The sun rose Wednesday, and it was instantly apparent the Wild’s season indeed ended hours earlier. There was no practice, no flight to Chicago, no team meal, no work to do to prepare for a Game 7 that could propel the franchise into the second conference final in Wild history.
The roller coaster of a season stopped suddenly when that puck off a partition found the blade of big-game star Patrick Kane.
“Our guys did everything that we asked and they laid it on the line, and that’s what hurts,” coach Mike Yeo said after the Wild’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Blackhawks in Game 6. “That’s what’s hard.”
No doubt, the loss and season’s completion stung everybody involved. But after Yeo and General Manager Chuck Fletcher decompress, they’ll prepare for next season.
Yes, Yeo. His contract expires with the rest of the coaching staff’s on June 30, but Yeo is expected to stay on. A conversation with Fletcher hadn’t occurred by Wednesday afternoon, but he is expected to meet with Yeo about a multiyear contract extension.
The Wild earned a lot of respect this postseason by upsetting Central Division champion Colorado and going toe-to-toe with the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.
The team has a solid foundation. There’s a strong corps of leaders, demonstrated when Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter took charge during an off-day in Arizona in March when the season was on the precipice. They met with every player individually and subsequently held an all-hands-on-deck team meeting before the Wild reeled off a 6-0-1 run to save its season.
The youngsters performed admirably. Mikael Granlund had a breakthrough regular season and Nino Niederreiter a breakthrough postseason. Charlie Coyle was a thoroughbred down the stretch and in the first round before courageously playing with two separated shoulders in the second round. Erik Haula came of age this postseason, too.
Experienced but young defensemen Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon took their games to new levels, and despite season-long ups and downs, mobile blue-liner Jonas Brodin reminded us on Tuesday just how much the 20-year-old makes the Wild’s transition game motor.
Maybe the most impressive thing Yeo and his staff achieved this year was helping the Wild manage through a never-ending goaltending carousel.
The Wild had four goalies hold the No. 1 role at different times. Niklas Backstrom never was healthy, but Josh Harding, Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov all performed solidly. The common denominator? All three were protected impressively by the players in front of them executing Yeo’s defensive structure and game plan.
There is no simple solution as to how to fix this goaltending quandary, so this must be priority No. 1 for Fletcher during an offseason that could be complicated.
As fun as it was to watch the Wild grow down the stretch, the same could be said for Yeo, the NHL’s youngest coach at age 40. Around Jan. 1, he appeared inches from the chopping block. But Yeo helped lift the Wild out of a six-game losing streak, going 14-4-2 during a juncture when in part Parise, Koivu, Spurgeon and Harding were all sidelined at the same time.
The Wild secured the top wild-card spot in the West, rallied from 0-2 and 2-3 deficits in the first round to beat Colorado and again tried to pull it off in the second round against Chicago after falling down 0-2.
“There were times where the wheels could’ve come off and [Yeo] kept it together,” Suter said Tuesday night.
The Wild somehow made it to the second round despite using five starting goalies, none of whom appeared in more than 29 regular-season games.
Backstrom is coming off his second consecutive season-ending abdominal surgery. He has two more years left on his contract at nearly $3.5 million annually.
The Wild cannot use its final compliance buyout on Backstrom because he was re-signed under the new collective bargaining agreement, not the pre-lockout one. It cannot use a regular buyout on him because injured players cannot be bought out.
If he chose to retire, the Wild would be on the hook for his full cap hit. The Wild likely will try to trade him and be willing to eat part of the contract, but that won’t be easy considering he’s an aging goalie, one who has had myriad injuries the past five years, with a modified no-trade clause.
Harding, who was 18-7-3 in the first half with a league-leading 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, did not play after Dec. 31 because multiple sclerosis sidelined him long-term for the second consecutive season. He has one more year left on his contract at $1.9 million.
Last summer, Fletcher sat down with Harding for a heart-to-heart talk. That will have to happen again. As delicate a situation as this is because of Harding’s real-life medical issue, it’s extremely difficult for Fletcher to proceed with business as usual with Harding’s situation being so unstable.
Last month, Harding made clear that retirement had not entered his thinking.
Kuemper, who helped save the Wild’s season in the second half, is a restricted free agent who likely will command a one-way contract.
As of now, that’s three goalies on one-way contracts, meaning until Fletcher figures out this conundrum, he cannot simply re-sign Bryzgalov or sign another goalie.
Ironing out the roster
Thomas Vanek this, Thomas Vanek that. As free agency approaches July 1, #vanekwatch will be in high gear as many expect the Wild will sign another veteran with Minnesota ties.
Vanek, traded from Buffalo to the Islanders to Montreal this year, is a former Gophers star who lives in Stillwater. He’s a bona fide goal scorer. But he’s also 30, so Fletcher must analyze whether it’s worth signing another thirtysomething to a long-term deal (whether it be Vanek or somebody else) when Parise, Koivu and Jason Pominville are already veterans secured long-term.
Koivu, who had ankle surgery this year, was one of the highest-scoring NHLers down the stretch, but he wasn’t productive for a second consecutive postseason and is clearly slowing down. Because of that, and because of the emergence of Granlund and Haula, some question whether Fletcher would even consider trading Koivu, who has four years left on his deal at $6.75 million per. Koivu has a no-trade clause. Pominville, the Wild’s top goal scorer in the regular season, scored twice in the postseason and particularly struggled in the second round.
Salary cap issues
Fletcher must also make sure in the salary-cap world that he can afford his kids. Niederreiter, Kuemper, Justin Fontaine and Jason Zucker are all due to be re-signed this summer, while Granlund, Coyle, Haula, Brodin and Scandella also are set to be restricted free agents next summer.
But, the Wild ranked 24th offensively during the regular season and likely would be playing a Game 7 Thursday had it not demonstrated yet again in Game 5 and 6 that it has trouble finishing.
It’ll be hard for Fletcher to weigh.
Maybe the Wild decides another defenseman is the best place to spend its money. Maybe it’s goaltending.
The decision-making process is far from crystal clear.
Regardless, this process will start soon — after the disappointment of a season abruptly ending subsides.
“Those guys are the champs, and we felt we were right there with them,” Parise said after Tuesday’s game. “I think for us, we feel like we were just as good as anybody. We raised the expectations. I think we showed we were capable of going even farther than we did.”