Nashville is going to the Stanley Cup Finals, having clinched the Western Conference title with a Game 6 home victory over Anaheim on Monday.
This is notable in Minnesota for a couple of reasons: it leaves the Wild on a shrinking list of franchises to never make a finals appearance … while simultaneously giving fans hope that the streak could be broken sometime soon.
First, the dark side of history. With Nashville’s berth, there are just four existing teams to never make it to the Stanley Cup Finals: the Wild, Columbus, Winnipeg and Arizona.
Now, to be completely fair the first three are pretty new franchises. The Wild and Columbus came into the league in 2000. Winnipeg came in a year earlier (the franchise was in Atlanta at the time). Only the Coyotes (formerly the Jets, who came in during the 1979-80 season) have been around long enough to consider it a real drought. Plenty of other franchises are in the midst of longer droughts — including Toronto, which hasn’t made it since 1966-67.
That said, that is not company the Wild wants to be keeping or a list it wants to be on.
So how does Minnesota get off that list and make a run to the finals? Earlier this week, I floated the idea of “bottoming out” and restocking with high draft picks as an option. While my conclusion was that it wasn’t the right immediate course given how good the Wild looked for much of this season, teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago have won five recent Stanley Cups after being dreadful, while Edmonton has a bright future thanks to a bevy of top picks.
It sparked a good discussion in the comments section (no, really!). Reader responses ranged from basically “this is ridiculous” (with a few people asking me that I never write about the Wild again) … to “this is a great idea” (with those people expressing frustration with the current regime) … to a more nuanced “yeah, but bottoming out doesn’t always work.” Here are five examples:
Billmem: “What a horrible thought process. You don’t bottom out to win a cup. You can’t bring in good free agent players when the team is horrible. Nobody wants to join the team. Build from the goalie forward.”
Cjvirnig: “The Wild is very arguably in the position of being ‘one player away’ from being perhaps the best team in the league. For that reason, bottoming out makes no sense. … The Wild is good enough to where it no longer has to worry about merely qualifying for the playoffs. The goal now is winning IN the playoffs. The team’s moves should reflect that.”
Govies77: “Well sure you bottom out. There’s no question. The Mild have been chasing The Hawks the last 6 years. Now it’s the Hawks and for the next 8 years the Oilers. Good luck with that if you DON’T tank for a few seasons. This team won’t even have to try hard though. It’s just going to happen. (They’re) going to be awful by 2020.”
ericgus55: “Caught in the middle can be the worst place to be, and hard to get out of — not quite good enough to win it all, but not quite bad enough to get top picks.”
jeff4649: “Tanking rarely works because you are assuming there will be a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews available which doesn’t very often which is why they call them generational talents. … Sorry, you can get dominant players without tanking. Look at Detroit.”
Fair points, all of them.
In some ways, Nashville provides the perfect example of why the Wild wouldn’t be tempted to “bottom out.”
The Predators have a similar history to the Wild, having entered the league in 1998 — two seasons before Minnesota. They had made the playoffs nine times before this season but never advanced even as far as the conference finals.
Nashville might have felt coming into this season that another so-so finish was likely given the rest of the talent in the conference. And indeed, the Predators were nothing special during the regular season, making the playoffs as a wild card after finishing fourth in the Central Division. The Wild finished well ahead of the Predators and defeated them in three of five meetings this season.
Then Nashville shocked Chicago with a sweep. The Predators followed with series wins over St. Louis and Anaheim. Suddenly they’re in the Stanley Cup Finals.
That sort of surprise run, which is uncommon in the NBA, happens frequently enough in the NHL to give hope to any team with a playoff berth. For example, nobody expected the Wild to reach the conference finals in 2002-03, when Minnesota played its way into a legitimate chance to reach the cup finals in just its third year of existence.
The Wild has made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons. Maybe next year will be Minnesota’s year? Then again, maybe that type of thinking will keep the Wild in a perpetual cycle of good-but-not-great seasons with no finals berths?
And maybe if everyone is OK with that, there’s nothing more to discuss.