ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Wild were leading the NHL two weeks before Christmas, with a sparkling 20-7-3 record and a fresh outlook under new head coach Mike Yeo.
Four months later, they’re left with that “empty feeling” — as Yeo put it Monday in his season-ending remarks — of missing the playoffs for a fourth straight year.
“We have to face it: We’re not where we want to be, and that has to change,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “I think everybody knows that it’s been too long that we’ve finished the season like this.”
Despite the way their performance deteriorated, Yeo and general manager Chuck Fletcher spoke optimistically about the future.
They said they’re convinced they have better team chemistry than before. They said they believe the core of the current group has understood the way Yeo wants them to play within his puck-moving, tight-checking system. They’re eager to watch a half-dozen or more of the organization’s top prospects this fall.
Such comments were predictable. No sports team executives are going to publicly question their ability to improve. Frustrated fans and cynical analysts can do that for them. But both Fletcher and Yeo weren’t shy about making bold, positive assessments of the team’s future and that confidence came straight from the head coach.
“I truly believe, or feel I’ve learned, that I can win in this league,” Yeo said.
Can is the definitive word.
“The way we prepare, the work ethic we bring, the structure we play with, we’re close. But we have to push over the edge now,” Yeo said.
Injuries crippled this team like few others in the league, with nearly 400 total games missed by players who were hurt. Koivu was absent for 37 of them, and the toughness, talent and two-way ability of their first-line center are attributes the Wild just can’t be without. They went 8-16-3 without him. Despite scoring a team-high 24 goals in his first season for Minnesota, Dany Heatley had trouble finding opportunities when Koivu was out with a separated shoulder.
Concussions for Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse took two more top-six forwards out of the lineup for a large chunk of games, and Devin Setoguchi also missed time to injury.
The Wild could have overcome these losses with greater depth. They used an NHL-high 47 players this year, and there just weren’t enough ready rookies to fill in when their best forwards were out.
“We’re a team where one or two players can make a big difference,” Fletcher said.
Not only did the Wild struggle to score at less than full strength, their offense reached an historic low. Not only did they set a franchise record for fewest goals in a season with 166, that’s the second-lowest total in the league by any team during the entire 12 years the Wild have been around. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets, with 164 in the 2001-02 season, scored less.
That’s the biggest reason why they won only seven games in regulation in their last 52 contests.
“For everyone in this room, no one can be happy you’re outside the playoffs. You have to make sure you’re better for next year,” said goalie Niklas Backstrom, another one of the oft-injured players this season. He’ll have ankle surgery soon.
Backstrom is also in the group of guys assured to be back, but fellow goalie Josh Harding is an unrestricted free agent. Assuming Fletcher doesn’t decide to trade one of them, Heatley, Koivu and Setoguchi are all under contract for at least another year, as are useful players like Matt Cullen, Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck. The forwards will have an influx of competition come training camp, when recent high draft picks Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips, Brett Bulmer and Johan Larsson will fight for time. None of them are guaranteed spots, but a few will probably make the team and the rest will be waiting in the AHL with the Houston Aeros for the next injury or underperforming player.
The Wild will have salary cap space to pursue free agents, too, and they’ll certainly inquire about Zack Parise, the son of the former Minnesota North Stars standout and current New Jersey Devils star.
Latendresse is a restricted free agent, but Fletcher said he’s close to being symptom free and could be brought back at a bargain price. Bouchard is further away from being cleared, but Fletcher insisted his symptoms are nowhere near as severe as they were two years ago. The Wild have continued to express confidence he’ll play next season, despite his dangerous history of head injury.
Those young skilled skaters will be welcomed additions. Bouchard and perhaps Latendresse would be nice bonuses. But Koivu and his linemates, no matter how the roster changes this summer, will be the ones who must score more for the Wild to compete.
“We need to realize that we need to get better as the year goes on as well,” Setoguchi said. “It starts with guys like myself and the leaders in the room. We need to make sure that when things get tough, we’re the guys to get it going.”
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)