Another mediocre year for Wild may mean an overhaul
The Minnesota Wild's 2018-19 season officially started on Friday with the first day of training camp. The indifference is palpable.
Once a feel-good, second chance for a great hockey market, Minnesota's NHL team has settled into a maddening inadequacy. It would be easier if they were lousy, but the Wild keep chugging along at their B-minus pace, slightly and painfully above average — never good enough to win in the playoffs, never bad enough to rebuild through the draft.
And, of course, good enough to pack Xcel Energy Center, which has averaged above capacity since 2012.
But patience is growing thin, especially at the top, where frustrated owner Craig Leipold made the strange offseason move to hire new general manager Paul Fenton to tweak the roster his predecessor had been tweaking for years.
Fenton followed the Chuck Fletcher playbook by extending the contracts of another two young "core" players, Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker, and seasoning the broth with a handful of free-agent signings that failed to capture anyone's imagination. If this team doesn't deliver a real run, expect big changes, because an increasingly cynical fan base is already worn out, emotionally and financially.
Looking ahead to another 82 games of 3-2 wins, 3-1 losses and another short, first-round playoff loss is to contemplate the eternal pain of Sisyphus, forever pushing boulders up a hill only to start back at the bottom upon completion. It's almost nauseating.
But expecting another outcome is, by this point, delusional. This is essentially the same team the Wild have iced since 2012, when they added Zach Parise and Ryan Suter on 13-year contracts worth $98 million apiece. The permanent supporting cast remains captain-for-life Mikko Koivu and a group of prospects whose heads are sore from bumping the ceiling.
Liepold opened the checkbook for Fletcher, who built the Wild using every avenue at his disposal — draft, free agency, trade — and hand-selected the young "core" additions with a series of contract extensions for Mikael Granlund, Jared Spurgeon, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and Nino Niederreiter.
But even the addition of veteran center Eric Staal, who scored a franchise record-tying 42 goals last season, has not moved the needle. Neither has the coach, goalie, conference finish nor style of play.
The Wild were second in the Western Conference two years ago and got erased, 4-1, in the first round by former coach Mike Yeo's St. Louis Blues. In four-plus seasons under Yeo, the Wild averaged under three goals a game; under coach Bruce Boudreau, the Wild are one of the NHL's better-scoring teams, ranking second (3.21) and 11th (3.05) the past two seasons.
This Stanley Cup contender largely fashioned for the 2012-13 season is now 2-8 in playoff series, and 0-3 the past three seasons — when improving young players were expected to make the difference on a team within inches of the salary cap. The Wild, and their fans, are still waiting.
After several years of rewarding draft picks and tinkering on the periphery, someone at 317 Washington St. has to be thinking aloud, "Uh, maybe it's the core."
This was difficult for Fletcher but should be easy for Fenton, whose most important qualification right now is having virtually nothing invested in the roster as currently composed. If nothing of consequence happens this postseason — or worse, the Wild don't make it there — Fenton will be charged with dismantling the team and starting over.
By then, fans will be ready, suitably fed up — if they're not already.