Chuck Fletcher and Mike Yeo will need a few weeks to digest how a 100-point team that, for a second consecutive season, knocked off a Central Division champion in the first round can get swept in the second round by the Chicago Blackhawks.
“We’re disappointed and, really, a little stunned it ended so quickly,” Fletcher, the Wild’s general manager, said Monday during his end-of-the-season news conference where he sat alongside Yeo, the Wild’s soon-to-be-fifth-year coach.
As players threw their gear in equipment bags, taped sticks together and grabbed hold of the Wild’s thick offseason fitness manual, they too were having trouble coming to grips with the fact that after months of hard work, it was all over.
“You go from the all-time high of beating St. Louis to a week later you’re at home on the couch. It happens so fast,” said Chris Stewart, one of nine Wild players who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.
The danger in such a speedy, disappointing conclusion to one’s season is overreacting. That’s why Fletcher and Yeo will take a few weeks to decompress, analyze everything and reconvene in early June.
The coaching staff will debrief. The analytics department will prepare statistical packages. And in early June, management, the coaches and pro scouts will meet to, as Fletcher said, “battle it out” and determine an offseason plan that could result in roster tweaks and trades.
“But we have a lot of guys under contract, so the core of our team will be the same; the bulk of our players will be back,” Fletcher said.
Improvement from within
The Wild has roughly $10 million in cap space heading into next season, and that’s before potentially signing goalie Devan Dubnyk and re-signing center Mikael Granlund. Coupled with the fact Fletcher said it’s not a “great market,” the Wild won’t be a big player in free agency.
Fletcher doesn’t believe the Wild is far away. He said it’s incumbent on him to improve the team, but a lot will be dependent on internal improvement, especially from the 10 players 25 and under.
Nino Niederreiter scored a career-high 24 goals, Jason Zucker 21 in 51 games (33.7 goal pace over 82 games). Granlund followed an average regular season with a strong postseason. Defenseman Matt Dumba, who turns 21 in July, emerged in the second half and scored eight goals as a rookie. There’s little doubt the Wild’s expecting much more from Charlie Coyle (11 goals) and Erik Haula (14 points).
The Wild was pleased with the seasons of defensemen Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon.
Veterans Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek are coming off their worst statistical seasons and didn’t produce in the playoffs. Defenseman Ryan Suter had a tough postseason.
It will be interesting if this triggers Yeo to adjust his coaching next season.
If the Wild’s going to get internal improvement, Yeo and Fletcher may have to evaluate how to give the young core more responsibility. Yeo often defers to the veterans in crunch situations. Virtually every power play began with the all-veteran first unit. Virtually any time the Wild needed a goal in the waning minutes, the veterans usually played, the youngsters usually sat.
No free passes for youth
The way Fletcher has constructed the team, Zach Parise and Suter are on 13-year deals. Koivu has three years left on a seven-year deal. Pominville has four years left on a five-year deal. Vanek was at the start of a three-year deal.
It’s delicate dealing with egos, and Yeo needs the vet support. But Yeo said none of that factors into the way he coaches. He said simply the youngsters have to earn his trust.
“You look at Jason Zucker and what he accomplished this year,” Yeo said. “If he continues to go the way that he has, then he will earn more. … Nino’s earned more and that’s what we need these guys to continue doing.”
Fletcher said to expect Dumba at 20 to just automatically take ice time from Suter or Granlund from Koivu isn’t realistic.
“Certain guys have earned a certain respect level and young guys have to come in and take it away,” Fletcher said. “Some of our young players are really talented, but there’s been a lot of inconsistency in their play, too — like with most young players. … They’re all going through the process that your Parises and Suters and Pominvilles went through.”
Not special enough
One area Yeo said must improve next season is the power play. The Wild turned the NHL’s 27th-ranked penalty kill into the league’s best penalty kill this season. Next year, it’ll want to improve on the NHL’s 27th-ranked power play.
The Wild clicked at 30.4 percent in the first two rounds, although after going 0-for-3 in Game 3’s 1-0 loss and failing twice with a chance to tie, Yeo finally overhauled the units in Game 4 (Game 92 of the season). That’s something he resisted during the regular season.
“I wish we wouldn’t have waited to the last game to make adjustments,” Suter said.
Vanek also said the No. 1 unit was pressing and maybe the Wild needs “two units” and then Yeo can sometimes start the “hot unit” when the other’s struggling.
Fletcher said the Blackhawks didn’t beat the Wild’s “A” game, and it’s up to the Wild to figure out why it didn’t find its “A” game. Yeo wonders if the Wild emotionally ran out of gas with so many big games in the second half. He said it’s imperative next season that the Wild sets itself up better with a stronger first half.
Fletcher called last week a “disappointing end to a good season.” But he’s not going to panic or overreact, he said. He will look at ways to improve, particularly via trade. But while it may make some “uneasy,” he’ll rely on the young core to take a needed next step.
“None of them have hit their prime or hit their peak,” Fletcher said. “So that’s where the growth is going to come and we’ll see what other opportunities are out there.”