Minnesota Wild Postscript: Playoffs Put A Major Dent In Fan Pessimism, And More!

Marc Elliott

STONY RIVER… I have got to say that for the first time in several years, the mood around the Minnesota Wild and of its fan base post-season are highly upbeat, filled with a positive outlook for the future and holding heads high. Sure, the club lost out in the second round to the defending champ Chicago Blackhawks, but most analysts would tell you that the Wild could have very easily been the team moving on, not the Hawks. Only a somewhat fluky score on a goofy bounce saved the Hawks’ bacon for this post-season. And the way the Western Conference finals are unfolding, the Hawks may be on the verge of being ousted by the LA Kings, who I believe are the best team left in the Stanley Cup tourney right now.
It has been easy to be a Donnie Downer on this franchise over the past few years, but the team appears to have turned the corner and is on the verge of making some real upward movement. Conventional wisdom and most major hockey media had the Wild not surviving against the Colorado Avalanche, and most statistical data supported that. I picked the Av’s to advance in the 1st round, not the Wild. But the Wild had the upper hand in Game 1, though they imploded in the 3rd and in OT. The Av’s were the better club in Game 2. The Wild protected home ice in 3 and 4, should have won Game 5 in Denver, had to come home and notch Game 6 to stay alive, and finally got the epic OT victory in Game 7 in Denver. The Fan Jr. and I were out of our chairs like they were ejector seats in F-16s.
The short of the long on the Chicago series was that the Wild pretty much outplayed the Blackhawks for vast stretches of the series, only to lose Game 6 on a groaner goal that still has me groaning every time I think about it. As has been said, the bounce of the puck out to Patrick Kane was pure fluke; what he did with it when he got it was pure skill. How many guys had backhand shots like his even when a lot of players in the show still used it? And the season was over. Would have loved to have witnessed a Game 7 in Chi-town just for the heck of it. The Wild would have had every right to be there, and I wouldn’t have counted them out for anything.
Eight teams made the second round, and I can state now with certainty that the Wild must be ranked in the top 10 in the NHL power rank. They overcame injuries with depth and heart and a goaltender merry-go-round that could make any GM and head coach dizzy, and they persevered. Mikko Koivu has been a heart-and-soul guy for this club for many years now, but he never had the talent with him to move the team forward. In the recent past, if the team was down at the second intermission or early in the third, it was just about a foregone conclusion that they wouldn’t rally to get a point or a victory. I could see last fall that that was slowly changing. And I think the primary reason is that you cannot underestimate the compete level of Zach Parise. On top of that, he raises everyone else’s.
It was evident that Josh Harding was giving the club the net minding they hadn’t experienced in a while, which gave the team the chance to win more than they had. And when Harding succumbed to medication problems for his MS situation, Backstrom, Kuemper, Curry, and Bryzgalov stepped in and kept the flame going. Heck, I think they even suited up Fern Rivard and Mike Curran as backups for a couple of tilts. Hards stole the team some games that they shouldn’t have won last fall, and that gave the club the chance to build their game up. The addition of Matt Cooke was mostly a good one. I thought he waned a bit late in the regular season, but he was a presence the team needed.
Mikael Granlund took a huge step up post-Olympics, and I mean huge. Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine, Charlie Coyle, Nino Nediereitter, and Jared Spurgeon made major forward movement with their games, while I thought the young Swedish defensemen Jonas Brodin may have suffered a bit of a sophomore slump. That’s not unusual for young D-men, though. He is still a major find for the team and will be important down the road. Speaking of D-men, is it good for Ryan Suter to play 30 minutes per game? Does his effectiveness diminish after 24-25?
How about the coaching staff? Did Mike Yeo, Rick Wilson, and Daryl Sydor step up to the plate in the playoffs or what? GM Chuck Fletcher is working on their extensions right now. And how about Fletcher? A lot of folks were still riding the fence on him late in the regular season, perhaps myself included. But he has put together a roster that features many components needed to form a great team and stay that way for the near future. That’s not to say that it doesn’t need some tweaking—all teams do, even the championship ones. You have probably seen the last of Dany Heatley in a Wild sweater, and probably Matt Moulson, too. Nate Prosser might be on the fence for next season, and the goalie position is a Rubik’s Cube right now.
I would see if I could move Niklas Backstrom and make an offer to Ilya Bryzgalov to come back. He liked the team and the area and wouldn’t be fighting for big dollars. I would rethink the possibility of bringing in UFA Thomas Vanek and instead make an offer to free agent-to-be D-man Matt Niskanen, late of the Pengwah and a former UMD standout. Fletch appears inclined to hang on to forward Kyle Brodziak, while Matt Dumba/D and Christian Folin/D could be ready to make a move to the big leagues.
All in all, I like the direction of the team and hope that this year’s regular-season success can be expanded on, and that another playoff run with the WILD getting the breaks is in the offing as well. It was an exciting season, the future is looking up, and for the first time in a while, fans will be longing for September and the start of camp. I know I will!! PEACE

Marc Elliott is a sports opinion writer who splits his time between Minnesota and his hometown in Illinois…