PITTSBURGH – Mike Yeo confessed before the season that, although he believed the Wild was a Stanley Cup contender, he was "scared to death" of missing the playoffs.
Still, few could have envisioned how quickly the Wild would fall in the first half of the NHL season.
The Wild coach knew the Western Conference was a land mine of explosive teams, and getting in the top eight would be a daunting task.
But a substandard first half, one that ended Sunday night with another defeat in Chicago, was entirely unexpected.
"It's tough to look at the standings and see where you are," winger Zach Parise said of the Wild's 18-18-5 record, last-place spot in the Central Division and 12th-place spot in the West. "It's kind of embarrassing to look and only see two teams below us. To me, to everybody, that's just not acceptable."
The Wild was special in last season's playoffs for five reasons: how hard it worked; how fast it looked; how structured and defensively sound it played; how strong-minded it was; and how it dominated time of puck possession.
Halfway through this season, one could argue the Wild plays with lower energy; looks slower than opponents; has regressed defensively; is challenged by adversity; and falls behind early and quickly in games.
Where did it go?
The season started with Josh Harding breaking a foot and triggering another season of goaltending instability. There was a strange outbreak of the mumps and a stomach bug that sapped the team of vigor. There have been emotional obstacles, particularly the deaths of the fathers of Parise and Ryan Suter.
Mikael Granlund, Marco Scandella, Darcy Kuemper and Keith Ballard are all hurt, but every team has to overcome injuries, and mediocre play has taken a turn for the worse as the team has lost 11 of its past 13 games.
"The most alarming thing is just the lack of the way we've been competing," Parise said. "Whether you have your top guys in the lineup or not, we still have to play hard and make it hard on the other team. And I don't think we're doing that. We'll do it for a little bit, but not enough to win a game."
Why? Parise doesn't know.
"That's the question that everyone's trying to figure out: Where did that excitement and where did that energy go?" he said. "It's almost as if right now, things don't go our way and we get frustrated and our focus just shifts. We lose energy on our bench, we lose energy in our locker room and then when that happens we play flat."
For a second consecutive January, Yeo could be feeling the heat. He signed a three-year contract following last season, and the expectation was the Wild would join the next tier. It, however, has four fewer points and is two spots lower in the standings than it was through 41 games last season.
The team didn't seem to respond to Yeo's two on-ice practice tirades in the past month. He is pushing and prodding but looks beaten-up lately after games. He stands steadfastly behind his veteran players, even as the team is near the bottom of the NHL in power-play percentage, but is quicker to bench or limit the ice time of young players who underperform.
Only a few days ago, General Manager Chuck Fletcher said this isn't a "coaching thing," and it does appear there's a multitude of problems that go beyond the coach.
Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula are having poor seasons, productionwise. Captain Mikko Koivu's game has declined. Thomas Vanek was signed with the hope he would add offense, but he has only seven goals. Jason Pominville has been inconsistent on both sides of the puck. Suter, after a solid start, is minus-18 the past 19 games and is one constant on the Wild's tepid power play.
Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom have been two of the worst statistical goalies in the NHL. The Wild's even-strength save percentage has gone from third in the NHL last season to 30th this year.
Quick turnaround needed
Fletcher admitted last week that the more the Wild loses, the less enticing it is for him to part with significant assets in a trade.
The Wild is on pace for 82 points. The eighth-place Kings are on pace for 93.7, the Jets for 95.3 There still is time to turn things around if the Wild somehow puts a string of victories together.
The losing skid has led players to trot out the same lines after losses, and fans are growing angry in Xcel Energy Center and in Internet forums.
Fletcher and his staff are likely to be taking a long, honest appraisal of the Wild roster.
A primary issue: The Wild hasn't beaten a conference opponent at home since Nov. 16, and routinely loses to the top teams in the league. That's an indication there might be a need to restructure, and likely an evaluation of players is in progress.
Into the unknown
There are some compelling questions at this point.
Is it really worth trading for a goalie now when the right one might not be available? The Wild could buy out Backstrom's contract at season's end, but if he gets hurt, that option is washed out.
Is it really worth making a coaching change, even though there are no guarantees firing Yeo would salvage the season?
Fans see dynamic franchise-changers Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel looming at the top of the draft and wonder if losing enough to get a high draft pick is a possibility. History, however, has shown the Wild usually is good enough, even when bad, to land around the ninth or 10th pick.
What could be most damaging, if the team's slide continues, is that another season of the prime of Suter and Parise is lost.
"I've never really been through anything like this," Suter said. "It just seems like you start to get traction, then you play the next game and you play well for parts of it, and bad things happen and you can't get out of it. It's been a roller coaster. It's just very unfortunate we're playing the way we are."