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Former Minnesota Viking Jerick McKinnon performs at Super Bowl LVII.
THOMPSON HILL – If you read the title of this column and are thinking that it has a bit of a “soap opera” feel to it, you would be right. And if you follow the Minnesota WILD closely you would know that it isn’t a stretch to say the team has been a bit of a soap opera this season.
I mean, last season was the best campaign in team regular season history while this year is turning out to be a bit of a reality check so far.
Last season the team was a scoring machine. Is it late in the third frame and the club needs a goal or two? No worries. We will not only tie the game up, but we’ll finish it off in OT or the SO. No less than 10n different players put up career years.
Does the club need some spectacular netminding when it matters the most? Cam Talbot to the rescue with Kaapo Kahkonen backing up, and then later in the season, future HHOFer Marc Andre’ Fleury.
Coaching strategies? GM maneuvers at crucial times? Yes, yes and double yes! It was a whirlwind of a year. The team and the fan base had some pep in their step.
And then the playoffs came and just that quickly the hockey truths of NHL life came crashing home. Six games against the longtime foe of The State of Hockey, the STL Blues, and once more the Wild were out of the Stanley Cup tournament after being eliminated four games to two. The party was over and it seemed like it all ended in the blink of a goalie’s eyes.
The club gained some notoriety for its closeness with each other. The “room” was a happy place to be. And it still carries that reputation and that’s a good thing because that isn’t always the way it is in pro sports.
No matter though. Since last year’s playoff dismissal this team has undergone the inevitable changes that pro clubs do from year to year. Some were self-inflicted pain and others were just natural occurrences.
The Salary Cap restrictions that were looming over the club a year ago have arrived. The co-pilot of the offense and second-leading scorer has departed due to that issue. I have questioned if the team’s GM, Bill Guerin tried hard enough to keep Kevin Fiala and his 85 points of offense from a year back.
He probably looked at many different scenarios but decided that Fiala was going to be THE solution and that was that. With his absence and at least five players that were solid offensive contributors from last year not enjoying that same type of production, the team has struggled to score.
If GMBG had got on the horse early last summer and tried to move a couple of the veteran defensemen could he have retained Fiala? How would the net-net have been altered if the team GAA was up slightly but the offensive production was similar to last year?
Lately it seems as if Kirill Kaprizov is the only forward producing regulation time five-on-five scoring (until this afternoon),
In goal Talbot started 49 games last season, winning 32. Kahkonen was a capable backup. Guerin’s fascination with his former teammate Fleury led him to make the deal last season and then re-sign him this summer. In the belief that he was the number one tender, Talbot had some concerns with the Fleury deal and Guerin promptly traded him to Ottawa.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m as big a fan of MAF as there is. You would have to go a country mile to find a better player, human being and teammate than Fleury has been throughout his career. First ballot HHOF is etched in already. The honest truth here is that he has played like an aging netminder at times.
That’s not blame because no player can escape that. It is the simple truth.
Guerin may have miscalculated here. Talbot was ready to return. On the good side the player who came back for him, Filip Gustavsson, has now become the club’s number one tender as far as I’m concerned. His recent numbers are better and his game just looks better. Sorry but it’s that truth thing again. But I digress.
The team has been in a scoring funk lately and was in free fall as far as wins and losses go. For the month of February the team stands at 3-5.
For the calendar week that ended this afternoon the team posted a 2-2 record. And I could make the argument that they deserved better. Like perhaps a 4-0 record for the week. They battled FLA and lost a 2-1 game in the SO. They dropped a 3-2 tilt to the defending Champ COL Avs.
But then the signs began to emerge that maybe the team is pulling out of it. Without any public announcement the team has been going to Gustavsson in big games. The offense is showing the ability of returning to life and not being totally dependent on the fortunes of Kaprizov. They beat the DAL Stars 2-1 in a SO and won in quite dramatic fashion in St. Paul this afternoon, beating NSH 4-3 on a Ryan Hartman goal with 21 seconds left.
Considering the Pred’s record against the Wild in the recent past this was an accomplishment. Especially after coughing up a 3-1 lead in the third frame and allowing former Wild forward Nino Neidereitter to tie it up with their netminder pulled for an extra attacker, with only 47 seconds left in regulation time.
Moments later at even strength once again the Wild were in the Preds zone when Jonas Brodin let a shot go from the point that hit Hartman in the upper chest and deflected in. The ‘X’ exploded in a release of pent-up fan frustration and the club held firm for the win and the two points.
The upcoming week could bring the team back to earth though. They play the much improved LAK at home Tuesday eve before going to the CBJ and TOR for a back-to-back pair and then return to the ‘X’ to meet the CBJ for a national matinee on Sunday.
I can’t emphasize enough how much this needs to be more than a 2-2 week for the team.
They have been in and out of a playoff spot at various times recently and even now are clinging to the second Wild Card spot by two points. (56GP/65pts) A win by the Preds today would have put them within 3 points of the Wild with two games in hand. After trading their Captain Ryan O’Reilly, the Blues have dropped to ten points out. They would need a big run to draw close again. CAL is two points behind the Wild with a like number of GP.
And did I mention the trade deadline is a mere 12 days away?
Guerin weaponized what cap space the team had by helping facilitate the deal between TOR and STL and ended up with a 2025 4th-round draft pick for his troubles.
Will the Wild be players? If so will they be buying or selling? Since I don’t envision this year’s Cup winner coming from the West, I think I’d just sit tight. PEACE