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Updated: April 10th, 2013 8:04pm
Zulgad: Wild blue line goes three deep but after that questions begin

Zulgad: Wild blue line goes three deep but after that questions begin

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

In the weeks leading up to the NHL trade deadline, my radio co-host Jeff Dubay began to make the case for the Minnesota Wild to acquire a physical, stay-at-home presence on the blue line.

The argument to make such an acquisition made sense, even though it was understood it wouldn't be easy to trade for the type of player who would be in demand by many teams hoping to make a playoff push.

Then last Wednesday as the deadline neared, it was announced that Fletcher had made a significant deal by acquiring forward Jason Pominville and a 2014 fourth-round pick from Buffalo for a package that included top prospect Johan Larsson, goalie Matt Hackett, a 2013 first-round pick and a 2014 second-round pick.

The acquisition looked that much better when winger Dany Heatley was lost for the season because of a shoulder injury on the night Pominville was obtained. In his second game with the Wild, Pominville had a goal and an assist in a 3-0 win at Columbus while playing on the top line with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise.

There was little talk at that point of the Wild's situation on defense.

That changed on Tuesday.

On the surface, there was nothing terribly wrong with the play of the defense in a 1-0 loss to the NHL's best team, the Chicago Blackhawks, at Xcel Energy Center. But the Hawks' lone goal came when Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner attempted a cross-ice pass out of his own zone in the second period. The Blackhawks' Marian Hossa picked off the puck and ripped a shot past goalie Niklas Backstrom.

The Stoner giveaway looked like a pass Tarvaris Jackson would have thrown toward the sideline. The type of decision that left one scratching his or her head and wondering, "What the heck was he thinking?"

The loss left the Wild in seventh place in the Western Conference standings with 46 points, three ahead of Detroit and five ahead of Dallas. The Stars are in ninth place and currently out of the playoffs.

Stoner's mistake continued a string of rough performances for a guy who is 6-foot-4, 213 pounds and should be the type of defenseman who can provide the Wild with stability in front of Backstrom.

There is no question the Wild have one of the premier defensive pairings in the NHL with Ryan Suter and rookie standout Jonas Brodin. Suter plays huge minutes and after a rocky start with the Wild has been everything expected of a guy who signed a 13-year, $98 million free-agent deal last summer.

Brodin, who is only 19, already has proven he has great instincts and if he continues to progress at his current rate he will be a premier defenseman in this league.

Jared Spurgeon is more than capable of playing on the Wild's second defensive tandem and has five goals and 14 points in 30 games. Spurgeon, though, is listed at 5-9, 185 pounds and that might be generous.

It's after Spurgeon where things get interesting.

On Tuesday, Suter played 32 minutes, 23 seconds and Brodin logged 23:50 of ice time. Spurgeon was on the ice for 23:34. After that the distribution of minutes for defensemen went like this: Stoner 13:57; Justin Falk 13:01; and Nate Prosser 12:17.

Among the key ingredients for a successful playoff run by the Wild will be finding that fourth defenseman it can pair with Spurgeon and count on to get the job done.

Coach Mike Yeo, when asked about the defense on Tuesday, was quick to point out the Wild had only given up one goal in the past two games. But he certainly would like to see another defenseman emerge and grab hold of the opportunity.

So who is it?

The Wild's pairings at Wednesday's practice were Suter-Brodin; Stoner-Spurgeon; Tom Gilbert-Falk; and Prosser and Brett Clark.

This might be an indication that Stoner will get a chance to redeem himself on Thursday when the Wild will play host to the St. Louis Blues.

But the hope also might be that Gilbert breaks out of his funk and returns to being the player the Wild thought it had acquired in February 2012 when they sent Nick Schultz to the Oilers.

Gilbert, who is from Bloomington, Minn., has played six-plus seasons in the NHL and at 6-2, 204 pounds should be able to eat up ice time.

Gilbert, though, has been scratched the past two games after being on the ice for two goals against in the Wild's loss last week in Los Angeles. Gilbert has three goals and nine points in 34 games this season but is a minus-13, second worst on the team behind center Kyle Brodziak's minus-15.

Yeo almost certainly is hoping that removing Gilbert from the lineup will provide a necessary spark.

The other option would be to see what Clark can do, but the 36-year-old journeyman has played in only three games since signing in mid-March and is a minus-4. It appears unlikely he's going to climb the depth chart.

The guess here: Gilbert will get another shot sooner rather than later.

If that's the case, Yeo will have his fingers crossed that the former Wisconsin Badger will show real improvement or the Wild might wish they took Dubay's advice and made a deal to help the blue line. 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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