WINNIPEG – The theory is the three-day Christmas break came at a perfect time for the slumping Wild.
Players and coaches, in need of a mental break, could get away for three days of quality holiday time with family. They would then regroup Friday morning for a flight to Winnipeg with rejuvenated minds, re-energized bodies and refreshed outlooks as the Wild aims to revive a season in dire need of resuscitation.
Again, that’s the theory.
The Wild won’t be able to magically snap its fingers and correct all that ails its game just because it got some R&R. In fact, the Wild could face tough sledding for a while because it’s believed Zach Parise, tied for the team scoring lead with 27 points, will miss a handful of games because of an injured foot that has plagued him the past month.
When the frustrated team last gathered Monday in Philadelphia, it was at the end of one of the most uncompetitive road trips in recent Wild memory. The team lacked confidence and any resemblance to the puck-possessing, defensively-stifling team that racked up victories in November.
The Wild was swept by the Penguins, Rangers and Flyers and outscored 13-4 to continue a stretch of eight losses in nine road games.
As dejected players pulled off their equipment, they seemed at a loss how to fix things. Coach Mike Yeo emerged and vowed that the losing is unacceptable and will be repaired.
“This is the same group that raised the expectations, this is the same group that got us to a point where we were in a good spot and this is the same group that’s going to get us out of it,” Yeo promised.
Through 39 games, the Wild is ninth in the West with 45 points, tied with eighth-place Phoenix and four points behind seventh-place Colorado. But each of those teams has played three fewer games.
With the Wild set to close the first half Sunday against the Islanders, Yeo is under pressure to turn things around.
In his three seasons, the Wild has either been extremely hot or extremely cold with little middle ground. Two years ago, the Wild was the best team in the league with a 20-7-3 record in mid-December until a four-month, 15-29-8 tailspin that began with an eight-game losing streak.
Last season, an 11-3 March catapulted the Wild to first in the Northwest Division 35 games into the shortened season. But a 5-8-1 April produced a must-win finale to take the final playoff spot.
This pitfall feels awfully familiar, and comes at a similar juncture of the season as the previous two.
Yeo is in the last year of his contract, and there are experienced coaches, such as Stanley Cup winner Peter Laviolette, a runner-up for the Wild job when GM Chuck Fletcher named Todd Richards his first coach in 2009, out of work.
“My expectations now are the same as it was before the season,” Fletcher said Dec. 19 — the morning of the first of three consecutive road losses. “I expect us to compete every night and push hard for a playoff spot. We have to keep growing this team. I think we’re a good hockey team. There’s certainly areas we need to improve.
“But we’re going in the right direction, and I expect us to be very competitive in the second half.”
Goals are scarce
The genesis for all the Wild’s problems starts with scoring, or lack thereof. In the past nine road games, the Wild has nine goals. In a 5-9-1 slump, the Wild has scored 22 times.
The Wild’s inability to score goals puts so much pressure on the team to play perfect games. Give up the first goal — something that happens almost nightly, especially on the road (11 of the past 12 games) — and it feels like the Wild’s climbing a mountain.
The Wild ranks 29th in the NHL at 2.13 goals per game overall and 1.65 goals per game on the road. The only team scoring fewer goals is Buffalo, the NHL’s worst team.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be higher [in the standings] right now, so it is disappointing,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “We have two different personalities at home and on the road, and I don’t get it. We have a lot of young players. I don’t want to make any excuses, but we have a lot of young players and you have to learn to play on the road.
“I just think it’s in our heads mentally that we’re struggling on the road, so now we’re playing like that. And when you don’t score goals, it’s tough to win any games.”
The Wild is younger than it wanted to be this season. Once it couldn’t buy out Dany Heatley last season because of a season-ending shoulder injury, it altered the plan heading into this season as it worked to get salary-cap compliant.
To make matters worse, Heatley has struggled.
Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter are still 21-year-olds and aren’t finished products. Coyle, particularly, had a tough four-goal, nine-point first half that started with a sprained knee.
Three of Minnesota’s top four defensemen are 23 and younger; and last season’s star rookie, Jonas Brodin, hasn’t been as steady.
Failure to launch
“Clearly we need to improve our scoring depth,” said Fletcher, who says he will try to “upgrade” next summer through trade or free agency. “But when you look at some of the young players we have, they are going to score goals in this league. In the near term, some nights are going to be better than others as these kids learn the league.”
“That’s the promise of this team. We have several young guys 23-and-under, and as they continue to get that experience and improve, our franchise is going to get better.”
The youngsters aren’t the only ones not scoring. Suter has no goals despite leading the NHL in ice time, although he’s tied for fourth among defensemen with 22 assists.
First-line center Mikko Koivu has scored some late goals to win or tie games, but he’s only on pace for 15 goals and 57 points. Parise, who played for a month on a bum foot, has 15 goals. But he’s on pace for only 60 points, and the Wild doesn’t have a scorer in the top 50 in the NHL.
The lone offensive bright spot has been the chemistry between young Mikael Granlund and veteran Jason Pominville, who is tied for 10th in the NHL with 17 goals and is on pace for 36.
The Wild gets almost no contribution from the third and fourth lines, best exemplified by Kyle Brodziak’s two goals in 39 games and 27 in a row without one.
Goaltending is also a concern suddenly. Josh Harding has been sensational. He’s 18-5-3 with a 1.51 goals-against average and .939 save percentage, but his future is highly unpredictable. Everyone was reminded of that last week when he disappeared to have his treatment protocol for multiple sclerosis altered.
That’s a problem because veteran Niklas Backstrom (2-8-2) has struggled and the team doesn’t play as confidently in front of him.
It’s simple. If the Wild doesn’t solve its scoring woes and start winning on the road, it won’t make the playoffs.
Fletcher still is looking at the big picture.
“In the short-term, you can look at the standings every day and see where you are and see who’s behind you and who’s ahead of you and that’s a big part of it, but from my perspective, I try to take a broader view,” he said. “We obviously have work to do, we have a ways to go to become an elite team in this league, but to me over the last 24 months, we’ve taken huge strides. Last year was a big step forward and this year we’ll continue to get better.”