The shock and disappointment of the best Minnesota Wild club ever losing in the first round of the playoffs will fade. Not entirely, since this spring’s defeat, like the one in 2017, is the sort that stays with fans for a long time. However, as summer comes, there will be a shift toward optimism.
After all, the Wild have scored 113 goals this season. How far can they possibly be? Kirill Kaprizov is a superstar in his prime, while Matt Boldy is a guy aiming to make another sophomore impact. Furthermore, they have a slew of young, promising prospects waiting in the wings!
There will come a time and place to write about that. This offseason, 10K Rinks will delve into all of it. But this is not the time or place to do so.
After turning a 2-1 series advantage into an ugly 5-1 elimination loss in Game 6, there are just two takeaways:
1) For the following four years, this was Minnesota’s greatest chance at a Stanley Cup.
2) They messed up.
That may be considered a harsh evaluation. Yes, in the first round, the Wild faced a 109-point squad. Sure, the playoffs are frequently odd and unpredictable. There are also the previously mentioned reasons for hope.
But don’t kid yourself. This was the Wild’s easiest, cleanest, and most straightforward opportunity at a real playoff run. The already-painful handcuffs from the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts will only get tighter from here to out.
Those buyouts were maybe a necessary evil to sow the seeds of cultural transformation. Bill Guerin consumed two death tablets last summer for another reason: they couldn’t field a roster with those contracts.
The Wild incurred $4.75 million in salary cap penalties with the buyouts, but this represents a savings of more than $10 million over the $15.1 million price tag they each carried. The fines will grow to $12.75 million next year, then to $14.75 million for the final two years. Remember that no cap magic may be used to produce relief. These penalties are unbreakable.
What will the future seasons look like if the Wild struggled to field a cap-compliant squad this year?
It will undoubtedly cost them. Fiala, Kevin Small samples cannot be used to make wide choices. On the other hand, Dean Evason is more inclined to value the irritation of a three-point, 16-penalty-minute playoff effort over Fiala’s 85 regular-season points. Even at its finest, their troubled connection was evident.
This summer that will be a source of hope. People may remark that losing Fiala is a bummer, but consider the return in draught selections and potential! True, his trade value has skyrocketed this season. But here’s the reality: Fiala was tied for 22nd in points in the league. What draught selection will replace that output in three years?
How many players have scored 85 points or more in their first three seasons? Six, since the wage ceiling was implemented in 2005-06. Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Connor McDavid, and Mathew Barzal. Four of them finished first overall.
So, even if the Wild hit a home run and steal the second overall pick from New Jersey, the odds of that pick replacing Fiala’s 85 points are… astronomically unlikely.
Minnesota requires its athletes to have career years to compensate for their absence. What is the issue? This season, several of them have already had career years. Will they all do it again?
Is Mats Zuccarello, 34, going to have another 79-point season? Can Ryan Hartman repeat his 34-goal performance from this season? Can Marcus Foligno maintain his 40-point production? What about Freddy Gaudreau when his running buddy Fiala leaves?
Perhaps one, or maybe two, will continue to do so. But what about all of them? Unlikely!
So the team’s renowned prospect pool will have to fill in the gaps. The issue is, will they be able to? Or, at the very least, can they achieve it in three years? Who can say? This year, Boldy was able to make an instant effect. However, the Wild’s best prospects have no NHL experience other than him.
Calen Addison leads the group with 21 games (including playoffs), 15 of which came this year. Marco Rossi’s cup of coffee included two rounds. That’s not a lot of time to gain a feel for the league, so their growing pains will arrive next year. They could even live longer. Even great players like Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek didn’t break out till they were in their late twenties.
And those are just the new question marks. The Wild have a goalkeeper problem that they have yet to fix and cannot afford to. They go back to Cam Talbot, whom they did not trust throughout the playoffs? Did Marc-Andre Fleury’s postseason save percentage of? Nine hundred six deter the club from bringing him back?
Another question: Does it even matter? Fleury and Talbot will be 38 and 35, respectively, and aging isn’t exactly a friend to the ones patrolling the crease. Because neither is Jesper Wallstedt inexperienced, the chances of his making a franchise-changing effect before the age of 23 are slim. Only 11 goalies in the cap era started 50 or more games by 22.
Nobody likes to be a doomer, but look how wonderfully everything fell into place for the Wild. Kaprizov had a spectacular performance. An attack that ranked sixth in the league in terms of goals scored. An experienced core that complemented top young players in their primes nicely. A deal for a Hall of Fame goalkeeper who led his team to within two victories of the Stanley Cup Final only last season.
And now it’s done, and those puzzle parts aren’t going to fit together again. Not this time, and not for the next three years. If this season was not the year, it isn’t easy to see how any of the next three will be. That is the harsh truth that the State of Hockey will have to deal with for the entire early summer.