Thomas Vanek (Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Minnesota Wild are mired in a slump, and with their high-priced free agent signings of the past few years, missing the playoffs isn't an option. What could happen if things don't improve? You'll find out if you click on this story.
If you're a Minnesota Wild fan who also respects the value of the advanced statistic known as PDO, you're likely a very concerned individual these days. Despite adding winger Thomas Vanek this summer and the marquee signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter a couple years back, the Wild currently sit 10th in the Western Conference. But even worse, in the PDO department, they're near the bottom of the league; the only teams worse in that regard are the Sabres, Oilers and Coyotes, and ahead of them are such non-powerhouses as Carolina and Colorado.
Add to that a four-game losing streak that included a 3-1 loss to New Jersey Tuesday, and you have a fan base that's starting to get a little restless. And it's tough to blame them. The franchise has only won three playoff rounds since NHL hockey returned to Minnesota in the 2000-01 campaign, and although their 43-win season last year was their best showing since they posted 44 wins in 2007-08, there's no sense they're on the cusp of entering into that elite group of teams (including the Kings, Blackhawks, Ducks and Penguins) who genuinely put the fear of the hockey gods into the opposition.
With youngsters Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and Jonas Brodin still developing, there was bound to be some growing pains for this group – and injuries have also been a factor for them. But if the Wild continue to struggle, GM Chuck Fletcher is going to face an intriguing dilemma: what changes do you make to a roster that, with few exceptions, is under contract at least until the end of next season? Clearly, not making the playoffs isn't an option for team owner Craig Leipold – who said last season the organization needs to make it to the second round of the post-season in order to turn a profit – meaning Fletcher cannot simply sit back and wait for that youth development to take place. The pressure is real, and it could get spectacular if the ship isn't righted.
As of today, Fletcher has approximately $8 million in salary cap space, and since Leipold has pushed the Wild's payroll in the top third of the NHL in the past two seasons, it's safe to assume Fletcher has the ability to add money to his cap total. He was going to have to anyway to cover contract extensions for pending RFAs Granlund and Haula, but if the losses continue, he'll have a tough time justifying recommitting to a core that can't keep up with the true top teams.
It would be easy for Fletcher to send head coach Mike Yeo to the unemployment line, but it's hard to pin the team's woes on him when his goaltending duo of Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom have been inconsistent to say the least. Similarly, even with Suter and Brodin, Minnesota's defense corps isn't considered to be among the cream of the crop.
This isn't to say Wild fans are looking at a hopeless situation. Far from it – Fletcher has wisely depended on the draft and development model to get them to where they are, and the roster has more than its share of players other teams would want. But when you look at Minnesota and you ask yourself, "Can I see this team being favored to beat division rivals Chicago or St. Louis in one of the opening rounds of the playoffs?" the honest answer should be no. Maybe that will change in one or two years with the blossoming of one of their young talents, but in the current moment, that's small consolation for their long-suffering supporters.
So maybe they need to trade some of their depth at forward to bolster their blueline. Maybe they have to buy out the final year of Backstrom's contract and firm up the goaltending position. Whatever the case, doing nothing seems to be the one thing Fletcher can't do.
There's pressure on every team in every NHL market, but the Wild's predicament is particularly worth keeping an eye on. There's still lots of time for them to improve, but failure to do so could and should result in some intriguing transactions.