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Updated: February 1st, 2012 12:43am
Zulgad: Wild's latest defeat another sign that focus must be on future

Zulgad: Wild's latest defeat another sign that focus must be on future

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota Wild defenseman Greg Zanon shooed away the reporters. Goalie Josh Harding sat at his locker staring at nothing, still in shock and with a look of disbelief on his face. Coach Mike Yeo attempted to explain something that it became clear he found inexplicable.

In their own way, each member of the Wild attempted to deal with the immediate fallout of a 5-4 loss to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night that ranks with the worst defeats in this franchise's 11-year history.

It certainly is among the most inexcusable losses the team has endured.

Holding a 4-1 lead with just over 10 minutes remaining, the Wild gave up a goal to Brandon Yip at 9 minutes, 22 seconds of the third period. Patric Hornqvist pulled the Predators within one at 16:39 and 21 seconds later Mike Fisher tied it.

As if that wasn't disheartening enough for the announced crowd of 17,325, it got worse when Fisher picked up an errant pass near the boards and put a shot on goal that somehow beat Harding between the pads with 20.8 seconds left.

Sitting in the general manager's box high above Xcel Energy Center, an expressionless Chuck Fletcher appeared to be jotting down notes as players filed off the ice to a chorus of boos from a disgusted fan base.

Fletcher's next move should have been to make a call to owner Craig Leipold and inform his boss that this was the last straw.

The Wild entered Tuesday having won their final two games before the All-Star break after a lengthy stretch of poor play. This put them in the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoff race.

But this isn't a playoff team.

This is a franchise with a list of up-and-coming prospects who should make it competitive in the next few years. But the 2011-12 edition of the Wild appears to have been nothing more than a tease.

In his first season, Yeo got the Wild off to a start nobody expected. A team that hadn't qualified for the playoffs in the past three seasons held the first overall spot in the NHL standings in mid-December.

It was a mirage.

Leipold could inform Fletcher that he wants this team to make a playoff push for the sake of getting a few first-round home games that would stand to bring in significant dollars.

What Fletcher needs to explain to Leipold is that the Wild has a chance to deal off some players before the NHL's trade deadline on Feb. 27 and add more young talent or a few more draft picks. That ultimately could be far more valuable in the eventual pursuit of success.

Left winger Dany Heatley appears to have found a scoring groove of late and has four goals and three assists in the past three games. Heatley was acquired last summer in a low-risk trade with the San Jose Sharks for Martin Havlat after scoring 26 goals in 80 games.

A two-time 50-goal scorer in his prime, Heatley acknowledged that 26 goals was not up to his standards. Heatley's two goals Tuesday gave him 17 in 50 games and it's become clear that the veteran's best days are behind him.

Heatley, who had one goal in eight games before his recent hot streak, could be a valuable second-line scoring winger on a good team. He has value. But not as a first-line winger with a Wild team that isn't ready for prime time.

The best idea would be to look at dealing Heatley while he's playing well.

There is more.

It will be interesting to see Fletcher's patience level with right winger Devin Setoguchi, who has 10 goals in 37 games and is a minus-10 after being on the ice for both of Fisher's third-period goals Tuesday.

Setoguchi came in the package that sent defenseman Brent Burns to the Sharks during the NHL draft last June and attempting to move him would be an admission by Fletcher that he made a mistake.

However, Fletcher and Yeo might want to cut their losses when it comes to Setoguchi, who didn't win points with anyone when he was scratched from a Jan. 10 game against his former club for missing a team meeting.

The Wild also acquired prospect Charlie Coyle, a power forward, in that trade, as well as a first-round pick that they turned into center Zack Phillips.

Both are playing for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and there could be an attempt made to sell those two as the key pieces of the Burns trade.

Then there is unhappy defenseman Marek Zidlicky, who has been scratched from the past three games and is clearly deep in Yeo's doghouse. Zidlicky might have value to another team, but the Wild likely won't get much for a guy who can't even get in the lineup.

Nonetheless, there is no sense in not shopping him. Defensemen Zanon and Mike Lundin can't stay in the lineup on a regular basis and also would bring little in return but will be candidates to depart before the deadline.

It's already clear from how frequently he has started of late that Harding is being showcased and given the depth the Wild has coming up in goal it won't be surprising if Harding and Niklas Backstrom are both gone by the time this thing is really truned around.

For those who point to the Wild's list of injured players and express optimism things will get better when they return, we say the following: Don't kid yourself.

Captain Mikko Koivu is an All-Star and will make the Wild better. But the veteran center can only do so much and it wouldn't be enough. The Wild's free fall through the standings began before Koivu missed four games because of injury. Now, he has missed five more.

As far as Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse, both are dealing with concussion issues and it would be foolish to count on anything from them at this point.

This leaves Fletcher with a decision to make about the course the Wild will take.

In addition to focusing on what he can get for some parts on the big-league roster, all efforts should begin as soon as possible to secure the services of upcoming New Jersey Devils free-agent winger Zack Parise and a No. 1 defenseman who can move the puck.

This might not be ideal with 32 games left in a regular season that began with such promise, but after what Fletcher witnessed Tuesday he has to know the focus needs to be on the future because the present offers little hope. 

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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