The Wild entered the All-Star break — and their five-day bye — with a 5-2 victory on Wednesday at Colorado. That gave Minnesota three consecutive victories and four in its past five games.
Since general manager Paul Fenton traded winger Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for center Victor Rask last Thursday, the Wild have won three of four games and, in very Wild-like fashion, appear to have righted things after a brutal stretch in which they suffered embarrassing losses to three bad teams (Detroit, Philadelphia and Anaheim).
Here are three thoughts on the Wild’s current standing 50 games into the season.
A LITTLE HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS
Out of the playoff picture in the Western Conference a week ago, the Wild are now sitting in third place in the Central Division with 55 points. That puts them three points ahead of Dallas, Colorado and Vancouver in the conference. The Stars and Avalanche are in the seventh and eighth spots as wild card teams.
The feeling entering the season was that the Western Conference was going to be extremely competitive because there were so many good teams. The conference is competitive but it’s because there are so many mediocre to bad teams. Of the teams out of the postseason picture entering the break — Vancouver, Anaheim, Arizona, St. Louis, Edmonton, Chicago and Los Angeles — there is only a seven-point difference between the Canucks and the Kings (44 points).
This is what made it so easy for the Wild to climb to third in the Central — Minnesota is nine points back of Division-leading Winnipeg (64 points in 48 games) and Nashville (64 points in 52 games) — but also means free-falling out of the postseason picture would be just as easy.
Of the 15 teams in the conference, Winnipeg, Nashville, the surprising Calgary Flames, San Jose and Vegas look to be strong. After that, it should be interesting to watch these teams jockey for position in the mediocre West.
There was only one Wild player who finished in the top three in the voting by the Professional Hockey Writers Association for its midseason awards. That was winger Zach Parise, who was third behind Islanders goalie Robin Lehner and Sabres winger Jeff Skinner for comeback player of the year.
Parise leads the Wild with 20 goals and 44 points in 49 games after missing much of last season after having back surgery. There was a time when it was fair to wonder if Parise would ever be the same player that he was before back problems began to limit him. One of the NHL’s hardest workers was obviously slowed and north of 30 years old (he’s 34 now) it seemed pretty obvious that Parise’s best days were behind him.
That was unfortunate for the Wild, considering this is the seventh season of the 13-year, $98 million contract Parise signed on July 4, 2012. But in his 14th season, the post-surgery Parise is back to playing his game and has reached 20 goals for the first time since scoring 25 in 70 games in 2015-16.
Parise has a chance for his first 30-goal season since 2014-15 — when he had 33 — and he already is at six power-play goals. In his third season as Wild coach, Bruce Boudreau is finally getting to see Parise at full strength.
Will Trader Paul strike again?
It should not surprise anyone that the trade of Niederreiter to Carolina has been followed by a Wild hot stretch. Niederreiter has four goals in four games for the Hurricanes, including two against Vancouver on Wednesday night, while Rask has no goals in three games (he did hit the post on Saturday against the Blue Jackets) for the Wild.
Nonetheless, the Wild accomplished exactly what it wanted by dealing Niederreiter. This continues to be a collection of players that needs to be jolted out of their slumber every so often — remember how they responded when Mike Yeo was fired as coach in 2016? — and when that is done you are going to get the desired results.
The Wild are about as predictable as they come. They’ll play well for a period of time, follow that with an apathetic stretch in which losses pile up and then rebound and beat better competition if they are given reason to wake up.
The issue is that alarm eventually is going to shut off — an eight-day break isn’t going to help matters — and Boudreau and/or Fenton will need to get their attention again. The Wild will not play again until Feb. 1 at Dallas, so it will be interesting to see what happens in that game.
The question becomes this: Is Fenton interested in trying to continue to give this current team a jolt as much as possible, or is he interested in trading off parts to begin working on the future? Only Fenton knows that, although one has to believe owner Craig Leipold will have a say in the direction of things.
Right now, it would seem crazy for the Wild to not remain focused on this season. A week ago, it would have seemed crazy to worry about 2018-19. So in what direction is Fenton planning to take this thing? The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 25, so we should have the answer by then.