ST. PAUL — Bill Guerin made it clear Tuesday that his decision to trade winger Jason Zucker to the Pittsburgh Penguins wasn’t a sign that he was giving up on the Wild making the playoffs. Minnesota’s first-year general manager then issued a warning to any of his players who might have started making tee times for mid-April on Monday night when they learned Zucker had been dealt.
“I can promise you this: If there is quit, there will be more trades,” Guerin said during a morning press conference in discussing the acquisitions of Alex Galchenyuk, prospect Calen Addison and a 2020 first-round selection. “I wholeheartedly expect this team to compete for a playoff spot. We’re right there, and if there’s any signs of anybody taking their foot off the gas, that will be an indication.”
If Guerin’s intention was to send a message to the Wild locker room that he better not to see anybody pouting in Tuesday night’s game against Vegas it worked. The Wild, now minus the once promising but ultimately disappointing core of Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund, got first-period power-play goals from Joel Eriksson Ek and Jared Spurgeon en route to a 4-0 victory over the Golden Knights at Xcel Energy Center. Alex Stalock stopped 26 shots to get the shutout and the red-hot Kevin Fiala had a goal and two assists.
The victory kept the Wild four points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference with 13 days before the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 24. No matter how well the Wild play, Guerin is going to be tempted to make more moves before the deadline and he should be. He’s sitting on two defenseman, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, who might be able to bring back a bigger haul than Zucker and the temptation to deal one of them to a team in need of help on the blue line (such as Carolina, Columbus or Toronto) is going to be great.
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What Guerin has to weigh is the importance of trying to sneak into the postseason this spring versus getting young talent and draft picks that will be key parts of the future. Told that some would look at the Zucker trade as a sign of the Wild giving up on a postseason berth for 2020, Guerin said:
“I would respectfully disagree with that. I believe that other players are going to get more opportunity. I believe that this is something where Alex Galchenyuk is coming in motivated and ready to play. He’s a proven scorer in this league as well and he can help us. Hey look, I still think we can make the playoffs. That’s the mandate for the team. We want to make the playoffs and if anybody is bailing out it’s not going to be good.”
Guerin, who played for eight teams during his 18 seasons in the NHL, isn’t afraid to hold his players accountable because he always was accountable during his career. He was part of two Stanley Cup champions and served as a team captain. Guerin knew exactly what he was looking for on Tuesday night and he got it.
Bruce Boudreau, the Wild coach, loves to use the phrase “woe is me” when he thinks his players are feeling sorry for themselves. Likely because they dealt with one-season-and-done GM Paul Fenton trading Niederreiter, Coyle and Granlund near the deadline last year, seeing Zucker sent to the Penguins wasn’t as jarring for many. Still, players took notice.
“Not only a locker room favorite guy, but a community, a city and a state favorite got sent out of here,” Stalock said of Zucker’s departure. “That kind of sends a little wave through the locker room. I think we know we have almost like a deadline and we need to prove that we want it. Tonight was a good effort to prove to (Guerin) that we have the club.”
Guerin took the Wild job in late August, so waiting until Monday to make his first significant trade showed he’s a patient man. He watched the Wild get off to a 1-6 start and yet Boudreau and the core players remained safe. Five-plus months after replacing Fenton, Guerin was asked how his thoughts on the franchise had changed from assumptions he likely had on day one to now.
“My perception coming in was that we were a team that was just maybe a little stale,” he said. “Maybe a little tired. There had been some playoff berths but then not much beyond that. I think what I really saw was we could just use a little bit more of an attitude adjustment, a little bit more swagger, a little bit more confidence. There’s a ton of character in this locker room.”
The question is will that locker room look the same in two weeks?