It wouldn’t be too hard to turn that team around.
— ESPN NHL analyst Barry Melrose when asked about the Wild coaching job on May 6
The Minnesota Wild could have gotten by with John Torchetti this season. He immediately injected energy and a breath of fresh air into a team that had grown weary of fifth-year head coach Mike Yeo, although the team fell back into its Jekyll and Hyde identity immediately after beating the Chicago Blackhawks 6-1 in the Stadium Series game at TCF Bank Stadium.
The biggest knock against Torchetti isn’t that he’s never had a full-time coaching gig — he was an interim coach with the Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings before taking over for Yeo last season — or his coaching philosophy. In fact, his more offensive-oriented style suited a team with plenty of players that either had been goalscorers in the past, or younger players that have the potential to become one in the future. And his brash, no-nonsense personality was exactly what the team needed to shake up the locker room.
No, the biggest knock on Torchetti is that he eventually got sucked into the team’s perplexing mentality. While everyone outside of the locker room knew that Minnesota backed into the playoffs by losing five straight games to end the season after capping a six-game win streak with a 4-1 win over, you know who — the Chicago Blackhawks — Torchetti remained in denial.
“I’m kind of disappointed everyone is saying we’re backing into the playoffs,” Torchetti told the media after a 3-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks on a night where the Colorado Avalanche, which lost six games to end the season, lost to the Nashville Predators, guaranteeing that the Wild would make the postseason. “How do you back into the playoffs going (15-10-1, their record since Torchetti took over). You don’t do that. The guys have done a great job. I’m proud of them.”
It echoed what Mikko Koivu said moments earlier in a cheery locker room. “We’re in the playoffs,” said the team captain. “You earn every single point and every single team that’s in the playoffs (does), and we’re there, so we can talk about it like we won six in a row. That’s probably what brought us there. Why don’t we talk about that?”
Bruce Boudreau will shake things up. He’s the coach this talented roster needs, one with NHL experience and a firecracker personality to boot. He is to the Wild what Tom Thibodeau is to the Timberwolves: an experienced coach with the reputation of winning immediately upon arrival. Thibodeau was the fastest coach in NBA history to reach 100 wins with the Bulls; last year Boudreau became the fastest coach in NHL history to reach the 400-win milestone.
In eight of his nine seasons as head coach his teams have won a division title and made the playoffs. The lone outlier is the year he was fired by the Washington Capitals 22 games into the season, then was immediately picked up by the Anaheim Ducks, who finished 5th in the Pacific Division that year.
The issue with Boudreau is that while his teams have fared well in the regular season, he has only reached the conference finals once — last season when his Ducks lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. Such a result would be all too familiar with Wild fans, and is an immediate concern before he ever gets behind the bench in St. Paul.
“Nobody should think this is pointing the gun at Bruce’s head. Let’s make that perfectly clear,” Ducks GM Bob Murray told the Star Tribune. “But you’ve got to start somewhere. Regular season success is OK. … I want playoff success.”
For what it’s worth, ESPN NHL analyst Barry Melrose, himself a former coach and player, felt that the Wild was a hot job before Boudreau signed on with Minnesota. “It’s a team that can really only improve,” Melrose told the Pioneer Press. “They barely made the playoffs last year. The skill level … with (Zach) Parise and all the other guys, they’ve got some good young players, good goaltending, and it’s in a great hockey city with a motivated owner who’s willing to spend money. So, yeah, I think Minnesota is a very attractive job.”
“It’s a team that can really only improve.”
The counter to that, of course, was that the Wild was still a mess with Parise, Thomas Vanek and Erik Haula in the lineup. Parise, as we all know now, was battling an injury in the second half of the season, and Haula got hot once Torchetti set him loose. But Vanek, a former 40-goal scorer, had a career low 18 goals last season and at age 32 might just be past his prime. He is considered a buyout candidate this offseason.
Beyond just those three players, the Wild was a collection of overpaid, underachieving veterans and former prospects like Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund that have yet to find consistency in the NHL. While the blue line was a bit better — Ryan Suter still plays superhuman minutes, and Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon appear further along than their forward counterparts — Matt Dumba and Mike Reilly still have a ways to go in their development, even with their precocious offensive ability.
The hope is that it was the culture, rather than decay in ability or misevaluation on draft day, that held the Wild players back last year. Basically, that these guys aren’t really this bad and that things got out of hand with Yeo, who was one of the younger coaches in the league and appeared in over his head when he stopped talking to his players during the team’s first annual swoon back in 2013.
At the very least, the fact that Boudreau, who is from Toronto and has a daughter and granddaughter in Ottawa, passed up the Senators job to sign with the Wild means that the locker room situation was not too toxic for an accomplished coach to come in and turn things around. The talent is there, and has been for a long time, it’s just that nobody was allowed to step on the logo in the middle of the locker room because it has been glowing neon green for so long.
Maybe all this team needs is an infamous Boudreau motivational speech. One, you’ll notice, he gives from the center of the room.