Players have come and gone.
The men in charge behind the bench have changed, too.
But what has remained a constant for the Wild is the emphasis it puts on defense, a stingy strategy that has formed the foundation of the franchise’s previous triumphs.
And yet on the brink of December with more than a quarter of the season expired, the Wild is trying to rediscover its identity after humbling losses in back-to-back games exposed uncharacteristically poor play in its own end.
“We gotta do a lot more than just that,” winger Jason Zucker said “We gotta battle. It’s as simple as that.”
A two-game slide, especially on the heels of a 6-1-1 run, isn’t usually cause for concern. But the way the Wild has played in the seven games since three consecutive shutouts is troublesome.
The team has surrendered 30 goals in that span, an average of 4.3 per game.
Puck management and penalty trouble have helped stoke the struggles, but what seems most glaring is how flimsy the Wild’s setup is in front of its own net.
This issue headlined the 7-2 shellacking by the Jets on Monday, as Winnipeg had uncontested access from inside the hash marks. And the Jets took advantage, with much of their offense coming from players who were left unmarked. Mathieu Perreault’s one-timer and Bryan Little’s deflection were the most obvious examples, as both players were left all alone to finish.
Whether it’s miscommunication or lapses in judgment, the underlying problem is the same.
“It’s people not doing their jobs,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We can see it, that there’s a disconnect somewhere.”
What makes that breakdown baffling is the Wild knows how it must play to be successful.
Although new faces were added to the mix over the summer, the team’s focus has remained the same. Stout defense is not only its hallmark, it’s a necessary approach to compete. A lack of scoring depth has only reaffirmed that, even if the Wild hasn’t demonstrated on the ice lately that it recognizes these realities.
“We’d all agree we’re not where we need to be yet as a group,” veteran center Matt Cullen said. “We all need to make a decision on the way we’re playing. We gotta turn things around, but we have the pieces to do it.”
The pursuit of progress begins Wednesday, after a scheduled day off Tuesday, and there’ll probably be urgency to discover solutions soon. This season’s surprise team, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, visits the Wild on Thursday. And the Blues stop by Xcel Energy Center for a reunion on Saturday a week after they cruised to a 6-3 victory.
“We’ve got to understand we’re built to win 2-1,” defenseman Kyle Quincey said.
Although the Wild was reincarnated this season into a version unlike any of the others, the bulk of its lineup is familiar with what it takes to win.
And it’ll be up to those players to recapture the style this team was designed to play.
“They’ve done it in the past, and I gotta go with that,” Boudreau said. “I believe that when they want to play, they’re as good as most teams in the league. But we need 20 guys, and I’ve said this all year. We’re a team that needs 20 guys playing, not 18, not 15, not 12, certainly not eight or nine. And we get eight or nine playing, this league is too tough. Nothing good’s going to happen if you only get that many guys playing.”
Defenseman Matt Dumba was fined $5,000, the maximum allowable under the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, for unsportsmanlike conduct during Monday’s game against the Jets. He squirted water at Winnipeg’s Joel Armia at the end of the first period.