Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 2/9/12
ST. PAUL, Minn. The Minnesota Wild might have been the biggest surprise in the NHL when they were leading the league in mid-December with a franchise-best 20-8-5 start. After just two wins in their next 12 games, they were on the outside of the playoff picture.Certainly, Minnesota accelerated its development timetable with a fast start to the season, but are the Wild truly a team that should be focused on the playoffs? It's a question Minnesota's leadership, including general manager Chuck Fletcher, must answer before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.The Wild entered Thursday night's game against Northwest Division-leading Vancouver tied for eighth place in the Western Conference with 58 points. As the trade deadline approaches, Minnesota's objectives will be interesting. Should the Wild, who haven't made the playoffs in four years, become buyers or sellers?If Minnesota can pull it off, its best answer might be both.The Wild have pieces that could be attractive to playoff contenders in the right situation say No. 2 goaltender Josh Harding and defenseman Marek Zidlicky and could return pieces to build for the future. Without sacrificing any of its top prospects, Minnesota could also look at acquiring players to make a playoff run this year, just as Fletcher did last week in trading for forward Erik Christensen.Christensen was acquired from the New York Rangers for Casey Wellman. Wellman was once one of the Wild's more intriguing prospects but had fallen behind in a system that now includes the likes of Brett Bulmer, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Johan Larsson, Zach Phillips and Jason Zucker.Fletcher became the team's general manager in 2009, looking to help a talent-starved team build for the future, and for the good of the franchise can't move any of his top prospects for what could amount to a one-and-done scenario in the playoffs this year. But maybe by moving some of the team's current NHL parts, the Wild can find the right pieces.No. 1 goaltender Niklas Backstrom is signed to a 6 million-per-year deal through next season and has a no-trade clause, but Harding is cheap, an unrestricted free agent after this season and the type of young goaltender a team could take a chance on. With goaltending depth in the system, Minnesota could deal Harding without much of an effect on the current team. Matt Hackett could be recalled from Houston to back up Backstrom.Zidlicky was a healthy scratch for four games and complained publicly about his playing time and how he didn't fit in coach Mike Yeo's system. While his value has been hurt by making his feelings public, he could still appeal to teams looking for a puck-moving defenseman.In addition to the obvious calls Fletcher will field, teams are also always looking for potential big-time scorers, and Fletcher has two in Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. If an attractive enough package came along, Minnesota would at least have to listen.Fletcher turned Brent Burns into Setoguchi, the rights to Coyle and the No. 28 pick in last year's draft, which he used to select Phillips. Setoguchi has struggled and has just 10 goals and eight assists. Heatley, acquired in the offseason for Martin Havlat, has come on lately but still isn't the 50-goal scorer and building block he was in his prime. Both contracts could be prohibitive, though, and the return might not make enough sense to deal either player, specifically Heatley, who is the team's leading goal scorer. Heatley is signed through the 2013-14 season and is owed 8 million this season and 11 the next two years combined. Setoguchi is also signed through 2013-14 but at an average of 3 million per season.Zidlicky isn't cheap either, with a 4 million-per -year contract that extends through next season. Veteran defenseman Greg Zanon also has been a healthy scratch and could be shopped.Fletcher will keep his eye on the future but does find himself in a surprising position because of this year's quick start. The Wild weren't expected to compete for the playoffs, even after adding Heatley and Setoguchi during the offseason. Fletcher's goal was clear: Build a team that can contend over the long haul.But the playoffs would be a big prize for a team and fan base that haven't sniffed the postseason since after the 2007-08 season, when the Wild lost 4-2 to the lower-seeded Colorado Avalanche in the first round. Craig Leopold was approved as Minnesota's new owner in 2008 after that playoff appearance, and the team has been rebuilding since Fletcher came on board. The playoffs could re-energize the fans, and the extra games would be a financial boost as well. Neither bonus should be taken lightly.Still, with the playoffs or the future in mind, Minnesota needs to be active before the Feb. 27 trade deadline. Making a few moves could actually serve both masters.Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.
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