The Minnesota Wild have perfected the art of losing to the Chicago Blackhawks, with Chelsea Dagger serenading the boys in Christmas colors on their trip to the exits for a third straight year. This one, however, has a different flavor. The first year they were happy to be there, and last year they gave the Hawks a real fight, seeming to show their arrival on the stage of hockey relevance. This year, they went out with a whimper, a crisp sweep in which they were outgunned, outplayed, outcoached, and outdone in every facet of the game. The Chicago juggernaut, perhaps on the verge of the best claim to dynasty in recent NHL history, made sure Minnesota will once again be haunted of visions of Patrick Kane shredding the defense.
It was a frustrating year on many levels for the Wild. Last season’s momentum went utterly flat over the first half of the season, and they very nearly played themselves out of a playoff spot by January. The Devan Dubnyk trade turned the season around, but they spent five whole months in an exhausting desperation mode, trying to make up for an early hole dug with goalies who had been, at the very least, passable up until this season. The second half run was remarkable, and the win over St. Louis in the first round was a solid showing, whatever the Blues’ playoff woes may entail. But there was an ongoing worry that yet another Dubnyk start, and yet another Ryan Suter thirty-minute game, might come back to bite them in the end. The Wild spent most of the season getting back to where they should have been all along.
And once they finally did make it there, they reverted to earlier form. It was no secret the Wild were less talented than the Blackhawks, but the relentless work rate that made last year’s series interesting wasn’t there. Nor were there any real adjustments, or any serious tweaks made to rectify the obvious mismatch. With a litany of neutral zone turnovers and the Hawks sailing into the offensive zone with ease, Dubnyk suddenly looked all too mortal. If last season showed the best of Mike Yeo’s system-based hockey, this season brought out the worst: inane cycling, timid passes in place of shots, and the third forechecker consistently caught out in no-man’s land. They were tactically incoherent, never getting to their game, and making no adjustments once this was readily obvious. Again and again, the square peg met the round hole.
I was always a bit leery of Thomas Vanek, the Wild’s big offseason signing. I thought it might be overpayment; what wasn’t expected was the sheer mediocrity and lack of effort. He brought no added life to an anemic Wild power play, and they are now saddled with two more years of sporadic production and disinterested backchecking. The Wild soft spot for players with Minnesota ties reared its ugly head yet again, and Vanek is the poster child for the decline in the work ethic that had made this team so fun to watch in recent memory.
Vanek is hardly the lone scapegoat, though. Suter looked far too human for a $98 million man late in the season, and Jason Pominville’s finishing still leaves something to be desired. The Darcy Kuemper era came to an abrupt and sorry end, and throughout, Yeo showed a preference to fill holes with mediocre veterans in place of kids with promise, and was never terribly decisive in making any changes. (Oh, that power play.) Yes, they were in a desperate race for the playoffs, but it’s no good sacrificing the future to get there.
After last season, I sounded a cautionary note about some of the kids; they weren’t all going to pan out as brilliantly as they looked last postseason. There were a couple of bright spots, as Matt Dumba showed his dynamism in winning a job, and Marco Scandella’s heavy shot started to find the back of the net. But beyond that, there wasn’t enough growth. Kuemper flopped, Jared Spurgeon and Mikael Granlund (however you pronounce it) treaded water, Nino Niederreiter’s point totals dropped off, Charlie Coyle never seemed to be used quite right, and Erik Haula wound up riding the bench. On the whole, it’s a depressing player development record. A handful of these players probably won’t pan out—that’s just the nature of young prospects—but the Wild need to do better than this.
Dubnyk has done more than enough to earn a contract, though not so much that he’s utterly indispensable. One great half season is lovely, but it’s also just a half season, and when the defense was overexposed, he started to concede some fairly routine goals. The Wild need to find him a genuine backup, too, so that he doesn’t have to play every single night. Beyond that, there’s no single glaring hole, but a lot of room for improvement. In fact, that might be the Wild’s biggest conundrum: there’s no silver bullet here, no obvious hole that Chuck Fletcher has to plug. The kids just have to get better, the veterans have to stay at a productive level, and the coaching needs to get more creative or hear the music. The quickest path to offseason improvement involves flushing out some of the mediocre role players that see too much ice time and committing to further player development.
It’s going to be a long summer; hopefully, it will be long enough to wash away the memories of this turbulent season. The Wild need to rediscover that energy and faith in the future that animated last season’s run. How long till October?