The day following the headline-making trade that saw the Wild send Jason Zucker to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota GM Bill Guerin’s message was clear. Speaking with reporters, Guerin said more changes were on the horizon if anyone on his roster gave up on the playoff push. That very same night, the Wild shutout the Vegas Golden Knights. Two days later, Minnesota picked up a single point in a controversial shootout loss to the New York Rangers. And all indications were that the Wild were – against all odds and possibly inadvisably – going to be able to find a way to remain in the wild-card hunt in the Western Conference.
Turns out that if that is indeed going to be the case, the Wild will have to continue their playoff hunt without coach Bruce Boudreau as Guerin announced Friday Boudreau has been canned and replaced by assistant Dean Evason on an interim basis.
The decision itself isn’t altogether shocking. Known throughout the league was that Boudreau was in the final season of his contract as Wild coach with an agreement in place for the 65-year-old to move into a consulting role after this season. Stunning, however, is the timing. It was believed that if the coaching change was to come, it would be after Boudreau was allowed the chance to potentially guide the Wild to another playoff appearance. And Minnesota was in the hunt, without question. The Wild had among the best records of any NHL team across their past 10 games, including wins in four of their past six and points in five of those same contests. Over the past two weeks, Minnesota had made up ground on each of the four teams currently ahead of them in the Western Conference wild-card race.
And while it could be argued that more was expected of this group (and it wasn’t), or that the Wild should be in a wild-card spot and not chasing down the teams ahead of them in the standings (and they shouldn’t), it is misguided to suggest much of the Wild’s failure across the past four seasons is the result of Boudreau’s coaching. Quite the opposite, in fact. If anything, Boudreau got much more out of this group than many coaches could have, particularly in the past two seasons.
While the Wild were not bereft of talent at any point during Boudreau’s tenure, consider the needle-moving additions made during his time in Minnesota. The lone splashes made by previous GMs Chuck Fletcher and Paul Fenton were Eric Staal and Mats Zuccarello, and the latter was almost inarguably a misguided decision at a time when the Wild should have been carving a path forward instead of clinging to aspirations of post-season glory. And aside from the Fenton-executed acquisition of Kevin Fiala from the Nashville Predators for Mikael Granlund, which is beginning to look like a win for the Wild, one would be hard-pressed to find a single trade Minnesota truly "won" during Boudreau’s tenure. Truth be told, one could argue the dealing done during Boudreau’s time hurt more than it helped. That’s certainly the case when it comes to the incredibly regrettable Nino Niederreiter–Victor Rask swap.
This isn’t to say Boudreau is entirely without fault. The lack of post-season success stung in the early seasons, especially the 2016-17 first-round defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. That loss came on the heels of Boudreau guiding the team to a near 20-point improvement, though. Disappointing as it might have been, though, the franchise had taken a tangible step in his first campaign behind the bench. That they were then ousted in the first round again the next season by the eventual Western Conference finalist Winnipeg Jets was a disappointment, to be sure, but the decline that has followed is less a result of Boudreau’s coaching than it is the result of roster stagnation and a group that now sees many of its top talents in the twilight of their respective careers.
Deep down, Guerin surely knows that. He likely knows, too, that Boudreau is a good coach, one who will land on his feet and succeed elsewhere. And given that's the case, maybe what this coaching change and the timing of it signifies is not a lack of faith in Boudreau but acceptance that a post-season push and continued existence in the NHL's middle class isn’t what’s best for Minnesota. It might signify that in the wake of trading Zucker and moving on from Boudreau we can expect Guerin to be active ahead of the trade deadline, start the process of selling pieces to the highest bidder to recoup picks, prospects and project players and undertake the arduous task of rebuilding the Wild roster.
Beyond question, too, a reshaping of the roster in Minnesota was always going to be necessary if Guerin wanted to pave the way for a brighter future, and the Wild were going to have to go in this direction with or without Boudreau. That Guerin has decided it will be without the veteran coach means that Minnesota can begin the process of finding a bench boss under whom they believe they can find the formula for consistent post-season contention and eventual Stanley Cup success. Bizarre timing or not, a concrete decision on Boudreau’s future was an important step, but the Wild and Guerin still have a long road ahead.
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