For the longest time, the Minnesota Wild were a team stuck in a perpetual loop of mediocrity, failing to perform in the playoffs as a wild card team (occasionally higher) but also never failing enough to warrant a complete tear-down and rebuild from the ground up. An occasional good draft pick and a decent approach to trades allowed them to stay at that wild card level longer than they should have, but it eventually became obvious that changes were needed after a couple of rough seasons in a row.
NHL Rebuilds Follow a Typical Pattern
The NHL is designed to make it difficult for great teams to stay great. In an effort to create an atmosphere of competition, methods of team equalization are enforced in an effort to make every single game a possible win for either team. In theory, a league full of competitive teams would be ideal; however, what is actually occurring is the establishing of a “cycle” that teams go through over the course of many seasons, with each team at different points in it during any given year. This cycle has, in turn, given rise to three different calibers of NHL teams.
The contending teams are at the top of their divisions, expected to win every game and practically guaranteed to make the playoffs and likely compete for the Stanley Cup at the end of the year. The wild card teams have gaps in their rosters and are not expected to win every single game, but strong teams that will compete hard to grab a playoff spot and hope to go on a run at the right time. Finally, the rebuilding teams are at the bottom of the barrel, not expected to win many games, and are usually a long shot to even get close to playoff contention.
A team rebuild usually occurs after a supposedly strong playoff team underperforms for years in a row and fails to bring in the right pieces to regain their status as a contending team. The current Chicago Blackhawks are a great example of this. Seeing new management brought in is typically the first sign of a potential rebuild, usually followed with former star players being traded for young prospects or draft picks. Once the rebuild is initiated, the fanbase’s expectations of playoff runs are reformed into years of watching their newly acquired young players develop into the next wave of stars to hopefully carry their team back into being a contending team once again.
What Has Changed for the Wild?
Whether anyone knew it at the time or not, 2019 was the beginning of some sort of rebuild for the Wild. After a fantastic season in 2016-17, they followed it up with a string of years where they underperformed. This was most evident in 2018-19 when they finished last in the Central Division. Over the course of the next three seasons, they completely overhauled their staff with a new general manager in Bill Guerin, a new head coach in Dean Evason, and a new Director of Amateur Scouting with Judd Brackett. Wild faithful also saw a lot of previous mainstays of the roster moved off to other teams. In fact, from that 2018-19 season, only seven players remain — Jared Spurgeon, Mats Zuccarello, Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno, Jordan Greenway, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba.
Yet the Wild broke from the traditional mould of a rebuilding team and did not subject their fans to years of bottom-of-the-standings torture. In fact, they actually started improving immediately. After only one year, Guerin managed to get the Wild right back into the playoffs (still lost in the first round), but then followed it up with the best regular season in team history and broke records like it was their first year in the league. Amazingly, they put up 113 points with 53 wins while also scoring goals at an unbelievable rate, seemingly out of nowhere. Players up and down the roster had career years and look poised to continue showing their talents in 2022-23.
Perhaps the most perplexing part of all of this is the dominance continued off the ice and into the draft, where somehow Brackett and his team have quietly given the Wild arguably the best prospect pool in the entire NHL. The additions of center Marco Rossi and goaltender Jesper Wallstedt will fill positional gaps with star talent. An assortment of wingers with high NHL upside is led by Matt Boldy and a rock-solid defensive core for years to come is highlighted by newly acquired Brock Faber. The future of the Wild is a scary thought for anybody but the Wild.
Wild’s Current Status is Confusing
When you think about a team going through a rebuild, you do not expect that team to be competitive for many years. Rather, somewhere in the 5-10 range depending on circumstances. For instance, the Buffalo Sabres have missed the playoffs for 11 years in a row. After watching the Wild fall in the standings for a couple of seasons there was a simultaneous influx of new management and efflux of older players as the team was pointed in a new direction. Somehow within only a couple years the Wild were once again in the playoff race and the notion that this was a complete rebuild was dismissed by most fans. I would argue that this is a rebuild, just not in a traditional sense.
The Wild are no longer the grinding, defensive (sometimes boring) team of old, and instead are being rebuilt as a fast, high-octane powerhouse. The key difference between a traditional rebuild and the current Wild transformation is that team management was able to find a balance between trading players and collecting prospects. By maximizing return in trades, and being consistent in drafting NHL-level talent, the goal of being competitive during a rebuild has been successful. However, the true ability and depth of this team will not be felt until some of the aforementioned prospects break into the NHL to fill current positional gaps and get their feet underneath them. With a bright future ahead, Wild fans should sit back, enjoy the efficiency with which this rebuild is being completed, and look ahead to the dominant team of the future.
Being from the east coast of Canada, I’ve grown up immersed in hockey since before I was old enough to walk. The Minnesota Wild joined the league right as I was trying to find a favourite team and I have been committed to them ever since. I like to take breaks from my day job of writing reports as a Scientist by writing articles about my hockey passion. Follow me on twitter @tysmck15 for my latest.