Like last year, the team is dealing with the distraction of an unhappy player, this time Marek Zidlicky.
The young coach, hand-picked by General Manager Chuck Fletcher, had rallied the Wild into playoff contention, earning praise all around the league.
His temporary success only served as a prelude to the greatest challenge to and of his career.
By the time the public had reacted to a surprising stretch of winning hockey, the Wild had stumbled, and franchise player Mikko Koivu had suffered a pivotal injury. Worse, a key player, a talented veteran from the Czech Republic, had revolted, and suddenly the affable young coach had to wonder how he was going to survive the season.
That's true today, in the wake of veteran defenseman Marek Zidlicky complaining about his role under Mike Yeo on a day when the Wild blew a three-goal, third-period lead to lose 5-4 to Nashville at the X.
It was also true last winter, when Todd Richards rallied the Wild into playoff contention only to watch the team collapse down the stretch as Koivu broke down and a different talented Czech, Martin Havlat, ruined the locker room atmosphere with viral selfishness.
We know how the story ended last year. The Wild missed the playoffs, and Fletcher fired the first young coach he had hired, replacing Richards with Yeo.
Tuesday night, Yeo for the first time was forced to coach in an NHL game after being publicly challenged by a veteran. The results were not affirming.
"Everything that could have gone wrong today,'' Yeo said, "went wrong.''
For most of the game, the Wild, as usual, played better without Zidlicky on the ice. Then came one of the most gruesome collapses in franchise history, one that left the locker room all but empty after the game, and led to Yeo speaking in terms a bloodied boxer would recognize.
"If you've ever been punched in the stomach really hard,'' he said, "that's pretty much what that one feels like.''
As the Wild began its post-All-Star portion of the schedule, there were reasons for optimism amid the divisiveness. Two of the team's best players, Koivu and Gui Latendresse, are close to returning from injuries, and a two-game winning streak had moved the Wild into eighth place in the West.
Zidlicky, like Havlat, worried more about his statistics than team trends. Tuesday morning, Zidlicky told Star Tribune reporter Michael Russo that he was fed up with his lack of quality playing time and Yeo. Players aren't always wrong when they complain publicly about their lot. In this case, the player was very wrong.
Yeo has de-emphasized Zidlicky's role for good reason. Before Tuesday, the Wild was 12-3 in its previous 15 games without Zidlicky, and 2-10-4 in its previous 16 games with him in the lineup.
Now Fletcher has little choice but to trade Zidlicky, who has just damaged his trade value by complaining publicly. At this point, Fletcher would do well to rid himself of Zidlicky's contract, which has one year remaining at $4 million.
The good news for Fletcher is that there are teams all over the NHL looking for a guy who doesn't play well but at least knows how to whine.
Zidlicky is one of the Wild's more talented and experienced players. For most of the game on Tuesday, the Wild was winning, as it did earlier this season, despite its lack of talent.
No team in the playoff race should have a roster filled with anonymous players such as Warren Peters, Jed Ortmeyer and Chad Rau. This is a franchise trying to set the table for the next few years, when some of its elite prospects will begin making their way to the NHL. Any success this season would be premature, a testament to Yeo's influence and deep goaltending.
As the lead disappeared in the third period, Yeo's influence was as invisible as Josh Harding's glove. The Wild couldn't even salvage a point.
"We tightened up,'' defenseman Justin Falk said.
Zidlicky's complaints and an epic collapse did Yeo one favor: If he can drag this collapsing collection into the playoffs, he will again be a leading candidate for coach of the year.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org
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