The Minnesota Wild are one of three teams to have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs each of the past six seasons.
That accomplishment also comes with early exits, including getting bounced in the first round three years in a row with the last at the hands of Winnipeg in five games. The playoff reputation perhaps follows this team around, like it or not. Maybe that’s why there’s a banner in the Wild’s new practice facility at TRIA Rink in St. Paul with these words:
“Good is not good enough.”
In some ways, the story is the same as the Wild turn the page to a fresh, clean sheet of ice for the 2018-19 season, which opens with Thursday’s game in Colorado.
The Wild bring back a core group with guys like Ryan Suter, Zach Parise – both healthy at the start – goaltender Devan Dubnyk, veteran Eric Staal and fresh-off-long-term-contract players like Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba. Captain Mikko Koivu is back for another season, plus Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter have returned looking to put their injury-plagued 2017-18 campaigns in the rear-view mirror.
Going into this season, the players are pretty much the same as the squads that put up more than 100 points as a team in each of the past two regular seasons. The Wild come off a 45-26-11, 101-point season with a third-place finish in the Central Division as coach Bruce Boudreau will take his post behind the Wild bench for season No. 3.
New leader in the front office
The biggest personnel change in the offseason was in the front office, with the firing of Chuck Fletcher and the hiring of new general manager Paul Fenton.
Though some might have expected some flashy, free-agent signings this offseason, it was pretty quiet on that front. It seems like the right deal just wasn’t out there, plus Fenton seems to be exercising some patience. That’s a contrast to some of the public comments that owner Craig Leipold has made in recent years; his goal is firm on bringing a Stanley Cup to the state of hockey.
Thought the old North Stars had some experience in Cup Finals, the Wild are on a short list of current NHL teams that have never even reached the final round of the playoffs, let alone hoist the Cup. Only Arizona (first season 1979-80), Winnipeg (1999-2000) and Columbus (2000-01) join the Wild in this unfavorable club.
Take a step back from the lofty goal of winning a Cup for a second, and think about the fact that the Wild haven’t made it past the second round since that one successful run back in 2003.
The Wild will need to keep up their winning pace at home and extend it over to the road schedule as well. Last season, the Wild finished tied for second (Pittsburgh) in the league with 62 points at home (27-6-8), one off their highest point total at home in team history (2006-07), while they were mid-pack at 16th on the road (18-20-3, 39 points). They also set a franchise mark with a 13-game home point streak during a 10-0-3 run from Dec. 27 to Feb. 13.
Not that injuries are any kind of excuse, but it’s a fact that the Wild had at least one player out with an injury in 73 of 82 games.
Of course, a lot of that was thanks to Parise missing the first half of the season after back surgery. Only Dumba, Koivu, Staal and Zucker suited up for all 82 games. Still, the Wild hope to avoid another game like they had early on in Chicago when Charlie Coyle, Niederreiter and Marcus Foligno were all sidelined with injuries on game No. 3 of the season.
For Coyle and Niederreiter, that game proved to be a bad omen for their season.
As time goes on, the free-agent signing of veteran player Staal a couple years ago looks better and better. The lone All-Star representative for the Wild, he was the team’s leading scorer with 42 goals, tying a franchise record, and 34 assists and avoided absences to play in all 82-regular season games. Along with goals and points, he also led the team in shots (241), power-play goals (11), short-handed goals (two), shooting percentage (17.4) and was tied for first in multi-point games (17).
Speaking of good moves for the Wild, Dubnyk is back with the team for his fifth season (fourth full season) after a 35-16-7 mark in 60 games last year. He notched his 100th Wild victory last fall and also boasted a franchise-record shutout streak of 195:54 in November.
Despite the injury-riddled season for Niederreiter, he managed to have some highlights last season. He had played all or almost all of the regular season games in his time with the Wild during his first four seasons with the club from 2013-17. Last year, he suited up for just 63 games, scoring 18 goals and 14 assists. His best stretch of the year came in November when he tied a team record with a goal in six consecutive games. He scored seven goals during the stretch with a pair in Buffalo.
Suter and Parise are entering year seven of their $98 million, 13-year deals with the Wild.
Suter missed the playoffs last season after taking a hit in Dallas on March 31 and suffered a bad fracture to his right ankle. His offseason consisted of surgery and recovery, but he’s back for the start of another season. He’s well known for his ice time that reaches around 30 minutes per game, while also contributing offensively. His 45 assists last year were a franchise-record for a Wild defenseman.
As for Parise, the start of last season went from promising to a setback in a hurry after tweaking his back in September. He put up 15 goals and 9 assists in 42 games once he returned to the ice for the second half of the season. Then he suffered a fractured sternum in game 3 of the playoff series against the Jets, leaving the Wild even more shorthanded for the ill-fated playoff run.
In his first preseason game in the lineup – a 3-1 loss to Dallas in St. Paul – Parise scored from his office in front of the net with a tip-in from a Koivu shot.
Yes, there are some additions
Though Fenton didn’t make any splashy moves over the summer as many wanted, he still signed a few free agents. Defenseman Greg Pateryn joins the ranks from Dallas with a three-year deal, while another blue-liner in Matt Bartkowski comes over from Calgary in a one-year deal and will start the season with the Iowa Wild.
As for the forwards, Blaine native Matt Hendricks heads south from Winnipeg. Eric Fehr joins from San Jose and Matt Read from Philadelphia. J.T. Brown, a Burnsville native, and Mike Liambas both come over from stints in Anaheim on two-year deals.
The Wild also signed netminder Andrew Hammond from Colorado to compete in the preseason with Alex Stalock for the backup role. Hammond was assigned to Iowa on Monday when Minnesota reduced its roster to 25 players.
Faces who are elsewhere
After returning to his home state on the heels of winning back-to-back Cups with Pittsburgh, Matt Cullen is back with the Penguins this year. He’ll turn 42 on Nov. 2. He scored 11 goals and 11 assists in 79 games with the Wild last season.
The Wild bought out the final year of the Tyler Ennis contract over the summer. He scored just eight goals and 14 assists in 73 games with the Wild last season after coming over with Foligno in a package deal with Buffalo in exchange for Jason Pominville and Marco Scandella. Ennis signed on with Toronto.
Veteran Daniel Winnik spent this preseason on a professional tryout with Boston. Kurtis Gabriel went to New Jersey, and Zack Mitchell is with Los Angeles.
In the with-a-grain-of-salt category, the Wild went 2-4-1 this preseason. After the 2018-19 opener in Colorado, the Wild’s home opener is set for Saturday night hosting the Western Conference Champion – and last year’s feel-good story – Vegas Golden Knights.
With so many of the same players in the dressing room this season, while other teams in the league have improved their rosters on paper, the Wild will be challenged in trying to find that next step of success.
That saying really does ring true for them. Having good players produce good regular-season results just isn’t good enough anymore.
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