Chemistry is a funny thing.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, in one of his more comical lines when his team stood atop the Western Conference in mid-January, said, “I really don’t even know what the word ‘chemistry’ means, quite frankly, in anything. You have people talk about it and go, ‘They have good chemistry.’
“I don’t know what the heck that is.”
When General Manager Chuck Fletcher and his staff sequester themselves with Boudreau and his staff to analyze what went wrong for a team that two months ago looked like a bona fide Stanley Cup contender, the first task should be trying to determine how the chemistry for the West’s most consistent team for almost three months got so discombobulated.
And how a team with Cup ambitions managed one playoff victory after losing 12 of 16 games in March.
Most will point to Feb. 26 when the Wild, in Fletcher’s words, put all the chips in the middle of the table in trading for Martin Hanzal and Ryan White. But the turning point actually might have occurred three weeks earlier, when Boudreau and Fletcher began fiddling with the lineup almost nightly.
Charlie Coyle shuffled between wing and center, wingers began to play their off-wings, and players were rotated in and out of the lineup routinely. Alex Tuch, Gustav Olofsson and Mike Reilly were recalled from the AHL to get looks, then Tyler Graovac was placed on waivers and kicked to the curb after Fletcher said “we have to try to get a better recipe” on the fourth line than Chris Stewart-Graovac-Jordan Schroeder.
The rationale of the roster testing at the time: The Wild, with a large-enough cushion toward a fifth consecutive playoff berth, had the “luxury” to experiment in order to ascertain what it needed before the March 1 trade deadline.
The byproduct, perhaps? A team that had such stability during a 30-6-3 run suddenly began to show signs of cracking during a winning but erratically played February.
Sure, there are other reasons for the team’s late-season slip: Maybe the “bye” slowed the Wild’s momentum, or maybe largely outplaying but losing to the Blackhawks three times in 15 games crippled its soul. Perhaps downgrading Erik Haula, booting Graovac and slowing down a fast team with the additions of Hanzal and White weakened the squad.
There’s also no denying goalie Devan Dubnyk’s game deteriorated. The best goalie statistically in the NHL through mid-February looked to wear down, maybe because the Wild did not trust backup Darcy Kuemper enough to play him regularly.
Dubnyk seemed bruised after being pulled after giving up two goals on two shots March 12 at Chicago. To make matters worse, because the backup sits in the locker room at the United Center, Dubnyk heard Boudreau criticize him to Pierre McGuire during a nationally televised interview.
That was the first of nine losses in 10 games for the Wild and the first real sign Boudreau, who lovably wears his heart on his sleeve, tends to lose control of his emotions during hard times.
Fletcher is safe as general manager. Via text, owner Craig Leipold made that clear Sunday.
It will be interesting the tack Fletcher takes in his end-of-year address this week. One day after the Blackhawks were swept in the first round, GM Stan Bowman called it a “complete failure” and “did not come even close to reaching the standard we have set over the years.”
Sure, three Stanley Cups for Chicago since 2010 create loftier expectations than maybe Minnesota, but Bowman said the abrupt ending to their season “completely overshadowed” their 109-point regular season (only three more points than the Wild’s record year), was “unacceptable” and never will happen again.
This was only the fourth time in the past 20 years that teams with the top two records in a conference were both eliminated in the first round.
It’s not his style, but will Fletcher unleash similar harsh words toward a roster he constructed, one that has gone 3-12 in its past 15 playoff games and stunningly has lost seven of its past eight home playoff games?
Or will he chalk it up to — as Boudreau did — the better team not winning and believe the Wild was simply run down by an otherworldly goaltending performance by Jake Allen (.956 save percentage)?
All the puck-possession and shot-volume and location analytics do agree the Wild was the better team.
Still, despite registering a playoff-best 36.4 shots per game and allowing a playoff-least 26.8 shots per game, the Wild scored a playoff-low 1.6 goals per game (eight) with a playoff-low .034 shooting percentage.
In the larger sample size of an 82-game regular season, the Wild won a franchise-best 49 games, scored the second-most goals in the league (266), was the highest-scoring 5-on-5 team in the NHL, had a franchise-best 12-game winning streak, had a franchise-best plus-58 goal differential, had a franchise-best 21 percent power play and a slew of individuals having career-best seasons.
So, in a day-and-night season, there’s probably a happy medium. In the playoffs, for instance, the Wild has lost in different ways to different style of teams, so it’s not easy to figure out the problem.
It’s not only Allen who has stymied the Wild in the playoffs. Chicago’s Corey Crawford stoned the Wild in the 2013, ’14 and ’15 playoffs. But last year, the Wild was unable to take advantage of the mediocre goaltending of Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi and didn’t defend well enough against the likes of Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza. The Wild also has lost to fast teams with game-breakers like Chicago and defensive teams with giant defensemen like St. Louis.
So Fletcher will have to evaluate whether this core is built well enough for long-term playoff success.
He will have to determine this offseason if back-to-back poor first rounds by Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter (two combined goals last year, none this year) overshadows their career-best seasons, especially since Fletcher will have to decide this summer whether to re-sign the restricted free agents to long-term deals or maybe let an arbitrator figure it out via one- or two-year awards.
Fixes seem needed.
Boudreau will want a solidified top-four blue line, something he didn’t possess because of the erratic seasons of Matt Dumba, Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin. It might take trading a young forward to get that defenseman, since the Wild doesn’t have a ton of salary cap space and the free-agent market will be thin.
The Wild also must get a viable backup goalie so Dubnyk isn’t run into the ground.
Finally, the big question is whether the Wild feels it’s time to rearrange its core.
The Mikko Koivu-, Zach Parise-, Ryan Suter-led Wild has not been able to get past the second round in five years and has two years in a row bowed out in the first (Parise did miss last year’s postseason because of a back injury). It has been established by now that the problem with the Wild didn’t sit at the feet of Mike Yeo but more likely rests inside the locker room.
GM under the gun
Fletcher has work to do these next six weeks.
Does he rearrange the core, and even if he wants to, can he? Does he want to re-sign Hanzal, and even if he wants to, can he afford him? Can he trade Jason Pominville, who is too expensive to buy out but is awfully expensive to keep with two more years at a $5.6 million cap hit? He may, at a minimum, ask Pominville to waive his no-move clause so the Wild can protect one more forward from the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
Can Fletcher set the table for expansion by talking with Vegas GM George McPhee and trying to dictate which player he selects from the Wild?
No matter which way you cut it, this was an extremely disappointing finish.
The best team in the West for much of the season managed one playoff win against its former coach.
That was not the way anybody envisioned this season ending.
The Wild has changed coaches. To get over the hump, what’s next?
Michael Russo has covered the Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005. Blog: startribune.com/russo Twitter: @Russostrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org