As we go down the stretch of the NHL regular season, the Minnesota Wild received a boost Thursday night. Top-line center and team captain Mikko Koivu returned after missing significant time with a shoulder injury. Koivu didn't score Thursday, but the Wild won their second straight, 3-2 in a shootout over Calgary.
Of course, it's a boost that wasn't necessarily well-received by Wild fans.
Why? Because Minnesota's free-fall since a 20-7-4 start to the season has driven it from the top of the NHL to contention for the NHL Draft Lottery, which is coming up April 10.
The bottom five teams in the league get a shot at the first overall pick in the draft, something Minnesota has never had. If you look at the franchise's history, there's a glut of finishes between 19th and 24th place in the league. These are finishes that leave the Wild nowhere near playoff contention, but also not in contention for a spot in the draft lottery. Consequently, Minnesota ends up picking too far down the list in the first round to get the kind of draft picks that can help turn a franchise around.
It has become an annual conundrum for fans of not just the Wild, but of teams around the league -- and teams in other professional sports leagues.
The Indianapolis Colts almost took themselves out of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes by -- gasp! -- winning a late-season game over Houston. The Minnesota Vikings may have cost themselves a chance to either draft Robert Griffin III or make a trade with a team hoping to take him by winning over Washington in Week 16.
In the NHL, the draft lottery keeps teams from "tanking" games, at least by design. The idea is that teams won't be encouraged to keep losing because the worst record doesn't guarantee a team the top pick.
Of course, that doesn't stop teams from making the "drive for five," so they give themselves a shot at the aforementioned top pick. And it doesn't stop fans from debating the merits of such behavior.
In Minnesota, that means fans are debating whether Koivu should have been shut down, rather than having him return for the final games of a lost season. On its surface, Koivu coming back might look like a guy throwing a bucket of water on a house already destroyed by fire. The season was torched a long time ago, and Koivu isn't going to do anything about it now. "Helping the team win" is noble, but there is a large group of Minnesota fans that don't want this team to win right now. The hope is gone, thanks to the team's almost-historic collapse.
As a fan, I've never rooted for my favorite team to lose for the sake of a draft pick. I've had opportunities, but it's just not something I believe in. Losing stinks, even if there might be a pot at the end of the rainbow that contains a little bit of gold. That said, it's hard not to understand how Wild fans feel. They're tired of losing, and mediocre finishes to seasons have prevented the team from getting a player who can make an immediate impact and energize the fans and the locker room.
The players want to win down the stretch. Veterans are playing for potential contracts, young guys are looking to prove themselves and are trying to get a head start on making the team next season. The coaches aren't going to sit players of Koivu's caliber, and they're certainly not going to get into the idea of tanking games so management can get a higher draft pick.
There's a lot of pride and competitiveness in a pro sports locker room. There's no reason to think otherwise, even if the team's performance hasn't been up to snuff. This goes for teams like Columbus, Edmonton, the Islanders, Toronto and others. No one out of playoff contention is going to tank games, and no one should.
Minnesota is no different. Fans might be frustrated, but thousands of them paid good money for tickets, and explaining to them that a healthy Koivu isn't going to play would be a difficult proposition.
"Fail for Nail" and "Drive for Five" might be catchy, but neither of them will sell tickets.