There was plenty of discussion late in the season about this Wild team and whether it was the best edition in franchise history. There were certainly arguments to be made.
You likely know the numbers by now. The 113 points and 53 wins compiled during the campaign were franchise records by a wide margin. This roster looks to be the most talented of any Wild team, led by Kirill Kaprizov, who already has made a strong case to be the best player in the Wild’s still relatively brief existence.
But best team in franchise history? Not anymore.
Not after they were ousted in the first round in six games by St. Louis, capped by Thursday’s 5-1 blowout road defeat.
Now the 2021-22 Minnesota Wild will be remembered similarly to many of their predecessors: a regular-season team that flamed out far too early in the postseason.
“Those are not the milestones we’re looking for,” Wild general manager Bill Guerin said in April. “Like I’ve talked about all year, there are higher expectations here, and making the playoffs is nice, but that’s not enough.”
Maybe that’s not fair in the NHL, where the difference between teams is so microscopic that the margin for error is almost always nil. You outplay your opponents just to try to boost your win probability to maybe 75 percent, then hope fortune favors your efforts.
But it’s the reality in pro sports. You’re not judged by who you have, but what you do — and, more specifically, what you do when it matters most.
And in that all-important column, the Wild logged another zero.
Perhaps future Wild teams will finally make the leap in May. There is reason to believe that will be the case. Kaprizov is a player capable of carrying a team for multiple rounds, as he nearly did in this series.
Also armed with the likes of Kevin Fiala, Joel Erikkson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Matt Boldy, this team has enough talent to make deep playoff runs. But that was the same tune everyone was singing after last year’s first-round exit: Good season, great future. Wait until next year.
That team, with a core that was a year younger and less experienced, took an arguably better Las Vegas team further before bowing out in seven games. That defeat felt more like a beginning than an end — like a learning experience that had to be absorbed prior to future advancements.
This just feels like failure.
“Next year” came and went, with nothing more than a whimper.
What were last year’s experiences if not to prepare Minnesota for a game like Thursday, in a packed barn in St. Louis against a veteran team? The Wild looked as though they’d never played in such an environment Thursday.
The Blues took an early lead, then blew the Wild’s doors off in the decisive second period to slam the casket on the Wild’s playoff lives.
All of Guerin’s “win now” moves made during the season proved largely ineffective when it came time for them to actually take hold. Minnesota again didn’t appear as though it belonged.
Good season? Great future? Wait until next year?
What were definitive statements last spring now feel, at best, like hopes.
Next year’s seemingly inevitable playoff appearance will be packed with pressure. These guys can’t bow out in the first round again … can they? That’s the reality the Wild have created for themselves. Time will tell if they can handle it. Recent results suggest otherwise.
Marian Gaborik, Richard Park and Andrew Brunette probably didn’t pop a bottle of champagne in celebration of Thursday’s Wild defeat, but they could’ve. Until a Wild team shows the fortitude necessary to make the efforts and plays to make a legitimate postseason push, the mystique of 2003 carries forward like a magical myth that, at this point, does not feel replicable.
The lightning caught in that bottle sailed out to sea long ago, and the Wild haven’t located it since.
For now, this current cast sits alongside the Zach Parises, Ryan Suters, Mikko Koivus and Niklas Backstoms of Wild “lore” — mere footnotes in a largely uninspiring history.
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