Wild general manager Paul Fenton made his second trade in two days but this one involved a member of the NHL roster. A day after sending minor-league center Justin Kloos to Anaheim for left winger Pontus Aberg, the Wild dealt winger Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for center Victor Rask.
“I have been patient, been watching and letting the team mold themselves and find out where we are,” said Fenton, who replaced Chuck Fletcher as the Wild’s GM last spring. At Fenton’s introductory press conference, owner Craig Leipold talked about the roster only needing tweaks and not an overhaul.
This didn’t sit well with many who had seen the Wild make six consecutive playoff appearances but not get past the second round. The Wild was ousted in the first round the past three years, costing Fletcher his job.
There was a curiosity about just how patient Fenton would be. The answer was very … until recently. That’s in large part because the Wild have done what they often do: Play an inconsistent brand of hockey that will have you thinking they are either a very good team or one of the worst.
A shaky 1-2-2 start was followed by an 11-3 stretch that was followed by another rough patch and, well, you get the idea. Fenton likely decided it was time to make some moves after the Wild followed an impressive 3-2 victory over Central Division-leading Winnipeg with back-to-back losses to bottom-feeders in Detroit and Philadelphia. The Wild bounced back with a 3-2 shootout victory against another bad team, the Kings, on Tuesday.
“(We’re) right on the bubble,” Fenton said when talking about his team’s chances. “I’ve seen the fluctuations in the way we play. We had the stretch in the beginning where we were lights out and I thought, ‘This team is a lot better than I anticipated.’ Then we had a couple of bumps in the road. It’s been a roller-coaster ride. I’m looking for consistency. When you make changes like this it shows players that nothing is forever.”
Those players had a chance to respond with a strong performance on Thursday night against an Anaheim team that had lost 12 in a row. So what did the Wild do? Playing on their home ice, they came out with a lifeless performance and gave up three goals in the first 7 minutes, 58 seconds of the opening period in a 3-0 loss to the Ducks.
Asked if that start was a reaction to finding out Niederreiter had been traded, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said: “I hope not. They’re professionals, we’re all professionals. Yeah, the guy was traded in mid-afternoon and they find out at 4 o’clock, or what have you. But our job is our job. We’re professionals. Trades happen. (The Ducks) had six transactions. I didn’t see them worrying about it.”
Wild winger Zach Parise said he didn’t know if the trade was supposed to send a message from the front office. “Could be. I don’t know, you’d have to ask them,” he said. “I don’t know what goes on with them, but it should be. Over the last three or four games we’re playing teams that are bottom in the league and a team coming in on a 12-game losing streak. We get one shootout win out of it. It’s just not good enough.”
Amazingly, in part because the Western Conference is so mediocre, the Wild remain in the eighth and final wild card spot in the standings with 49 points. The Oilers and Ducks also have 49 points and Vancouver is one point back. Minnesota is also only one point behind Dallas, which is in the seventh spot in the conference, and Colorado, which holds the No. 3 position in the Central Division.
The Niederreiter for Rask swap is an exchange of two guys who were both in need of a change of scenery.
Rask, 25, had one goal and five assists in 26 games with Carolina this season. Fenton values him because he’s a center and the Wild are badly in need of depth at that position. Rask missed time at the beginning of this season after having surgery on the ring and pinkie fingers on his right hand. The Hurricanes announced Rask suffered the injury while slicing food in his kitchen.
Rask was coming off a season in which he had a career-low 31 points and only 14 goals. A second-round pick of Carolina in 2011, Rask signed a six-year, $24 million contract with the Hurricanes in July 2016. He’s in the third season of a deal that carries a $4 million salary-cap hit through 2021-22 and carries a modified no-trade clause in 2020-21 and 2021-22. That clause enables him to submit a list of 10 teams to which he cannot be traded, according to capfriendly.com
“This is a kid I’ve watched since his draft year,” Fenton said on a conference call. “He can potentially be a two or three center and has the capability of playing wing as well. Experience tells me that you can’t have enough centers. That’s something we’re finding out in this league more and more. For us, this was a real positive being able to put guys in a versatility role. I think he needed a change of scenery, and I’m hoping he gets back his scoring and distribution (touch) so he can be very productive for us.”
Rask’s best season in the NHL was his second, when he had a career-high 21 goals and 48 points in 80 games. He played in 80 or more games each of his first three seasons before appearing in 71 last season.
“If he plays back to form,” it will help, Boudreau said. “He has struggled offensively, but if he’s back to form, the way I remember him … we played him maybe two times in the last two years. So I don’t really recall that much, but I do recall him in the past being a really good player.”
Boudreau said he doesn’t yet know on which line Rask will play.
Niederreiter, 26, the fifth pick in the 2010 draft by the New York Islanders, was acquired by the Wild for winger Cal Clutterbuck and a 2013 third-round draft pick in June 2013. Niederreiter had only two goals and an assist in 64 games with the Islanders, but he had 14 goals and 36 points in his first season in Minnesota. Niederreiter scored 20 or more goals in three of his five full seasons with the Wild and did not play in fewer than 80 games until last season.
During that season, one in which he was slowed by injuries, Niederreiter had 18 goals and 32 points but was a plus-14. This season, he had only nine goals and 14 assists in 46 games and was a minus-11. His output has been disappointing and on two occasions he was demoted to the fourth line. The most recent time came on Tuesday when Niederreiter scored a goal in a victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
“I think we’ve always needed a righthanded right winger in the top nine,” Boudreau said when asked about the trade. “It’s been a need and you know when you have (Jason Zucker) and you have Parise and you have (Jordan) Greenway, it’s either Nino’s on the fourth-line left wing or he’s playing the right side. I didn’t think he was very good on the right side, quite frankly. He tried really hard and everything, but he had a hard time making a backhand pass from that side. So, where he had success was being on the fourth line left wing. It’s hard to have a $5.5 million player playing fourth line for you.”
Signed to a five-year, $26.3 million contract in July 2017, Niederreiter had an annual cap hit of $5.3 million. That means Fenton will be saving some money on the cap by exchanging Niederreiter for Rask.
“(This trade) has to do with talent level, but it opens up some salary-cap space for us and some future cap space,” Fenton said. “Going forward, we might be able to take on another player that has more money (coming). … I think Rask is going to be a guy who rebounds here.”
Fenton said he could have seen Niederreiter being “part of the plan” going forward if he had remained but added, “I look at it as Rask being a little bit younger and he’s a center icemen and for me center ice is a big quality we’re looking for.”
As for the Aberg acquisition, Fenton said the winger will make his debut on Thursday night against his former team, the Ducks, at Xcel Energy Center. “(We were) looking for a right-shot forward with scoring capability,” Fenton said. “He can step into the lineup, score goals and has a dynamic set of skills that you’re always looking for.”
Fenton was the assistant general manager in Nashville when the Predators took Aberg in the second round in 2012. Fenton also was the guy who traded Aberg to the Edmonton Oilers in February 2018 for Mark Letestu.