Former Wild player Jeff Nielsen led the traditional “Let’s … play … hockey” cheer to start Saturday’s game.
In the third period of a 3-1 loss to Nashville, a loud voice from the upper deck chanted the same three words, only in the form of a forlorn plea.
Let’s play hockey?
Why start now?
The Wild has lost 10 of its past 12 games, including all three on a homestand that included the mild-mannered head coach breaking equipment while abandoning a lackluster practice. The team that General Manager Chuck Fletcher built is as broken as Mike Yeo’s practice stick.
It’s Fletcher’s job not to fix it.
Optimism for the 2014-15 Wild season was based on a crazed dash to the playoffs last season, and thrilling playoff victory over Colorado. That optimism seemed justified after the Wild began this season with consecutive lopsided victories over the Avalanche, and victories in the first five games at the X.
That was three months ago. Since the beginning of November, the Wild has been a bad team with terrible goaltending. Even in a league that hands out playoff berths the way Whole Foods offers cheese samples, the Wild is too inept and too buried in the standings to expect any postseason revenues.
The Wild ranks ahead of only two teams in the Western Conference — Arizona and Edmonton.
A teamwide mumps epidemic didn’t help, but now the Wild seems intent on destroying the American economy. Based on this team’s recent play, every employer in the country will begin giving sick employees three months off.
Despite injuries, illnesses and the melancholy accompanying the deaths of the fathers of the team’s two best players in a five-month span, the Wild’s primary problem is as easy to isolate as a clean Niklas Backstrom glove save: goaltending.
Entering Saturday’s game, the Wild ranked second in the NHL in shots allowed per game, yet second-worst in save percentage. Translation: Yeo’s defensive system works, regardless of the health or skill of his players, but goaltending has sabotaged the team.
Fletcher has frenetically rebuilt the Wild and its farm system from scratch. He has failed to solve a persistent problem in goal, leading him to rely on an aging Backstrom in 2013 and a raw Darcy Kuemper in 2014.
While Fletcher’s primary problem is simple, its solution is not. There is no goalie available via trade who would be sure to improve Minnesota enough to guarantee a playoff spot this season, much less a playoff victory. And while the Wild’s young players have disappointed, Fletcher would be mistaken to trade them while they remain promising and while their trade value is at low ebb.
Here’s what Fletcher should do:
1. Apologize for placing so much faith in Kuemper and Thomas Vanek, who, on a 2-on-1 with Zach Parise on Saturday, tried a mindless behind-the-back pass, as he continues to look for easy ways to play a hard game.
2. Nothing. At least, nothing to mask the flaws of the current team, which played in the second and third periods as if its water bottles were filled with NyQuil.
If Fletcher wanted to take a long shot at the playoffs, he could fire Yeo and trade for a goalie, but that would be like dabbing Neosporin on gangrene.
Fletcher needs to look toward next season. If he can trade for a goalie and a defenseman who can help this team win next year, then he should move. Otherwise, he should buy a blindfold and let this team lose enough to land a decent draft pick.
While purposely losing would be unconscionable, given hockey culture and continuing sellouts at the X, this team might be better off losing big for once instead of continually trying to fix personnel problems with middling draft picks.
Ryan Suter, named the team’s lone All-Star on Saturday, was asked whether he would want to participate in a skills competition. “Have you seen me lately?” he said, making light of his performance but not joking.
Illness. Melancholy. Injury. Ineptitude.
This isn’t the Wild’s year, and Fletcher shouldn’t damage the franchise by pretending it is.