Thirty-six hours after being eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Zach Parise stood in the Minnesota Wild locker room and addressed a swarm of media during the club’s exit day interviews. The sting from the team’ 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday lingered in his eyes and resonated in his voice.
“We’re not playing right now, so it’s hard for me to say that’s a success,” Parise answered after being asked how he’d assess the season. “In a lot of respects, we did a lot of good things.”
One of the biggest improvements the team made from a year ago was shot differential. Last season, the Wild averaged minus-4.9 shots differential per game, while this season vaulting to a plus-1.7. This led to a dramatic improvement in goals per game, going from 2.02 last year and jumping to 2.46 goals per game this season. The advances in the club’s offensive game led to the Wild’s first playoff birth in five years.
“That turnaround from being outshot by five shots a game like we were last year to outshooting teams by nearly two shots this year is the biggest increase by any team in six years,” Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher noted. “It’s a puck possession game now and our puck possession is much better.”
Despite the disappointing end to the season, the Wild’s assistant captain was already thinking ahead to next year. With a nucleus in place including Parise, Ryan Sutter, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville, the Wild is primed to continue moving forward.
“There are a lot of guys that are hungry and a lot of guys that want to get better, and a lot of guys, you can tell, got a little taste of where we were this year, with the playoffs,” Parise said. “You can kind of feel they saw what it’s like. And now that we’ve been there, you want to get back there right away. I’m looking forward to it, I think a lot of guys are going to have a good summer and work hard and be ready to go next year.
“I think it’s still a work in progress, but we’re getting there.”
The work in progress includes young players gaining experience in critical moments, like late in the season and playoffs. Eleven members of the team made their Stanley Cup Playoff debut this season. Although the club was ousted in the opening round, that taste will payoff as the youngsters turn from prospects into key contributors.
“A lot of players did get a lot of good experience, with the playoffs. You don’t find every year where you get a guy like (Jonas) Brodin comes in and is a top-pairing defenseman and Charlie (Coyle) comes in and is a top-line guy.
“We should be really excited about what those guys, including Jason Zucker, have done for us and what it looks like going forward.”
Moving onward after another year of seasoning will be a blue line, with the exception of Suter, that saw five defensemen make their playoff debut. Despite the club’s youth, Minnesota saw vast improvements on the back end. Last season Minnesota allowed 31.4 shots per game, which ranked near the bottom of the National Hockey League at 26th. This season, the Wild was a much tougher team to play against, giving up a stingy 27.1 shots per game, good for sixth in the entire league.
With the improvements the team made, the team is now hungry to not only make the postseason year after year, but to flourish.
“On the whole when I look at this, I'm pleased with the progress we made this year; it was a real positive step for our franchise,” Fletcher said. “The goal for us now is to make the playoffs each year and push past where we did.”
Overall, the most significant step the Wild might’ve made is the change of culture in the locker room and organization. Listening to the players, Fletcher and Head Coach Mike Yeo in the exit day meetings, it was easy to see that they were not satisfied with just getting into the playoffs. They are all on board for making this team a consistent contender for the Stanley Cup.
“When you're talking about the culture, you're talking about many different things,” Yeo explained. “More than anything else it’s a level of professionalism that the people come to the rink with everyday. It starts in the summer, how they train, how they prepare for the season ahead. We've seen a huge improvement in that area. It starts from the work and commitment they put in through a very long and grinding season. We've seen a very large improvement in that, too.
“We've got a great deal of character, a great deal of leadership on this team and I really believe we're taking the right steps toward having that winning attitude and winning culture that you need.”