EDMONTON, ALBERTA – The clock is ticking, and Ryan Suter knows it.
“We’re running out of chances,” the Wild defenseman said.
Making the playoffs was the objective Suter had in mind when he and Zach Parise signed identical 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Wild in 2012, and it was a reasonable target. The Wild hadn’t advanced beyond the regular season in four years and needed to become more competitive before it could emerge as a legitimate contender.
But after seven postseason appearances in eight years — including the play-in series against Vancouver that begins Sunday as part of the NHL’s 24-team return — the Wild is still vying to be more than a participant and actually close the gap on a Stanley Cup.
“It’s time to take those next steps here,” Suter said.
Improvement was tangible at the beginning of the Suter-Parise tenure.
Despite the team losing in five games to eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago in the 2013 playoffs, just getting past the regular season was encouraging. In 2014, the Blackhawks eliminated the Wild in the second round.
“You felt like we were taking the right progression,” Parise recalled. “But it’s a hard league. You gotta have a lot of things go right to win the Cup. It’s just the way it goes.”
The Wild learned that firsthand.
Parise felt that 2013-14 version and the following season’s roster that was again felled by Chicago — this time in a four-game sweep by a team headed for another Stanley Cup — were the best teams the Wild had since he’s been here. But neither could reach that elusive conference-final stage, thanks partly to the roadblock of the Chicago dynasty.
Since then, the Wild lost in the first round in three straight years: in six games in 2016 (Dallas), five games in 2017 (St. Louis) and another quick five games in 2018 (Winnipeg).
On paper, the most promising of that bunch was the 2016-17 squad that put together the most successful regular season in franchise history and made aggressive moves at the trade deadline to prepare for a lengthy run. Instead, the team eked out just one win against the Blues.
“I thought that was our best team and our best chance,” Suter said. “But obviously it doesn’t really matter if you don’t go out and perform in the playoffs.”
The consequences of those struggles culminated in 2019.
With a new general manager at the helm in Paul Fenton, the core that had become a perennial playoff team was dismantled.
Gone were Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund, and the Wild would go on to miss the postseason for the first time in seven seasons.
“You feel like after you have a couple times where you can’t get over that hump, that first, second round, and then you have a couple first-round exits, and I think change is inevitable,” Parise said. “So we went through a little transition where you had some guys that earned their way into being some very common household names with the Wild, they got traded.
“So that’s just the progression of teams that are trying to put that puzzle together of building a contender. I don’t want to say we missed our little window with that group, but that’s kind of what it felt like.”
Even if the Wild is losing daylight, darkness hasn’t set in yet. This season’s unpredictable road is proof of that.
A bottom-feeder early on, the Wild clawed its way back up the standings and made enough strides to be lumped into this expanded, post-pause pool for the playoffs. And the unique circumstances of restarting after a four-month hiatus in a centralized bubble are the same for everyone.
That’s a source of confidence for the Wild. So is how the group has evolved from last season’s transformation, with younger players Kevin Fiala, Joel Eriksson Ek and Carson Soucy becoming regular contributors. The boost Kirill Kaprizov can provide next season is also promising.
“Putting ourselves in these situations is going to continue to help us and help the organization, and it’s going to happen,” Suter said. “It’ll happen here.”
What can help fulfill that vision is the leadership at the top.
As he approaches his anniversary on the job, GM Bill Guerin isn’t just expecting the Wild to evolve as a franchise. He’s calling it a necessity.
“The goal is to win a championship and if it hasn’t worked out, then we have to look at what’s been going on here and what needs to improve and what needs to change, and I think we’ve done a lot of that,” Guerin said. “Sometimes that isn’t changing just players. It’s not changing coaches. It’s changing your mind-set.”
The Wild can’t rewrite the past, but the team can take a new direction in the future.
“Let’s make the best of it,” said Parise.