When I started writing about the Minnesota Wild five years ago, there was still much promise. They had just won their first playoff series in over a decade, they were knocking on the door of a deep playoff run, with a young core and a few seasoned vets. They might not have been a fun or sexy team to watch, but gosh darn it, they had potential.
Fast forward five years as I write my final article and the Wild are in a much different spot. A much bleaker outlook, assuming you have any clue which direction the wayward ship’s bow is pointed.
Determining that direction is probably the stickiest part of the situation, too. What Wild fans keep hearing is that playoffs are the goal, and that the re-tooling they’ve seen is with making the team competitive now and later in mind. For the most part, that does seem to be the goal, as the Wild did acquire young NHL-caliber players, but all of them were younger than the player they were traded for. Cheaper, too.
But all of this re-tooling leaves the Wild in a precarious position, as they downgraded their talent to free up cap space and get younger, and the promise of the future isn’t all that, well, promising. They still lack a bona fide star, or even a player with the potential for that, with the exception of the Russian contract hostage Kirill Kaprizov.
Where does this leave the fans? What are Wild fans to do, to think, to feel during this time of uncertainty? It’s not going to be fun, but the State of Hockey is going to need to dig deep, and find their inner kindergarten teacher.
Patience, my friends, patience.
Whether Wild fans like it or not, and whether the team is willing to admit it or not, there’s likely to be a road to hoe before the Wild are back in contention, or even back in the playoffs. The sins of regimes past and current have hamstrung this team to the point where a complete and total makeover- the kind needed to go from frustratingly inconsistent to a legitimate contender- is nearly impossible.
The Parise and Suter contracts have brought the Wild sustained success until this season, six straight seasons of playoffs, but are also making it hard for the team to navigate the salary cap, and even more difficult yet to bring in an impact free agent, save for the bargain deal Eric Staal was signed for, depending on your definition of ‘impact.’ While Mikko Koivu’s contract expires at the end of the next season, Wild fans eager to jettison the longtime captain may miss the stability he brought to the lineup and the team as a whole.
The Wild were the league’s oldest team in the NHL this past season, and though they did get younger, next season they’ll still very likely be in the top 10, which is a bad spot for a non-playoff team with little cap space, just ask the Kings and Blackhawks.
While that may paint a less than rosy picture, it underscores the issues with this roster that Paul Fenton adopted upon taking the general manager role last spring. Fenton seemed to bide his time, only signing a few free agents, and making no trades, before making several trades mid-season with very mixed results. In a way, Fenton took on a problem team, and further set himself back with a few bad trades and the infamous first round pick of Filip Johansson early in his Wild tenure. He still has plenty of time to undo the damage he did and try to work miracles with a team that frustrates nearly every person it touches, from the owner all the way down to seemingly each fan.
That’s where the patience gets tough. The flashes of dominance were the most irritating, like sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets in the season series but still being unable to find any sort of footing in the playoff race, let alone within the Central Division. Being a Wild fan when the team is playoff-bound .was frustrating enough. It’s doubly so as the team tries to rebuild on the fly and change its identity for sustained success. Wild fans’ patience had been tested while they made the playoffs for six years straight and failed to mount any kind of momentum. Asking for patience as the team misses the playoffs this season and perhaps seasons in the future may be too high of a price for some to pay.
So then it becomes a question of commitment. Are most Wild fans willing to sit through more tough years? They’ve had plenty in the 18 seasons in St. Paul, so they’ve proven themselves hardened and resilient. But how much is too much? When does the Wild franchise cry ‘Wolf!’ for the last believable time on building a winner in this era?
The worst part of all of this thought process is that there are no right or wrong answers. The Wild very well could be tantalizingly close to finding the secret sauce. The development of ‘Fenton’s guys,’ especially Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala, could shape the next few years of this team, and that’s assuming he doesn’t shake up this roster again this summer by flipping Jason Zucker or Jared Spurgeon or another established veteran. The team very well *could* be a playoff team next season as Craig Leipold insists, and that could largely depend on the bounceback of Devan Dubnyk from a very down season. On the other hand, Dubnyk’s bounceback could fall flat, and the team could end up with a goaltender that’s a shell of his former Vezina-candidate self, with no viable NHL options behind him.
If Dubnyk does bounce back, and we see the continued evolution of Matt Dumba into an NHL star, combined with good seasons from the rest of the ensemble, there could be wins ahead for the Wild yet. Prognosticating their future at this point seems like an exercise in futility. Being negative is easy. As 30 teams don’t win the Stanley Cup each year, you’re almost always right eventually. But being overly positive seems cheesy and delusional, as if you’ve expected the world from someone you shouldn’t, like a jilted lover.
Though it’s nearly impossible to see the trajectory of this Wild team, the allure of the unknown is hardly tempting for Wild fans, as not knowing the future of the team is perhaps just as bad as the largely predictable team they’ve seen for the last six seasons. Fenton probably still has a way to go to earn the trust of many fans, and the team in general has a mountain to climb in that regard. The coaching situation, as the rock solid Bruce Boudreau is in the final season of his contract, also adds a particular note of uncertainty.
So, patience it is. Being along for the ride where one doesn’t know where they’re going can be scary, but it’s perhaps the only option Wild fans have.
I spent five years covering this team and got so much out of it by the way of friendships, experiences and fun, even though I never struck it rich or got to see the Happy Ending. The ride might be the only gift Wild fans get, so I implore them to enjoy it. With a little patience.