The Minnesota Wild have missed the playoffs for four straight years. Firmly in the playoff pack this year, they have designs on much more than just a postseason appearance.
Minnesota wants to take its shot now and is willing to pay the price to do so.
The Wild dealt for Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville before Wednesday’s trade deadline, adding another important piece to a team that is tied with the Vancouver Canucks for first place in the Northwest Division with 44 points but is third in the Western Conference based on tiebreakers.
Minnesota sent two prized prospects — goaltender Matt Hackett and forward Johan Larsson — a 2013 first-round pick and 2014 second-rounder to Buffalo for Pominville, who has scored at least 20 goals in each of the past six seasons, and a 2014 fourth-round pick.
“Players like Jason aren’t readily available,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher told the team’s website. “That’s why we paid a significant price in terms of assets in acquiring him. Obviously, Buffalo felt they needed to move in a different direction and when I spoke to (Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier) and found out he might be available, we were aggressive in our pursuit of him. It’s not every day, again, that you can find a guy who’s a captain in the NHL, that has scored 30 goals and is responsible defensively. We feel he’s a very good fit for our team in terms of talent and character and clearly he’ll make us a better team.”
The message in dealing two of the team’s highly regarded prospects is telling in how strongly Minnesota feels about its chances in the West.
“It’s exciting, really exciting for us,” said forward Zach Parise, who helped change the Wild’s fortunes last summer when he and Ryan Suter agreed to come to Minnesota in free agency.
“It just gives you the sense that they believe in the way we’ve been playing and they believe in our team. Now it’s up to us to elevate our game even more. I think just that addition really gives us a good look and gives us a lot of good offensive players.”
Pominville, 30, had 10 goals and 15 assists in 37 games for the Sabres this season. Buffalo, which fired longtime coach Lindy Ruff earlier this season, is 12th in the Eastern Conference and has traded defensemen Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr in the past week.
The Wild play Monday night at San Jose, and Pominville is expected to join the team in Los Angeles on Thursday. Fletcher wouldn’t say if Pominville would join the lineup immediately after making the cross-country trip to the West Coast, leaving the decision up to coach Mike Yeo and his new forward.
“Management has a lot of faith in this group,” Yeo said, “And obviously, right from Day 1, has always been very committed to doing whatever we can to put a great product on the ice.”
Hackett, 23, and Larsson, 20, were prized pieces of a Minnesota system that was ranked No. 3 by The Hockey News in its annual “Future Watch” edition in March. Hackett was ranked No. 5 in the Wild’s system, followed by Larsson at No. 6.
Larsson, one of three second-round picks by Minnesota in 2010, made his NHL debut this season after coming over from his native Sweden. He played one game in February before returning to the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League. He had 15 goals and 22 assists in 62 games for Houston this season and wasn’t recently recalled by the Wild with Matt Cullen injured.
Hackett, a third-round pick in 2009, has played in one game for Minnesota this season as the backup to Niklas Backstrom. He allowed five goals in a loss last week at Dallas. Hackett made his NHL debut last season, playing in 12 games with a 3-6-0 record, 2.37 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.
In 43 games with the Aeros this season, Hackett had a 2.66 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. But when Minnesota needed a goaltender earlier this season, Hackett had appeared to be passed in the pecking order by Darcy Kuemper, who has a 1.88 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and four shutouts. Kuemper, 22, received the first call-up between the two coveted goalies. The 2010 sixth-round pick has a 2.22 goals-against average and .924 save percentage with the Wild this season.
“Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett are guys we drafted and we’ve watched them develop into good hockey players,” Fletcher said. “But that’s a credit to (assistant general manager) Brent Flahr and our scouting staff. They’ve done a great job of finding good talent throughout the draft, and that’s afforded us this ability to move some of those assets for a proven NHL player.”
Fletcher added: “One thing I must say, after a few years of being sellers, it’s nice to be a buyer. It means we’re turning in the right direction. Clearly we have work to do, but I think our players have worked hard and we’ve put ourselves in a position here to be more competitive this year and adding Jason will certainly push us further down that road.”
One reason, Minnesota probably agreed to the high price in prospects to acquire Pominville is because he is signed through the 2013-14 season. He has 185 goals and 271 assists in his nine-year career. A strong two-way forward, Pominville was fifth in the NHL in takeaways (33) heading into Tuesday’s games. He led all Buffalo forwards in ice time (20:57) and power-play time on ice (3:50). Pominville also adds a right-handed shot for Minnesota’s power play, which ranks 18th in the league.
Parise said he played on a line with Pominville in the 2008 World Championships.
“He works hard,” Parise said. “I think you just look at the way he’s been used; power play, penalty kill, reliable. He puts pucks in the net. He makes plays. He gets points. I think he plays really an all-around game. I think that’s what we’re going to see.”