In a perfect world for the Wild, they would be battling the Colorado Avalanche in the second round of the NHL playoffs right now, not talking about this season in the past tense.
After a round of exit interviews earlier this week, Wild players and coaches have gone their separate ways with their offseason in full swing much sooner than they expected.
Perhaps coach Dean Evason put it best. While the Wild should feel a lot of pride in what they accomplished this season, they should also be feeling immense disappointment that they are watching the rest of the playoffs from the discomfort of their couch.
After finishing 35-16-5 in the regular season, third in the West division, the Wild lost in seven games to Vegas in the opening round of the playoffs.
“Every season when we go in, our goal is to win the Stanley Cup, so in that sense, it was a failure,” Evason said. “But we had a good regular season and we can build on that. We are looking forward to that next season.”
If it feels different heading into this offseason from a fan’s perspective, just know the Wild are feeling that, too. There’s an overarching sense of optimism surrounding this core and its potential to become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in the future.
With star rookie Kirill Kaprizov leading the way, and other highly skilled players taking the next step, the Wild established themselves among the most exciting teams in the league this season. Let’s just say the high-octane offense is nothing like the Jacques Lemaire-coached teams of the past that used to win by lulling opponents to sleep.
“It’s felt different,” defenseman Matt Dumba said. “’This isn’t your old Minnesota Wild team.”
That has to be music to the ears of general manager Bill Guerin. He has been trying to change the culture of the franchise ever since he took over 22 months ago, and he finally started to see the fruits of his labor this season.
Just look at the way the Wild battled tooth and nail with the Golden Knights in the playoffs. After falling behind 3-1 in the series, the Wild battled back to tie the series with back-to-back victories before ultimately running out of gas in Game 7.
“If we’re going to go out, that’s the way to go out,” Guerin said. “I’m proud of our players and I’m proud of our coaching staff. I feel like there’s a lot of buzz in the market for our team, and for good reason.”
Though the Wild would have loved to make a deeper run at the Stanley Cup this season, that seemed like a long shot. This was always going to be a transitional year for the Wild, and they exceeded expectations every step of the way.
Whether it was Kaprizov taking the league by storm, dynamic winger Kevin Fiala continuing his ascension, two-way center Joel Eriksson Ek taking a gigantic leap, or various other players stepping up, the Wild have a lot to feel good about moving forward.
“I think the steps that our players took as individuals and the steps that we took as a team were big,” Guerin said. “The process that we’re going through to try to build a championship team is good. I really do feel that we took steps in the regular season. And in the playoffs. It was disappointing to go out in the first round, but the signs I see in my seat as a general manager were positive.”
Maybe the biggest step forward for the Wild came off the ice. There was a close-knit vibe in the locker room this season with captain Jared Spurgeon in charge. While playing in the middle of a pandemic could have pulled the team apart, Spurgeon made sure it brought the team together.
“Just being happy for each other and supporting each other is a big thing,” Spurgeon said. “Everyone was happy for each other, whether they were scoring goals, making plays or getting that recognition. I think that’s huge.”
Added Fiala: “I feel that our team is like a family. There’s something special in this team. Everybody wants to win and wants to do everything for each other. We had some up and downs all season, but we always stuck together. That’s why I love this team.”
What’s the next step for the Wild?
“We just need to continue to grow,” Evason said. “We’ve seen the individual growth in so many players. That just has to continue to get better and better. The way we played as a group and as a team on a nightly basis, with a team-first mentality, was very exciting to us as a coaching staff and as a franchise. We just want to continue to build on that.”
As for Guerin, while he admitted the Wild are maybe a little further along than he expected at this point, he isn’t satisfied with where they are.
“It’s going in the right direction,” Guerin said. “Can I say we’re ahead of schedule? Not really, because we got knocked out in the first round, and that’s not good enough. There are some signs from this team that I’m extremely happy with. We made some really good steps this year.”