly acquired player, ideally not a rental, gels with his new line quickly. This not only creates an effective top line with Niederreiter and Staal, but the stability trickles down through the rest of the lineup giving a second line of Zucker - Mikko Koivu - Granlund and third line of Zach Parise - Eriksson Ek - Coyle more opportunity to develop as well. The new player and his line thrive and attract opponents’ best defensive talent allowing the Wild’s other scorers like Zucker, Granlund, and Parise to cash in frequently on mismatches. The balanced attack and solid defensive play see the Wild return to top form and they storm into the playoffs a strong contender. Playoff victories ensue, including one against the Wild’s trading partner (assuming they are in the Western Conference).
Worst-case Scenario: Fletcher decides to once again prioritize size and grit or seek out a slow, injury-prone former sniper with no defensive instincts at all. Not only that, but he gets fleeced in the trade and gives up both a first round and second round pick or gives up one of the Wild’s few blue chip prospects like Kaprizov or Greenway. The new player might provide a temporary bump in scoring, but runs cold during the playoffs (assuming the Wild manage to scrape their way in). The Wild are out early and the new player walks back to his old team a la Moulson and the Buffalo Sabres. Meanwhile, the picks or prospects are converted into useful NHLers that would have complimented or even helped make the young core the Wild will be building around down the road.
Stand Pat at the Deadline
What it would look like: This would be a new look for GMCF. Instead of getting in on the action, he sends a strong signal that he thinks this team is good to go as it is (risky for him if the Wild end up not making the playoffs or are an early out). That, or he’s realized that the trade deadline tends to favor sellers and it’s advisable at some point to stop mortgaging the future with uneven transactions.
Best-case scenario: Similar to the best-case under buying at the deadline above, this would see the Wild find stability throughout the lineup and a high performing top line, whether it’s with Parise, Kunin, Coyle, or somebody else on Staal’s right wing. Fletcher’s uncharacteristic move at the deadline is rewarded by a strong showing in the playoffs. Of course, that would leave the door open to speculation about what impact might have been made with an additional player on the roster, so perhaps this ends up being a worst-case scenario for Fletcher?
Worst-case scenario: The Wild look like the early season version of themselves for the rest of the year. The team is plagued by inconsistent play and injuries, making the lack of depth that might have been gained at the deadline more apparent. The missed opportunity to acquire picks in what looks like an early start to a rebuild following a second half collapse is also felt by the crowd pushing for the Wild to sell big at the deadline. Instead, the Wild are left with no benefit to a tanked season save for their own picks. Making matters worse, the slog through the back half of the season poisons the locker room and with no easy scapegoats or explanations provided by trades, the team is forced to face the fact that they aren’t a good group together. Cue the departure of impending free agents Zucker to the Vegas Golden Knights and Dumba to Tampa Bay or somewhere else that’s fun.
There are a lot of different ways the trade deadline could play out for the Wild, especially as this didn’t cover the type of move that GMCF has been most comfortable with at the deadline: acquisition of a bottom six forward to provide depth. Any other ideas for how things could shake out before February 26? Add them in the comments below. Maybe Fletcher will read this and get some inspiration.