The Wild’s demise wasn’t sudden or swift, or a season that splintered irreparably without warning.
It was the exact opposite.
The regression happened over time. Adversity chipped away at the team during a monthslong process in which it was eroded by injuries, scoring woes and an inability to take advantage of the respites when they occurred.
Watered-down inconsistency was all that was left from this grind — so much so that when the Wild finally learned its fate, it didn’t come as a shock that the team would be missing out on the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
“There was never a prolonged time where everything was good at the same time,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
As predictable as this finish was, the start wasn’t indicative of such troubles.
Returning mostly the same roster from previous years on the heels of a conservative offseason by new General Manager Paul Fenton, the Wild seemed to benefit from the lack of turnover in the first half.
A five-game win streak in October, which tied for the longest of the season, sparked a 10-2 run that lifted the team to third place in the NHL. Although the Wild leveled off some, its momentum didn’t come to an abrupt halt until Dec. 15, when defenseman Matt Dumba suffered a torn pectoral muscle in a fight with the Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk.
Dumba underwent season-ending surgery, which left the Wild without one of its most-used defenders, resident power-play specialist and locker-room sparkplug.
When he was sidelined, Dumba led NHL defensemen in goals (12) and was among Wild leaders in power-play points, ice time and shots.
“Just a major loss for us,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “He was our best player hands down, and that’s not taking away from everybody else. It’s just he was that good for us up until the injury.”
Looking for help
Initially, the Wild didn’t acquire outside help, but change eventually infiltrated the lineup.
Winger Pontus Aberg was added in a trade from Anaheim, and then longtime winger Nino Niederreiter was shipped to the Hurricanes in exchange for center Victor Rask — the first significant subtraction under Fenton’s leadership.
During the All-Star break, the Wild claimed defenseman Anthony Bitetto off waivers — after it traded for defenseman Brad Hunt earlier in the week.
At that time, the Wild was still resilient enough to remain competitive and used a three-game win streak leading up to the midseason hiatus to claim the third seed in the Central Division.
But the team sputtered when it reconvened, winning just once in 10 games and squandering the cushion it had valiantly built. Losses by the competition only compounded the frustration.
“We blew so many games I think that we had control of,” Boudreau said.
What made matters worse was the Wild was now also without captain Mikko Koivu, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee Feb. 5 at Buffalo. That was another critical absence. Koivu anchored the top six up the middle by playing in every situation and absorbing the tough matchups.
Again, the Wild called on internal resources to help fill the void.
Joel Eriksson Ek took on more responsibility, as did rookie Luke Kunin, and their response was promising. Both established career highs in goals, while Jordan Greenway’s output was among the best for a rookie in team history.
“They’re coming to camp next year already almost as veterans,” Boudreau said. “It’s not going to be that learning experience. They’re miles ahead.”
The Wild’s look became even younger before the Feb. 25 trade deadline expired, as Fenton continued to retool the roster.
After sending forward Charlie Coyle to the Bruins to land 22-year-old winger Ryan Donato, the team made one of the most pivotal moves in recent memory by cutting ties with winger Mikael Granlund. The playmaker headed to the Predators, with the Wild receiving another 22-year-old winger in Kevin Fiala — a deal that signaled the disbanding of the franchise’s longstanding core and further limited its options at center.
These decisions addressed the future, creating salary-cap space while growing the organization’s base of youthful skill, but the repercussions in the interim were minimal.
Rask sat out 12 games due to injury, while Fiala went 10 games in between goals. Donato’s transition was the smoothest; he reached double digits in points while unleashing a shoot-first mentality that the Wild desperately needed.
It wasn’t enough, though, to ignite the offense.
Before Tuesday, when the team was officially eliminated, the Wild tied for the fewest goals in the NHL since the trade deadline with 33. The Wild’s 23 even-strength tallies also were tied for last in the league.
Once it secured a three-point lead for the second wild-card position March 7 with a 3-0 win over the Lightning — perhaps its finest performance of the season — the Wild managed more than two goals just three times in its next 12 games. It was shut out in three of those matchups, including a backbreaker to the Coyotes on March 31 that essentially knocked the Wild out of the playoffs. Setbacks to the Stars, Avalanche and Predators also stung.
“Unfortunately, there were a couple of games in the last couple of weeks that made a pretty big difference that we weren’t able to be on the right side of,” Dubnyk said.
By the season finale, the Wild ranked 27th in goals per game at 2.59 — a grim clip, especially considering the team was steady defensively and ranked in the top half of the league for power play and penalty kill.
Some of this slide coincided with a lower-body injury to leading scorer Zach Parise, another blow to an already shorthanded offense. Center Eric Staal wasn’t as productive as he was the season before when he scored 42 goals; neither was winger Jason Zucker, who fell short of the 33 he buried during his career year.
And while Ryan Suter returned from a severe ankle injury to play every game and Jared Spurgeon had his best offensive season to date, the defense wasn’t nearly as active in the attacking zone as it was when it combined for a franchise-record 200 points the previous season.
“It’s tough to score in this league,” Spurgeon said, “and if you’re not doing it and you’re letting goals in early, it’s tough to chase every game.”
Drought at the X
These struggles were prevalent at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild tied for the fewest home-ice goals in the NHL (104).
The team finished 16-18-7 in St. Paul, with those 39 points its worst turnout in franchise history for a full-length season — an eye-popping drop-off from 2017-18 when the Wild tied for second in the NHL with 62 home points.
“Every certain amount of time, there’s a real anomaly,” Boudreau said.
But that wasn’t the only one. The Wild thrived against such NHL contenders as the Lightning, Jets and Golden Knights while sagging against basement dwellers in the Flyers, Ducks and Sabres. Since Jan. 1, the Wild lost 20 points to teams below it in the standings.
That would have been more than enough to bridge the gap to the playoffs. A healthy Dumba, Koivu and Parise would have helped, too. Same with better execution.
Instead, the Wild is in an unfamiliar spot as an onlooker but a role that’s befitting of its results.
“Hopefully it stays with everybody,” Boudreau said. “Whether we’re all on the same team or in different organizations or what have you, you realize how much you hate not being where you’re supposed to be after eight months of really hard work and it never happens again.”