No doubt about it. This one’s going to hurt for awhile.
This year was supposed to be different for the Wild. They were deeper, faster, more skilled. And somehow they put up less of a fight against the Blackhawks than they did last spring, falling in four straight.
It was a disappointing finish to a season that, for a while at least, promised so much more.
As they sort through the wreckage over the next few days, the Wild has to come to grips with some serious organizational flaws ... and the reality that they might not be able to do much about them.
The main problem for Minnesota, as it is with many teams at this time of year, was the inability to come up with a goal when they needed it the most.
They scored a total of seven times during their four games against Chicago. They never scored first. In fact, they never led in the series, not for a single moment.
Thomas Vanek, the off-season’s key acquisition, was held without a goal by the Hawks. So was trade deadline pickup Chris Stewart. Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle were blanked. Zach Parise scored only once. So did Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville and Nino Niederreiter.
That's not going to get it done.
So the question becomes, can this group get better next season? They’ll have to, because the team that opens up the 2015-16 campaign will look pretty much the same as this one. Barring trades, the Wild will return 10 of 13 forwards and six of seven defensemen. Any new blood that arrives is likely to be internal, and there are no stars-in-waiting in the system.
The Wild should have about $8.5 million worth of cap space this summer, but don’t expect them to be big players in free agency. That’s because Job 1 for GM Chuck Fletcher is determining how highly he values UFA goalie Devan Dubnyk.
That question was a lot easier to answer a month ago. There’s no downplaying Dubnyk’s value during the regular season. Without him, the Wild would have been relegated to the draft lottery and would be facing a summer of upheaval that could have extended all the way to the front office. He singlehandedly saved their season.
But the erosion of his play in the playoffs can’t be ignored. During two rounds, Dubnyk posted a pedestrian 2.52 GAA and .908 save percentage, a significant drop-off compared to the 2.07 and .929 he put up during the regular season. More to the point, he was badly outperformed by Corey Crawford, the goalie who was benched for most of Chicago’s first-round win over Nashville. And while he was let down by a porous defense more than once, Dubnyk also coughed up a couple of painful goals at the worst possible moments.
It was a performance that will cost him both money and years in his next deal, and while it’s almost certain that contract will be with the Wild, the door has opened just a crack to the possibility that he could be allowed to sign elsewhere.
Assuming he’s on board though, the Wild will have three NHL goalies under contract. Darcy Kuemper is young and has upside. He’s sure to stick around. There’ll be talk of buying veteran Niklas Backstrom out of the final year of a deal that will pay him $3.4 million next season, but that seems unlikely. It makes more sense to pay him now when there are no cap concerns that push some of his money into the future where it might cause a problem.
UFAs Chris Stewart, Sean Bergenheim, Josh Harding and Nate Prosser have likely played their last game in Wild green. It’s possible that Jordan Leopold and Kyle Brodziak could be retained to provide depth, but both would have to sign team-friendly deals.
If there’s any significant change, it could come on the blueline.
There should be talk about Ryan Suter, at least in terms of how he’s employed. The veteran is an absolute horse during the regular season, leading the league with an average of 29:03 per night in 2014-15. But he’s a diminished asset in the postseason, putting up a –18 rating in 28 games since signing with the Wild. That stat has fallen out of favor with some, but a number that huge is tough to ignore. Add in his negligible performance on the power play and it seems like he might benefit from an adjusted workload next season.
All told, it doesn’t add up to much of a shakeup after such a humbling end to the season. Unless Fletcher has a bold deal up his sleeve, it looks like more of the same next year for the Wild.
The numbers game
• The Blackhawks, who hadn’t finished off a sweep on the road since 1996 when they beat the Flames in the opening round, are now the first team to eliminate the same opponent in three consecutive years since the Maple Leafs dispatched the Senators from 2000 through 2002.
• Not since the first round of the 1997 postseason has Montreal forced a Game 5 while trailing three games to none in a series. That year the Canadiens ended up losing to the Devils in five games, but their 6-2 win over Tampa Bay made them only the second team in NHL history to stave off a sweep on the road by a margin of four or more goals. The other: Sidney Crosby’s Penguins, who beat the Flyers 10–3 in Philadelphia before falling in six games during the 2012 playoffs.
• Entering Friday night’s Game 5 vs. the Rangers, goalie Braden Holtby of the Capitals held a career postseason record of 16-15 with a 1.87 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. In 13 of those 16 wins, including his last 10, he allowed no more than one goal.
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