As a Wild fan, it pains me to write this article. It truly cuts to my core that I must acknowledge the futility of our current situation, and I’m not happy to be doing it. However, for the growth and progress of all Wild fans across the country, it is important that one of our own be the one to rip the Band-Aid off and confirm what reporters, analysts, and NHL fans everywhere have been militantly spewing in our direction for the better part of a decade. The Minnesota Wild are not contenders. They have not been contenders for years, and it’s high time we face that fact together as a fanbase.
At the outset of this offseason, the current management of the Minnesota Wild looked a lot like Katniss Everdeen at the beginning of the first Hunger Games: lost and stumbling through the forest with no real idea of what direction they want to go.
The organization fired [previous] GM Chuck Fletcher and replaced him with Paul Fenton, who, admittedly, has made some great moves this offseason. Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker were re-signed, but the franchise is still caught gazing into that TV set from Poltergeist, unsure whether a cup window will ever open, if it’s finally time to rebuild, or if they are going to be stuck with another decade of first-round exits and a fanbase ready to forgive Norm Green and bring the North Stars back.
The Wild are a perennial playoff team, currently tied for the second-longest active postseason appearance streak in the NHL at six consecutive seasons. But what team, honestly, can you name over the past six seasons who has been legitimately scared to face the Wild in the postseason? The only team I can even attempt to make a case for is the St. Louis Blues in round one of the 2014-15 Stanley Cup playoffs, when Devan Dubnyk strung together 27 wins and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
And what happened in the next round? The Blackhawks. Oh, of course it would be the Blackhawks! Why wouldn’t it be the Blackhawks?! It’s always the Blackhawks! The Wild ran headstrong with the lovably incompetent will and determination of Forrest Gump directly into a wall made of Corey Crawford, only to have their skates cut out from under them by Patrick Kane before they could hit the ground with any recognizable sense of dignity.
The Blackhawks weren’t scared of the Wild. They had no reason to be scared of the Wild. By this point in the season, Joel Quenneville was already ordering champagne by the caseload for the victory party as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were both basking in the $84 million ray of sunshine that was coming their way as soon as they brought the cup back to the Windy City. The Wild have never been anything more than a mile-marker on some more fortunate team’s path to glory.
The team spent big money back in 2012 to lock up Zach Parise and Ryan Suter for (more than likely) the remainder of their careers. The two were both signed to 13-year $98,000,000 contracts with an AAV of over $7.5 million each.
The team did this with stars in their eyes and fire in their bellies to become immediate contenders and open up a cup window, but six years after the fact, there is no hardware to show for all that spending, Parise’s injury concerns have grown, and neither of the two are getting younger. Ryan Suter is still a powerhouse D-Man, playing for every penny he’s paid, and his style of play appears like it will lend itself greatly to old age, but it is impossible to build the core needed to make a cup run when nearly 20% of your annual cap space is dedicated to two aging veterans heading into the twilight of their careers. It’s purely undeniable that these two contracts are holding this team back from achieving anything worth more than the Golden Light draft swill they peddle out of Xcel Energy Center by the barrel.
With all of their money locked up, the Wild are at least three years out from even beginning to consider the buyout on these contracts necessary for a rebuild.
The team’s prospects are exhilarating to watch: Joel Eriksson-Ek appears to be on track to fill Mikko Koivu’s skates. Luke Kunin and that admittedly great jawline has bought up real estate near the crease of every AHL goalie he’s come across, and Kirill Kaprizov is shaping up to be an all-star out of the gate once he makes the move from the KHL, but these guys are still at least a couple seasons out from producing at an NHL level in any meaningful way.
As a Wild fan, it’s hard to feel bad about what the team has accomplished, but it’s also hard to feel anything better than Bill-Murray-in-Rushmore-Pool-Scene-level melancholy. It’s a strange spot to be in as a fan. How long will this team be perennial disappointments before Paul Fenton realizes Bruce Boudreau will never coach a team past the second round, no matter how much he deserves to? How many more first round exits can a fanbase endure?
I love this team and wish them all the best. I hope this team can piece together a cup run. I hope everything I’m writing today can be discounted eight months from now. I absolutely hope Paul Fenton can make something out of the hand he has been dealt, but from my perspective all the Wild have done for me is proven that living in Purgatory is absolutely worse than living in Hell.