The core of the Wild fused six years ago.
Defenseman Ryan Suter and winger Zach Parise were the binders after signing identical 13-year contracts, and they synced with captain Mikko Koivu.
Youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle appeared in that lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the start of six consecutive NHL playoff appearances.
Other key components — All-Star goalie Devan Dubnyk, last season’s scoring leader Eric Staal, Nino Niederreiter and Matt Dumba — have joined along the way. In all, 10 players who skated in 2013 remain with the Wild; only the Los Angeles Kings, with 11, have more mainstays on their roster from that time.
“Everyone likes it here and appreciates what we have,” Koivu said. “So you want to work at that. You want to stay in that spot and win with the guys that have been here.”
Now, this strong bond seems on the verge of disintegrating.
The Wild has moved past the first round only twice during those six playoff berths, whiffing at the lofty ambitions that were implemented during the assembly process. The aftermath of its most recent slip-up ushered in new General Manager Paul Fenton, who now has the power to transform the team as he sees fit to provoke progress.
And that possibility means this season, which opens Thursday in Colorado against the Avalanche, could be this version’s last chance to chase a Stanley Cup unless it experiences success like it hasn’t before.
“That’s the reality of this business and professional sports,” Staal said. “If he’s not liking what he’s seeing, and he doesn’t have a good vibe with our group, then he’ll be inclined to make changes. That’s just the way it works. But I think the reality is I feel and I think a lot of our guys feel we’ve got good players. We’ve got a good team.”
Under the microscope
It’s unclear just how long a leash the Wild has to make a case to stay together.
There isn’t a deadline in Fenton’s mind for when he’ll start to fiddle with the look if he isn’t encouraged by the results, but he also hasn’t made a final assessment of the team. The evaluation started when he was hired in May to replace Chuck Fletcher.
“You’re watching day to day,” Fenton said. “You’re making your assessments day to day. Certainly, it’s accumulating all your thoughts, putting them in place and then looking at it to say, ‘Can they help us in various ways right now?’ ”
What Fenton noticed is also what he witnessed from afar when he previously was an executive with the Predators for 20 seasons: The Wild is built on an up-tempo style, and that is a positive in his eyes.
While this observation might not be new, the access Fenton now has to take a closer look is — and it’s that fresh take on the Wild among management that Fenton believes will help his ultimate mission to advance the organization.
“A lot of guys that have been here certainly have their favorites, have their opinions on guys,” said Fenton, who added Tom Kurvers and Jack Ferreira to the front office, and Dean Evason as an assistant on coach Bruce Boudreau’s coaching staff. “So for us to have healthy discussions as to what fits is very, very important and to find out how guys contribute day in and day out to the pace, to the compete level. That’s where I think a team has to have that compete level in order to take that next step. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Familiar but fresh
Competitiveness hasn’t been an issue for the Wild in recent years, and perhaps that trend continues with a similar lineup — one that boasts players who are extremely familiar with one another.
The top nine forwards were all here last season, when the Wild pocketed 45 wins and 101 points to rank third in its division and tied for eighth in the league.
Zucker, on the heels of scoring 33 goals, re-signed for a six-year, $27.5 million contract, and the top-four defense didn’t change either after Dumba received a five-year, $30 million deal following his career-best season.
Free-agent additions filled holes on the third pairing (Greg Pateryn) and the fourth line (Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks and J.T. Brown).
But this roster still seems to have a rejuvenated feel to it because it’s nearly at full strength; only rookie forward Luke Kunin, who suffered a torn ACL in March, is on the mend.
Suter is back after a devastating ankle injury in March, and Parise is also good to go after he dealt with back issues and a fractured sternum. In between, he racked up 15 goals in 42 games.
Maintaining that health will be vital. So will a stout defense and strong goaltending.
Up front, Staal will look to duplicate the impact he had during a 42-goal campaign that was among the best in the NHL and the giant third line of Joel Eriksson Ek, rookie Jordan Greenway and Coyle could be a difference maker.
“If we can all play with maybe a little bit more of an edge or chip on your shoulder, it can go a long way,” Staal said. “We can do some great things, but it’s up to us. It always comes down to the players.”
Step by step
Advancing in the playoffs is one thing; getting there is another. There are no guarantees in the loaded Central Division.
The Winnipeg Jets, who eliminated the Wild in only five games earlier this year, look primed for another lengthy playoff run. Same for Central champion Nashville. Colorado and St. Louis seem on the upswing, while former powers Chicago and Dallas hope to improve after non-playoff finishes last season.
So keeping the focus on the present, rather than the future, is mandatory.
“We don’t have that luxury of just fast-forwarding,” Parise said, “because you start doing that — especially in our division — you could easily find yourself chasing.”
An effective start might be the best way for the Wild to keep pace, and rediscovering its groove as quickly as possible is one way for the team to prep in-season to be better in the postseason.
Sure, the pressure isn’t the same, but confidence is a currency that’s still accepted regardless of where it was collected.
“Once you kind of get rolling in that feeling and understanding how you need to prepare and what we need to do every night,” Dubnyk said, “we’ve shown over and over we’re a very difficult team to beat.”
Playing with pressure
In the past, the Wild worked to be elite to accomplish the goal that was outlined when the foundation of this team was formed all those years ago.
Now it has another motivation: win to stay together.
“That pressure is there on yourself regardless of what other people think or whether they think you’re doing what you should or shouldn’t,” Dubnyk said. “This group has a lot of accountability and expectation in this room.”
Time will tell if that’s enough, to keep this core in place and to ultimately hoist a Stanley Cup. The players who have been part of that pursuit hope it is.
“We gotta push the gas down here pretty soon,” Parise said, “or who knows what’s going to happen.”