ST. PAUL — The Wild have two games remaining before the NHL schedule provides their annual Christmas break. The guess here is that those four days off will be anything but restful for Paul Fenton.
Decision time is nearing for the Wild’s first-year general manager.
Fenton has made few moves and taken a wait-and-see approach to a roster that owner Craig Leipold said only needed tweaking last May when he hired Fenton to replace Chuck Fletcher. But a 4-0 loss to San Jose on Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center was the Wild’s second consecutive loss to a better team from the Pacific Division — the Wild lost 2-1 to Calgary on Saturday — and was Minnesota’s ninth loss in 14 games.
The hope that came with an early-season surge — the Wild went 5-2 on a November road trip — appears to be long gone. Tuesday’s loss puts the Wild three points behind Edmonton for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference and keeps them in a tie with Vancouver with 36 points.
The NHL trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 25, but at some point soon Fenton is going to have to decide the direction that he wants to take this franchise. Does he want to attempt to shake up things for this season with the hope that the Wild can make a seventh consecutive playoff appearance? Or does he want to start looking toward the future and trading off parts with an eye toward accumulating draft picks, prospects, or both, in an attempt to hit the reset button.
The Wild had an opportunity to get themselves back in the playoff picture during their just concluded four-game homestand. Back-to-back victories over Montreal and Florida by a combined score of 12-2 provided some hope, but those wins were mostly forgotten by the time the Wild were booed off the ice Tuesday at the final horn by those who remained from the announced crowd of 18,870.
Sadly, the crowd was far more enthused by the end of the Little Chippers youth game during the first intermission and from occasional appearances on the scoreboard by a guy dressed in a Santa suit than they were by anything the Wild did on the ice.
It didn’t help matters that Matt Dumba, who entered Tuesday leading NHL defensemen with 12 goals, sat out because of an upper-body injury suffered in a fight with the Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk on Saturday. Dumba likely will be lost for at least a week, if not more. Center Mikko Koivu returned after missing four games because of a knee injury but that did little to help Minnesota.
“I know the first period we really did what we wanted to do and that stifled them,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I don’t think we gave them a chance. I think mentally when we get four or five chances in the first period and we don’t score, and in the second period if we don’t score the first goal, right now the shoulders are slumping and guys are starting to feel sorry for themselves a little bit.”
After a scoreless first period, the Wild gave up two goals to the Sharks less than a minute apart in the second. Minnesota, which has now given up the first goal in 23 of its 33 games, had plenty of chances against Sharks goalie Martin Jones (26 saves) but never broke through.
“We’re playing from behind a lot,” Wild center Eric Staal said. “It’s too hard in this league to continually play from behind. We had our looks earlier. I had a couple that you’d like to cash in on and I think it’s a different game the other way. … It’s just one of those things where it’s happened too many times over the course of the year. It’s frustrating. We’re going to have to pick ourselves up and be ready in Pittsburgh.”
The Wild will play the Penguins on Thursday before playing host to Dallas on Saturday. The Stars beat the Flames 2-0 on Tuesday and are now a point ahead of the Wild and the first team out of a wild card spot in the Western Conference.
The feeling here is that Leipold is going to want to chase a playoff berth, but if Fenton decides that’s not a wise move, at some point the owner is going to have to listen to his chief decision-maker in hockey operations.
Boudreau, of course, wasn’t hired to oversee a rebuilding project and has every intention of getting things turned around ASAP. “We’ve got to start playing 60 minutes and not 45, or not 50, or not 52,” he said. “To win and to win consistently that’s what you have to do and obviously at some point pretty soon we’re going to have to put a run together of five or six or seven games.”
In other words, a 2-2 homestand isn’t going to cut it. Neither is the Wild’s 10-6-2 record at home. That loss total equals the number of regulation defeats the Wild suffered at the Xcel Energy Center all of last season.
“I’m not sure,” Wild winger Jason Zucker said when asked about the Wild’s home record. “That’s a good question. That’s something that we take a lot of pride playing in this building, and I think we’ve got to be a bit better to take advantage of our games here, especially during some of these stretches. But we’ve got a big road game here against Pittsburgh and a tough building to play in. So we’ve got to be ready for that and have one more good home game before this break and then take some time off to get our minds away and then get right back at it. That’s kind of what we’re looking for here.”
What Fenton will be looking for is significant progress and if he doesn’t begin to see it the Wild might soon have a different look.