With ten games to play in the regular season, the Minnesota Wild are 14 points back from a playoff spot, and currently sit in 13th place in the West. Only Lloyd Christmas would be excited about those odds. The team is still playing, mostly out of pride, and insists they will not go down quietly or without a fight. To that end, Captain Mikko Koivu returns tonight against the Calgary Flames, in what will be a solid morale boost for a defeated team and a deflated fan base.
This will, barring a miracle, mark a fourth straight season of early golf for the Minnesota Wild players, and a fourth straight season without the revenue producing and passion inciting NHL playoffs in the State of Hockey. It would seem, on the surface, that there is very little reason to watch the team play out the stretch, but there are a few story lines that still need to play out headed into next season.
There are ten games left for the Wild's top forwards to find some chemistry and show GM Chuck Fletcher that he can trust them going into a new season. Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley have been, to be polite, less than expected. Not one of the highly touted top line will break fifty points this season. In comparison, Steven Stamkos currently leads the NHL with 50 goals, while Evgeni Malkin has 93 points. If Fletcher does not feel the top line can produce next season, he may be forced to move someone and fill that hole with a free agent (Zach Parise anyone?) or one of the kids coming in, such as Mikael Granlund.
On the back end, Tom Gilbert still has much to prove, and the young players need to prove themselves worthy of remaining with the big club. Justin Falk and Clayton Stoner can become free agents on July 1st, meaning they have to find a way to convince Fletcher, or another GM, that they are worthy of the investment. Kurtis Foster and Mike Lundin have both had injury issues this season. Lundin has been shut down after a sports hernia surgery, but Foster could still fight to come back and make an impact to earn himself a contract.
Even defensemen still under contract need to find a way to prove themselves or find themselves on the short end of an organization about to be infused with young talent. Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Steven Kampfer, and Nate Prosser have all shown flashes of brilliance, but with Jonas Brodin ready to jump the Atlantic, they all need to find another gear. 2008 fourth round pick Sean Lorenz has been signed to a minor league deal, providing yet another player competing to be on the blue line.
Goaltender Matt Hackett may have played Josh Harding out of a job, though Fletcher has said he is not opposed to re-sigining Harding in the off season to give Hackett more time to develop. It is not an unrealistic situation, as the recent injuries to Wild goalies exposed the fact that after Hackett and Darcy Kuemper, the Wild have no one ready to fill in. Harding could get the bulk of the starts down the stretch to rest top goalie Niklas Backstrom, and to showcase Harding for the summer and help him find a new gig. With his shutout of the Canucks two nights ago, Harding has shown he has game, but he only has ten games left to show just how much.
In the forward ranks, next season's training camp is going to be exciting. Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Zack Phillips, and Brett Bulmer all have very real possibilities of not only competing for a spot, but pushing some of the veterans hard for their spots. The rest of this season is the only real chance players like Eric Christensen and Stephane Veilleux have to give Fletcher a reason to stick the kids in Houston for a year or two.
The Dive for Top Five
The Wild will not tank the season. In fact, it is actually not allowed to blatantly tank for higher draft position. However, a top flight draft pick could go a long way toward long term success. There isn't much hope that the Fail for Nail (Yakupov) can be completed, the Wild still have a decent chance to pick in the top five, and a very good chance of selecting in the top three. They have not picked that high since drafting Benoit Pouliot at the fourth overall pick in 2005. The highest pick the Wild have ever made was third overall in their inaugural draft, selecting Marian Gaborik.
Talking draft position is not a pleasant conversation. Fans want to watch wins, and players want to win as much as possible. The team is saying the right things, and the fight seems to still be alive in their bellies. They are on track to become the first team in league history to be in first place in mid-December and miss the playoffs, but they also could still play spoiler to many teams with playoff hopes. A solid draft pick may be the only redeeming prize left.
Ride it Out
With little chance to play the spring hockey fans are longing for, it is easy to dismiss the season and head for Target Field. However, before grabbing your glove and Mauer jersey, make sure you keep at least one eye on the Wild as the season wraps up. While it may not be the most exciting finish, there are still plenty of reasons to watch. If nothing else, it will give you a leg up on hockey for next season. Which, really, is the only reason the Wild are still playing.