Plenty of things have gone wrong in contributing to the Wild’s 1-6 start. The team isn’t as bad as its record indicates, but a lot of its issues have been predictable nonetheless. The mission today: Identify the three biggest problems so far and rank them in order of importance.
First take: Michael Rand
Only three? I suppose there are space constraints. Here’s my list:
3) When you employ three general managers in such a short span, you get bits and pieces of three different roster-building philosophies and strategies mashed together. Even if the players like each other, there are a lot of mismatched parts.
2) Most of the players the Wild would like to use as top-nine forwards this season are either 23-and-under or 32-and-over — either before or after the primes of their careers. That’s a major byproduct of last year’s trades involving Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund, all 27.
1) Per Hockey Reference, in 5-on-5 situations the Wild has converted just three of its 80 “high-danger” scoring chances into goals (3.6%, the worst in the NHL). Opponents have cashed in 15 out of 97 such chances (13.4%, fifth-highest rate in the NHL).
Randy Johnson, writer and editor for Puck Drop: You’ve hit on three of the biggest reasons for the poor start, Mike, and I’ll try to avoid too much overlap in my list, but there will be some. Here goes:
3) Age: Quite simply, the Wild’s core is aging quickly. Zach Parise is 35 and has taken a pounding. Ryan Suter is 34. Eric Staal will be 35 on Oct. 29. Those three core pieces have combined for three goals and four assists. Then there’s goalie Devan Dubnyk, a 33-year-old who has averaged 65 games over the past four seasons. He’s 0-5 with a 4.44 goals-against average. I’ve always believed in the Bell Curve when it comes to athletes’ careers, and the Wild has too many players on the downward slope.
2) Buy-in: We heard all the right things during training camp about the team’s cohesiveness, but that hasn’t translated into wins. And after Thursday night’s 4-0 loss at Montreal, Jason Zucker dropped this gem: “It’s going to be each individual guy from Bruce on down. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better.” Though Zucker’s target was the whole team, the fact that he mentioned coach Bruce Boudreau by name raised eyebrows. When players start calling out their coach, there’s an issue.
1) Talent: The Wild doesn’t have a bona fide star, someone who puts fear in an opponent and fills an arena’s seats. And the young players the team is counting on to be difference-makers aren’t there yet. It’s troubling to see that three key pieces that former GM Paul Fenton acquired last season — Ryan Donato, Kevin Fiala and Victor Rask — has each been a healthy scratch because they haven’t performed to Boudreau’s liking.
Rand: Hard to believe that an aging team with poor goaltending, no stars and a questionable commitment level is struggling. Those three scratches you noted highlight the damage of the Fenton era — though I also wonder if there’s a level of scapegoating embedded in those decisions.
Johnson: Yep, it is easy for people to make Fenton the punching bag, but this team had talent issues well before his 14-month stint. Remember Chuck Fletcher trading a first-round draft pick, a second and a conditional fourth for 20 games of Martin Hanzal and 19 of Ryan White? Yeesh.
Rand: Maybe the biggest challenge going forward is this: How to sell a full-on rebuild to a fan base used to at least a competent on-ice product.
Johnson: It won’t be pleasant for the fans who plop down a Benjamin or two for tickets, but some pain is needed to rebuild. And in the immortal words of “Road House” hero James Dalton, “Pain don’t hurt.”