There have been a thousand excuses, some legit. Excuses are excuses by definition, but it doesn’t mean some aren’t valid.
Mumps, stomach bugs and heartbreak to its two most important players, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, have undoubtedly wreaked havoc on this trying Wild season.
But the season started to go off the tracks the moment expected No. 1 goalie Josh Harding kicked something and broke his foot before training camp. Darcy Kuemper, whom the Wild planned to continue developing in the minors, was fast-tracked into a role for which he clearly wasn’t ready.
That triggered another season of goalie instability, a season of youngsters (not Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin or Nino Niederreiter, although lately the power forward’s season has taken a 180-degree turn) regressing, a season of veterans trudging along.
There’s a laundry list of reasons why the Wild sits 12th in the 14-team Western Conference (it hasn’t beaten a conference opponent at home since Nov. 16!), but excuses, excuses, excuses: The Wild is regardless the NHL’s most disappointing team with half the season about to be gone.
This was supposed to be the year the Wild joined the next tier. Its words, not ours. This was supposed to be the year it wouldn’t claw for a wild-card spot, let alone hover around cellar-dwellers Arizona and Edmonton and be LAST in the seven-team Central Division.
Instead, this season is dangerously close to crumbling (although the Wild way will be just good enough to destroy its season and get the 10th pick in the draft instead of franchise-changers Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel).
Kuemper’s hurt and Niklas Backstrom ranks 61st in the NHL in save percentage by stopping 8.93 out of every 10 shots. A game that was so strong at the start is long forgotten, and frustration is so high, players are pointing fingers and hanging heads and coach Mike Yeo is snapping sticks in half in the middle of practice.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher is trying to figure the best way to proceed. Problem is, in a league where it’s hard to make a trade because of the salary cap and the fact that the “loser point” keeps most teams close to a playoff spot, Fletcher has yet to make a move.
There might soon come a point when it’s too late. Even Fletcher admitted Thursday that if the Wild keeps sliding, it’s less enticing for him to give up significant assets for needed fixes, such as a goaltender or a defenseman.
Carolina goalie Cam Ward is the biggest name out there. He’s 30 and has won a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe. The things to be wary of: He’s coming off a couple of injury-plagued, inconsistent seasons, is nine years removed from that Cup and playoff MVP and has a $6.3 million price tag next year (which will be even more expensive if the Wild buys Backstrom out in June).
If Fletcher’s not sure Ward’s the guy who can lead the Wild into the future, it makes little sense to give up big pieces for him when there’s no assurance he can save the Wild’s season.
So standing pat (other than a short-term fix) might make the most logical sense. Why rush things now when there may be better, more sensible goalies available in two (trade deadline) or five months (draft or free agency)?
One thing is certain: Fletcher might have been hamstrung this past summer because he couldn’t use his compliance buyout on the injured Backstrom and because of Harding’s situation with multiple sclerosis. But there is zero chance owner Craig Leipold will allow him to risk going into next season with Kuemper and Backstrom as the 1-2.
The Wild has a serious long-term goalie hole, and this season shows if you don’t possess a goalie everybody feels confident playing in front of, nothing else matters.
When players know their goaltending is shaky, they have one foot in the loss column before the game even starts.
NHL short takes
Wins might reduce stress
The one thing you hope is that hockey can be a solace for Zach Parise, who lost his father, J.P., on Wednesday. The Wild has been so lousy the past six weeks, even coach Mike Yeo said last weekend that it’s eating him up that the rink has been a place that has caused more stress in Parise’s life.
You’d hope the Wild can rally around Parise now.
Last month, the Chicago Blackhawks dealt with a tragedy when one of their equipment trainers died unexpectedly. In the context of Parise losing his dad, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews talked about the family that is a hockey team.
“It’s brought us closer together,” Toews said. “It’s made us understand our time together is precious and short and we’ve got to enjoy every moment we get to play hockey and lace it up together.”
After Randy Carlyle was mercifully fired by the Maple Leafs last week, former Toronto coach Ron Wilson went on TSN Radio and ripped into some Leafs, most notably former Gopher Phil Kessel.
“He shows obvious signs of brilliance throughout the year,” Wilson said. “But Phil’s problem, and I think it’s pretty much the way Phil’s been his whole career, he’s two weeks on and two weeks off. You just hope that you can get him playing his best hockey for as long as possible. You can’t rely on Phil. It’s just the way it is. He comes and goes, and he gets emotional. He lets that affect his game and his relationship with other players.”
You’ve got to love Twitter, by the way. It’s not just the average Joe who trolls.
After Carlyle was canned, boxer Riddick Bowe tweeted, “BYE BYE PANZY RANDY.”
Sharks goalies defended
After giving up seven goals to the St. Louis Blues twice recently, Sharks coach Todd McLellan came to the defense of goalies Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock.
“Before we go and throw darts at two individuals, we’ve got to look at the other 18 that are involved,” McLellan said.
Wild's Week Ahead
Sunday: at Chicago, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)
Tuesday: at Pittsburgh, 6 p.m. (NBCSN)
Thursday: at Buffalo, 6 p.m. (FSN)
Saturday: vs. Arizona, 8 p.m. (FSN)
Player to watch: Sidney Crosby
The Penguins superstar, who had the mumps earlier this year, is on pace for 23 goals — the fewest in his career. But the Wild knows the Cup champ and scoring champ has the ability to light it up.
« I think Yeozie finally lost it. »
Thomas Vanek on Wild coach Mike Yeo, who snapped at Wednesday’s practice.