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Zulgad: Wild’s future will be in good hands if Fenton doesn’t try to fix team in the present

MINNEAPOLIS – Twenty-six quick thoughts for 26 minutes played by Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota’s 132-105 win over the Sacramento Kings on Monday night at Target Center. 1. This team remains a mystery. A strange mix of good, bad, ugly, confusing, and befuddling. 2. The Wolves are near-impossible to beat at Target Center, but look like – at times – they don’t know how to play basketball on the road. One night they’re a team oozing with potential and dreams of a playoff run, and they next they look like one that’s waiting for the NBA Draft Lottery in May. When they’re inside Target Center, anything looks possible, when they’re away from Target Center, nothing does. 3. No one has been able to figure out the Wolves this season, not even themselves. This team can be a good team, no question, they just don’t always appear that way. 4. Monday’s win over the Kings needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Sacramento was playing its third game in four nights, and on the second night of a back-to-back after winning in Dallas on Sunday night. Being competitive on nights like this one can be a tall task for some teams, and Sacramento realized that. Coach Dave Joerger recognized that prior to the game, informing the media he may be turning to his bench sooner than usual for his rotations. Ulitmately, he waved the white flag in the second quarter as the Wolves’ lead grew to as large as 36 points. The only starter for the Kings that played 11 minutes or more was Buddy Hield, and he finished with 18 minutes all in the first half. In fact, three of the Kings’ starters, De’Aaron Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Nemanja Bjelica, didn’t log a single second of game action after the first quarter. None of the starters played in the second half. 5. None of this should discredit the performance that the Wolves had, but it should be noted. 6. There certainly were good things that came out of this game for the Wolves. With Jeff Teague unable to play due to left ankle inflammation it opened the door for rookie wing Josh Okogie. 7. The fans at Target Center were filled with jubilation as the rookie got off the bench for the first time in the first quarter, as they are every time he gets in the game. He gave them plenty to cheer about as well. 8. The best way to describe Okogie may just be that he does things. Not all of them are positive, though most are. He did plenty of things on Monday night. He caught an electrifying lob from Tyus Jones, finished a dunk that ultimately sent three members of the Kings to the floor, and showed up on the defensive end. Okogie finished the night a team-high plus-33, and that stat reflects the type of game that he had. 9. At this point, there’s no excuse to not have Okogie on the floor on a regular basis. Yes, the rotation is a bit jammed and coach Tom Thibodeau seems stuck in his ways that he wants to keep it at nine men playing on a regular basis, but Okogie brings too much on to the floor to waste. 10. “We’re going to look for situations we can use him,” Thibodeau said. “The thing that I like, I think he’s grown quite a bit. Even when he’s not in the rotation, I like the way he approaches things - how he is in practice, how he watches film. He’s asking great questions. He’s engaged. He’s doing all the things he should be doing.” 11. Using him in specific situations is a start, but it’s not getting the most out of the player. He doesn’t need to be someone that’s getting a ton of run, but getting Okogie around 12-15 minutes on a nightly basis surely will help the Wolves. He constantly brings energy to the floor, which is something the Wolves have lacked at times. 12. [embed]https://twitter.com/Kyle_Ratke/status/1074846375173648385[/embed] 13. “That’s how I play. I don’t know any other way to play,” Okogie said “Any time I’m in the game I’m always going to try and do the dirty work, try to get my team going.” 14. The Wolves need more of that, and they have the perfect guy to supply it. 15. “You definitely do, you definitely do. Non-stop, right. He’s literally like that,” Jones said of Okogie. “It could be on the plane, two in the morning, it could be at shootaround, a walk-through, practice after… It could be whatever. That’s how he’s going to be. As soon as he walks in the gym he’s joking, joking all over the place. His energy is unbelievable and it’s definitely contagious. We feed off of that.” 16. If Teague misses an extended period of time Okogie would surely be on the floor more. If he comes back on Wednesday night against Detroit it will be interesting to see how much Okogie plays, if at all. 17. Teague missing the game did more than just elevate Okogie’s minutes count, but it also gave Jones more of an impact. He finished with a double-double in 23 minutes, but more importantly had the opportunity to be the primary playmaker on the floor more often with the team down a point guard. 18. Jones and Derrick Rose did not spend a single second on the floor together against the Kings. That’s not something that happens when the Wolves are at full-strength. Typically that pairing will open up the second quarter on the floor together and nearly all of Jones’ minutes will come alongside Rose. Monday night showed what Jones is capable of, and how he may be unable to reach his full potential with the group at full capacity. 19. As for Rose, he had a tough night shooting (3-of-12) but gave terrific minutes as an actual point guard, something he isn’t asked to truly do that often. He finished with a season-high 11 assists in the victory. 20. While the Okogie experience may have been the highlight of the night, don’t let it distract from the fact that Taj Gibson attempted to block a shot in the first half with his shoe. 21. [embed]https://twitter.com/Kyle_Ratke/status/1074836111648808966[/embed] 22. His shoe came off while he was on the offensive end of the floor. He then picked it up, ran down on the defensive end, played defense in a sock, and ultimately attempted to swat Bjelica’s shot. While the shoe-less wonder couldn’t get it, Karl-Anthony Towns was able to extend his leap higher than that of Gibson’s shoe and send the ball to the stands. 23. [embed]https://twitter.com/RealDCunningham/status/1074893285217447936[/embed] 24. Find a more surprising picture than this one in an NBA regular season game. While plenty of things in the NBA continue to be wild, this is a new one. 25. In a weird, inexplicable season for the Wolves, this may be the moment that most encapsulates it. 26. The Wolves will be back at it on Wednesday night at Target Center as the Detroit Pistons come to town. Talk to you then.

Bruce Boudreau was asked about getting help on the blue line following the Wild’s 5-2 loss Thursday night in Chicago. But the unhappy coach seemed to provide a much broader answer.

“Well, we are going to have to do something,” Boudreau said. “I don’t know what we’re doing. I haven’t talked to Paul (Fenton, the Wild’s general manager) yet, obviously. I mean, we can’t continue. Something’s got to give. We can’t continue to go on like this or we’ll take ourselves right out of the playoff race.”

Boudreau isn’t wrong.

The Wild have lost five consecutive games, scoring five goals and getting one point in that time, and have fallen four points out of the eighth and final wild card spot in the Western Conference. Vancouver (40 points) and Edmonton (39) sit between the Wild (37) and eighth-place Dallas (41). The Wild are only four points ahead of the last place team in the conference, the Los Angeles Kings.

It’s no secret that Boudreau wants some help for his sinking team — since completing a 5-2 road trip in mid-November the Wild have gone 6-12-1 — and he wants it yesterday. He was brought here with the hope that he could do what Mike Yeo couldn’t and he’s now in the third season of a four-year, $12 million contract.

So far he has two first-round playoff exits to show for his efforts and right now he has a roster that is struggling to score goals, despite registering a season-high 48 shots on Thursday, and doesn’t appear anywhere near ready to compete with the upper-echelon teams in the league. The loss of defenseman Matt Dumba for at least three months following surgery only makes things worse.

Boudreau, who will turn 64 on Jan. 9, deserves better than this. He’s a good coach who wins in the regular season — eight first-place finishes in 11 seasons and more than 100 points in each of his first two years with the Wild — but has only gotten his team past the second round once and is 1-7 in Game 7s.

Boudreau and the Wild aren’t going to have to worry about playing hockey in the springtime the way things are going and the team’s run of six consecutive playoff berths is in jeopardy.

Chuck Fletcher, the general manager who hired Boudreau, would have almost certainly made a trade in the coming days to try to shake up things and spark his team. Considering this collection of Wild players always seems to need a kick in the breezers, it might have worked. But Fletcher was fired after the Wild’s third consecutive first-round playoff exit last season and replaced by Fenton.

It’s likely that Fenton has a much different agenda than Fletcher and that isn’t good news for Boudreau. Fenton, who helped build a Stanley Cup-contender as assistant general manager in Nashville, is going to do what he thinks is best for the Wild in the long term. That means the days of trading prospects and draft picks for immediate help are gone. At least for now.

Here’s where it gets interesting for everyone involved.

It sounds as if Wild owner Craig Leipold wasn’t kidding when he said he felt this roster only needed “tweaks” after Fenton was hired. Leipold believed he was sitting on a team that could contend with only a few minor alterations.

This view isn’t a surprise considering Leipold has no interest in losing season-ticket holders, doesn’t want to give up the revenue generated in the playoffs and, as a fan himself, wants to see his team win. Leipold also is in the seventh year of paying Zach Parise and Ryan Suter’s 13-year, $98 million contracts that were given out with the intent of bringing a Stanley Cup to Minnesota.

Whether Fenton has explained to Leipold that this current group isn’t going to win a Stanley Cup isn’t known and maybe the general manager is simply going to wait for Leipold to realize this himself. But if Fenton is doing his job, and there’s no reason to believe he isn’t, he is left with two options.

The first will be to maybe make a minor move but keep the majority of this team together and hope they miss the playoffs. That would allow Fenton to begin retooling the roster this offseason. The second would be to make a plea to Leipold to allow him to begin making moves around the Feb. 25 trade deadline and we don’t mean to add veterans.

Parise, Suter and Mikko Koivu have no-move clauses but there are plenty of pieces that could be moved, including center Eric Staal and goalie Devan Dubnyk. Both have modified no-trade clauses and the 34-year-old Staal, in the last season of his contract, could be a key addition to a contender. Fenton probably would be more than happy to deal Charlie Coyle and/or Nino Niederreiter, but they are both having such disappointing seasons it’s hard to believe they would bring back much of a return.

The one thing that Fenton can’t do is make a trade that sacrifices any future assets in order to get short-term help. Not unless that trade is a so one-sided in Minnesota’s favor that it results in the other general manager being dismissed shortly after its completion.

Fenton’s hands are tied because the Parise and Suter contracts don’t allow him to completely blow up the roster, but watching this team on a daily basis likely has made it clear that adding a piece or two that fits under the current cap isn’t going to change things.

Fenton could fire Boudreau — and he might do so, given he didn’t hire him — but again it’s become clear that jettisoning coaches isn’t the answer. Wild players got that when Yeo was fired and replaced by John Torchetti during the 2015-16 season. That team rallied to make the playoffs — the Furious Rallies at their finest — and then was dispatched by Dallas in six games in the opening round.

Boudreau isn’t the problem but making an immediate and largely cosmetic change to help him isn’t the answer. Boudreau isn’t going to like that but at this point, if Fenton wants to build an actual winner that can play deep into the springtime, his concern has to be the future of this franchise.





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