Things felt different for the Minnesota Wild this season. After an incredible second-half run, which saw the team go from near dead in middle January to vault into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third straight season, the club was looking to make a similar postseason ride.
In the opening round, the club dispatched the Central Division champs and popular pick to come out of the treacherous Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues.
For the third straight time, the Wild would face its playoff nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks. After beating the Blues in six games, Minnesota had more confidence than the previous two meetings against the Hawks.
The club was no longer just happy to be there and was looking to take down Chicago. However, the Blackhawks scored the first goal of each game, winning three by a single tally, on the way to eliminating the Wild in four games.
“It’s a disappointing ending to a good season,” Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “I think any time you get 100 points, you make the playoffs and win a round, you get to the final eight, to me, it’s a good season. Having said that, I think we wanted to have better than a good season.
“We felt this team had the components, the depth and the coaching to keep playing.”
The discontent ran from the top down. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo talked about how the team had a quiet confidence heading into the playoffs this year.
“Nobody is satisfied in here. Nobody is feeling overly good about the fact that we got to the second round,” Yeo said. “We have to find a way to be better and that’s on us as a staff, too.”
The team was among the League’s best in the second half of the season. On Jan. 14, the club had an 18-19-5 record for 41 points, ranking 12th in the Western Conference and T-23rd in the NHL. After acquiring goaltender Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 14, the club went on a tear. In its final 40 regular season games, the Wild posted a 28-9-3 record. Minnesota finished the season T-11th in the NHL and sixth in the Western Conference with a 46-28-8 record for 100 points — the second-most in franchise history.
One of the biggest disappointments is how the season ended against its playoff archenemy. Minnesota never gained a lead in the series and was always chasing. The Blackhawks, underrated as a defensive club, was able to force the Wild’s hand, which led to mistakes. The team just couldn’t seem to get going against Chicago, a frustrating outcome against an opponent it went to six games against the year before.
For the organization, the expectation is now to be in contention every season. No longer are the players or staff happy to be participants.
“The bar is raised, but internally and externally,” Fletcher said. “If you spoke to our players they’ll tell you last year was probably a better feeling losing in the second round than this year, I don’t think anybody’s jumping up and down right now. We’re disappointed and really a little stunned it ended so quickly.”
Summer Free Agency
Fletcher said that he doesn’t expect the club to be a “big player” in the free-agent market this summer. The GM said the pool is a little thinner than in years past.
“I think we’ll deal with our own players and talk to them and see who we can bring back before we look at that outside market,” Fletcher said.
Forwards Sean Bergenheim, Ryan Carter and Chris Stewart, defenseman Jordan Leopold and Dubnyk are all unrestricted free agents. Of course, Dubnyk who is both a Vezina and Masterton finalist, was the most inquired about UFA in today’s exit press conference.
“I met with [Dubnyk] today and I expressed our interest in brining him back. Like any pending unrestricted free agent, he has earned the right to make the choice he wants to make,” Fletcher said. “I think he knows what we have here. We were a good fit for him and he was obviously a good fit for us. Usually these things take care of themselves, but ultimately he’ll have the final say. We’ll do what we can within the parameters of the salary cap to keep him here.”
Youth Development Continued
Fletcher said that the team’s improvement would have come internally to start. That means players who are still in the first few years of their careers will continue to improve and become bigger contributors in the lineup.
“You look at the growth of both [Nino] Niederreiter and [Jason] Zucker becoming 20-goal scorers, I think there’s still another level they can both get to,” Fletcher said. “Mikael Granlund, I thought, had a tremendous playoffs and he’s a young guy who has the potential to take on more offensively and produce more.”
The blue line might’ve seen the most improvement in the eyes of the team brass. Their continual development will be paramount for the future of the franchise.
“We’re a team that generates a lot from our back end. And that’s an area we grew in this year,” Fletcher said. “Our offensive production from defensemen was better and I still think there’s a whole other level to get to as [Matt] Dumba continues to emerge, [Marco] Scandella continues to emerge, [Jonas] Brodin’s offensive game continues to emerge.
“We have a lot young guys. We’ve committed to them contractually and none of them have hit their prime or hit their peak. So that’s where the growth is going to come.”