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Judd Zulgad

Wild Get Knocked Down

Will they get up again? Will it ultimately matter this season?

Photo by Rick Olson for Minnesota Hockey Magazine

Forget the speculation that Wild general manager Bill Guerin might want to add another scorer to his roster before the NHL trade deadline on March 3. The Wild’s play in the three games since returning from an eight-day hiatus leaves one wondering if Guerin might be wise to consider becoming a seller.

The break was supposed to help players return refreshed and ready to go for the sprint to the playoffs. Instead, it appears some Wild players have decided the offseason began early.

Scenes like this from Thursday night’s loss to Vegas have been all too common in recent Wild games. (MHM photo / Jeff Wegge)

A blown third-period lead in a 3-2 defeat on Monday at Arizona was bad, a no-show for a large portion of a 4-1 loss on Wednesday at Dallas was troubling, and an embarrassing lack of compete in a 5-1 loss on Thursday against Vegas was downright disturbing. Starting a crucial seven-game homestand, that includes nine of 12 games at Xcel Energy Center before the trade deadline, Dean Evason’s team worked hard to earn the boos that rained down on them.

The night before Wild players had briefly closed the dressing room to discuss what had gone wrong. “We’re pissed,” defenseman Jake Middleton said.

You certainly couldn’t tell.

The Wild only hung onto the final wild card spot in the Western Conference because the Calgary Flames lost to the Red Wings on Thursday. The Wild and Calgary both have 58 points, but Minnesota has a game in hand.

Hours before the Wild faced the Golden Knights, Guerin was asked how important this stretch of home games was as far as determining what he would do at the deadline.

“It’s pretty critical,” he said. “I think this next stretch of games is critical to our whole season to be quite honest. We can’t be giving away points like we did the other night in Arizona. We can’t show up halfway through the game like we did in Dallas. We just can’t do it, we can’t afford it. Nobody is slowing down, everybody’s staying in it, including us. We’re not going anywhere. But we have to understand, too, this might come down to the last day of the season, so when we have a home stretch like this … I know it’s a little long and this and that and whatever. No. Nothing matters now, we need to win hockey games.”

Guerin is right to convey a sense of urgency, but his team is doing nothing to show it understands him. The Wild’s struggles to score 5-on-5 have been a problem all season. Minnesota is 28th in the NHL in that category with only 85 even-strength goals, and both of their goals in the past two losses have come on the power play.

Here is where apologists will fall back on the opinion that the Wild doesn’t have enough firepower, but they have won enough games to prove that a lot of this simply comes down to hard work. The Wild doesn’t have a ton of talent up front beyond Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello, so everyone else has to apply themselves every single night. Many simply aren’t doing that, and that’s an issue the apologists want you to ignore.

There was talk after Thursday’s debacle that players might benefit from getting away from the rink for a day and clearing their heads. The problem with that is they were just away from hockey for an extended period due to the All-Star break and the yearly bye week each team receives. No one should be dragging at this point and everyone should be sharp.

Wild coach Dean Evason (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

“I wish I could give you an intelligent answer because it’s mental mistakes,” Evason said when asked about his team’s play coming off a hiatus in which many players relaxed in warm-weather spots. “Obviously, we’re fresh physically. We shouldn’t be tired in any way. We’ve just made some mental mistakes. But having said that, if you look back on the games that we haven’t had success (this season) we’ve kind of done the same thing, right? We need to have that learning curve go the other way quickly here going forward. There’s nothing we can do about the games obviously these last three except learn from them and go forward.”

Guerin is learning plenty as well and soon might come to the conclusion that trading future assets for immediate help isn’t in his best interest. This team will have immediate salary cap room at the deadline, but that will go away during the offseason as the Wild pay the price for the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts.

But why would Guerin invest in a rental player to help a team going nowhere?

The Wild recently ranked atop the NHL in the Athletic’s Prospect Pool Rankings and the upcoming draft is loaded with talent. The Wild have six selections in the seven-round draft, having dealt their third-round selection to Anaheim last season in a trade for tough winger Nicolas Deslauriers.

If the Wild continue their current trend, Guerin might decide to trade some veteran pieces, assuming they have value, and start calling up  prospects from the team’s AHL affiliate in Iowa. Guerin admitted Thursday that he’s protective of the talent pool the Wild have built. It’s his job to protect the future of the franchise as much as it is to improve it immediately.

That future appears to be bright. The present, however, is looking more bleak by the day.

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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