It was a very strange season. The reason for that I don’t know.
— Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk at the conclusion of the season on Saturday
Nobody can seem to figure this team out, but we’ll know soon enough what’s going on. Someone will speak out about what happened this year. How Mike Yeo lost the locker room. How in their last 11 games, with a playoff appearance on the line, they won the first six and lost the last five. How this team could be on pace for 104 points halfway through the season — its 52 points through 41 games set a franchise record — and finish with 87, a record-low for a playoff team in the shootout era.
“Every season so far since I’ve been here has kind of been like the same way almost,” forward Charlie Coyle told the Star Tribune. “Start off pretty good, you get over that hump, you fall into a ditch and we always pull ourselves out of it, which is great sign.
“Every team has ups and downs. Some go a little deeper than others, and we happen to go that route. But we made playoffs. We’re in. Anything can happen, and that’s how we have to look at it.”
After this year ends, and now it’s looking like it will sooner than later, someone will tell us why. Why they swoon. Why they bounce back. Why they’re so skilled, but also prone to underachieving.
“We made playoffs. We’re in. Anything can happen, and that’s how we have to look at it.”
It may be Ryan Suter, who is signed through 2024-25 and has been known to speak his mind before. “We’re looking for leadership. We need leaders. We need guys, coaching staff, players, we need people that are going to lead,” he said in early December, before walking it back a few days later. “It’s easy to coach and be a leader when things are going good.”
It may be Thomas Vanek. It wasn’t too long ago that he was a prized signing, having won a championship with the Golden Gophers and a two-time 40-goal scorer in the NHL. Now, after two years of declining production, he’s fallen out of favor in the Twin Cities.
It could be Jason Zucker if he’s not retained next year. It could be an older player like David Jones, who has only been around for a short time and doesn’t factor into the team’s long-term plans. It could be someone else with knowledge of what goes on behind closed doors when the public and media are not around. It likely will be a combination of multiple sources.
That’s what happens when a team with proven veterans and up-and-coming young players backs into the playoffs. It’s what happens when underachieving veterans are given mammoth deals with no-trade clauses. It’s what happens when a young coach in over his head runs out of answers two years ago, but is retained for two more seasons.
It’s an issue of team culture, so the interpretations of what happened depend on who speaks out.
It’s an issue of team culture, so the interpretations of what happened depend on who speaks out. The veteran players likely see it differently than the younger guys. The coaches probably view it differently than upper management. The team sees one thing while fans and media interpret what’s happening completely differently.
“We’re in the playoffs. You earn every single point,” Mikko Koivu said after clinching the playoffs on a night where they were blanked by the San Jose Sharks 3-0, their fourth straight loss. He openly wondered why nobody was talking about the team’s six-game winning streak that got them in.
“We know we have to play better hockey, but we’re in the playoffs,” he added. “That’s great news for the organization, that’s great news for the team, that’s great news for the fans. All that is positive right now.”
Torchetti reinforced that notion, saying he was “disappointed how everyone is saying we’re backing into the playoffs. How do you back into the playoffs going [15-10-1]? You don’t do that. The guys have done a great job. I’m proud of them. They could have folded when I got here, too, so I’m really proud of them.”
“How do you back into the playoffs going [15-10-1]? You don’t do that.”
Locally, nobody seems able to figure this team out. “Predicting this team’s fate is a fool’s errand,” wrote Pioneer Press columnist Brian Murphy after the Calgary loss. “The NHL already is the wildest rodeo in postseason sports, where No. 8 seeds routinely emasculate Presidents’ Trophy winners and division champs. And Minnesota is the very definition of a wild-card team — wholly unpredictable and just crazy enough to galvanize around a common goal as the stakes increase.”
National pundits are already writing the Wild off. “This looks to be the biggest mismatch in the Western Conference by a country mile,” avers ESPN Senior Writer Scott Burnside, who predicts the Dallas Stars to win in five games. “The only way the Stars lose this series, apart from cataclysmic injury to most of their star players, is if the goaltending comes undone completely and head coach Lindy Ruff can’t find the right pattern for choosing his starter.”
“This looks to be the biggest mismatch in the Western Conference by a country mile.”
In terms of uncovering the mystery of what happened to the Wild, Yeo would be suspect No. 1, but he didn’t have a lot to offer in terms of damning evidence. He mentioned a divide between the younger and older players, although that’s to be expected when there is a prominent age gap in the roster. He also talked about the Ryan Johansen trade rumors affecting team morale. “These are things that shouldn’t have broken us, shouldn’t have been that much a factor,” he said. “It didn’t take much for our game to slip a little bit.”
It’s an interesting, wide-ranging interview, but hardly solved the Wild mystery. It also should be noted that he’s gunning for a head coaching job next year and may have been wary about being too forthcoming with the media. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that I’m a head coach in the National Hockey League,” he said. “Even this year I was the third youngest coach in the league, but look at the experience I have. Somebody who is looking for a head coach, if they want experience, I’ve got it.”
Eventually this bomb will go off. If it happens early, say a first round exit to Dallas or another defeat at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, it will likely cost Torchetti and general manager Chuck Fletcher their jobs. It is Fletcher, after all, who constructed this mercurial team.
If it happens later, it will make the NHL regular season look like a farce — the first 82 games are less meaningful when a team with 87 points can go on a playoff run — and frustrate season-ticket holders who don’t know what they’re gonna get in each individual game.
The Wild appear to have lost their luster.
The Wild appear to have lost their luster. The yearly swoons, petulant attitudes and lack of leadership at times is slowly but steadily corroding all the excitement that built up when Parise and Suter first arrived in St. Paul. Nothing short of a run to the finals will change that. Yes, this team set attendance records this year, but all the attention on the team also means that internal issues are more likely to get exposed.
If there’s a silver lining with this team, it’s that they play their best when the pressure is on. “The playoffs are a whole other ballpark,” Nino Niederreiter said at the conclusion of the season. “Every game matters so much, so that could be an advantage for us.”
Winning also covers up deep-seated issues. Sometimes it lengthens the fuse, rather than disarms the bomb.