ST. PAUL — During a season in which the Minnesota Wild forfeited the right to have the final say on what happened to them, their playoff hopes came to an end on Tuesday night long after they had left the ice at Xcel Energy Center.
An hour after completing a 5-1 victory over Winnipeg — giving the Wild a 5-0 record against the Central Division co-leaders this season — the Colorado Avalanche made it impossible for Minnesota to make a seventh consecutive postseason appearance by completing a 6-2 victory over visiting Edmonton.
The mood in the Wild’s locker room, and in coach Bruce Boudreau’s press conference, felt like one of resignation, even though the Avs’ lead was only at two goals as the Wild’s postgame access was going on.
“It’s tough,” said winger Marcus Foligno, who scored the Wild’s fifth goal against overmatched Jets backup goalie Eric Comrie. “We played a really good game, (but) too little, too late in the season in general. We had a lot of chances at home to play like this. It catches up to you, obviously. It’s such a hard league and you never want your fate to be in someone else’s hands or some other team’s hands, so it’s tough. … It’s tough to miss it.”
The Wild’s season, which now has two games remaining, essentially came to an end Sunday with a 4-0 loss at Arizona. The Wild had a chance to move a point ahead of the Coyotes and two points back of the Avalanche (holding the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference) with a victory. Of course, there were many, many missteps by the Wild before that defeat, including several embarrassing performances at home.
Even with the victory over the Jets on Tuesday, the Wild are a dreadful 16-17-7 at Xcel Energy this season after having so much success on home ice for so many years. Considering how superstitious hockey people are, the Wild’s “This is Our Ice” campaign likely will be long gone by the start of the 2019-20 season.
This will mark only the second time in Boudreau’s 12 seasons as an NHL coach that his team will fail to qualify for the postseason. The first time came in 2011-12, when he started the season with Washington but was fired by the Capitals after only 22 games. He was quickly hired by Anaheim but the Ducks fell short of a postseason berth.
“The reality is that even Scotty Bowman — and I’m not putting myself in that category — but everybody misses (the playoffs at some point),” Boudreau said. “If you miss it you just get madder the next year and you at least know what it feels like and you don’t ever want that feeling again.”
This will mark the first time the Wild have failed to make the playoffs since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed identical $98 million, 13-year contracts on July 4, 2012. Those signings were expected to result in Stanley Cup runs but that hasn’t come close to happening. The Wild haven’t gotten past the second round in making six consecutive playoff appearances and the past three seasons have ended with first-round defeats. The Wild are 15-29 in those eight playoff series.
Wild owner Craig Leipold fired general manager Chuck Fletcher after last season because of the lack of playoff success and hired Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton. But in deciding not to retain Fletcher, Leipold sent a mixed message by declaring that the Wild would not be undergoing a rebuild and that tweaks would be enough to improve the team.
That sounded like folly at the time and just shy of a year later it proved to be exactly that.
Fenton showed patience in not immediately hitting the reset button but his patience was not endless and as he watched this maddening collection of players night after night. He came to the same conclusion that everyone but Leipold had. Significant changes were needed and a young core of players put together by Fletcher had to be dismantled.
Whether Fenton has made the right moves, or is the right man for this job, remains to be seen. The trade that sent Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for Victor Rask, who scored his second goal with Minnesota in 21 games on Tuesday, looks like a bust. Niederreiter has 13 goals in 33 games with the Hurricanes. The Charlie Coyle for Ryan Donato trade with Boston looks fantastic for the Wild, and there is no winner at this point in the Mikael Granlund for Kevin Fiala swap that Fenton made with his old buddy, David Poile, in Nashville.
Fenton also made a couple of lesser moves to pick up winger Pontus Aberg and defenseman Anthony Bitetto — two guys he knew from his days in Nashville — and both of those players appear as if they will be fine additions to the Iowa Wild next season, if they remain with the organization.
The Wild also suffered a major loss in mid-December when defenseman Matt Dumba suffered a ruptured right pectoral in a fight against Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk. Dumba led NHL defenseman in goals and ranked tied for first in power-play goals when he was lost for the season. The loss of veteran center Mikko Koivu to a season-ending knee injury in February also had an impact.
But every NHL team has to deal with injuries and to focus on them provides the type of far-too-easy excuse that many in the Wild locker room have embraced for too long. That’s why Fenton felt the need to begin making changes. Fenton also realized that the Wild simply wasn’t that good.
There are likely more changes to come in the offseason. Fenton’s deadline deals — which included the Coyle and Granlund trades — also reportedly nearly had winger Jason Zucker being shipped to Calgary. It wouldn’t be surprising if Zucker is relocated this offseason. There might be a few surprises, too.
Boudreau’s future remains uncertain as well. Fletcher brought Boudreau to Minnesota in 2016, signing him to a four-year contract that pays about $3 million per season. That means the 64-year-old has only one year left on his contract but recent reports suggest he also has two additional years on his deal to serve as a consultant.
Fenton could attempt to fire Boudreau and promote Dean Evason to head coach. Evason was the coach of the Milwaukee Admirals, Nashville’s AHL affiliate, when Fenton ran that minor league team for the Predators. Fenton hired Evason and put him on Boudreau’s coaching staff last offseason, setting the wheels in motion for such a move. However, that will only happen if Leipold signs off on paying Boudreau not to work for the Wild, while also paying Evason to be the head coach.
These decisions will come after the Wild closes the season on Thursday against Boston at Xcel Energy Center and then on Saturday in Dallas. If you like what remains of the Wild team Fletcher assembled, the advice here is to get one last long look because while Leipold said he only expected tweaks, Fenton clearly isn’t done hitting the detonate button.