Today is a sad day in the State of Hockey.
Five days after the biggest letdown in Minnesota Wild history; a really hard-to-swallow Game 6 loss to the St. Louis Blues, and I am still upset.
With another first round exit, cue the offseason talks and roster overhaul speculation that should stir up many arguments due to the distain of Wild bandwagoners and diehards alike.
As Minnesota sports fans, we should be use to this feeling by now: high hopes, and coming home empty handed. It is pretty much the norm in the Hockey State. Are we crazy? Too much wishful thinking? I can’t put my finger on it.
This one stings much, much worse than any other let down because of the magic of this season and the incredibly high expectations.
Let’s be real; no real Wild fan actually thought that we were Cup contenders during the Pominville, Heatley, or Vanek days. Hell, nobody really believed that we were Cup contenders during the magical 2003 season.
This season had a different feel.
A record breaking season in both team statistics and individual performances, followed by blockbuster trades and acquisitions had all of us on cloud nine. Yet, here we are once again left to ask, “what went wrong?” or “are we cursed?”
Sure, you could say, “it’s just sports, relax” and I would tell you to be quiet. Sports are important. Sports give communities something to bond over, allow people to become fanatical and excited. Sports allow people to create memories that last a lifetime.
Sports are important. Sports are a priority.
If you want to know what a person’s priorities are, check their bank statement and their calendar. Like most Wild fans, I spend a lot of money and my time on this team. They are important to me. They are a priority.
This one stings.
What Went Wrong?
So what went wrong and what does the future have in store? It is very easy to start pointing fingers, especially when none of us play on the team. If you have ever played competitive hockey, you can empathize with the players and feel frustration on our boys’ faces and in their body language.
It does not take analytics to see that we ran out of gas, and that our defense was outmatched by the depth of the St. Louis offense. Sometimes these things happen, and clearly the Blues were the better team. There is no shame in being beaten by a better team. Tip your cap to the Blues, they owned us all season.
(By the way, I am still pissed about the Winter Classic.)
From a Wild fan/hockey player/coach perspective, there were three things that I saw.
First, the Wild often times looked lost in the defensive zone. This happens when you are playing desperate. We were undisciplined, outmatched, and tired. Take a look at Vladimir Tarasenko’s first goal, early in the third period of Game 5.
Both Jared Spurgeon and Jake Middleton were on the ice and out of place. The Wild had three guys chasing the puck, leaving Tarasenko wide open to beat Marc-Andre Fleury. Puck battles are about numbers (man on man) and effort. The Wild had little effort, and were chasing the puck like a poorly coached JV team.
They gave Fluery zero chance to survive.
The Wild lost as a team. They left Fleury out to dry.
Fans crying to bench Fleury probably lost their minds when Cam Talbot couldn’t do any better. It was a team loss, though Talbot looked visibly rusty after last playing in the regular season. Thank you Cam for putting up with the drama the past few weeks after carrying this team the past two seasons. You deserved better.
Second, the team’s second line went silent. The red-hot scoring line two disappeared in the playoffs. Boy oh boy was this a disappointment. The Matt Boldy-Freddy Gaudreau-Kevin Fiala line was shut down. This trio was supposed to be the difference maker in this series (and the entire post-season).
Both Boldy and Gaudreau played six games, and scored one goal each, with zero assists in the series. Boldy had four penalty minutes, and Gaudreau had zero. The biggest let down was Fiala. After setting career highs in scoring (33 goals, 52 assists, 85 points) during the regular season, Fiala went ice cold. It was clear that the playoff pressure got in his head.
In his six postseason games, Fiala failed to score a goal and had just three assists. His biggest stat was his 16 penalty minutes. Fiala had 52 penalty minutes during the entire regular season.
It was clear that he came undone. Stupid, sloppy penalties that led to spending too much time on the penalty kill.
Lastly, too many penalties and horrible special teams. Both the power play and penalty kill units failed. Was this not the narrative all season long? The team had 74 total penalty minutes in the six game series. The Wild were on the penalty kill 18 times in the series, and could not stop the Blues once they were rolling.
The team had a power play success of 16.7% and had a PK success of 69.2%. They could not keep up with the Blues on special teams.
The dust has settled and now as Wild fans we get to begin wondering what this offseason is going to look like. There will no doubt be major roster moves but I do not see general manager Bill Guerin blowing this roster up completely.
Is it likely that Fiala’s abysmal playoff performance overshadows his incredible regular season? I would assume so. Sadly, we might have seen Fiala play his last game as a member of the Wild.
In spite of this, I beg Guerin to find a way to re-sign him.
You can not buy goals, losing Fiala will be a major loss. I would rather keep the top three lines intact, and rebuild the defense than try to manufacture goals as done in years past. It is easier to make up for lack of defensive depth than it is to make up for a lack of scoring.
From the sounds of it, Talbot will be around next year, and at some point, I would assume that 2021 first round pick Jesper Wallstedt will be on the roster as well. Wallstedt and the team reached agreement on a 3 year entry level deal. Does this mean Fleury is gone? Probably.
Talbot and Wallstedt would not be much of a drop off from Talbot and Kaapo Kähkönen this season. Does this help the team next postseason? Well, we have to get there first.
How does the team fix the holes on defense? The team has a massive chunk of the salary cap allocated to three defensemen (Jonas Brodin $6 million, Matt Dumba $6 million, and Jared Spurgeon $7.5 million) and they clearly need some changes here. I do not know how or where that would come from, but they do not have the salary cap room to do much.
They might as well clear some space, re-sign the goal scorers, and hope that some of the kids from the farm team can develop faster than expected.
How does the team address the need for a number one center? The team won 48.2% of the faceoffs this postseason. An upgrade is desperately needed. The Wild have Marco Rossi in the waiting and are hoping that he can take his successes in the AHL farm club and translate that to the NHL level.
The sooner the better too.
How does the team build on this incredible season while now paying for the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts? Next year they take a $12.7 million dollar cap hit from their buyouts. I do not want to cause too much panic, but let’s not forget that Boldy’s rookie deal expires after next season. Trust me, he is going to get paid.
The money for his expiring contract is not there.
The window for this team to complete for a Stanley Cup is not closed. I believe it is just opening up. The Wild have some major maneuvers that need to be done in order to navigate this cap hell that is going to be the next three seasons. Losing some of the expensive core players may not be the most popular decisions, but right now the moves that need to be made are more about money.
This was the most exciting season in Minnesota Wild history. It did not end the way we all hoped for, but I guess we should be use to the sting of defeat by now. Well done Blues. You kicked our butts. The future still remains bright for this squad.
Enjoy the offseason boys.