Despite lacking the credentials that describe the most successful franchises in the NHL — like a Stanley Cup, multiple division titles or a bona fide superstar — the Wild still has been considered a reputable outfit since its inception in 2000.
Strong regular seasons from rosters that made mostly subtle changes led to routine playoff appearances, a stability that didn’t deliver a championship but still positioned the team as better off than most.
As last season progressed, though, those pillars started to wobble.
The Wild stumbled, jettisoned core players and ultimately failed to advance to the postseason for the first time in seven years. Its foundation only became shakier in the summer when, in late July, the team fired Paul Fenton as general manager after just one season on the job before bringing in Bill Guerin late last month.
Amid this turmoil, it looked like the Wild’s pedigree could be damaged beyond repair — setting up the search for a new identity.
But that’s not how the team sees it.
Reinforcing its longstanding reputation is the focus, a pursuit that officially starts Thursday when players report for medicals and fitness testing to begin training camp.
“It’s important for everybody in the organization, including players, coaches, from top to bottom, for us to kind of cement that steadfast, savvy, competitive organization that we have,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “It has been that way for 19 years now. It’s important for all of us to make sure that continues.”
While the Wild’s consistency was commendable, it also became stale and a third consecutive first-round exit in 2018 was the start of a bumpy 17 months for the franchise.
Fenton was hired to spur the Wild over that hurdle but instead, the team fell even further behind its goal.
After a solid start to 2018-19, injuries to defenseman Matt Dumba and captain Mikko Koivu hamstrung the group. Popular players Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund were traded away — Jason Zucker nearly joined them on at least two occasions — and the Wild slid to the basement of the Central Division with 37 wins and 83 points.
Business appeared to be proceeding as usual, with Fenton re-signing defenseman Brad Hunt and adding forwards Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman in free agency.
But after tweaking the roster and completing the draft, Fenton was abruptly dismissed July 30 because of what ownership described as an organizational and cultural mismatch. Guerin was hired Aug. 21.
“When Billy was introduced, I shared a lot of the exact same things that he was saying,” center Eric Staal said. “His thoughts were all the things here are in place to be successful and win. That’s kind of how I’ve felt since I’ve gotten here.”
Fulfilling that vision before it turns into an illusion is the next step, and it’ll be a challenging one with a road-heavy schedule to start and a division featuring the reigning champ St. Louis and a handful of contenders.
What should help the Wild is the returns of Dumba (torn pectoral muscle) and Koivu (torn ACL and meniscus). Zuccarello is a playmaker primed to boost an offense that sagged to 27th last season, and Hartman’s grittiness should bring better balance to the lineup. Recent trade arrivals such as Ryan Donato, Victor Rask and Kevin Fiala also get a fresh start.
Fiala signed a two-year, $6 million Wednesday after tallying three goals and seven points in 19 games with the Wild last season after being traded by the Predators in exchange for Granlund.
He was the last of the Wild’s restricted free agents to sign, and it’s unclear when he could arrive in the Twin Cities since he needs to secure a work visa.
Gone from the mix are forwards Pontus Aberg and Eric Fehr and defensemen Nate Prosser and Anthony Bitetto. Right winger Drew Stafford is attending camp on a professional tryout.
“Last year was obviously a fluke,” Zuccarello said. “This is a team that should be in the playoffs every year.”
Still, there’s uncertainty.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon is in the final season of his contract; same with coach Bruce Boudreau and Koivu.
How those situations resolve will affect the Wild’s stature like all hockey decisions do; but it’s the performance on the ice that will have the most power in determining if the perception of the Wild has changed.
“There’s a lot of amends that we want to do, a lot of things that we want to do better than last year,” Boudreau said.
“We know it’s been a long summer where there hasn’t been an awful lot of good things said about the Minnesota Wild.
“Our pride really wants to make sure that isn’t the case. We really believe we’re a good team, and we want to go out and prove it.”