The Minnesota Wild are who we thought they were, to borrow a phrase from late-NFL coach Dennis Green. As we inch past the midpoint of the season, the Wild are bogged down in the swamp that is the Western Conference wild-card race, hanging onto the final playoff berth by their fingertips following consecutive losses to bottom-feeding Eastern Conference clubs Detroit and Philadelphia. But even before back-to-back losses to the Red Wings and Flyers, the Wild were exactly the team most believed they would be: good enough to contend for the post-season but likely not talented enough for much more.
How did most know this was the fate that would befall Minnesota? Well, when it comes to the Wild, we’ve all seen this story before. Far too often, Minnesota faithful would add.
For those not wholly familiar with the plight of being a Wild fan, the brief history goes something like this: Minnesota has been consistently competitive, more so than most clubs in the Western Conference. Only four conference rivals have complied more points than the Wild from the beginning of the lockout-shortened campaign on through to present day. What Minnesota has to show for that, however, is scarce.
In six seasons, the Wild have won two playoff rounds, suffering a first-round exit when this playoff streak began in 2012-13 and falling short in Round One in each of the past three seasons. There’s been a coaching change, which led to an interim experience and finally a full-time hire of current coach Bruce Boudreau. There’s been notable signings — hello, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter — and blockbuster deadline-day deals — welcome to Minnesota, Martin Hanzal — but seemingly nothing has worked to get this team past the opening rounds of the post-season.
Meanwhile, those four teams who’ve been varying degrees more successful than Minnesota over the past six seasons, as well as those who’ve been only marginally less so, have combined to appear in nine conference finals, four Stanley Cup finals and win two Stanley Cups. The Wild don’t even have a division crown to show for their consistency over the past several seasons.
That was in large part the impetus behind the management change that took place last summer, but one short off-season hasn’t been enough for Wild GM Paul Fenton to implement any meaningful change. In his first summer at the helm, his moves included the re-signings of key players such as Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker to long-term deals, the addition of Greg Pateryn on a three-year deal and J.T. Brown on a two-year pact and a buyout of Tyler Ennis. The trade action has been limited — minor-league swaps, really. The needle hasn’t moved all that much.
But in the coming weeks, the majority of NHL clubs will begin to fall into two distinct categories: buyers and sellers. That’s the nature of the beast with the trade deadline in the offing, a time when playoff contenders traditionally look to add that extra bit of zip while those woefully short of the post-season attempt to stock up and reload for a run down the road. In Minnesota, however, the deadline will resemble decision time for a franchise that finds itself stuck in a version of puck purgatory.
On one side, the Wild can attempt to gear up and take one last run. There’s some merit to that approach, too. Minnesota has quality talents in Parise and Suter. They’ve got potential for high-tempo offense in Zucker and Mikael Granlund. Devan Dubnyk can be a game-stealing and maybe even a series-stealing keeper when he’s playing to the best of his ability. That’s enough of a foundation for Fenton and the Wild to take a shot. They have picks with which to play and a few decent prospects that could be trade fodder for a high-calibre add. All it takes sometime is getting to the dance, and if Minnesota gets in, who knows what can happen.
If that’s the play, though, there exists the possibility for a much harsher reality, and in the darkest-timeline version of this story Minnesota pushes some chips into the middle of the table only to bust in the first round once again. And at that point, one has to wonder where the Wild go.
That’s why the best approach for Minnesota is one of either standing pat and letting fate and a few bounces decide which way this season goes or starting the process of retooling this roster. Maybe that means the Wild, for the first time in six seasons, falls short of a post-season berth. Maybe that means another first-round exit. Or maybe the puck rolls the right way for once and Minnesota gets into the playoffs and heats up at the right time. And while there’s no guarantee that playing it safe or moving pieces out pays off, there is more assurance that things won’t go incredibly wrong, that another Hanzal-esque misfire won’t cost the franchise a few quality picks without providing meaningful return.
Understandably, that might not be the most appealing option. The Wild faithful have been undyingly loyal and failing to do anything to improve the outlook of a club that has lost nine of its past 14 games and finds itself clumped together with the six other teams within six or fewer points of the final wild-card berth in the conference won’t please the masses. But it might be the only way to truly move forward, with Fenton and Co. then taking the summer to reassess the entire situation.
And make no mistake, this is a situation that needs reassessing from the top down. The Wild need a facelift. Come the off-season, Eric Staal, Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks, Nate Prosser and Alex Stalock will become free agents. Several players, including Granlund, Brown, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Jared Spurgeon, will have one more season remaining on their respective deals. And at some point, the NHL’s oldest team, which has an average age perilously close to 30 in an increasingly younger league, is going to need to revive itself with young talent. Whether that comes by way of stripping the team for parts or making legitimate hockey trades in an attempt to improve this team’s fortunes is for the management group to decide.
One way or another, though, the Wild need to begin to enact some change. If they don’t, you can probably pencil Minnesota in for wild-card contention and an early playoff exit for the foreseeable future.