While the Minnesota Wild were stacking up franchise records and securing the extra home game for the first round, general manager Bill Guerin carefully acknowledged a “great year” for the club during an interview session — with the caveat that it means little in the long run.
“These are not the milestones we're looking for,” Guerin said then. “There are higher expectations here, and making the playoffs is nice, but that's not enough.”
The Wild, once again, will take the empty achievement of a stellar regular season into the summer. The front office and the coaching staff have turned over in recent years and the roster is deeper and fresher, but the early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs is an exasperatingly familiar experience for one of the NHL's strongest fan bases.
“It’s a great group, so it’s kind of disappointing that it ended so quickly. You've got to give credit to St. Louis, too. Six games, they were the better team,” said right wing Mats Zuccarello, after the 5-1 loss to the Blues on Thursday night that eliminated the Wild.
Last year, they lost in seven games to Vegas in the first round. In 2020, Vancouver beat them in a qualifying best-of-five series after the COVID-19 pandemic upended that season. They were absent from the playoffs in 2019, following one-and-done appearances in 2018 (Winnipeg, five games), 2017 (St. Louis, five games) and 2016 (Dallas, six games).
The last time the Wild advanced was a first-round series victory over St. Louis in 2015, before being swept by eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago. Since reaching the second round that year, the Wild are 10-27 in postseason play. Over the franchise's 22-year history, their series record is 4-12.
Guerin didn't arrive until 2019. Evason came in 2020. There are just three players — defensemen Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba — remaining from the last advancement in 2015. The only others who've been on the team more than three years are forwards Kevin Fiala, Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno and Jordan Greenway. So it's hard to find a common thread.
Kirill Kaprizov's emergence with a team-record 47 goals gives the Wild an elite player to build around, but the construction process will be more difficult with the tight salary cap situation.
“We’ve got a great thing going here. We know it’s a special group. The leaders led all season, and guys followed tremendously,” Foligno said. “Just needed to show up in playoffs, and that’s a learning thing that we’ve got to take now.”
The decision by Guerin to trade for Marc-Andre Fleury at the March 21 deadline and by Evason to start him in the first five games of the series will still be subject to scrutiny for awhile, considering Fleury will become a free agent and Talbot is the only goalie under contract for next season.
After making the All-Star team and going 13-0-3 in his last 16 starts, Talbot was benched against the Blues until being thrust into action in Game 6.
“I was doing everything I could to stay ready. You don’t want to come into an elimination game, but you want the opportunity to play during the playoffs and they gave me the opportunity,” Talbot said. “It just wasn’t good enough.”
BLUE LINE BLUES
Spurgeon, Brodin and Dumba have long been the core of a formidable blue line group, but the Wild weren't as effective on defense this season — albeit amid a league-wide spike in scoring. The penalty kill was detrimental to their success in the playoffs.
Spurgeon and Brodin are signed long-term. Alex Goligoski and Jon Merrill are under contract past next season. Dumba, who appeared to be playing through an injury during the series, will again be an offseason trade candidate.
NOT SO SPECIAL
The Wild went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, despite the offensive skill of Kaprizov, Fiala and Zuccarello — all of whom averaged more than one point per game in the regular season. That's a strategic area certain to be re-evaluated over the offseason by Evason and his staff.
“They have to be better, simple as that. I’d love to tell you why and all that," Evason said. “They’re going to get better.”
After giving Kaprizov and Eriksson Ek long-term deals, Guerin punted on the Fiala decision for another year. This summer, the Wild will have to decide whether he's worth 30-goal money and a likely trade of Dumba to make room, or if they should spend that cap space elsewhere.
“I think we have to focus on the strides we took, the culture we built. This is a negative right now. But the seven months or eight months of hockey we played was a huge, huge positive, a huge, huge stepping stone for this organization,” Foligno said.