Disappointment and frustration weren’t the only reactions the Wild had after its five-game fizzle against the Jets in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Uncertainty was also palpable, especially since the team’s first postseason decision was to part ways with General Manager Chuck Fletcher.
“You almost felt like that was the first domino [to fall], and then there was going to be more and more,” winger Zach Parise said.
But when the team starts training camp Thursday at Xcel Energy Center with fitness testing and medicals, it will look almost the same as the group that slipped up last season — a summer-long development that, while surprising, has emboldened the returning core.
“Everyone likes what we have in that locker room,” said Charlie Coyle, one of the players in summer trade speculation, “so we’re really looking forward to the challenge ahead.”
Fletcher’s departure did seem like it would be the first of at least a few waves of change to rock the organization.
The Wild had a 45-win, 101-point finish that ranked third in the Central Division and eighth in the NHL. The playoff exit against an upstart Winnipeg team came with the caveat that top defenseman Ryan Suter was sidelined, but it was the fourth first-round exit in six seasons and third in a row. Owner Craig Leipold clearly wanted a change with the installation of Paul Fenton at GM.
Fast forward nearly five months, though, and the ripple effects have been mild. Fenton’s makeover revolved around a slew of free-agent depth signings that included veteran forwards Eric Fehr, J.T. Brown and Matt Hendricks, defense-man Greg Pateryn and goaltender Andrew Hammond. Veteran forwards Matt Cullen and Daniel Winnik were not re-signed, and Tyler Ennis was bought out.
The big news was the signing of restricted free agents Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker — this after Zucker and Coyle were positioned as the most likely candidates for trades. Zucker, coming off a 33-goal season, received a five-year, $27.5 million contract, while defenseman Dumba, who had a career-high 50 points, landed a five-year, $30 million deal.
“I know my name’s always thrown around,” said Coyle who, like fellow wingers Zucker and Nino Niederreiter, went pointless in the playoffs. “I think it’s just my versatility where I can play both forward positions. So I’m just always going to be in those talks.
“It really doesn’t matter to me. I like where I am right now. I want to keep going with this team and what we’ve started growing already. I want to keep going on that.”
Fenton made it clear he needs to be around the group on a daily basis to make an accurate evaluation of the roster and that opportunity starts now with camp. He also will have fresh sets of eyes examining the Wild, with Jack Ferreira on board as a senior adviser, Tom Kurvers joining as assistant GM, and Dean Evason replacing John Anderson on Bruce Boudreau’s coaching staff.
“We haven’t played one second of hockey yet,” Fenton said. “So without doing anything, I want to see what our team looks like before I want to go and make changes. I’m hoping that everybody plays well, but we know the nature of sports. At some point, I might have to be going down that road.”
Suter, 33, spent the offseason recovering from surgery to fix a broken ankle suffered in March. He’s been skating, and Boudreau hopes Suter is ready to play when the season starts.
Winger Luke Kunin is also on the mend after tearing his left ACL in March and, while he has been on the ice for quite some time, it’s likely the Wild eases him into group work and probably will start him in Iowa.
Parise, 34, is good to go after ending the season in the playoffs because of a fractured sternum, but it’ll be interesting to see if he can recapture the rhythm he had in 2017-18 (15 goals in his final 21 games) once he healed up a herniated disc — an issue that required surgery and cost him the first half of action.
Coyle had surgery on both wrists after only 11 goals in 66 games of what he had hoped would be a breakout season, one that started after he missed a month because of a broken leg.
Rookie winger Jordan Greenway, who joined the team late last season from Boston University, is poised to become a regular, and Boudreau has high expectations for former first-round pick Joel Eriksson Ek.
The team’s leadership core — captain Mikko Koivu, Parise, Suter and Eric Staal — is aging.
Staal, who turns 34 before the season begins, had a team-high 42 goals and 76 points and has proved to be a bargain as he enters the final season of a three-year, $10.5 million deal.
Koivu’s two-year, $11 million extension starts this season. The 35-year-old center was a Selke Trophy finalist in 2016-17, but had only 14 goals last season and his faceoff win percentage dropped from .552 to .514.
There would have been more questions coming into this camp had there been additional turnover. Instead, players are reassembling with the sense there’s belief from management in their potential to finally find a solution.
And they are encouraged they have been given another chance to pursue that.
“Now, it’s all about taking the next step,” Koivu said.