As the Vancouver Canucks skated onto the ice Thursday, the crowd at Rogers Arena roared, drowning out the U2 in the background.
There was an incredible anticipation as the President's Trophy rested on a carpet waiting to be presented to the NHL's finest team.
A dozen feet from the ice, underneath the stands, the Wild was forced to sit in its locker room and listen to the muffled sound of that party. The festive noise had to feel like a dagger to the heart.
A few hours later, after the Canucks capitalized on their star power and the Wild's lack of it, the Wild's locker room was a silent, depressing place to be.
Matt Cullen's face was one of frustration. Mikko Koivu's was one of anger. Kyle Brodziak's was one of demoralization. Todd Richards' was one with no answers.
Six months ago, the Wild opened the NHL's season in Helsinki with all this hope. Sunday night, the Wild will close the NHL's season in St. Paul with all this despair.
It's been three years since the Wild has made the playoffs, eight since it won a playoff round.
"You look at this year, I thought we made progress in a lot of areas. The last three weeks have essentially wiped out a lot of the gains we made," General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Friday.
Not time for prospects
With the Wild at a fragile juncture because of its increasingly frustrated fan base, the franchise faces myriad offseason challenges with no easy-to-see, quick-fix solutions:
• First, the Wild plans to transition to a young, faster, hopefully more talented team the next two seasons, but in all likelihood, next season's first wave won't include the promising 2010 draft class that features Mikael Granlund, Johan Larsson and Jason Zucker.
"We can't afford to ruin some of our better prospects by force-feeding them onto the NHL roster," Fletcher said. "Someone once told me, 'A player's never been ruined by developing too long,' but there's been a whole host of players rushed to the NHL and had their potential curtailed.
"This is a tough league for 19-year-old players, so my expectation is they're going to need more time. We're not in a rush to get them here. We'll talk to them after the season, but if they turn into the players we think they'll be, it'll be worth the wait."
So the types of players expected to vie for spots include Casey Wellman, Cody Almond, Marco Scandella and Colton Gillies. The Wild also hopes to sign Swedish Elite League leading goal scorer Mikko Lehtonen, although it will have competition because he's being flooded with contract offers from Europe.
• Second: This summer's free-agent pool is shallow, and the Wild doesn't have a lot of salary-cap room to dive in anyway. That means other than Koivu, you can bet Fletcher would listen to anything and everything in terms of trade.
That includes Brent Burns. Because he's a year from unrestricted free agency, he could command a Brent Seabrook- Dustin Byfuglien-like extension north of $5 million annually. Burns, who had an erratic second half after a great first half, could be the type of asset the Wild could use to acquire an impact forward or some promising prospects.
"We want to leave all our options open," Fletcher said, talking generally. "We're going to be very open-minded. We're going to look for creative ways to get better. We're going to try to aggressively add more prospects."
• Third: Make no mistake: Richards' job is on unsteady ground.
Fletcher, who heading into last season's offseason said steadfastly, "I remain as committed to Todd as I was last summer when I hired him," would offer no such proclamation this time.
Fletcher won't address Richards' future in any way, although to be fair, Fletcher was vague when it came to specific players, too.
Fletcher said he'll take time after the season to analyze every facet of the franchise.
"Right now, there's so much emotion. Everything's raw," Fletcher said. "People always want instant solutions and what happened and why it happened. I understand that, but it's not always that easy.
"There's such a fine line between winning and losing. This is regrettable and disappointing for everybody. It got away from us. I need to wrap my head around a lot of things here. We've got a lot of good people working for us. I'd like to hear some opinions and I think it's important to listen and learn."
Deficient in depth
Simply, regardless of a 2 1/2-month stretch of good hockey, the Wild's not good enough, proven by how a Koivu injury was all it took for it to fall apart. The Wild just doesn't have the high-end depth to overcome such a loss.
Because of poor drafting and exorbitant contracts that created little flexibility, the Wild is a team more deficient in high-end skill and youth than most teams.
It has created offensive shortcomings, not helped by Guillaume Latendresse having his second season with Minnesota destroyed by injury. The Wild was the second-lowest-scoring team in the West (most disconcertingly, athome, too).
"To compete with the best teams in the league, we need to score more goals," Fletcher said. "For a lot of the season, we were a hard-working, good-defending team that found ways to win. But it takes a real toll on a team when you don't score goals easily. When you have to work as hard as we did to win games, you expend a lot of energy, players are more prone to getting injured and it's harder to win games as the season progresses because of fatigue."
Building from the bottom
So, Fletcher has identified the problem. Now how does he fix it?
Through draft-and-development and adding more and more kids to the system, Fletcher says. In the next few weeks, the Wild expects to sign a handful of college and European free agents.
There's no doubt Fletcher inherited problems. But when you're already hamstrung and then compound matters with a few mistakes of your own (the Chuck Kobasew trade, the Cam Barker trade, more expensive contracts), the margin for error is nil.
Fletcher felt pressure to make the playoffs immediately even though the Wild had obvious holes. So he tried to do two things at once -- win in the short term while building the prospect pool long-term.
There are signs between last year's draft class and Houston's impressive season that things are looking brighter. Short-term though, things look murky, and Fletcher's trying to shovel the Wild out from being stuck in mud.
"I've learned you can try to patch things up and scratch and claw and be competitive in the short term, but you really need good young players to win in this league," Fletcher said. "The best teams have good young players. ... We haven't had the depth, so we've had to be more aggressive in the free-agent market than what I would have liked.
"The lesson learned is we have to be patient, we have to draft well, we have to develop and we have to make sure we find more good young players. When you do that, you can be successful for a long time."
That path will take patience from everybody. Youth movements can temporarily worsen the pain, but the eventual dividends are usually worth it.
"There's a lot of challenges and not a lot of easy answers," Fletcher said. "But I believe in our long-term plan and vision, and I know we're going to get better."