MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Wild have fallen from first place to 12th in the Western Conference during their two-month slump. With only 20 games to go, it might be too late to resuscitate their goal of returning to the playoffs.
General manager Chuck Fletcher added two offensively skilled defencemen before Monday's trade deadline, insisting they will help this season just as much as they will in the future as he tries to shape a Stanley Cup contender.
Nick Schultz, the longest-tenured athlete among Minnesota's four major professional teams, was traded to Edmonton for fellow defenceman Tom Gilbert, a transaction that shocked Schultz and his teammates after practice. Then another veteran blue-liner was dealt when Greg Zanon went to Boston for prospect Steven Kampfer.
"We have some good hockey players on our team, but we just need a few more and that's our challenge," Fletcher said.
Backup goalie Josh Harding, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer like Zanon, stayed on the team, one sign that the Wild front office remained focused on trying to reach the post-season for the first time in four years. Minnesota is five points out of the last spot but behind four teams to get it.
"We're certainly competing for a playoff spot. We have some work to do, but we've ... shown a lot of heart recently," Fletcher said. "And we certainly feel we have the capability to take a run at this."
He added: "We weren't interested in being 'sellers.' All the moves we made we feel had a present component and a future component."
Though Schultz, the second draft pick in Wild history, made his NHL debut in 2001, more than five years before Gilbert, they're the same age with similar-paying contracts that each run through the 2013-14 season.
But Schultz is a pure stay-at-home defenceman who scored his first goal of the season Sunday to break a 101-game streak without one in his final game with the Wild. Gilbert is the kind of puck-mover the Wild need more of, and 11 of his 33 career goals have been on power plays. He's been just as durable as Schultz, the all-time Wild leader in games played, and he managed 40 assists one season, in 2008-09.
As a bonus for Wild fans, he's a local boy, a former Bloomington Jefferson High School star who went on to the University of Wisconsin. Fletcher also said he feels that Gilbert has been unfairly cast as an offensive-minded player.
"He has a very solid two-way game," Fletcher said.
The dressing room after practice on Monday was silent after players learned that Schultz was traded. His eyes were wet with tears when he spoke to the media.
"Basically all I know is being here, playing here and being part of this team," Schultz said.
The Wild also announced that forward Brad Staubitz was claimed off re-entry waivers by the Montreal Canadiens, adding another player on the opening-day lineup that won't be around for the stretch run. Kampfer won't be for now. He'll report to the AHL affiliate in Houston.
The 23-year-old Kampfer, a standout at the University of Michigan, split this season between the Bruins and their AHL affiliate in Providence. In 10 games with Boston, he had two assists and a plus-6 rating. Kampfer had five goals and five assists last season as a rookie.
The 31-year-old Zanon had two goals and four assists in 39 games, a shot-blocking specialist who found himself a healthy scratch this season several times. He's the kind of gritty veteran contenders like the Bruins can always use. So that leaves the Wild, who also dealt dissatisfied defenceman Marek Zidlicky on Friday, with a new-look blue line they hope will generate more of a spark instead of spending too much time in their own zone.
Still, Fletcher acknowledged the difficulty of dealing a popular stalwart like Schultz.
"I don't think it's any secret we've struggled offensively this season, and I think this is a natural evolution for our team," Fletcher said, adding: "It wasn't an easy price. Let's put it that way."
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