Oh, the heartbreak.
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov had made 25 saves on 26 shots through nearly three and a half periods of play, allowing just one fluky goal while his Minnesota Wild teammates peppered Chicago’s Corey Crawford on the other end. Almost half way into the first overtime period, a Blackhawks dump-in from center ice bounced off a stanchion behind the Wild net and right towards the front of the crease. No. 1 defenseman Ryan Suter over-skated the puck while neutralizing a Chicago forward, which is when the ever dangerous Patrick Kane swooped in and roofed a backhander to seal Minnesota’s fate.
It was a series that could’ve gone either way. In fact, the only thing that kept the Wild from what should’ve been a 5-1 win was Crawford, who made 34 saves while literally seeming to stand on his head at times in defense of the Chicago net. As much credit as Crawford deserves, it was Minnesota’s inability to finish that ultimately sunk the ship on a promising playoff run.
That said, this year was definitely a positive experience, and has given some clarity to when the team needs to do to keep moving forward next season. With a little over a month until the draft–and just a little longer than that until free agency–here is a laundry list of items that need to be addressed by the team:
1. Re-sign the Coaching Staff
This is a huge priority. After three seasons, head coach Mike Yeo is no longer a rookie bench boss. What’s more, he’s proven his system works, and it’s more than just a little bit fun to watch in action on the ice. Gone are the days of your stereotypical “boring, trap-style defensive Wild hockey”. Minnesota is still very much in the defensive business–just ask Suter and Co.–but within the confines of a dominantly fast and physical puck possession style of play.
The mantra when playing against the ultra competitive Blackhawks is that you don’t get caught in a race with them. Minnesota proved it could take Chicago’s style of play and throw it right back in its face. Yes, that’s due in large part to the group of guys on the ice, but it all starts and ends with Yeo’s coaching. He’s not going anywhere, and neither should assistants Darryl Sydor, Rick Wilson, Darby Hendrickson and Bob Mason.
2. Fortify the Crease
For the first time in nearly its entire existence, Minnesota has serious questions in net. There were four different starting goaltenders for the Wild this season: Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, Darcy Kuemper and Bryzgalov.
Backstrom is on a downhill slide, though injuries played a big role in his performance this year. Harding’s multiple sclerosis has his career on the ropes, and he may be faced with the difficult decision whether or not to retire. A (now) 24-year old rookie, Kuemper played extremely well for most of the stretch, and was downright dominant at times, as well. Bryzgalov lost only one game in regulation after being acquired the day prior to the trade deadline from Edmonton. He came back down to Earth in the playoffs, but was playing very well by the end of Minnesota’s postseason.
The Wild can’t keep four goaltenders on a 23-man roster, meaning they either don’t sign Bryzgalov (or any other goaltender for that matter) or trade Backstrom, who still has two years left on a contract worth a little more than $3.4 Million per year while playing at a subpar level. Also, Kuemper is a restricted free agent and will likely demand a one-way contract. Quite frankly, the kid has proven he deserves to be Minnesota’s backup if not the starter.
The matter of Harding is a more complicated affair, however. Drafted 38th overall in 2002, Harding was drafted to be Minnesota’s franchise netminder of the future. Now? He faces the most difficult question of his career. Is it time for him to retire? No one wants to make the decision for him, especially not Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, but there comes a point where he’s only hurting the team. Unfortunately, we’ve come to that crossroads.
Minnesota can’t function normally if it has to keep rotating Backstrom, Harding and Kuemper next season. Backstrom is barely tradable at this point, and it wouldn’t be right to even attempt to dump Harding. Owner Craig Leipold, Fletcher, Yeo, and captains Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Suter all need to sit down with him in a series of one-on-one meetings. Just because his career as an NHL goaltender is on the rocks doesn’t mean Harding can’t still be part of the organization. Fletcher would probably have no issues with offering him a position. He could be an assistant coach, Mason’s assistant goalie coach, a mentor for Minnesota’s young goalie prospects, another advisor like retired fan favorite Andrew Brunette, perhaps even a scout. Harding could even walk right into a career as an analyst for Fox Sports North, TSN or the NHL Network.
The point is, he can still be involved. Finally (in addressing the Harding dilemma, I’m not nearly finished with this article *cue the groans*), his jersey number–#37, which also happens to be Wes Walz’s–should be retired in honor of both of them as soon as he hangs up his pads for the last time. Though he’ll never be the franchise starting netminder he still wants to be, Harding is No. 1 in the hearts of all Wild fans.
As soon as Backstrom is traded or the Harding issue is ironed out (or both), it should be Minnesota’s top priority to either re-sign Bryzgalov or go after a free agent like Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller or Brian Elliot.
3. Draft Wisely
In what is considered to be an already weak draft class, the Wild will probably be drafting no higher than 19th overall. Looking at Minnesota’s previous drafts, Brent Burns (20th overall, 2003) is the only player drafted with the 20th pick or later in the first round to make a serious impact with the team. Defenseman Tyler Cuma (23rd) was another late first round pick, and he’s going to be lucky if he gets to play another NHL game. Granted, aside from Zack Phillips (28th overall, 2011), Minnesota has yet to draft that late in the first round in the Fletcher regime.
Considering the Wild’s luck with late first round picks, and the team’s current needs in net–perhaps it would be prudent for Minnesota to draft a goaltender with its top pick. That could very well mean Boston College freshman Thatcher Demko, who many mock drafts already have going to the State of Hockey on draft day.
4. Re-sign Current RFAs/Extend Future RFAs
Forwards Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine, defenseman Jonathon Blum and goaltender Kuemper are all set to become restricted free agents this offseason. All three forwards will be tendered offers, as will Kuemper, who–as stated above–will likely want a one-way deal. With top young defensive prospects Christian Folin, Mathew Dumba and Gustav Olofsson available next season, Blum may have to look for work elsewhere.
In addition, forwards Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula and defensemen Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin and Folin will all be RFAs next summer, meaning it might be a good idea to extend as many of them as possible now before they command more after another impressive season of growth and development.
5. Be Smart in Free Agency
It’s well known Minnesota is going after Thomas Vanek, but money might be better spent in goal or in adding another key component to the blue line. Defensemen Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Dan Boyle are just a few names out there that might be available.
Honestly, the Wild don’t need to do too much to improve as long as they address goaltending and possibly add a potential top-4 veteran defenseman and/or maybe a veteran goal scorer. If they can do that, this team could be the Western Conference’s worst nightmare. Chicago’s Kane is fully aware of this, and made sure to give Minnesota top-4 defenseman Jared Spurgeon major props in the handshake line upon conclusion of the series.
That’s high praise coming from arguably the deadliest player in the league.
This is just a hint of the coverage to come as the offseason gets underway. Here at Gone Puck Wild, our coverage is just getting started.