ST. PAUL — If Paul Fenton was looking for answers about his hockey team, he certainly got them on Thursday. The Wild’s first-year general manager, who was in Florida at scouting meetings, traded Nino Niederreiter in the afternoon and then made it clear this might not be his last move.
Fenton’s comments came hours before the Wild played host to Anaheim. The Ducks entered having lost 12 in a row, and Fenton clearly wanted to see what happened when he challenged this group. The Wild responded by coming out with zero jump, and even less effort, giving up three goals to the Ducks in the first 7 minutes, 58 seconds of the opening period and then putting together a half-hearted rally in a 3-0 loss to Anaheim before an announced crowd of 18,907.
Those folks should get a full refund.
The Wild remain in the playoff picture because the Western Conference isn’t nearly as good as many expected — Minnesota’s 49 points put it in the eighth and final wild card spot and are tied with Edmonton and Anaheim — but this is a team begging to be put out of its misery and Fenton is just the guy to do it. Fenton had shown patience and clearly would have preferred to only had to make the tweaks that owner Craig Leipold talked about last spring on the day he introduced Chuck Fletcher’s replacement.
But that was never realistic. Fenton likely has known this for a while, but Leipold has to realize it as well. The Xcel Energy Center being dark in the spring will be a hit to Leipold’s pocketbook, but there appears a good chance that will happen even if Fenton tried to maintain the status quo.
This is collection going nowhere fast — a playoff berth would only end with a fourth consecutive first-round exit — and Leipold had to realize that again as he sat in his luxury suite at center ice on Thursday night. If Leipold was hesitant for Fenton to begin pulling the trigger on trades, his resistance likely ended when the Wild put forth back-to-back pathetic efforts against bottom-feeders in recent days.
The first came Saturday when the Detroit Red Wings skated circles around Minnesota in a 5-2 victory at Xcel Energy Center. That embarrassment was followed by a 7-4 loss on Monday night in Philadelphia. The Wild took a 2-0 lead in that game against the team with the fewest points in the NHL and still managed to blow it. The Kings, who replaced the Flyers as the worst team in the league after Monday, came into the X on Tuesday and still left with a point in a 3-2 shootout win for Minnesota.
On Wednesday, Fenton traded minor-league center Justin Kloos to Anaheim for winger Pontus Aberg, who made his debut with the Wild against his former team. The bigger move — and the first of many significant deals Fenton is likely to make before the Feb. 25 trade deadline — came on Thursday when Niederreiter was sent to Carolina for center Victor Rask.
Niederreiter and Rask are both in the midst of disappointing seasons and were in need of a change of scenery. Rask had one goal and five assists in 26 games and isn’t coming to Minnesota to save the day. Not for this season. Fenton said the move was about adding depth at center, but what it also was about was starting to remove pieces from the Wild’s roster.
Adding a center also likely will come in handy when 34-year-old Eric Staal is likely moved. Staal is in the final season of his contract and keeping him makes zero sense. Who else is on the trade block? That list could include Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin.
Whether you agree with the direction Fenton is about to take this team doesn’t matter. What matters is changes appear to be around the corner. Fenton had a very telling comment during a conference call Thursday when asked about his team and where things stand.
“I don’t have an answer for you except that I’m going to continue to watch every night and see how we do,” Fenton said. “I’m looking at our team and how we play. One day I’m thinking that we have the opportunity to go forward and one day I’m thinking that, you know, it’s not that great of a team. So I’m letting the players convince us where they are.”
Given an opportunity to make a statement about how much they all wanted to be here after Niederreiter was traded on Thursday, the Wild looked like a collection of players that all couldn’t wait to be dealt. Aside from those with no-move clauses, you can’t blame Fenton if he obliges as many of them as possible in the weeks ahead.