ST. PAUL, Minn. - Making the playoffs for the first time in five years should count as progress. For the Minnesota Wild, that step forward wasn't firm enough.
Despite producing only the fourth post-season appearance in the franchise's 12-year history, Wild were palpably disappointed as they met for the final time of the season on Saturday. Not only because of the early exit, in five games of the first-round series against Chicago, but because of the realization that a few more wins would have given them a better seed that didn't force an early matchup with the team with the best record in the NHL.
"The culture is starting to change and expectations are rising, but we still have a long way to go," centre Matt Cullen said.
The 5-8-1 record in April, including lopsided losses at home in the final stretch to non-qualifiers Calgary and Edmonton, put coach Mike Yeo's status in question. But the 39-year-old said his conversation with general manager Chuck Fletcher about his job was brief but reassuring. The two of them appeared together at a season-ending news conference at Xcel Energy Center on Saturday.
"He's our coach," Fletcher said, later adding: "If you never give guys a chance to get better, you can't just keep churning every year or two with players and staff. You've got to have some semblance of continuity."
Owner Craig Leipold, who bought the team in 2008, isn't in a place to be patient with incremental improvement. After approving 13-year, $98 million contracts for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the time to advance deep into the post-season is now.
Yeo is the second hire by Fletcher without prior experience as an NHL head coach. Todd Richards was fired after two seasons. Were it not for a tiebreaker advantage the Wild had over the Blue Jackets for eighth place, Richards would've taken his team to the playoffs in place of Yeo.
"I'll be the first to say that I know that I can get better and I will get better, but I also know that we've done a lot of good things here," Yeo said.
Persuading stars like Parise and Suter to come to Minnesota wasn't easy, but this summer might be more of a challenge for Fletcher and the front office.
Goalie Niklas Backstrom, who is 35, will be an unrestricted free agent. So will Cullen, who is 36, and another top-nine forward in Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who is 29 but hasn't regained his pre-concussion form. Restricted free agents include hard-hitting wing Cal Clutterbuck and defencemen Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Justin Falk.
Then there are several expensive veterans entering the last year of their contracts: defenceman Tom Gilbert and top-six forwards Dany Heatley, Jason Pominville and Devin Setoguchi. The salary cap will go down league-wide, making money decisions more difficult.
Backstrom will have sports hernia surgery on Wednesday. He was hurt before Game 1 in warm-ups and unable to play at all in the series. The Wild rode him hard down the stretch in the push for the playoffs, but they refused to second-guess that decision. Fletcher said seven other NHL goalies played more this year and none were hurt.
"If you're going into a real important game, it's real important that your players look back at the most important position and say, 'OK, we're good tonight,'" Yeo said. "And Backy has that respect of his teammates."
Josh Harding performed admirably on short notice in relief. After missing two months in adjustment to multiple sclerosis medication, he said he's confident he can be the starting goalie next season. Fletcher said so, too. Rookie Darcy Kuemper didn't look ready when Harding got hurt in Game 4, giving up a goal on the first shot he faced. Another prospect, Matt Hackett, was sent to Buffalo in the trade for Jason Pominville. So the Wild might need to sign or trade for a veteran with NHL experience.
"I think that the way that I handled myself with that ... you can definitely take positives and make sure that you can learn what you've been through," Harding said.
The organization still is flush with young talent, with top prospects like Brett Bulmer, defenceman Matt Dumba and Zack Phillips working toward the NHL. Mikael Granlund's first season was mostly a struggle, but Charlie Coyle was good enough as a rookie to play on the first line with Parise and Mikko Koivu. Defenceman Jonas Brodin'stransition was so smooth he paired with Suter on the blue line and was widely considered a snub for the three finalists for the Calder Trophy.
Parise and Suter, one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy, were as good as advertised. But Parise was engulfed by Chicago's tough defence in the playoffs and scored just one goal. Koivu, the captain, didn't score at all. The Parise-Koivu-Coyle line was a collective minus-17. And the Wild went 0 for 17 on the power play in the series. Missing Heatley to a shoulder injury and, until he returned for Game 4, Pominville because of a head injury hurt the Wild a lot. Despite fielding the deepest and most-talented group of forwards in franchise history, they still lacked the scoring depth necessary to keep up with a team like the Blackhawks.
"From my standpoint it wasn't good enough in the playoffs," Parise said. "So that's frustrating, that you have to think about all summer."
Starting next season, the Wild will join Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg in their new division. Only two of those six future foes made the playoffs this year, but the Blackhawks have plenty of young stars and the Blues do too, enough to finish in fourth place in the Western Conference.
"Playing Chicago clearly shows you where you have to get to. You marvel at their talent and the depth that they have," Fletcher said.