Minnesota Wild Stuck In Tough Spot After Strong Start Fizzles

OTTAWA, CANADA - OCTOBER 11: Head coach Mike Yeo of the Minnesota Wild looks on from the bench in a game against the Ottawa Senators, during the NHL home opener to kick off the Senators' 20th anniversary at Scotiabank Place on October 11, 2011 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

The Minnesota Wild were once the NHL's top club, but injuries have complicated things. For coach Mike Yeo and general manager Chuck Fletcher, there aren't many options when it comes to fixing things this season.

There are no secrets anymore. Sports fans know this. If a team is succeeding unexpectedly, the pressure will only increase as that team's season goes on. It's true in any sport. As opponents get more and more information on tape that they can analyze, scrutinize, and devise strategies against, the job of a "surprise team" becomes even more difficult.

For the Minnesota Wild and rookie coach Mike Yeo, a plague of injuries only made that task more difficult, if not impossible.

Injuries are not an excuse coaches or players will ever use. Reality, however, is that injuries can sap the depth of a team, especially when they hit like an epidemic at a single position.

For the Wild, a forward position that wasn't exactly impressively deep to start with has become perilously thin.

Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard have concussions, with no prognosis for a return for either. Devin Setoguchi missed 12 games with a knee injury, and captain Mikko Koivu -- recently named to his first All-Star Game, and deservedly so -- missed four games with a leg injury.

Oh, and Koivu reportedly separated his shoulder Saturday, leaving him out for a month or longer.

It's a disastrous development for a Minnesota team already hanging by a thread when it comes to a Western Conference playoff race it once owned.

For Yeo and general manager Chuck Fletcher, the temptation must be there to dip into a pretty rich group of prospects -- one that includes former first-round picks Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle, and others like Johan Larsson, Jonas Brodin, and Jason Zucker -- to make this year's team better.

But that doesn't follow the plan.

Fletcher has worked very hard to rebuild the Wild's depleted prospect list. Through bad drafts, bad trades, and getting no compensation for departing star players, there wasn't much for Fletcher to work with. Trading prospects for short-term help just doesn't jive with that plan, and the work Fletcher has already done in his tenure.

The Wild are missing three of their top six forwards, though, and the team really has no idea when two of them will return. The team hasn't exactly been playing well (two wins in 15 games). The free-fall down the Western Conference standings will probably continue with Koivu -- a catalyst offensively and a Selke-level player defensively -- on the shelf.

Can Fletcher and Yeo afford to just plug another body in from AHL Houston?

If they want to stick to the plan, there is little choice. The list of assets on the NHL roster that can be realistically traded for any serious return is not long. Goalie Josh Harding has played well this season, and is a free agent at the end of the season. Youngsters Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper are playing well in Houston, and Hackett has looked good when called upon with the Wild.

Want to trade someone else? Good luck. You might get a bit player or a late-round pick for veteran defenseman Greg Zanon, who appears to be declining. Marek Zidlicky might have the reputation of being an offensive defenseman, but Cam Ward has one more goal this season than Zidlicky does.

That means Fletcher faces the likely scenario of dipping into the prospect pool to strengthen any potential trade, or he needs to consider dealing a future draft pick, meaning he runs the risk of hurting his ability to add more prospects.

Neither option appears attractive.

The Wild's hot start looked like a mirage for a while. When the team got to around the 30-game mark, it looked more like the group might be for real. 15 games is a mirage, an accident, or whatever you want to call it. 30 games is less likely to be that.

But when the players started dropping like flies, the healthy guys started to lose their way. Play seven or ten good minutes, then fall into the same traps every night. Forget the system. Play individually. No forecheck. No puck pressure. No net drive.

As soon as something bad happens -- or if the Wild play a few minutes really well but can't produce any positive results -- it's as if they fall into a trance that they can't snap out of.

It's a team screaming for some sort of change, but the only changes that appear to be imminent are more injuries for a snake-bit group.

The poor record as of late will eventually lead to fans criticizing Yeo. It's not his fault. You can only make so many line changes and bench so many guys before you run out of options. And unless you want this team to blow up its future, there simply isn't much Fletcher can do.

For Yeo, all he can do is keep imploring his guys to play his way. The way that got them to the top of the West. No, it won't be easy without the valuable Koivu, Bouchard, and Latendresse. But they don't have a choice. The other option is to quit, and Yeo is likely going to have none of that.

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