For the second straight year, the Minnesota Wild have unfortunately passed away after game five of the first round. Sixteen of the Wild’s last twenty playoff games have ended in a loss, and the team has now failed to move past the first round for three straight years. Furthermore, the squad now sit at 15 years since it last reached the Conference Finals in 2002/2003. It’s a record that’s caused general manager Chuck Fletcher to become former general manager Chuck Fletcher after the Wild chose not to renew his contract the morning of April 23. Are further shakeups in the works? Or, do the Wild believe that they have a roster that needs retooling rather than a full rebuild?
Where Did It Go Wrong?
Remove the best forward, and the best defenceman from any NHL team and their chances of winning will almost always go down. That was the case with this year’s edition of the Minnesota Wild. While none of the players in the Wild dressing room are likely to be heard saying it, injuries were likely the biggest factor in Minnesota’s first-round demise. Ryan Suter, the Wild’s leading defensive scorer, wasn’t seen for the rest of the season after suffering an ankle injury on March 31st. Suter is a heart-and-soul player for the Wild; he led the team in ice time this season, averaging just under 27 minutes/game. He also marked a veteran presence on the blue line; to this point, Suter has played in 79 playoff games in the NHL – the rest of the Wild defence has played in 119 combined. It can’t be said enough that his absence was likely the largest factor in the Wild’s loss. The squad also lost Zach Parise in game three due to a fractured sternum; without their offensive leader, the Wild were unable to even score a goal throughout games four and five. With Parise – who had managed three goals through the first three games of the series – perhaps the Wild may have been able to steal another game and extended the series.
The Wild also seemed to fall victim to the fabled Winnipeg Whiteout. The Jets home crowd was obviously in the heads of the Wild players from the get-go; the squad failed to win a game on the road and were outscored 12-3 at the MTS Centre. While Winnipeg’s crowd is legendary in the postseason, they may be less to blame than the Wild’s road woes – since the 2013 postseason, Minnesota is 5-18 away from Xcel Energy Center. It’s difficult to win a playoff series as is, and even more difficult when you can’t win on the road.
Finally, the Jets managed to shut down the Wild’s top offensive stars throughout the course of the series. With Parise out for games four and five, no one stepped up to the plate to provide offence for the team. Eric Staal, who scored as many goals as Art Ross trophy winner Connor McDavid in the regular season, was limited to two points over the five-game series. Jason Zucker was even quieter, failing to register a point during the series and only mustering an average of one shot per game. Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter also failed in their quest to pick up a point during the series. It’s not like the Wild couldn’t score against Winnipeg, either; that was proven during their game three rout of the Jets, a 6-2 victory. However, after their offensive outburst, the Wild failed to score a goal in either game four or five. Overall, the Jets outshot the Wild by a margin of 169-126, an average of eight more pucks directed at the net per game. With a Vezina nominated goaltender such as Connor Hellebuyck in net, the Wild simply didn’t generate enough shots on goal, something that head coach Bruce Boudreau stressed after game five.
“I mean, believe me, we wanted to score,” he said. “It’s not a question of everybody sitting there and saying, ‘Hmm, we scored six last game, let’s forget about scoring.’ We wanted to score. They made it very difficult to score.”
Is There a Heartbeat?
Consistent, but not improving. The Wild look to be stuck in roster purgatory at the moment; not bad enough to miss the playoffs, but not good enough to make any real noise.
Last season, the Wild finished just outside of the top 10 in both goals for and against. They were also right around the league average in on special teams as well, finishing 18th and 13th on the powerplay and penalty kill, respectively. No one would accuse Minnesota of being a bad team, but not many would call them a cup contender, either.
The Wild have some attractive younger pieces on their roster, especially on the back-end. Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, and Ryan Murphy are all under the age of 25, with Jared Spurgeon still young enough at 28 to be considered a part of the future. The four will form a dominant top four sooner rather than later, and maybe as soon as next season. On the front end, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, and Nino Niederreiter are all already stars in their own right, with the trio combining for 136 points.
However, all this incoming young talent still may not make up for their aging stars. While Eric Staal may have had his best season since 2007 last year, he’s still a 32-year-old man who looks to be closer to winding down his career rather than revving it up. Ryan Suter will be returning next season as a 34-year-old defenseman coming off of an injury. How will the veteran recover? Perennial Vezina candidate Devan Dubnyk is also approaching his mid-thirties, and while Alex Stalock has been an adequate backup, is he the world-beater that Dubnyk has proven to be? The Wild have to decide now if they want to contend next season, or long-term in the future.
Do I expect the Wild to miss the playoffs next season? That remains to be seen. The squad has enough talent to make it back to the dance. However, I’d hedge my bets on a Minnesota regression, and a similar obituary next year.