I believe these guys are all winners.
— Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau on a Fox Sports North broadcast in May
After limping into the playoffs following their fourth annual Swoon™ last season, the Minnesota Wild was establishing a reputation as an underachieving team. They had lost 13 of 14 games before former head coach Mike Yeo was fired, limped into the playoffs, losing the last five games of the regular season and finished the year with 87 points after losing in the first round to the Dallas Stars.
As soon as Yeo was fired, attention immediately turned to general manager Chuck Fletcher. Yeo was his second coach, and if his third selection failed to get Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Co. deeper than the second round of the playoffs, Fletcher likely would be shown the door.
Bruce Boudreau was an interesting choice. Known as a great regular season coach who could not get the Washington Capitals or Anaheim Ducks deep into the playoffs, the fate of the Wild — a team that has stalled in the postseason as well — and Boudreau were very much intertwined. If Boudreau cannot win a Cup in Minnesota, he will be seen as a great regular season coach that can’t get his team to win when it counts. If the Parise-Suter-Mikko Koivu Wild cannot get past the Chicago Blackhawks, they’ll be seen as great players that cannot lead their team to the promised land. The “these guys are winners” line is mostly a throwaway phrase, but the fact that Boudreau said it means that he saw something that a lot of others didn’t at the time.
The question isn’t whether Fletcher constructed a winning team, but if the league’s salary cap and expansion will dismantle it
Flash forward to the present and the Wild lead the Western Conference with 69 points at the All-Star break, trailing only the Eastern Conference’s Washington Capitals in total points earned (72). The question isn’t whether Nino Niederreiter or Mikael Granlund can reach their potential, but whether or not the team can keep them under a tight salary cap going forward. The question isn’t whether Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin or Jason Zucker should be part of the team’s future, but whether that will transpire given the Vegas Golden Knights will likely snag one of them in the expansion draft. The question isn’t whether Fletcher constructed a winning team, but if the league’s salary cap and expansion will dismantle it.
By no means has Fletcher been perfect during his tenure with the Wild. The Nick Leddy for Cam Barker trade was ill-advised. Jason Pominville appears to be signed for too long and Thomas Vanek didn’t pan out. Worse of all, he treated second round picks like Leonardo DiCaprio treated fun coupons in The Wolf of Wall Street — burning through them to acquire forwards that he placed in a system that was not conducive to scoring or player development.
He has unearthed some gems, however, fleecing the New York Islanders in the Cal Clutterbuck for Niederreiter trade, picking up diminutive Jared Spurgeon off the scrap heap and signing Eric Staal to a 3-year, $10.5 million contract in the offseason.
In hindsight, the Staal signing should have been seen as a good deal. He’s a 31-year-old former captain that was drafted No. 2 overall in 2003. He’s not only been an additional leader in the locker room but also has been the perfect complement to Koivu according to Michael Russo of the Star Tribune. He also may have single-handedly justified the Vanek buyout, which will cost the Wild $2.5 million against the cap next year.
The truth of the matter is this team had capable players on it before Boudreau arrived. Unfortunately, they were stymied by a coach overwhelmed by the age gap in the locker room and expectations outside of it. This collection of players has always been capable of cranking out wins at a rapid pace, but they also had a reputation of swooning as soon as adversity hit and became petulant when reporters pointed out that they were limping into the playoffs last year.
A change of culture was needed, and the combination of Boudreau’s no-nonsense attitude and bumbling humor along with Staal’s play on the ice and influence off of it appears to be the panacea they needed.
Their patented Annual Swoon™ appears to be a Yeo thing. Then again, who knows? Maybe they’ll fall apart after the All-Star break. Maybe their problems go deeper than a coach who at various times during his tenure stopped talking to the team, smashed a hockey stick in a profane rant during practice and deferred to his veterans to a fault at the end. But for right now it appears that the system they’re in and the man behind the bench is unlocking their potential.
For Parise, Suter, Koivu and the older players on the roster, it’s about time. As much as the franchise as a whole appears to be in good hands — players like Charlie Coyle, Zucker, Niederreiter, Granlund and Dumba appear to be developing into stars, and there are prospects like Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin and Kirill Kaprizov coming through the pipes — all three captains on the team are on the wrong side of 30. All three are playing well now, but Parise’s back may go out over time, Suter’s put a lot of miles on the odometer and Koivu was struggling before Staal joined the team.
There’s no need to panic now, but the window for this iteration of the team isn’t completely wide open. They have the talent — or at least the depth — to end the regular season with more than 100 points and go on a deep playoff run this year, but that’s been the case with this team for a long time.