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Wild face 'hard decisions' before Trade Deadline, GM says

Fenton discusses buying or selling, replacing Koivu, pressure to win in playoffs with

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

The Minnesota Wild are in a tricky situation heading into the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. ET.

They have a two-point lead for the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference after their 4-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday. But that's about the only thing for them to feel good about right now.

Minnesota is 0-2-2 since its mandatory five-day break following the 2019 NHL All-Star Game. Defenseman Matt Dumba, who had 12 goals in 32 games, has been out since Dec. 15 because of a ruptured right pectoralis muscle in his chest. Captain Mikko Koivu, the Wild's best shutdown center, was lost to a season-ending knee injury on Tuesday. 

They have been waiting for Joel Eriksson Ek, selected No. 14 by Minnesota in the 2015 NHL Draft, to deliver on his potential. The 22-year-old forward, who was recalled from Iowa of the American Hockey League after Koivu was injured, scored the Wild's only goal on Thursday and has eight points (three goals, five assists) in 37 games this season. He had nine points (four goals, five assists) in nine games with Iowa.

Paul Fenton, in his first season as Minnesota's general manager, has less than three weeks to decide if the Wild will be buyers or sellers, because standing pat doesn't seem to be a reasonable option.

Minnesota has reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs in six straight seasons but has lost in the Western Conference First Round in each of the past three. The Wild haven't made it past the second round since 2003. That's a big reason Fenton was hired to replace Chuck Fletcher, who was Minnesota's GM from 2009-18, on May 21.

Fenton will try to help the Wild break the run of being just good enough to get into the playoffs but not good enough to win in the postseason. There are difficult questions to answer and challenging decisions ahead, many of which he discussed with on Thursday:


On whether the Western Conference is up for grabs, or if there are a couple of teams that are absolutely head and shoulders above others, including the Wild, and if it will remain that way if you don't make moves to better the roster now:

"The Western Conference has some very, very good teams. How we match up is still to be determined. We have internal players right now that we're utilizing to hopefully have other people step up to replace Mikko in our lineup. I'm curious to see how Eriksson Ek and [Victor] Rask in particular handle it."


On his initial reaction to the Koivu news and if it alters his thought process over the next three weeks:

"Of course it does. It has to. But at the same time I've got to have an open mind and watch our team and see how much they progress. I've been waiting for Eriksson Ek to play top-nine minutes and he's been waiting to play top-nine minutes in order to take that next step as a player. Now we're going to have an opportunity to watch him and see if he's capable of handling it. That's the exciting part -- when you have a young player who will get this opportunity. It's going to be good for the team."

Video: Fallout following Koivu's season-ending knee injury


On what he thinks Eriksson Ek can do with the opportunity, and if he thinks he can do more with his game:

"Yes. The reason we sent him down to Iowa to play was to particularly play more minutes, to play 20 minutes a night and get his game in order as to what he was projected to be from his draft year. Playing as a young player here as a 19- and 20-year-old, it doesn't necessarily always equate out to the minutes or the role that you want him to play. But now we have the opportunity to put him in a position that he was drafted for, where his role can be stated. Can he add offense? I believe that he can.

"I don't think he's got any different pressure than he had before. I'm not trying to put pressure on him. I'm just trying to put him into a position where now he's capable of playing and then going forward he continues his upward mobility as a player with this organization."


On whether two or three weeks is enough time to evaluate the Wild:

"Well, it has to be. It has to be. The bottom line is it has to be. There will be some hard decisions to make come the trade deadline, but in the next 10 days or so, it will be determined by just how people play."


On what the mandate is from ownership this season. Is it to get into the playoffs? Is it to build this team to be a winner for years to come and if that means sacrificing one postseason, is that OK?

"Certainly it's to win the Stanley Cup. How we get there is the key. You're asking it and there hasn't been a determined factor yet. We've talked about it and, again, I'm in the midst of continuing to watch this team progress and to see how we are in the next couple of weeks without showing my hand or telling people where we particularly are. We're looking at it both in a positive and negative sense. If we're positive, then we have the opportunity to evaluate ourselves against the rest of the league. If it's negative, then we're going to look at it in that respect as to how we can help ourselves for the future."


On what is negative:

"If we're not in the playoffs."


On what he'll do if the Wild's playoff cushion is one point on Feb. 24:

"Then I've got a hard decision to make, a very, very hard decision. To evaluate this team the next little bit is certainly the reason that we're having this conversation right now."


On what he has seen through 53 games; what he likes, what encourages him:

"We're certainly built from the back end out. Our goaltender [Devan Dubnyk] has been an all-star, obviously. He's very good and so is our defense. It was a crushing blow to lose Dumba because he was the one offensive element that we have on the back end and certainly was having a great start to his year and was headed toward a career year. So our defense is stable. Our forwards have been consistent, but they've been consistently keeping us in it instead of consistently taking games away from people. That's the difference. We need somebody to be a difference-maker is I guess the way to look at it."

Video: EDM@MIN: Dubnyk turns aside Cave down low


On whether there's optimism that Dumba will be back before the end of the season:

"I don't have an update on him currently. I saw him the other day. He looks to be better, but I can't put a timeline on it."


On if he has a difference-maker in the lineup right now:

"There certainly can be. [Mikael] Granlund, [Jason] Zucker, those are two speed guys. You're never going to have a negative to say about Zach Parise because of his effort and the way that he plays around the net and contributes around the net being our leading goal-scorer. Those three in particular, and then if we get Eric Staal back to where he was last year, which he's starting to show those signs again, then yes he can be a difference-maker as well."


On whether he expected decisions to be difficult at this time of the year because of what he has, the uncertainty about the future, if he has enough this season and considering some of the Wild's pending UFAs, including Staal:

"Of course. You look at it and you know that this team has been competitive, they've been in the playoffs for six years, but having key players go out is not always how you view things. You're reading and reacting as you go along. That's what I'm doing here. Having two of your key pieces out, you've got to find out if the rest of the players are capable of stepping up and making a difference."


On whether the Wild have enough to win in the playoffs: 

"That will be the answer to be determined."

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