After early hope, Wild appears lost in the desert

  • Article by: Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 8, 2012 - 11:50 AM

Last time the Wild in Arizona, it was a league-best 20-7-3, a league-best 10-3-2 on the road and had a five-point lead in the Western Conference.

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Kyle Brodziak helped the Wild reach the high point of their season by scoring two goals, inlcuding this backhanded effort, in a victory over Phoenix on Dec. 10. Since then, the Wild is 8-22-7.

Photo: Paul Connors, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

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GLENDALE, ARIZ. - The last time the Wild was in Arizona, Chuck Fletcher was a genius, Mike Yeo was Coach of the Year, Kyle Brodziak was a future $5 million center, Mikko Koivu was on his way to the Selke Trophy and the Wild was on its way to a Stanley Cup.

As it turns out, the NHL season is 82 games, not 30.

It was Dec. 10 when the Wild was at the pinnacle. That night, Brodziak scored twice as the Wild beat the Coyotes for its 17th victory in 21 games, seventh in a row and seventh in a row on the road.

The Wild was a league-best 20-7-3, a league-best 10-3-2 on the road and had a five-point lead in the Western Conference and four-point lead in the NHL. It was the first team to hit the 20-win and 40-point marks.

It also feels like the last time anybody smiled.

The Wild is back in Arizona and at its lowest point. Stressed to the brink and emotionally crippled, the Wild has lost five in a row and is coming off a 7-1 humiliation at Colorado.

Since that Phoenix victory, the Wild has lost 29 of 37 games (8-22-7), having been outscored 118-63 (3.18-1.70 a game).

"We didn't see that coming," Yeo said.

That's because the current cast of players might be wearing the same Wild jerseys, but this is not even close to the same team that led the NHL in points as late as Dec. 17. Only seven players who dressed for that Dec. 10 game at Phoenix are scheduled to be in Thursday's lineup -- Brodziak (who was the team's leading goal-scorer back then), Dany Heatley, Matt Cullen, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Darroll Powe and Nick Johnson.

The rest are either injured, in the minors, have been traded or were claimed off waivers.

That's why as lousy as the team is right now, word from the highest offices inside the Wild is that neither Yeo nor Fletcher's job as general manager is in jeopardy.

As incredibly disappointed and shell-shocked as you can bet owner Craig Leipold is, you also can bet that when he looks at where the Wild was in mid-December and who was on the ice then, it will be easy for him to track what happened to his team and how it got to this point.

That's just reality. Look at the ice and see what Yeo's working with. With all the injuries coupled with recent trades of three veteran defensemen, the team has little skill and experience.

It is overextending players such as Brodziak, Cullen and Tom Gilbert. It has checkers such as Powe, Johnson and Stephane Veilleux playing roles on the top two lines. It is littered with minor leaguers such as Warren Peters and Jed Ortmeyer and players who will be lucky to find NHL jobs next season, such as Erik Christensen.

The Wild has no margin for error. And when it does err, like Tuesday late in the second period, it craters to the point that players look as if they never have played hockey before and the team looks as if it doesn't belong on the same ice as its opponent.

So after getting pummeled by the Avalanche, Yeo was relegated to telling folks how much his players care.

Well, players better care, so that didn't sit well with frustrated Wild fans. But, Yeo said Wednesday, the "one thing I'll never do is just say we're not good enough."

Well, the Wild's not good enough, and that's on Fletcher -- injuries or not.

He must find a way to add more depth, to make this franchise not an annual Koivu injury from disaster, to stop putting all his marbles in the baskets of Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

But like Yeo, Fletcher appears to be in the clear. Leipold hired him in 2009 for the long term to build a perennial winner. And while there is no doubt Fletcher has made mistakes, the future looks bright thanks to quality drafting (even though most prospects aren't sure things).

If Leipold were to fire Fletcher, that wouldn't be a one-person change. Everything changes, the long-term plan resets and impatient fans would have to be, yikes, more patient.

So the Wild is banking that a solid nucleus to build around is on the horizon. The next step? The Wild has left itself salary-cap space and roster flexibility this offseason to attempt to lure a big fish or two (hint, hint, Zach Parise).

Now it just has to pray this season's demise won't scare these players off.

This has been an incredibly unexpected spiral downward. The extremes of this season have been unreal.

Right now, things are emotional because the Wild is getting thumped nightly. It seems as if the pain never will end, because there are 15 games left. It feels as if the Wild is a million miles from being a good team.

That might be the case with the current roster, but in reality, things weren't as great as they seemed the last time the Wild was in Arizona, and things aren't as bad as they seem now that the Wild is back.

Michael Russo mrusso@startribune.com

  • WILD AT PHOENIX 8 p.m. today • TV: FSN (100.3-FM)

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