Wild fans are angry. They want accountability for the team’s spiraling season, which has gone from mediocre to dreadful in the past couple of weeks. They want heads to roll, or trades to be made, or both.
And we can’t say we blame them. Can’t even say we disagree with them. But like most situations, this mess the Wild finds itself is complicated — enough so that it can be difficult to truly discern why this season has gone wrong, and what exactly should be done about it.
*The goaltending situation is the biggest problem. The Wild is taking the fourth-most shots per game in the NHL and giving up the fourth-fewest. But their goalies rank 35th and 40th among 43 qualified goalies in the league in terms of save percentage. Switch to goals against average, and Darcy Kuemper (27th) and Niklas Backstrom (35th) aren’t much better.
A portion of the goaltending problem is simply bad luck, of course. Josh Harding was playing at an all-world level last year, but he hasn’t played in more than a full calendar year now. Kuemper showed promise last season, and Backstrom was still under contract. So the Wild and GM Chuck Fletcher hoped the team could piece it together. But it was a bad plan for hockey’s most important position, and Fletcher is still culpable for signing Backstrom — an aging goalie who had an average season in 2012-13 — to a three-year deal in 2013. So the goaltending mess is part bad luck and part bad management.
*But other players are underachieving, too. Our guy Russo tweeted during last night’s latest debacle that Ryan Suter is a minus-18 over his past 19 games. Other veterans have played a notch below expectations, while youngsters have stalled. Effort is an issue some nights. The team, as a whole, just doesn’t feel like all the pieces fit together. Is that on them? Is that on head coach Mike Yeo? Is that on Fletcher? If it’s a combination of all three, who takes the fall?
*Yeo got a three-year contract in the offseason after last year’s playoff run. He’s the same coach he’s always been. Is his message wearing thin, or is he just up against unfair expectations in a brutal conference and without adequate goaltending?
*If the Wild decides that Yeo isn’t the answer, then Fletcher has to go, too. Yeo is the second coach he’s hired, and combined with other roster missteps it would not be fair for one to go while the other stays. That complicates the decision on Yeo, since Fletcher has to know that his job could be on the line as well.
*Here’s what we think is the best and most fair course of action at the season’s midpoint: Fletcher, motivated perhaps by self-preservation but more so by true need, has to make a deal for a goalie NOW. Yeo built up just enough equity during last season’s playoff success to deserve a chance to turn things around, but he can’t do it without a goalie. When the Wild turn things around last season in January, goaltending stole a few wins for them. It changed the entire dynamic of the season. Neither Kuemper nor Backstrom is playing at a level to steal games right now.
But if improved goaltending only solves one problem and doesn’t prove to have a domino effect that jump-starts other failing parts of the Wild’s game, then changes at the top need to be made. Whether that happens later this season or in the offseason likely would be irrelevant, but it would most definitely be the right thing.