Wild Continue Skid, End 2018 on Losing Note

It was a frustrating New Year’s Eve in the State of Hockey as the Pittsburgh Penguins flew into town and crashed the Minnesota Wild’s party. This left the Wild five points out of the second wild card spot after suffering a 3-2 loss to the Penguins, the 11th in their last 15 games. It’s a scary time in Minnesota for hockey fans who are witnessing a team that can’t seem to play consistent hockey for 60 minutes up and down the ice. Though the score Sunday night did not go in the Wild’s favor, the effort was there.

Aside from a couple bad bounces and unlucky pucks, the Wild actually played a solid game against the Penguins. They won 53 percent of faceoffs, scored on their only power play, something they haven’t done in seven games, and as a result, Mikko Koivu’s goal on the man advantage tied him with Marian Gaborik for the franchise’s record in power play goals with 59.

A great achievement, yes, but soon after Koivu’s goal, Minnesota’s momentum was killed after Sidney Crosby netted his 18th goal of the season on the power play. Phil Kessel then scored with 21 seconds remaining in the first, which gave the Penguins a lead they kept the rest of the game.

Not Good Enough

It’s been one of those seasons for the Wild, where they can’t catch a break. It feels like every time they do something good or accomplish something, they are smacked in the face with a shovel and are forced to dig themselves out of a hole. It’s been constant.

Luke Kunin’s first NHL goal was disallowed after Wes McCauley called a high stick. Again, smacked in the face. Four minutes later, Riley Sheahan scored to make it 3-1 in the second. Zach Parise’s late third-period goal left Minnesota short by one and ultimately took another loss in a game they needed to win.

Pittsburgh Penguins Casey DeSmith Minnesota Wild Luke Kunin
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith and Minnesota Wild center Luke Kunin (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

It wasn’t good enough and I feel that this is the motto hovering over this Wild squad — ‘Not good enough.’ Game in and game out the effort and drive are there, but when it comes to the late stages of the game, it’s frustrating watching a team who continues to wait until the last five minutes to try and earn a point. It’s simple: they are struggling to put the puck in the net.

It’s been especially evident throughout this slump as Minnesota has nine goals in their last six games. Prior to that, the Wild scored 13 goals in three games. This is a team that is constantly inconsistent. A shakeup within the lineup is risky but could provide the spark this team needs to rejuvenate in the new year.

Charlie Coyle told Michael Russo in his most recent post in The AthleticNHL, “… we gotta stay positive through it. We’ve gone through it before and it’s gonna be tough to crawl out of this, but we’ve got the team to do it so we know we can do it.” (from “Out With the Old, in With…the Same: A Familiar Tune as Wild Fall on New Year’s” – The AthleticNHL – 12/31/18).

Reilly Smith Charlie Coyle
Charlie Coyle and Reilly Smith (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Minnesota’s upcoming road trip east visiting Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Boston will be a huge test to see if 2019 can lift this struggling Wild team into playoff position and hopefully create some consistent play leading up to the All-Star break.

What Will It Take to Rebound?

Bruce Boudreau’s job is safe, but it’s quite possible Minnesota engages in a trade of some sort and personally, I feel that Wild GM Paul Fenton should bait Joel Eriksson Ek and aim for a right-shot forward. The Wild currently play nine left-shots forwards, 10 with Eriksson Ek in the lineup, but he was sent down to the AHL’s Iowa Wild on Dec. 28.

His play this season at the NHL level has been a result of him lacking confidence. He’s a solid player who can win crucial draws all over the ice. He can also be effective playing a more defensive role at the center position, but has not been able to encapsulate that so far this season. In 27 games played this season with the Wild, Eriksson Ek has scored three goals, one assist and sits at a minus-one.

Maple Leafs Minnesota Wild
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, blocks a shot by Minnesota Wild’s Joel Eriksson Ek, while Toronto Maple Leafs’ Nazem Kadri helps. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

Though Eriksson Ek is only 21 and still has time to develop, I don’t see Minnesota being the place for that to happen. With an AHL roster that isn’t very deep, the Wild don’t have a set of players in their system they can rely on to be called up and provide that spark for the club. It’s been like this for years.

I think that a change of scenery would be beneficial for Eriksson Ek and could create a more diverse lineup for the Wild up front. When I think of who would fit in Minnesota’s lineup, I think of Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers. He can bring a gritty style of hockey and could provide energy and confidence for a seemingly-drained Wild team at the moment. Simmonds can throw his weight around and create scoring opportunities doing so.

Minnesota has been missing this right-shot threat up front since Cal Clutterbuck left. He played an important role with the Wild, winning battles in corners, delivering bone-crushing hits, making concise tape-to-tape passes on the break-out and had a wicked wrist shot. The Wild need this right now and Simmonds embodies that perfectly. He would fit well in Minnesota.

I do believe that if Fenton makes a change and sends Eriksson Ek to a different club, another potential grab could be Montreal Canadien Andrew Shaw. He has a similar style to that of Simmonds. He’s greasy, gets his body involved and does not back down. During his Stanley Cup-winning stint with the Chicago Blackhawks, Shaw demolished the Wild during three consecutive playoff exits and would beat them up during the regular season, raining boos throughout the Xcel Energy Center. He’s a player you love to hate, but when he’s on your roster, you’re thankful he’s there.

Eriksson Ek has shown throughout his time with the Wild that his size can play a role in why he has struggled in his three seasons here. If Fenton can manage to make an offer to either Philadelphia or Montreal, I would expect that we see Minnesota gain some size, as well as a right-handed shot to give the offense a bit more depth. If the Wild can land a right-shot forward with some grit and tenacity, I believe that this is exactly what the Wild need to get their feet back on the gas pedal and gun it for a seventh-straight appearance in the playoffs.