An influx of youth and veteran talent came to the Wild during the labor-shortened 2012-13 season. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed identical 13-year deals over the July 4th holiday. Jason Pominville was acquired during the season in a trade.
Defenseman Jonas Brodin debuted as a 19-year-old rookie that year. Forwards Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund also made their NHL debuts, while Jason Zucker got a longer look than the six games he had played the season before.
The Wild reached the postseason after missing the playoffs four years in a row.
The talent influx continued the next year. Nino Niederreiter, 21 then, arrived via trade. Marco Scandella became a regular on defense. Erik Haula played key minutes as a forward. The following season Matt Dumba and Thomas Vanek arrived and goalie Devan Dubnyk helped save the season when he arrived as a midseason trade. That was 2014-15, the third consecutive year the Wild made the playoffs.
Since then? Well, Eric Staal gave the Wild a nice lift last season, scoring 28 goals as a veteran upgrade over Vanek. He helped the Wild overachieve last season in reaching the playoffs for the fifth straight year before a disappointing playoff loss to St. Louis.
But now Pominville is gone — traded away along with Scandella this past offseason as his decreased production and high cost pinched the Wild. Parise has dealt with injury woes that have kept him out this entire season and limited his effectiveness last season. Haula was lost to expansion. He entered Thursday's Vegas vs. Wild game with seven goals for Vegas this season, while Pominville has six for Buffalo.
Brodin, Dumba, Suter, Coyle, Granlund, Zucker, Niederreiter and Dubnyk are still here and are part of the core of this season's Wild.
This season's team entered Thursday outside the playoff race, having allowed 30 goals in its past seven games. The struggles were enough that GM Chuck Fletcher addressed the media Wednesday.
"We built the team a certain way, and we did whatever we could, to be honest with you, to keep [Mikael] Granlund and [Nino] Niederreiter and not be forced to lose [Eric] Staal and [Jason] Zucker and keep four [defensemen]," Fletcher was quoted as saying. "So this is what we wanted, and if it doesn't work, you can blame that. But I think we kept the right guys."
That might be true. The real problem, though, is the lack of a recent talent influx. Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis, the players who came back in the Buffalo trade, have been OK but haven't given the Wild what Scandella and Pominville did in previous years. Haula was a sneaky loss, leaving a hole 41-year-old Matt Cullen hasn't been able to consistently fill.
And, truthfully, it's been a while since a Wild prospect turned into a bona fide top-nine forward or top-six defenseman to replace other fringe roster players.
Joel Eriksson Ek and/or Luke Kunin might be those forwards, but both were sent to the minors in Iowa last week after failing to completely seize opportunities here. Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson will be given every chance to be those defensemen after the Wild waived Kyle Quincey on Wednesday, though the pickup Thursday of Nate Prosser makes their development less urgent. But there's no guarantee they will succeed.
As Fletcher said Wednesday, this is the team the Wild wanted — or at least the team it wanted based on the constraints it faced. But there's a real talent deficit right now, and as a result a team that thought it was a Stanley Cup contender is back to scrambling to get back into playoff position.