Northwest: Wild’s struggles not without a silver lining

By Blake Benzel

 

Photo: While the Minnesota Wild have struggled badly in the second half of the 2011-12 season, there is hope for the future in the form of prospects like Charlie Coyle of the Saint John Sea Dogs (courtesy of Dave Connell/HF)

 

 

The Minnesota Wild have had a dismal season this year. From losing three of their top-six forwards to injury for a bulk of the season to their historic slide from the top of the NHL to a lottery pick, this season has been memorable in Minnesota for all of the wrong reasons.

But there’s reason to be optimistic in Minnesota.

First, you only have to look at the Wild’s record before their slide started. At 20-7-3, no one would deny that the Wild were overachieving, but it was how they were overachieving that was of note.

They were winning games with a team effort, with balanced scoring, tremendous defense and terrific goaltending and, for the most part, they were healthy.

Then, on Dec. 13, the wheels came off.

Since losing to Winnipeg 2-1 in overtime (coincidentally, the game that the Wild lost Guillaume Latendresse for what seems to be the remainder of the season and that Pierre-Marc Bouchard points to as the game he was concussed again), the Wild have won just ten games and have had three separate losing streaks of five or more games.

As Mike Yeo told reporters after the Wild blew a three-goal lead against the Carolina Hurricanes on Mar. 17, “We’re in hell.”

When the team was healthy, however, they were able to put the puck in the net – scoring 2.63 goals per game – and, when they weren’t able to put the puck in the net, they were at least adept at keeping it out, giving up just 2.17 per game. With the same core players returning next year, there’s hope that this trend will re-emerge.

Another reason for optimism in Minnesota is their cap situation. The Wild have just 15 players under contract for next season and they have roughly $18.6 million to fill out their roster – more than enough room to pursue a big name free agent like Ryan Suter or Zach Parise, or maybe even both.

Indeed, that seems to be a priority as general manager Chuck Fletcher told reporters following the trade deadline.

Part of our push as we get better will be from young players, part of it will be from adding NHL players”, said Fletcher. “In order to do that, you need either cap space or you need young assets to trade, and the good news is we feel we have both. Whether it’s this summer or this winter, we think we’re in the best position we’ve ever been in terms of being going out and get better quickly.”

But clearly, when you look at our team this year, we have a good core of players. But we just need a few more. And that’s our challenge. And how quickly we get there, I can’t say. But we’ll certainly try. That’s the next step for us as a franchise.”

And finally, the Wild have stocked up a solid group of prospects and young players through drafting and deft free agent signings.

Defenseman Nate Prosser seems poised to step up and assume a huge role on the team’s blue line going forward, as does goaltender Matthew Hackett. Prosser was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010 and has already become a key member of the Wild’s blueline, while Hackett was the Wild’s third round pick (77th overall) in the 2009 NHL Draft. Hackett's play while the Wild have suffered through injuries in their crease has many clamoring for a full season to see what he can do.

Then there’s players like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Johan Larsson, Jonas Brodin and Zack Phillips in the wings, all of whom seem poised to turn pro next season and all of whom should at least contend for a roster spot right out of training camp. Add in Erik Haula and Mario Lucia, both of whom are having terrific seasons in their respective leagues this year, but are at least two years away, if not more.

And let’s not forget the likelihood that Minnesota will be picking in the top-five of a draft that seems to be very top heavy this off season.

So, overall, Minnesota may be having a disappointing season – one of the most disappointing in recent memory – but there is much to be excited about on the horizon, both for the organization and for its fans.

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