In the NHL playoffs, teams succeed when (a) they’re peaking at the right time of the year, and (b) they’re fortunate enough to be healthy.
The best recent example of this was the Montreal Canadiens last spring: the Habs were a mediocre regular season team that stumbled into the post-season, but their key players – star goalie Carey Price, and captain/defenseman Shea Weber – were able to participate in the playoffs, and they quickly got on a hot streak that propelled them to the Stanley Cup Final.
I get that same sense this season with the Minnesota Wild. They’re not the same team as the Canadiens, but I do think the Wild are relatively healthy and hot, and have the potential to make a deep playoff push. At the same time, I can see them having significant issues to overcome next year.
As noted, the Wild are hot at the moment. Put aside their 5-3 loss Tuesday to the lowly Arizona Coyotes, and you’ve got a team that won eight of their past nine games, including victories over Nashville, Dallas, Edmonton, and Los Angeles. As a result, Minnesota is in second place in the highly-competitive Central Division, and locked into a first-round series against the St. Louis Blues. The Blues have just one game to play before the playoffs, while the Wild have two games remaining in their regular-season. Minnesota’s destiny is in their hands, and though their last two games are against the high-octane Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche, the Wild are at home for those final two games, and their home record this season is a sparkling 29-8-2. Unless the wheels come off for them, the Wild should be able to secure second place in the Central, and home-ice advantage against St. Louis.
Secondly, Minnesota has just about every team member set to compete in the post-season. Veteran winger Mats Zuccarello, and defensemen Matt Dumba and Jared Spurgeon have missed time of late, but the sense is Wild management are being careful with them so that all three are available for the playoffs. Their lineup will be at or near 100 percent when their series against the Blues begins.
Most importantly, the Wild are a different team than the one that lost the three games they played against St. Louis this season. The three losses against the Blues came when Minnesota had Cam Talbot in goal. But in the first round, St. Louis is going to be up against reigning Vezina Trophy-winner Marc-Andre Fleury. No offense to Talbot, who has performed well on the whole this year, but Fleury has the championship pedigree and big-game experience that can be a difference-maker for the Wild.
If the Wild do get past the Blues, a showdown with the Avs is likely going to be their biggest obstacle to winning a Cup. But if they do get past Colorado, the Wild have the potential to run the table and defeat any team in the Eastern Conference to win their first Cup in the 22-year history of the franchise.
That said, we also can see struggles ahead for the Wild next season. They may not plummet to the bottom of the standings the way Montreal did this year, but Minnesota has some well-chronicled stumbling blocks on the horizon to deal with in the 2022-23 campaign. As per CapFriendly.com,. the Wild have 17 players signed for next season, and have committed $74.3 million in cap space – including a whopping $12.7-million in buyout money to former cornerstone players Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
That leaves Wild GM Bill Guerin with just $8.1 million in cap space this summer. That won’t be enough to re-sign restricted free agent forward Kevin Fiala (who is due for a major raise on the $5.1-million salary he’s making this season) and Fleury (who makes $7 million, but the Wild only had enough cap space to pay him half that amount). Guerin is either going to have to alter his roster via trades, or settle with the players he already has and hope for results similar to this season. That’s a big-time gamble, and one that may not pay off in Minnesota’s favor.
Certainly, this Wild team is right up there with the best teams the franchise has put together in nearly a quarter of a century. But success can be fleeting. What worked one year may be disastrous the next year.
So, Wild fans, enjoy this group while you can. The hockey gods can giveth, and taketh away very quickly.