Times have changed for the Dakota Rapids. As recently as last month, the Rapids were sputtering along in fourth place, and coach Harold Engellund’s job was reportedly in jeopardy. Lately, though, it’s a different story, as the Rapids have caught fire over the last two-plus weeks, winning their last six games in a row and going 10-1-1 over their last 12. That’s definitely good news for Engellund: This week, GM Paul Mindegaard confirmed that the coach will be retained for the rest of the season.
It’s less clear, though, whether it’s all good news for the Rapids. The team may have traded one set of problems for another.
During his press conference on Thursday, Mindegaard made clear that Dakota’s players were firmly behind their coach. “Harold never needs to worry about his guys having his back,” said the Rapids GM. “Obviously, the way they responded with this winning streak tells you a lot. But they’ve also come to my office privately, and they’ve all said the same thing: If you want to blame somebody for the way we’ve played, blame us, not the coach. He’s done great.”
A visibly moved Engellund thanked his players for their support. “It’s been a tough time for sure,” said the coach. “But they say that it’s when you’re in trouble that you find out who your friends are. I know that these guys went to bat for me, and it means a lot.”
Happy ending, right? Not necessarily. Despite their recent rise, the Rapids remain far behind in the division race, trailing first-place Michigan by 14 points and second-place Anchorage by 8. So the Dakota front office has a tough choice to make: Should they keep the team intact and hope that they’ll be able to catch the big boys, or should they look to retool?
If the Rapids had continued to stumble, the way forward would have been painful but clear: dismiss Engellund, sell at the trading deadline, and look to stockpile prospects and build a young core that might be competitive a few seasons down the road. Now, they’ve apparently got a team that’s too good for a rebuild, but not good enough to catch the top two. They’ve also got a team that’s fairly expensive for a small market. So how should they proceed?
Their decision could create major ripple effects at next week’s trade deadline. Most notably, there’s the question of goalie Jesse Clarkson. The netminder has put up a solid season, going 14-10-2 with a 3.27 GAA. If the Rapids are going to contend, it will be with Clarkson between the pipes.
However, there’s been a long-running rumor that the Dakota front office would prefer to dump Clarkson and develop prospect Christien Adamsson. According to those rumors, the team feels that Clarkson is not a championship-caliber goalie. But if the team were to deal Clarkson, they’d throw away any shot at competing this season.
At the press conference, Mindegaard declined to discuss Clarkson or any specific player moves that the team might consider. “Obviously, I’ll be working the phones this week, as will all my fellow GMs,” said Mindegaard. “Any moves we make will be in the interest of making us a better team. As far as trading or not trading specific players, I’m definitely not talking about that.”
But as the deadline draws closer, the Rapids have a tough decision to make. Do they keep it together and risk being stuck on the “pretty good” treadmill for seasons to come? Do they blow it up and kick the can down the road? Or something in the middle? Both Engellund’s and Mindegaard’s future job security may depend on choosing wisely.