ST PAUL, Minn. — Like being dumped by that first true love, this one hurts.
First-round playoff ousters are nothing new to the Minnesota Wild, but packing up the lockers after Thursday night's resounding 5-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues just feels a bit more painful than past years. Perhaps it's because this club felt different, played different, and had a weary fan base feeling like this really could be the year for a deep playoff run, and maybe... just maybe... a spot in the Stanley Cup finals.
Sadly, the Wild's regular season success (53-22-7 record, second best in the Western Conference) did not translate to the post season, where the thorn-in-their-side Blues dismantled Minnesota's high-octane offense, and made their improved but still solidifying blueline corps look at times like a Three Stooges movie.
It's a cliche, but the playoffs are a different beast where play is heavy and physical, and mistakes are magnified. Minnesota's goaltending was OK, but not stellar as it usually has to be to make a run. Late season addition Mark Andre Fleury made most of the saves he should make, but few of the game-saving variety. When he finally got between the pipes in Game 6, Cam Talbot was no better, and could not rise above the mediocre play of his teammates.
“It’s tough to put into words right now just how close this group was and how positive the regular season was,” veteran forward and assistant captain Marcus Foligno told The Athletic. “It’s just disappointing because we feel like we were right there with them and played a hard series and had a lot of positivity around this team this year and thought that we could do something special. When you don’t get the job done, especially in crunchtime … it’s disappointing, for sure.”
So what now? There are serious issues Wild General Manager Bill Guerin and head coach Dean Evason face this off-season. Here are a few of them to chew on.
The problem with Kevin
With big new contracts handed to superstar forward Kirill Kaprizov and bare-knuckle center Joel Erikkson Ek, and smaller extensions for forwards Foligno and Ryan Hartman, the Wild did not have the cap space (or perhaps the inclination) to sign mercurial forward Kevin Fiala to a long-term deal. Instead, with the prospect of arbitration hanging in the air, Fiala signed a one-year "prove it" deal for $5.1 million.
Well, he proved it all right, at least during the regular season. Fiala scored 33 goals and notched 52 assists before all but disappearing in the playoffs with zero goals and just three assists when the team desperately needed him.
Many have speculated that the Wild can only keep Fiala or Matt Dumba (projected in a similar salary bracket) and not both. That would be an easy decision for most Wild fans, but that is assuming Fiala wants to stay in Minnesota and not test the lucrative salary waters elsewhere. His relationship with head coach Dean Evason has been occasionally rocky.
Also of concern is his streaky, feast or famine scoring and propensity to turn the puck over in big situations.
While the Wild's defenders were not ridiculous during the regular season, they were not as consistent as last season. Free-agent signing Dmitry Kulikov started well, but as the season went on made disastrous decisions at key moments. Kulikov was pulled from the playoff lineup following a terrible Game 1, was reinserted for the crucial Game 6 and was on the ice for multiple St. Louis goals. He even injured one of his own players, indispensable center Joel Erikkson Ek, with a reckless swing of his stick, sending Ek to the locker room for mouth repairs during a crucial part of the contest.
Kulikov signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal before the start of the year, but the Wild can't feel great about bringing him back.
Matt Dumba is a small but significant elephant in the room. While popular in the locker room and capable of spectacular play, Dumba continues to be reckless with the puck, regularly makes questionable decisions and has two seasons remaining on a contract with an average salary of $6 million. With dead money from the contracts of Zac Parise and Ryan Suter kicking in this year, the Wild will have SERIOUS cap concerns and trading Dumba could help. His tendency to be injury-prone doesn't help.
Captain Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and newcomer Jake Middleton are top-notch defenders, and Alex Goligoski and Jon Merrill are solid third pair candidates, but changes are likely in this corps.
Not so special teams
If you're looking for a smoking gun, this is it. The Wild’s special teams were horrendous against the Blues, with the sputtering, disorganized power play going 4-for-24 in the series. The penalty kill was worse, giving up eight power-play goals in the six games, most of them at huge junctures. Both will need to be fixed before Minnesota can be considered a true contender.
The puck stops here
There has been and will be plenty of second-guessing regarding the decision to start Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes for the first five games of the Blues series, with the Wild only turning to regular season mainstay Cam Talbot in Game 6 with almost two weeks of rust in his game.
Fleury is set to become an unrestricted free agent, is 38-years old, earned $7 million this year and will still likely command more money than the Wild can afford to bring him back.
That leaves Talbot, who has one year left on his deal but is likely not feeling great about being elbowed aside when the season really mattered. Evason and Guerin likely have some serious fences to mend.
Rookie Matt Boldy proved he was ready for prime time, displaying impressive hockey IQ, steady two-way play and a maturity beyond his 20 years. Fellow rookies Brandon Duhaime and Connor Dewar don't appear out of place but have plenty of growing to do.
Reinforcements from Iowa will have to play a major role in the lineup if the Wild is to stay in the NHL's upper echelon. The club is depending on center Marco Rossi making the jump soon, if not next year, and offensive defenseman Calen Addison could finally make the roster on a full-time basis next year.
Developing young talent will be crucial with the salary cap impact of the Parise and Suter buyouts hitting the books next year. We're talking nearly $13 million in 2022-23, and close to $15 million the following two seasons. That will make signing big buck free agents nearly impossible, and force difficult decisions on resigning current players.
Watch more of Minnesota sports:
Watch the latest sports videos - from high school hockey to the Minnesota Vikings and everything in between - in our YouTube playlist: