The Minnesota Wild would be in the playoffs if they started today, but is making the postseason the best idea for the franchise?
On July 4, 2012, despite the notion they’d get one or the other, the Minnesota Wild went all-in by giving Zach Parise and Ryan Suter matching 13-year, $98 million contracts. That put them into a theoretical window to win a Stanley Cup, but they’ve won only two playoff series since and don’t appear ready to make a deep postseason run anytime soon.
To his credit, former Wild general manager Paul Fenton took steps to break up an underachieving core of younger players. Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter were gone around the 2019 trade deadline. Jason Zucker would have been gone as well that year if not for a deal that fell through at that deadline and Phil Kessel exercising his no-trade rights last summer.
Heading into this season, the Wild seemed headed toward a long-overdue rebuild. Head coach Bruce Boudreau was in the final year of his contract, and he was now working under a third general manager in Minnesota. A 1-6 record in their first seven games this year was a good start toward securing some top odds in the 2020 draft lottery, and they were 4-9-1 through 14 games.
Boudreau could have been fired amid that slow start, but instead, he was fired on the morning of Feb. 14 as the Wild had won seven of 11 games to get within three points of the second wild card spot in the West. They have since gone 8-4 under interim head coach Dean Evason, and Sunday’s 5-4 overtime win over Anaheim has now edged Minnesota into the Western Conference’s first wild card spot.
Since their inception, the Wild have always been a fairly competitive team. A shocking run to the 2003 Western Conference Finals, in just their third year of existence, stands as the franchise highlight. That run also accounts for two the franchise’s four playoff series wins.
Marian Gaborik was the Wild’s first-ever first-round pick, No. 3 overall in 2000. Since then, they’ve had a top-10 pick seven times. Five worked out fairly nicely in some sense (Mikko Koivu, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin, Mikael Granlund and Pierre-Marc Bouchard), while the other two (Benoit Pouliot, James Sheppard) were simply busts. Pouliot, No. 4 overall in 2005, is the Wild’s highest ever draft pick other than Gaborik.
The general manager who hired Boudreau, Chuck Fletcher, was pretty flippant in how he gave up draft capital in an effort to win now. Parise and Suter’s bloated contracts have driven that organizational mentality, and it has yielded nothing of note. The top prospect of the organization, Kirill Kaprizov, was a fifth-round pick in 2015.
The examples of team bottoming out and seeing greater success on the back end are out there. The Pittsburgh Penguins were once bad enough to get Sidney Crosby No. 1 overall. The Philadelphia Flyers have started to draft better in recent years, and getting up to the No. 2 pick a few years ago was also helpful. The Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres have had multiple swings at premium draft picks, and in Edmonton’s case, it might finally yield something.
Parise was nearly traded to the New York Islanders at the deadline this year. If those talks are revisited this offseason — as has been indicated — and a trade gets done, that will be a huge, overdue signal of change in Minnesota.
If the Wild do make the playoffs, presumably as one of the two wild cards, they’d face an uphill climb to win a series against one of the best two teams in the Western Conference. Playoff upsets happen every year, but using that as a justification to edge into the playoffs is a foolish idea.
The Wild have operated in the middle ground for too long. They either make the playoffs and lose quickly or just barely miss and thus not land a premium draft pick. Four straight non-playoff seasons from 2008-2012 yielded three of their aforementioned top-10 picks (in a row — Granlund, Brodin and Dumba), and that’s the closest they’ve come to bottoming out.
Making or missing the playoffs is in line to be a very narrow difference points-wise in the Western Conference. And barely missing rather than barely making the postseason wouldn’t make a substantial difference in where a first-round pick sits in June’s draft.
This will now be another season in the frustrating middle ground for the Wild when it looked so promising for a shift in the franchise’s long-running mode early on.
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