The Wild was a consistent playoff team regularly tripped up by the first round, and a solution to the staleness began last summer.
Paul Fenton was hired to replace Chuck Fletcher as general manager amid the expectation there would be tweaks.
Subtle at first, the revisions became more substantial as the Wild played more games — to the point that, after the exodus of former pillars in Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund, the team’s lineup at season’s end after it was officially eliminated from contention barely looked familiar.
And a longer-than-normal offseason could continue that shake-up since the Wild now isn’t just striving to clinch a series. It first needs to get back to the playoffs after ending its six-year run.
“We have to change something,” defenseman Ryan Suter said, “because what we have is not working.”
Unlike recent years in which the Wild has had little room to maneuver under the salary-cap ceiling, it’s primed to have much more flexibility this summer. With the cap projected to rise to $83 million, the Wild could have more than $18 million in space to utilize, according to capfriendly.com.
Some of that will likely be used to re-sign restricted free agents, a class that includes forwards Pontus Aberg, Ryan Donato, Joel Eriksson Ek, Kevin Fiala and Nico Sturm.
Once the Wild gets a feel for what those deals could cost, realistic targets should emerge in free agency — a pool that is set to feature Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Jeff Skinner, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson.
But more cap space could be created through the trade market; continuing to adjust the roster by addition through subtraction may be appealing regardless, especially with youthful speed and skill still the focus.
Winger Jason Zucker could be a trade candidate. The Calgary Flames made an offer before the deadline, a deal that ultimately fizzled.
“I’m not going to worry about that right now,” Zucker said Saturday.
Up front, however, does seem to be where turnover could be concentrated.
Goalies Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock are signed for multiple years. The top six on defense that started the season are also under contract. It’s possible, though, that the Wild beefs up its depth — perhaps keeping Brad Hunt, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent. The team is also eligible to sign Jared Spurgeon to an extension this summer.
So, the forward group is poised to receive the most attention after the offense sputtered frequently — finishing 27th in the NHL in goals (210) and goals-per-game average (2.56).
“Overall, we need a reset,” center Eric Staal said. “Obviously, we’re going to get it. We got a long summer. I’m sure Paul’s going to do his best job to have the right people in place to be better than we were this year, and goals will come if you’re good. If you’re good and you’re a good team, you score.”
Five centers could be back in the mix next season in Staal, Eriksson Ek, Sturm, captain Mikko Koivu and Victor Rask, but the position could still be one the team tries to enhance.
Koivu is recovering from a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee, and it’s unclear if Rask will stay up the middle. In the Wild’s season-ending 3-0 loss to the Stars on Saturday in Dallas, he skated as a winger on Staal’s line.
Bolstering the wing looks to be another priority, especially on the right side since the team has just two right-shot forwards under contract for next season (Luke Kunin and J.T. Brown). While young speedsters are valued, the Wild may also look to complement its veterans.
Ultimately, reliable scorers are what the team needs — particularly at even strength, since only three clubs had fewer goals in that situation than the Wild’s 141.
Production should improve once Koivu and defenseman Matt Dumba, who suffered a torn pectoral muscle in December, are healed up. Strong returns from the youngsters also would help immensely.
Still, the Wild has shifted to a new direction.
“We did have guys out, some guys that have scored a lot of goals in the league,” Suter said. “That’s a bright spot. We got a lot of young guys with a lot of potential and good summer of training and knowing that they’re going to be on the team, I think it will help. But we can’t keep going the way we’ve been going.”