The Minnesota Wild returned home from the Western Conference bubble with regret, dismay and another postseason defeat.
Despite the spark that was on display after the change in head coaches up until the pandemic put the sport on a four-plus-month pause, their performance in the qualifying round against Vancouver provided more evidence that this is an incomplete if competitive team.
The goaltending, so steady for so much of the franchise’s 20-year history, has reached the top of the offseason to-do list. General manager Bill Guerin announced Monday the dismissal of goaltending coach Bob Mason, who’d held his post for 18 years.
”I consider Bob a friend. He’s a wonderful person. He’s got a great track record. He had an incredible run here. I have nothing negative to say about him,” Guerin said. ”Sometimes you just need change.”
The question now for the Wild, who were eliminated Friday in four games by the Canucks in their best-of-five series in the empty arena in Edmonton, is whether change will come in the net, too.
Alex Stalock overtook Devan Dubnyk as the primary goalie this season. Guerin would not to commit to the status quo with that tandem. Prospect Kaapo Kahkonen could be ready for full-time status on an NHL roster after appearing in five games this season, and there will be plenty of accomplished free agents available whenever the market opens.
As a team, the Wild were third-worst in the league with an .897 save percentage after ranking 18th in 2018-19, 12th in 2017-18 and seventh in 2016-17. The only other time in club history they were below .900 was in 2001-02 at .896. Minnesota was 24th in the NHL in goals against per game (3.14), after placing 12th, 11th, seventh, ninth and sixth over the previous five seasons.
”The hierarchy’s not clear. Whoever’s playing well is going to play. I was disappointed in the goaltending this year,” Guerin said on a video conference call with reporters. ”Al had a tremendous year, and Devan had an off year, and it needs to be better.”
Here are some other key angles to the end of the Wild’s season:
MONEY TALKS: Dubnyk, who took more than a month off from mid-November to mid-December for support for his wife as she dealt with a medical condition, finished with a 3.35 goals against average that was the third-worst of his career. His .890 save percentage was his lowest in 10 years.
Dubnyk will enter the final season of his contract with a $4.33 million salary cap hit, but Guerin said he’s not keen on buyouts. The 34-year-old Dubnyk said he’s determined to become the No. 1 goalie again.
”As much as people like to talk and create storylines in this, I think we can probably all agree that I didn’t forget how to stop the puck this season,” Dubnyk said. ”I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m very competitive and fully prepared to come into camp next year ready to get back to playing the majority of the games.”
OH, CAPTAIN? The only unrestricted free agents of consequence this fall will be center Alex Galchenyuk, defenseman Carson Soucy and, of course, center Mikko Koivu. The only full-time captain the club has had – he was appointed in 2009 after the role was rotated monthly over the first nine years of the franchise – and the all-time Wild leader in games, assists, points and several other categories, Koivu said he’s not ready yet to decide about retirement.
He returned from reconstructive right knee surgery for a 15th season and had four goals and 17 assists in 55 games while playing mostly on the fourth line.
COMING SOON: The long-awaited debut of Russian phenom Kirill Kaprizov will be the featured attraction for the Wild and their fans whenever the 2020-21 schedule commences. The 23-year-old forward signed his entry-level contract last month.
”We’re all hoping he comes in and just lights the world on fire,” Guerin said. ”That’s what we hope, but this is a very good league.”
SUTER SORE: The Wild still have five seasons each remaining on the landmark deals they gave left wing Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who are both 35. They’re still durable – nobody on the roster played in more games (69) than them in 2019-20 – and productive, but over eight years with the duo the Wild have won only two playoff series and none since 2015.
Suter, for his part, said he believes the team remains on the cusp of cracking the league’s elite. He missed Game 4 against Vancouver after blocking a shot with his right foot in Game 3.
”It’s the worst feeling ever,” Suter said. ”You battle and prepare to be in situations like that, and you’re not able to be in it. Then you see how the game is going, and you know you could’ve helped.”