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John Shipley: Wild’s injury problems give GM Fenton some distance

ST. PAUL -- The calmest man in Xcel Energy Center on Thursday, Feb. 7, was Minnesota Wild general manager Paul Fenton, whose season-long assessment of his new team has suddenly become more interesting.

Already stumbling into the stretch run, the Wild learned Wednesday they will be without captain Mikko Koivu for the rest of the season, a major blow to a team losing a tenuous grip on one of the last two Western Conference playoff spots. On Thursday, coach and teammates were appropriately dour.

Bruce Boudreau was edgy in a brief talk with reporters; players said the right things without sounding delusional.

Goaltender Devan Dubnyk, for instance, expressed confidence in the remaining players because they need to play as a group to win, anyway, before adding, “Still, it doesn’t help losing big guys.”

Koivu is, indeed, one of the big guys, the Wild’s best defensive forward and best faceoff man, a top penalty killer and a shootout regular, the team captain since 2009 with an underappreciated penchant for always making the smart play. He blew out his right knee in a collision with Sabres forward Tage Thompson on Tuesday and is scheduled to have surgery on Friday that will officially end his season.

The Wild entered play Thursday seventh in the Western Conference with a six-point playoff cushion, but it didn’t feel like it Thursday, not with the bad news about Koivu on the heels of the team going 0-1-2 in their first three games out of their eight-game mid-winter break.

Team and coach seem to feeling some pressure, but not the GM.

No doubt Fenton would have preferred that the roster built largely by predecessor Chuck Fletcher had been better, that he could spend the roughly two weeks before the Feb. 25 trade deadline scouring rosters for the player(s) that can help the Wild make a deep playoff run. And no doubt he would rather have Koivu play out the season healthy and happy.

There will be a time for Fenton to live and die with the Wild, when the roster becomes mostly his own work, but for now he has the rare opportunity to watch the team with the objectivity of a clinician.

“I’m anxious to see how we play tonight,” he said after Thursday’s morning skate. “We’ve added some pieces; we’ve made some changes to our team. Let’s see how we play for the next little bit.”

Whether or not the Wild hang on to play in their seventh consecutive postseason, the next several weeks will be productive for Fenton. Victor Rask, the guy he acquired for Nino Niederreiter on Jan.17, was promoted to the second line on Thursday, and Anthony Bitetto, claimed off waivers from Nashville last month, played the back end alongside up-and-comer Nick Seeler.

Perhaps more important is the chance to watch Joel Eriksson Ek, a first-round draft pick in 2015 who has yet to inspire confidence in 127 career games but is still just 22. He was recalled from Iowa to take Koivu’s spot on the roster and played the third line between Jason Zucker and prospect Jordan Greenway.

That’s a lot of young players getting big minutes at crunch time, and a chance to show the new GM they’re part of the solution for a team that has won just two second-round playoff games since 2013.

“Eriksson Ek is a guy we know is going to be a big part of our future,” Fenton said Thursday. “Now, it gives him an opportunity for him to step up. Him in particular because you look at replacements, he’s always been a part of this. I just wanted him to play some more minutes (in Iowa) so that when he did get an opportunity like this he would be ready.”

The surprise, of course, was Charlie Coyle playing right wing next to Rask. For those who have watched the team for any length of time the past few years, moving Coyle to center — where he has played well — seemed like the smart, or at least safe, move.

One can’t help but wonder if that decision came from the coach trying to solidify a playoff spot or the clinician eager to see what a young player can do with a big opportunity. In any case, it didn’t last long.