After patiently approaching his season in charge of the Minnesota Wild, general manager Paul Fenton has taken his first steps toward remaking the roster.
If the Wild don’t pick up the pace in the Western Conference race, more moves could be coming soon.
The Wild traded left wing Nino Niederreiter to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday for centre Victor Rask, a swap of underperforming but still-young players on long-term contracts between teams under new regimes.
The 26-year-old Niederreiter, a native of Switzerland, has nine goals and 14 assists in 46 games this season for the Wild. He’s in the second season of a five-year, $26.25-million contract that came after a career-best 2016-17 season.
For a team that currently ranks 22nd in the NHL in goals per game (2.83 entering play on Thursday against Anaheim), Niederreiter simply wasn’t producing enough. He scored his second goal in three games on Tuesday against Los Angeles, after being dropped down to the fourth line.
The Wild entered play on Thursday in eighth place in the Western Conference, their streak of six straight appearances in the playoffs in precarious position. They acquired right wing Pontus Aberg in a deal on Wednesday that sent AHL centre Justin Kloos to the Ducks.
“We’re looking for consistency,” Fenton said on a conference call with reporters. “For me, when you make change like this, it shows players that nothing is forever and it gives them an alert that if they want to be here they’re going to have to play and play the way that we want them to play and be successful.”
The Wild acquired Niederreiter, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, from the New York Islanders in 2013 for right wing Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round draft pick. The Wild clearly came out ahead on that deal, with Niederreiter playing in all but three games over his first four seasons with the team and posting 25 goals and 32 assists in 2016-17.
Perhaps the Hurricanes, who are in their first year under general manager Don Waddell, will similarly benefit from Niederreiter’s switch in situations. He has 112 goals and 119 assists in 498 NHL games.
“I don’t want him to fail so that we look good,” Fenton said. “I want him to thrive there, and I want Victor to thrive here as well.”
The Hurricanes, who have made the playoffs only once in 12 years since winning the Stanley Cup, have headed in a new direction this season under Waddell and rookie coach Rod Brind’Amour. They’re currently in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, entering their game on Friday against the Ottawa Senators.
The 25-year-old Rask, a native of Sweden, has only one goal and five assists in 26 games this season for the Hurricanes after missing the first 20 games following surgery on two of his fingers as a result of what the Hurricanes said was a slicing accident in the kitchen. Rask is in the third season of a six-year, $24-million contract.
“I think he needed a change of scenery,” Fenton said, “and I’m hoping he gets back his scoring and his distribution so he can be very productive for us.”
Rask has 63 goals and 100 assists in 339 NHL games. Though their ages are only six months apart, Rask will give the Wild a $1.25-million annual discount from Niederreiter in salary cap charges. He also plays a more coveted position that is in flux for the future with the Wild, with Mikko Koivu (35) and Eric Staal (34) currently holding centre spots in the lineup.
“My experience tells me you can’t have enough centres,” Fenton said.