Deciding what the Minnesota Wild should do at the trade deadline this season is not an easy task. The team this season feels like it is significantly below where it has been in previous years, and (especially on bad nights) it does not feel like a team capable of making a run in the playoffs. On top of that, the team that has been struggling to hold on to a playoff spot lost captain Mikko Koivu to injury which only makes things worse. On the other hand, the team is currently sitting in a playoff spot, and while the team is certainly failing to live up to the hopes some people had for this team, it would be odd for a team actually sitting in a playoff spot to sell at the deadline and effectively punt on the rest of the season.
So what should the Wild do? The answer to that question may lie in what other teams choose to do at the deadline. If Paul Fenton chooses to play his cards close to his chest and keep it unclear what he is choosing to do until very close to the deadline, he could see what the rest of the Western Conference chooses to do. He could then make his decision for what the Wild should do based on what he sees other teams doing.
Fenton could do this because he has an important luxury on his side: time. If he chooses to sell, there is only one player that he has to move: Eric Staal. He is the only pending unrestricted free agent that will generate a significant return. This means he can make a decision close to the deadline because he only would need to move one player. Some have speculated other players could be made available (Charlie Coyle, for example), but Fenton will have the option to hold those players until the offseason should he not have the time to market them at the deadline.
So, what should Paul Fenton be looking for others teams to do?
Several Western Conference Teams Sell
Several teams that are chasing the Wild have pieces they could choose to sell at the trade deadline. Even if you consider the Oilers, Ducks, and Kings (the three last place teams in the West) to still be in the race, they all have a piece or two that they could move at the deadline. If they move those pieces, these teams that are having bad seasons could see their years get even worse. In between the Wild and the bottom of the West stand the Canucks, Coyotes, Avalanche, and Blackhawks. These teams have pieces that they could move if they choose to do so. Ahead of the Wild are the St. Louis Blues, who have several pieces that are rumored to be available. Most of these rumors existed from before the Blues made their ascent into the playoff picture, so it seems unlikely they’d actually move any players now that they are in a playoff spot.
If a significant number of these teams choose to sell, a smart option for the Wild could be to do nothing. If several teams around them in the standings make themselves worse at the deadline, the playoff chances for the Wild improve, even if they do nothing. But if the opposite happens...
Several Western Conference Teams Buy
If teams like the Blues, Stars, Canucks, Avalanche choose to buy at the deadline instead of sell, Paul Fenton should take note. He should absolutely not get into an arms race with the rest of the West. If the teams around the Wild get better, the Wild, who are already trending in the wrong direction, will see their playoff chances decrease significantly. The top 30 trade target list over at The Fourth Period helpfully includes a list of teams rumored to be interested in the players. The Stars, Avalanche, and Oilers have been connected to notable players (although it’s unclear how serious that interest is). If some of those teams do buy and get better, Paul Fenton should be cautious. With his team barely holding on to the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, if the teams around him get better, he should not try to keep up. At that point, he should probably look to sell Staal as well as gauge interest in the Wild’s other pending unrestricted free agents (primarily Eric Fehr).
A team overwhelms him with an offer for Staal
If while Paul Fenton is trying to decide whether to buy or sell, a team comes and blows him away with an offer for Eric Staal, he should absolutely sell. Three years ago, when Staal was traded from the Hurricanes to the New York Rangers, it cost two second round picks plus a player taken in the third round of the most recent draft to move him. That’s not an insignificant package, and Staal is having a better season this year than he was having three years ago (63 GP, 10 G, 23 A prior to the trade in 2015-16 vs 56 GP, 17 G, 20 A this year). He is three years older now, and some teams may be wary that Staal will slow down by the end of the year. That being said, if a team calls Paul Fenton with an offer better than what the Hurricanes did (essentially two seconds and a third), Paul Fenton should strongly consider taking it. The Wild’s prospect pool is alarmingly small, and if a team comes and offers a way to change that, Paul Fenton needs to listen.
Deciding what to do at the deadline will not be an easy decision for Paul Fenton and co. On top of that, it is virtually a guarantee that some people are going to disagree with whatever direction he decides to take. But if it is clear what direction other teams are going to go at the deadline, the decision for the Wild might become easier.