“Bottom line is until we … prove that something’s different, then nothing’s changed.” — Wild coach Mike Yeo before Game 1 against Chicago.
Nothing changed. In fact, it got worse.
After an NHL-best second half and knocking off the St. Louis Blues in the first round, the Wild truly believed that with stable goaltending, more scoring punch, better balance up and down its lineup and further maturity from its young core that this would be the year to slay the Chicago dragon.
Four playoff games and six days later, the Wild learned it’s not close to overtaking the Blackhawks, who ended Minnesota’s season for a third consecutive year.
That harsh reality had to be an eye-opener for Wild brass heading into the offseason. After a period of decompression and evaluation, it’ll take an honest appraisal by General Manager Chuck Fletcher, who is expected to address the media this week, and his staff about what went wrong and how to fix it.
The problem seems obvious: The Wild still doesn’t possess that pure goal scorer and clutch playoff performer.
Look at it this way: The Blackhawks advanced because until 2 minutes, 18 seconds left in Game 4, the Wild had as many goals in the series (five) as Patrick Kane. Kane scored one backbreaking goal in each of Games 3 and 4 on his only shot in each game. So the Wild actually did a solid job limiting his looks, but the second a player like Kane gets daylight, he makes you pay.
The Wild, as hard as Fletcher has tried, still doesn’t have a player like that.
Mikko Koivu has two goals in his past 30 playoff games. Jason Pominville has five goals in 25 playoff games with the Wild. Zach Parise is the Wild’s all-time leading playoff scorer, but he has three goals in 15 games against Chicago. Thomas Vanek has no goals in his past 17 playoff games (10 with the Wild). None of the Wild’s core group of youngsters — Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund or Jason Zucker — has scored consistently against Chicago.
Maybe one of those four 20-somethings can still develop into that type of player. Zucker seems to have that ability.
But unfortunately, the solution on how to acquire this type of special game-breaker is not easy to identify and, frankly, may not be doable in the short term when one takes into account the Wild’s pool of tradable assets and its salary-cap situation.
Assuming the Wild buys out Niklas Backstrom next month, the team has about $11 million in cap space (nine forwards, five defensemen, one goalie signed), and that’s before signing goalie Devan Dubnyk.
Nothing can be done until it’s determined how much Dubnyk will cost. But the Wild almost seems locked into its current construction.
It has a handful of veterans with hefty contracts that may not be movable. It has a talented group of youngsters that Fletcher may be reluctant to use as trade bait.
So it’ll be interesting to see how the Wild proceeds and also how the Wild weighs being the best NHL team in the second half with the disappointment of once again losing out to the Blackhawks.
A stocking-up period
Since becoming general manager in 2009, Fletcher has tried to find goal scorers. In 2011, Fletcher felt a team with Martin Havlat and Pierre-Marc Bouchard needed more of a shooter’s mentality, so he traded for Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley a week apart. A summer later, he signed Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts.
At the 2013 trade deadline, he traded two prospects and a first- and second-round pick to Buffalo for Pominville. At the 2014 trade deadline, he traded two seconds in a package that included the acquisition of Matt Moulson (one goal in the playoffs) from Buffalo. Last July 1, he signed Vanek to a three-year, $19.5 million contract, and at this past trade deadline, he traded a second to Buffalo for Chris Stewart (no goals in the playoffs).
Take each move individually, and they made sense at the time. Put them all together, and the Wild still lacks that prototypical finisher and has traded away a lot of assets and spent a lot of money in the process.
The cycle of acquiring veterans with past histories of scoring seems to be never-ending. Yet, it still hasn’t been good enough to get the Wild on par with the NHL’s elite.
The development angle
So Fletcher may need to look at bold moves this summer. In order to stop getting 30-somethings, the trade route may be the best but riskiest option.
In 2013, the Dallas Stars somehow poached Tyler Seguin, the second overall pick in 2010, from the Boston Bruins. Seguin has scored 74 goals in two years for the Stars and is only 23.
That type of player is almost unattainable. Those who are available usually have warts, and you typically need a ton of assets to acquire them.
Then, you need to pray they develop into the players you hope.
Two years ago, Fletcher took hard-hitting restricted free agent Cal Clutterbuck and used him to acquire Niederreiter, now 22, the Wild’s second-leading goal scorer this year with 24. In 2011, he acquired Coyle, now 23, in the Brent Burns trade.
It seems likely that Fletcher would go into this offseason looking to acquire similarly aged talents who have the ability to develop into high-end finishers. Two youngsters who could be on the block are Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov, 21, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, and Toronto’s Nazem Kadri, 24, the seventh pick in the 2009 draft.
Before the Clutterbuck-for-Niederreiter deal and the Burns-for Setoguchi-and-Coyle deal, the common denominator is the Wild had to make long-term decisions on Clutterbuck and Burns.
This summer, Granlund and Erik Haula are restricted free agents. Granlund wanted a one- or two-year bridge deal so if he erupts offensively, he can hit a home-run contract next time.
He had a disappointing 39-point season and broke his wrist. If the Wild has any concern with Granlund’s long-term ability to stay healthy and be a productive scorer in the NHL, it wouldn’t be shocking if Fletcher at least dangled him this summer to see if a potential goal scorer could be hooked.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon is a year from restricted free agency. Typically, this would be the summer to talk to him about an extension. With Spurgeon likely having earned a long-term, lucrative extension, it would not be shocking if Fletcher considered trading Spurgeon in part because of the emergence of Matt Dumba and the fact that Christian Folin looks like a player.
It also wouldn’t be surprising if Fletcher considered trading Darcy Kuemper. At 25 and with a contract that pays him $1.5 million, Kuemper could have significant trade value to a team desperate for goaltending.
The veteran wall
There’s also something else Fletcher and his staff will have to analyze. Three of the team’s go-to veterans had arguably the worst seasons of their professional careers.
Koivu is 32, entering his 11th season. The Wild often says Koivu’s value goes beyond statistics, but Koivu had his least productive year since his rookie year with .6 points per game (48 in 80 games). Even if the Wild wanted to trade him, could Fletcher pull it off when Koivu, who has a no-trade clause, has three years left on a contract that pays him nearly $22 million with a cap hit of $6.75 million?
Pominville is 32, entering his 12th season. He’s probably the Wild’s biggest sharpshooter up front, but he led the team in missed nets and the unofficial stat of whiffs and flubbed shots. One year after leading the Wild with 30 goals, Pominville had his least productive year with .21 goals per game (18 in 82 games).
Even if the Wild wanted to trade him, could Fletcher pull it off when Pominville has four years left on a contract with an annual cap hit of $5.6 million?
Vanek is 31, entering his 11th season. Fletcher called him a “game breaker” when he signed him, yet last week Vanek said “my game is about setting guys up.” Vanek had no goals as of Thanksgiving. He finished with 21 (tied for third on the team), but that .26 goals per game was the lowest of his career.
Even if the Wild wanted to trade him, could Fletcher pull it off when Vanek has two years left on a deal with a $6.5 million cap hit?
What will turn the tide?
There’s no doubt the Wild’s still a team on the rise. But as Yeo said himself Thursday night, it’s a good team trying to become the best team.
It’s important not to overreact after such disappointment. Fletcher and his staff will decompress, then hold organizational meetings in early June to finalize an offseason plan. But the sweep against the Blackhawks undoubtedly could result in a newsworthy summer.
The youngsters have yet to develop into finishers. The big guys failed again in the playoffs.
The Blackhawks’ core of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith is going nowhere. This is the opponent the Wild will have to get past each and every postseason in order to reach its championship goal.
The Wild’s not good enough to beat them. It’s Fletcher’s job to figure out how the Wild becomes good enough, or that defeated feeling inside Thursday’s locker room will happen over and over and over again.