The Wild had a chance to take Game 1, which went into overtime, and won Game 3 in front of a raucous home crowd at the Xcel Energy Center, but the Blackhawks smashed them in the other three games: 5-2, 3-0 and 5-1.
Chicago is a team that has won the Stanley Cup recently and is built to win now. Minnesota was a middling startup franchise that had worn out its honeymoon period before Zach Parise and Ryan Suter arrived in the Twin Cities.
The Wild met expectations by going to the playoffs and losing to an experienced team in the first round.
Yes, it would have been nice to get the sixth or seventh seed and face the upstart Anaheim Ducks or a Vancouver Canucks team that got swept in the first round, but this team ultimately had to go through Chicago in order to get to the Stanley Cup.
This is not time for panic. Mike Yeo deserves another year, Mikko Koivu and Parise will produce more in upcoming seasons and this club may well become a force in the NHL.
Stability is key to this team’s success and it has many of the pieces you need to win the Stanley Cup…only many of them were injured or too young this year.
The Defensive Corps Will Get Better With Age
There were basically three impact players on the Wild blue line that were over the age of 26 this year: Tom Gilbert (30), Clayton Stoner (28) and, of course, Ryan Suter (28). And Stoner was injured.
Brett Clark is 36, but he isn’t part of the Wild’s future and there is some question as to whether Joel Prosser, 27, will ever be an impact defenseman in this league.
That leaves us with a lot of spring chickens.
Jonas Brodin is 19, but plays like he’s 29. He was paired with Suter in even-strength situations for most of the season and really got snubbed when he didn’t get nominated for the Calder Trophy. By doing his job, namely remaining unnoticed for long periods of time on the ice because his defense is so good, he hurt himself in a way because I feel voters want a splashy young player to name Rookie of the Year.
This is no bother to the Wild fans, though. We want him to keep doing his thing. This guy is the real deal.
Justin Falk (24), Jared Spurgeon (23) and Marco Scandella (23) are all a work in progress, however.
Falk is a big body (6’5”, 215 lbs.) that will be an effective NHL defensemen in the future if he can position himself better on the ice. Part of this is simply playing—he needs more experience—but the other part is offseason training. He needs to spend the summer working to be faster in next year’s training camp.
Spurgeon is the second coming of Marc-Andre Bergeron—a little dude with a big slapper. He’s an asset when he’s paired with Ryan Suter on the power play and can play five-on-five as long as he’s paired with a larger defensive partner (hint, hint, Mr. Falk).
Finally, Scandella spent most of the regular season in Houston, but really stepped up in the playoffs. He was the fifth-leading scorer on the team in the postseason, tallying more points than Koivu and Parise.
Of the three, Scandella looks like he has the most upside.
Over the next few years, the defensive corps will fill out simply because these guys are beginning to enter their prime. Once these guys really get going, Minnesota will be in a position to make a run at the best teams in the West.
Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle Can Provide Offensive Depth
Wild fans want to burn Parise and Koivu at the stake for their lack of production in this series. Parise had one goal and was minus-7 while Koivu had no points and was minus-6.
The two players make $7.5 million and $6.7 million per year respectively and are owed a combined $145.25 million over the course of their contracts.
People are already calling the Wild’s recent spending spree a bust.
Simmer down, everybody. Everything is going to be alright.
Take a look at the Anaheim Ducks. For a few years, they had expensive, highly talented forwards like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne and Bobby Ryan, but could never make the playoffs.
This season, Anaheim went on a tear, separated itself from the rest of the pack and finished second in the Western Conference behind the Chicago Blackhawks. The team's inexperience in the playoffs ended up costing it a series against the Detroit Red Wings—a team that has become a regular in the postseason—but the Ducks took the Wings to seven games and appear to have a bright future ahead of them.
What’s the difference between these Ducks and the Ducks of the past few years?
They added depth by developing two young players: Kyle Palmieri and Emerson Etem. Suddenly, a team that was incredibly top-heavy got scoring from all over and didn’t allow the opposition to play its top defensemen solely against Anaheim's top lines.
A similar thing is going to happen in Minnesota as long as Mikael Granlund, Coyle and Zucker continue to develop. All three players are 21. All three of them are blessed with incredible talent. And all three of them will be depth players because Jason Pominville is projected to play with Parise and Koivu on the top line.
Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson were able to pair up with Koivu and Parise every time they were on the ice because they didn’t have to defend Granlund, Zucker and Coyle.
Once those guys get going, combined with the presence of Devin Setoguchi and hopefully Matt Cullen ("hopefully" being the key word there), Koivu and Parise will see more favorable matchups in the future.
Good things are coming, Wild fans. Just be patient with the young guys.
Injuries Really Hurt
Without Niklas Backstrom, the team had to rely on Josh Harding—a goaltender that battled multiple sclerosis all year—and 22-year-old Darcy Kuemper.
Without Pominville, the Wild had to move Coyle up to the first line. While he plays much older than his age, it cuts into the team’s depth and forced it to use an inexperienced player on the top line.
And without Dany Heatley, the team lost a proven goal scorer that had added weight and was more productive in front of net. Heater’s injury also meant that the team was lacking scoring depth, a major reason why Keith and Hjalmarsson were able to shut down Koivu and Parise.
Heatley and Pominville were felled by dirty hits: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, a former teammate of Heatley's with the San Jose Sharks, slashed him whereas Pominville took an elbow to the face from Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings.
Also, Corey Perry gave Zucker an “upper-body injury” with a hit to the head earlier in the season that may have hampered his development a bit.
Let’s just say Minnesota will have some beef with the California teams next season.
Backstrom’s injury may have come as a result of overuse down the stretch. He played all of the team’s contests in April and left Game 1 during warm-ups due to a lower-body injury.
All in all, the Wild lost three players that were critical to their success against Chicago.
Getting off to a good start next season is going to be crucial for the Wild. Yeo will have a complete training camp and exhibition season to work with his team and there should be no excuses in 2013-14.
It’s going to be an incredibly difficult division with the St. Louis Blues and Blackhawks replacing the Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Avalanche as the team’s primary rivals, but there is no reason that a team this talented cannot clinch a playoff seed between No. 3 and No. 6 in the conference.
Minnesota’s success really depends on how the younger players progress in the offseason. If they come out better because of this playoff experience, it won’t be for waste.
Hopefully, in a few years, we’ll all look back at the early exit against Chicago and think of it simply as one step in the process of building a dynasty in the State of Hockey.