As hard as it may be to believe, the Minnesota Wild are within reach of a playoff spot despite a tumultuous season that has included plenty of drama, including the firing of former head coach Mike Yeo. The Wild are in a fight with the Colorado Avalanche for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. Minnesota is currently tied in points with Colorado but the Wild have a game in hand on their division rivals. With only twelve games to play in the regular season, it seems like it will come down to the last game or two in deciding which team will slip into the playoffs. The question for Minnesota is, does it really matter if they make it or not? The team has major issues on a number of levels and a trivial playoff berth will do nothing to fix them.
There had been rumors of a divide in the Wild locker room leading up to the demise of Mike Yeo, but until the aforementioned coach had exit interviews, they seemed to be only rumors. However, as originally reported by Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Yeo confirmed that a “disconnect” had formed between the team’s younger players and the veterans. Apparently, the younger guys grew to resent the fact that veterans seemed to receive preferential treatment from Yeo in terms of who was benched or demoted when the team wasn’t performing.
Obviously, hockey is a team game and teams under the cloud of a locker room rift are at an immediate disadvantage, and while it’s fair to place an amount of blame on Yeo for the friction, it’s also inherent on the players — young and old — to come together as a team and resolve differences. The concern now is whether the firing of Yeo helped to resolve the issue or if it has carried on through the coaching change.
One would hope that cooler heads have prevailed and that perhaps the team has bound together under interim coach John Torchetti and the leadership group. It’s concerning though that every loss seems to be met by utter devastation and a lack of resolve, much more so than they are in the normal heat of a playoff race. Even when they are winning, the Minnesota Wild seem unstable, like a Jenga tower waiting for the wrong block to be pulled out from underneath. This is not the sign of a healthy, mentally sound group and it is of paramount concern for the Wild both now and in the future.
Lack of Identity
Of the top teams in the league, pretty much every one of them has an unmistakable identity in how they play and what their strengths are. Washington is a potent offensive force with strong goaltending, St. Louis is a physical team that wears down opponents, Chicago, and Dallas boast dynamic skill and the former is extremely disciplined defensively.
Minnesota seems to change game to game depending on the opponent, almost out of necessity. The Wild are not big enough to be physically imposing on many teams, at least not effectively over time. Charlie Coyle is perhaps the only true power forward, in the traditional sense. Big bodies up front include Mikko Koivu, Nino Niederreiter, and Thomas Vanek, but these are hardly players to punish opponents physically. On defense, there’s also a lack of a real physical presence. The Wild’s most physical defenseman is likely Christian Folin, and he’s in the AHL with Iowa more often than Minnesota.
Conversely, the Wild simply aren’t skilled enough to consistently beat strong defensive teams or out-score high-octane offenses. They have only one 20+ goal scorer this year in Coyle, and he’s arguably not even the most talented player on the roster. The lack of any true superstars is a glaring issue, the Wild don’t have that one player that can take over a game. Minnesota has been competitive in the league for years and has never drafted higher than 3rd overall, and that was in 2001, the Wild’s first year in the league. This has made it difficult to acquire any high-end talent like the type that can set a franchise up for a decade or more. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s arch-nemesis Chicago turned two poor seasons into Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
The Wild will tell you that they are a defensively structured team, which is true, but they’ve become stuck in the middle in terms of team identity. This offseason, the organization needs to decide what they want the fabric of the Minnesota Wild to be made of. Identities follow the same rule as goaltenders: generally speaking, if you have two of them, you really have none.
Playoff Hopes Futile?
The Wild are in the thick of a playoff hunt for the fourth consecutive season and have never made the playoffs four seasons in a row since entering the league. But while previous years have held the promise of a chance at a Stanley Cup, this year’s version of the Wild seem to inspire no such hope in the ever-faithful State of Hockey fans. If the Wild should happen to sneak into the playoffs, pundits will likely predict negligible chances of them making it out of the first round, and rightly so.
With Nashville appearing to have the top wild card spot locked down, a playoff berth for the Wild would mean a date with one of Dallas, St. Louis, or Chicago. Beating any of those teams four out of seven times looks like a dubious proposition for a Wild team that has lost 11 of 16 at home and just dropped a game in regulation to the worst team in the league in the Edmonton Oilers.
Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, though, playoffs or not, the Minnesota Wild have serious issues facing the franchise and until they are properly resolved, holding out real hope for the first Stanley Cup in Minnesota’s history would be a foolhardy endeavor.
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