The Minnesota Wild need a miracle.
Without one over the next five days, their season is going to come to a bitterly disappointing end that not only snaps the team’s six-year run of consecutive postseason appearances, but also spoils the guarantee from coach Bruce Boudreau that the team would, in fact, make the playoffs.
What has to make this season so disappointing for Minnesota is where the team was coming from the previous two years, and just how wide open the playoff race in the Western Conference turned out to be.
You may not have looked at the Wild as one league’s top teams before this season, but keep in mind only three teams in the NHL recorded more points than Minnesota’s 207 during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, while they topped the 100-point mark in three of the past four individual seasons. It may have never resulted in a meaningful playoff run, but the Wild were always good enough to matter, even if they weren’t quite good enough to actually do anything that would make them stand out come playoff time.
Add in the fact that the second wild card team in the West is likely to finish with one of the lowest point totals any playoff team has had in the salary cap era and it is kind of stunning that this team is almost certainly going to fall short, even when you take into account the injuries that have sidelined Mathew Dumba and Mikko Koivu for most of the season.
They should still be better than this.
That is almost certainly going to lead to more changes for an organization that has already undergone significant change over the past year.
The first big question is probably going to be the fate of Boudreau, and given the circumstances it is worth wondering if he is coaching his final games in Minnesota this week.
Anytime you have a team that will (again, barring a miracle) be now going four consecutive years without a postseason series win, and is likely to miss the playoffs by regressing by nearly 20 points in the standings, the job security of that coach, no matter their credentials in the league, is going to be in question. That is especially true when the team in question has a new general manager (Paul Fenton) that is almost certainly going to be looking for an excuse to bring in their own coach.
Realistically speaking, it is going to be awfully difficult for the Wild to find a better coach than the one they have now (unless they can convince Joel Quenneville to take their job, if it becomes available) so there is definitely going to be a risk there if that is the direction they go. And that is a concern.
But no matter who the coach is the future of the franchise is going to come down to the players Fenton and his staff are able to assemble.
And that is where the real red flag should be for Wild fans.
In his first full season as general manager Fenton dramatically overhauled the core of the team by trading Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund in an effort to get younger. That also seems to have been the only primary objective because there is not much to suggest the team got better as a result of that sequence of trades.
The early returns, especially in the case of Niederreiter (traded straight up to Carolina for Victor Rask), are looking … poor.
It is not necessarily the results of the trades that is most concerning right now, but the process behind them.
In all three trades the Wild were trading core players, all of whom still had term remaining on their contracts beyond this season (meaning the Wild shouldn’t have felt pressure to trade them when they did), at what was arguably their lowest possible values.
If you are going to trade such significant players you need to make sure you are maximizing the return of that asset as best you can, and there is plenty of objective evidence to argue that the Wild did no such thing.
You don’t need to dig very far to see just how concerning the thought process was in these moves.
At the time of their trades, all of Niederreiter, Coyle and Granlund were stuck in down years that could probably best be described as unlucky.
Niederreiter, a proven 25-goal scorer that plays a heck of a two-way game and can drive possession, was getting just 14 minutes of ice-time and had what was the second-lowest PDO of his career (PDO simply being the sum of a player’s on-ice shooting percentage and save-percentage during 5-on-5 play). Everything about his season and his career should have indicated that he was due to bounce back at some point, whether it was this season or next season. The bounce back began almost as soon as he arrived in Carolina where he has been one of the Hurricanes’ best and most productive players. He looks like the player he has always been, and one that the Wild could absolutely use both this season and in future seasons.
In return for that, the Wild received Victor Rask who is roughly the same age as Niederreiter, with a lesser resume in the NHL, and a career that seems to be trending in the wrong direction.
It was the same situation for Granlund, a forward that scored at a 70-point pace over the previous two seasons and was one of the few difference-makers the team had at forward.
And while the return for Granlund (Kevin Fiala, a long-time favorite of Fenton going back to his days as Nashville’s assistant general manager) looks better than the return for Niederreiter, it’s still worth wondering how much better it makes the team in the long-run.
The only trade that is looking overly promising at the moment and could be a decent upgrade is the Coyle for Ryan Donato swap.
Given that almost all of the Wild’s roster is still under team control for the foreseeable future (Koivu, Eric Fehr, Brad Hunt, Anthony Bitetto, J.T. Brown, and Jared Spurgeon are the only players eligible for unrestricted free agency over the next two years) it is almost a given that any other significant overhaul of the roster is going to have to come through trades, and the early look into his process there is, again, concerning.
If the Wild are going to turn things around in the short-term they are going to need to see significant steps from young players like Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek, while also hoping that Fenton and his staff gambled correctly on the likes of Fiala and Donato and don’t continue to sell core players at their lowest value.
Without any of that that it’s hard to see better days being on the horizon for the Wild.