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Back In The Mix

Wild’s playoff run ultimately might be counterproductive.

Matt Boldy has scored seven goals and 14 points in nine February games. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

The Minnesota Wild were in the midst of a 1-7-1 stretch in mid-January when general manager Bill Guerin gave a state-of-the-team press conference before a late afternoon start against the New York Islanders at Xcel Energy Center.

The Wild had 39 points and carried a 17-20-5 record into the game, putting them well outside of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Nonetheless, Guerin wasn’t giving up hope.

“There’s a lot of hockey to be played,” Guerin said. “So we’re definitely not ready to wave the white flag or anything like that. We just want to get healthy and move forward and see what we can do.”

Guerin’s optimism seemed to be delusional. The Wild had gotten off to a 5-10-4 start that got coach Dean Evason fired, rebounded to go 11-3-0 under new coach John Hynes, but then had a brutal nine-game stretch after an injury to star winger Kirill Kaprizov.

Hours after Guerin’s press conference, the Wild posted a 5-0 win over the New York Islanders that pulled them within six points of a playoff spot in the wild card race. That victory began an 11-4-1 run for the Wild that includes a 7-1-1 record since returning from the All-Star break.

The Wild entered Tuesday’s game against Carolina with a 28-24-6 record. However, they dug themselves such a large hole that they remain four points behind Nashville for the second wild card position. The Blues and Wild both have 62 points. Calgary is one point behind those teams and Seattle is three points back of the Blues and Wild.

The Wild, led by head coach John Hynes (right) are 7-1-1 since the All-Star Break. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

In other words, the Wild are right back in the playoff mix.

The resurgence undoubtedly has pleased owner Craig Leipold, Guerin and the team’s most ardent supporters, but it’s fair to wonder if the Wild’s latest roller-coaster season is for the best.

There are a few reasons for this:

1) The March 8 NHL trade deadline is quickly approaching and while there was a time when it looked as if Guerin would be in a position to be a seller, that almost certainly won’t happen now. You also have to hope that a team with limited salary cap space doesn’t make moves to add any pieces with the expectation that they can help. Because of all the no-move and no-trade clauses included in the contracts of various Wild veterans, there’s only so many moves Guerin could have made, but a willingness to shop goalie Filip Gustavsson could have resulted in a nice return of draft capital.

2) The Wild should be past the point of thinking that making the playoffs is any kind of accomplishment. If Minnesota does qualify for the postseason, does anyone have an appetite to watch another first-round exit? The Wild have made the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons, but have never gotten past the opening round, so the real key is to figure out how to build a roster that can do that. This doesn’t look like the collection to pull that off.

3) The Wild’s winning window should come after next season when the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts are largely off the books and even more of the young talent in the pipeline has made it to St. Paul. A first-round playoff appearance this spring will mean extra money for Leipold, but it’s hard to believe this team would be able to get past the top of the Western Conference. That’s what would need to happen, considering the Wild almost certainly would be the eighth and final seed.

4) One of Hynes’ best moves was breaking up Kaprizov and winger Mats Zuccarello at 5-on-5 and putting Joel Eriksson Ek between Kaprizov and winger Matt Boldy. The Wild went 3-1 last week, beating Vancouver, Edmonton and Seattle and losing at Winnipeg. In those four games, Kaprizov had six goals and 12 points with 17 shots; Eriksson Ek had three goals and nine points with 14 shots; and Boldy had four goals and seven points with 18 shots. This trio has been fantastic, but in a seven-game playoff series they are going to become the primary focus of every opponent. That means the Wild is going to have to find scoring elsewhere, or break up the line. It’s very debatable whether the former would happen and the latter is what any opponent would want.

This doesn’t mean Hynes shouldn’t get credit for what he has accomplished since taking over and it looks as if Guerin made a good hire when he fired Evason. It’s just that this run seems like the Wild’s latest act of futility and an attempt to save a season that isn’t worth saving.

This franchise has spent too long in hockey purgatory and comfortably missing the playoffs would have been a step toward getting out of it. Who knows? Maybe Guerin will surprise us by making a few moves with an eye to the future at the trade deadline. That would be nice, but we have a feeling the odds of that happening are as low as the Wild’s odds of making the playoffs were back in mid-January.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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