It’s been a doom-and-gloom kind of week for the Minnesota Wild. Dropping three games against non-playoff teams in the San Jose Sharks, Nashville Predators, and Pittsburgh Penguins will do that. So does losing a starting goalie who posted a .928 save percentage over his last 10 starts. Being held to two or fewer goals in six of ten contests doesn’t inspire confidence, either.
The Wild entered Friday just one point back of a playoff spot, but there’s a malaise covering the State of Hockey. We saw a team that had the juice last season. This team? They don’t have it. Not right now.
We can all see this. So whenever a slump hits this season, as it is now, we’ll hear calls to just let the Wild fall off the table. It doesn’t matter that Minnesota is much closer to being a playoff team (one point) than a bottom-5 team (three points). Those calls are present, and they’ll remain during every rough patch.
And it’s understandable why. If better Wild teams than this were bounced out of the first round, why would anyone care if this team makes the playoffs? Isn’t it just better to embrace being bad and tanking this year? Logically, if things keep circling the drain, that’s probably the best long-term play.
But, wow, I, personally, Tony Abbott, hate stomaching this thought. It’s truly dreadful. Please do not make me watch it.
Let’s quickly explore the pro-tank argument, which is basically: This 2023 Draft Class is going to be nuts. All eyes are on the Connor Bedard/Matvei Michkov/Adam Fantilli Sweepstakes, as all are hyped as potential franchise-changing stars. Might as well load up on ping-pong balls.
Even if the Wild get their usual Draft Lottery luck (that is, ZERO), getting a top-10 pick is a great outcome, too. I gave Tankathon’s 2023 Mock Draft simulator a spin, and it spit on the dream of Bedard or Fantilli in a North Stars Reverse Retro, putting the Wild at 10th overall.
But at 10th overall, it mocked UConn’s Matthew Wood to Minnesota. Wood is a power forward, standing at 6’3″, and even though he doesn’t turn 18 until February, he’s eating Hockey East alive. He has five goals and 11 points in 13 games for UConn. Even Corey Pronman, a relative skeptic, ranking him 15th in this draft class, has this to say about him.
He’s a very gifted offensive player [with] very good hands and even better offensive IQ to go with a strong shot. He’s dangerous inside the offensive zone and power play due to the various ways he can beat defenses.
So even bad luck and maybe reaching for a guy in the top-10 will turn out a guy who sounds a lot like Matt Boldy. That’s insanely good. Dream big; dream about Minnesota actually getting lucky now. Is Bedard or Fantilli potentially transformative for this franchise? You bet.
But again, this sucks, and I don’t want to talk about this in November. Admittedly, some of this is selfish. It’s my job to write about the Wild, and writing about a winning team is more interesting for me (and you!) than writing about a team that’s kinda playing out the string.
There’s that bias coming into my feelings, for sure, but embracing losing and hoping for a lucky bounce in the Draft Lottery is painful to me for many reasons. The first of which is that I liked what last year’s Wild were about. Not only were they fun to watch, but seeing a team like that succeed was a version of the NHL I very badly want to see.
Look at the key components of last year’s Wild. Kirill Kaprizov, an elite goal-scoring talent, is a former fifth-round pick that blew up. Is there luck involved in that? Sure. But it was also a very smart gamble at the time on an undersized Russian player, and it got rewarded by producing an MVP-quality star.
Then look at the rest of the engines behind last year’s squad. Kevin Fiala came to the team via a very smart buy-low trade. Boldy was the result of a high-upside play with a pick outside the top 10. Jared Spurgeon, a testament to what great scouting and player development can do. Joel Eriksson Ek is a homegrown player who blossomed into a two-way force. The Wild picked Marcus Foligno up via another savvy trade.
Minnesota managed to build a 113-point team and have a farm system loaded with high-upside talents like Marco Rossi, Jesper Wallstedt, and Carlson Lambos. All without the benefit of a top-3 pick or draft lottery luck. The Wild weren’t just good; they looked like a model franchise. They had a blueprint for every mediocre team to build on their strengths rather than tear themselves down.
Again, if the team’s going nowhere, it probably is the right play to max out them ping-pong balls. Doing that, though, is to succumb to the exact fatalism it looked like Minnesota was primed to defy: The only way to dig yourself out of mediocrity in the NHL is to be miserable first.
I hate this!
When do I get to stop rooting for ping pong balls and prospect lists? What’s the point of having a generational goal-scorer in Kaprizov if all it gets you is a lack of morale so strong that media and fans want to pack it in by mid-November? Shouldn’t I want the team to get healthy, for Rossi to click and provide some of that Fiala-esque dynamism, and for Minnesota to re-discover last year’s success?
Ultimately, all of this is out of our hands as fans. My wish to watch good hockey at the Xcel Energy Center and someone’s wish for a 6% chance at Connor Bedard aren’t tipping the hockey gods’ scales one way or another. This team will do what it does — whether that’s a return to form, hanging around in the standings, or taking a nosedive — without paying any attention to my wants or desires.
Maybe that’s a lottery pick, and maybe it works out wonderfully for Minnesota and changes the franchise’s trajectory. Struggling now might well lay the foundation for a Stanley Cup. Who knows?
All I know is: I’m not prepared for the misery and not one year removed from seeing this franchise primed to be a real contender. Please don’t subject me to a tank.