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Judd Zulgad

Proceeding With Caution

Wild’s up and down season creating directional challenges for GM Bill Guerin

Time is running out on the Matt Dumba era in Minnesota. All that remains to be determined is when will Wild GM Bill Guerin pull the trigger on a move. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

The Minnesota Wild were in the midst of a three-game, mid-January winning streak when general manager Bill Guerin was asked about potential moves he might make before the NHL trade deadline.

“The team will tell me what direction we’re going to go,” Guerin said. “If we’re flying high and we’re doing really well, then we’ll talk about making moves and seeing if we can improve. Or maybe we’ll just stay the same. I don’t know. If we’re not doing well, then we’ll have to talk about what to do with that.”

At the time, the Wild were sitting in third place in the Central Division with 50 points. That night, Guerin’s team played a far-from-perfect game but escaped with a 2-1 win over visiting Arizona and three days later opened a four-game trip with a two-goal win at Washington.

The Wild haven’t won since.

Losses at Carolina (5-2), Florida (5-3) and Tampa Bay (4-2) followed, leaving the Wild one point behind the suddenly hot Avalanche (six consecutive wins) and a point outside the final wild card spot in a very competitive Western Conference.

There is still more than a month before the March 3 trade deadline, but Wild players continue to send Guerin mixed messages in this roller-coaster season. There is a temptation to think Guerin should add a scorer to plug into the Top Six and give winger Matt Boldy another skilled guy to skate alongside. That might help the Wild get into the playoffs, but would it be enough to win a first-round series for the first time since 2015?

Forty-six games into the season, there are some disturbing things about the Wild that can’t be dismissed. One of them is a dramatic drop in scoring by a few players. Winger Marcus Foligno, who had a career-high 23 goals and 42 points in 74 games in 2021-22, has four goals and 14 points in 37 games this season. Jordan Greenway, who plays on the wing opposite Foligno, has only two goals and six points while being limited to 29 games.

Then there is veteran Ryan Hartman, who spent last season as the center for the Wild’s top line with wingers Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello. The 28-year-old responded with a career season, accumulating 34 goals and 65 points in 82 games. He also was a plus-31.

If that was a dream season for Hartman, this one has been a nightmare. He was demoted off the top line to wing early in the season after a rough start and then suffered a significant shoulder injury in a fight in Chicago in the Wild’s ninth game. Hartman missed six weeks before returning and has only  five goals and 14 points in 25 games. He’s a minus-2 playing on a line with Boldy and center Frederick Gaudreau.

That’s not the only issue for Hartman. He also can’t stay out of the penalty box, much to the dismay of coach Dean Evason. Earlier this season Evason basically threatened Hartman with being a healthy scratch during a postgame press conference but didn’t follow through on that.

Struggling Minnesota forward Ryan Hartman’s lack of discipline has drawn the ire of Wild coach Dean Evason. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

In the Wild’s loss Saturday in Florida, Hartman took a retaliatory penalty late in the second period that led to the Panthers taking a two-goal lead. Hartman then started a fight after getting out of the box. Evason kept his cool after that game, but when Hartman took two more minor penalties in Tuesday’s loss in Tampa Bay, Evason didn’t hold back. 

“It’s stupid. Absolutely stupid,” Evason said of the penalties.

It didn’t help that the winning goal from Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos had deflected off Hartman and past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the third period.

The Wild will return home on Thursday to play Philadelphia and it will be interesting to see if Evason’s anger turns into Hartman spending a game in the press box. That would make sense considering defenseman Matt Dumba sat out the middle two games of the trip after he drew Evason’s ire one too many times with various mistakes.

Dumba is well respected in the Wild locker room and is one of the team’s alternate captains. So if Evason is going to send a message to a veteran like that, it makes sense to send one to the struggling Hartman.

The decision to scratch Dumba was interesting because he’s in the last season of a five-year, $30 million contract and it’s no secret the salary-cap strapped Wild likely can’t afford to bring him back. Dumba has a 10-team no-trade clause, but there are definitely teams interested in him. However, making him a healthy scratch would seem to decrease his value.

Nonetheless, that’s exactly what Evason did and you have to think Dumba might be gone sooner rather than later.

The question is will Guerin bring in immediate help to replace him or let this thing ride out as the Wild alternates between hot and cold? That’s assuming there is a hot streak around the corner and that might be a dangerous assumption.

While Kaprizov is a marvelous talent, the first line, centered by Sam Steel, is being shut down and the Wild had two five-on-five goals during their three-game losing streak. That’s not a new issue as the Wild are 27th in the 32-team NHL in five-on-five goals more than halfway through the season.

The trade deadline prices for guys like Vancouver center Bo Horvat, San Jose winger Timo Meier and others will be substantial and likely more than Guerin wants to pay considering the already present cap issues.

Meanwhile, it’s Evason’s job to get this group back on track and give his boss something to think about in the next month. More healthy scratches, line juggling and finding ways to get more speed and skill on the ice are all options. If those don’t work, Guerin might not have a tough decision at all in terms of how to proceed.

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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