Myers: Come summer the Wild should consider a deal with the Devils
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It might have been a bit of an eye-opener for Minnesota Wild fans this week when respected ESPN hockey analyst John Buccigross released his list of the top 100 players in pro hockey. If Minnesota fans were looking for a familiar name, they got all the way to #57 (the currently injured Mikko Koivu) before finding someone who wears that holiday-centric combination of forest green and Iron Range red.
In other words, despite the fact that the Wild's merchandise folks sell replica sweaters for a dozen or so players (a Nick Johnson jersey t-shirt was on sale at Mall of America for around $25 recently), there's not a huge clamoring of folks looking to get merchandise for the team's "stars" outside of the self-proclaimed State of Hockey.
With the Wild on the edge of the playoff picture, and having proven earlier in the season that when things go according to plan, they're perfectly capable of winning 2-1 and 3-2 games, general manager Chuck Fletcher just needs to find more scoring, right? Trust us, he's thought of that already, and so have about a dozen other men in his position.
"I think we'd like to add another forward, but in calling general managers around the league, there might be 15 guys looking for the same thing," Fletcher said this week in an interview with NHL Network.
If Fletcher has proven one thing in his two-plus seasons acting as buyer and seller of talent for the Wild, it's that he will make a move when the time, and the opportunity, is right, but not until then. At the deadline last season, he was offered plenty in the way of overpriced third-line talent, and passed. Then Wild missed the playoffs due to a disastrous March, and coach Todd Richards was out of a job the day after the season ended.
But Fletcher still waited. The offers apparently kept getting better in the run-up to the NHL Draft at Xcel Energy Center, and on that June night he finally made a move. Brent Burns was sent to San Jose in exchange for Devin Setoguchi and a few high-promise prospects. A few weeks later, Fletcher was on the phone to Silicon Valley again, this time jettisoning the underperforming and overpriced Martin Havlat and picking up Dany Heatley, to give the Wild an instant high-impact top line.
It worked that way, for a while, as the Wild surged to the best record in the NHL by early December, before injuries started piling up. Setoguchi missed time with a knee ailment during a painful recent stretch where the Wild lost 11 consecutive road games. And during Tuesday's cringe-inducing "come from way ahead" loss to Nashville, the good news of Heatley's two goals (giving him four in the past three games) was balanced by the fact that Koivu, Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard were all in nice suits, in the pressbox. Koivu is expected to return from a shoulder ailment soon. The timeline for Latendresse and Bouchard, both out with concussions, is less clear.
After unhappy defenseman Marek Zidlicky's recent soliloquy about his frustrations over repeated healthy scratches, Fletcher will likely have little choice but to unload him. But the NHL's other 29 general managers, knowing that Fletcher is in a bind, certainly won't offer much. There's also been lots of talk about the Wild's surplus of goalies, and speculation that lefty Josh Harding could be moved, putting Niklas Backstrom back in the clear number one position and promoting Matthew Hackett from Houston to the backup role.
Presented that idea by the NHL Network interviewers, Fletcher again stressed his cautious nature.
"If you can get a big piece to justify it then you have to consider it," Fletcher said. "But certainly if there isn't something that makes you a lot better in the present, I think you have to be very careful about moving a goaltender."
Of course, there is "something that makes you a lot better" out there, and it's hardly a secret. If you watched Shattuck-St. Mary's 10 years ago, or North Dakota eight years ago, or the Winter Olympics two years ago, you know about Zach Parise.
If you follow the NHL, you know about his stardom for the New Jersey Devils, and his return from an injury-marred 13-game season in 2010-11 to produce 41 points in the Devils' first 49 games this season. If you look a little closer you may also know that the son of North Stars standout J.P. Parise is under a one-year $6 million contract with the Devils, making him an unrestricted free agent on July 1, when the Bloomington native will likely be sitting in his new home on Lake Minnetonka, awaiting calls from his agent, and offers from around the league.
Why wait until then? Because with the Feb. 27 trade deadline approaching, Parise has been effectively removed from the "rental" market after the New York Post reported that Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello will not move him before the end of the season. The Post story did say that if the Devils have no hope of re-signing him, Lamoriello would consider moving Parise's rights prior to the start of free agency, effectively giving one team an exclusive negotiating position.
The Devils are a fiscal mess, playing in a sparkling, and mostly empty, new arena in the midst of a run-down city (Newark) perceived as dangerous by most, where gentrification seems in no hurry to set up shop. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman admitted at the All-Star Game that the Devils are getting fiscal support from the league. So there are mounting doubts that Lamoriello would have the financial means to re-sign Parise even if it was in New Jersey's long-term plans.
Wild owner Craig Leipold has fewer financial issues, but still sticks by the mantra that the team needs to get more exciting and make the playoffs to solidify itself in the hearts, and wallets, of high-expectation Minnesota fans. The addition of Parise would be expensive, but would satisfy the need for more excitement, would pay immediate on-ice dividends, and would give the Minnesota NHL scene an offensive superstar the likes of which haven't been seen since Dino Ciccarelli had inflatable dinosaurs flying off the shelves in the Twin Cities in the spring of 1981.
Like it or not, one expects that the team Fletcher has at his command currently, injuries and all, looks a lot like the team you'll see on the ice a month from now. Barring a low-yield Zidlicky trade, and the potential movement of a goalie, neither of which will change the character or ability of the Wild in any significant way, this is the 25-man unit that will be battling for playoff spots six through eight in March.
To those clamoring for a potential deal with the Devils, Fletcher will again stress patience. And Wild fans can take heart in the knowledge that the general manager has shown he does his best work in June and July anyway.