WILD under the microscope?
Dean Evason (Photo by Scott Paulus)
BIG SANDY LAKE It has been a mere nine days since the Minnesota WILD received their annual playoff whupping. GM Bill Guerin is still in place so it looks like he will be retained by the club. Likewise for Head Coach Dean Evason although that's a guess because little to nothing has been said about his status in the playoff aftermath. I've been clear that I think Evason is a decent coach in the regular season and that I don't believe he knows how to coach a winner in the Stanley Cup tournament. I don't need any more samples of his playoff futility. 0-4 in series, 8-15 in games. My jury is in.
It isn't anything personal but when it comes to upper-level hockey, especially in the biggest hockey tourney in the world outside of the Olympics, I very much analyze everything in black & white. You are either winning or you aren't. We are told that in professional sports there only IS winning and losing. You may agree with that or not of your own volition, but that's my personal lens. In addition, it took me many years to get there, but I leave my emotions on the porch when it comes to considering these matters too. Emotions have a tendency to cloud many decisions or opinions.
My view on the league at tourney time each year is that there are about four teams that are good enough to go after the Cup. There are another four that could win it with breaks, no injuries and the hockey gods watching out for them. After that, any team in the "bottom" eight would have to be surfing on a hockey wave of extraordinary luck. I think some call it the horseshoe and hind-end theory or something like that.
So relative to Dean's lack of playoff abilities has he had a roster that was going to win the tournament anyway? No. That's not my post playoff disappointment speaking it is the current reality of this roster. In fact, it has always been the reality of this team. Make no mistake, it is a quality organization as evidenced by league-wide opinion and quotes to that effect. On the other hand, they have only made it so far up the hockey ladder, and every time it looks like they might be ready to climb a few more rungs they get smacked down.
Now I'm not under the impression that winning a Cup is easy. There are so many factors that have to go a team's way it would make your head spin. Here is an analogy for you, just consider how hard it would be and how many things would have to be in your favor to win a State PeeWee Championship. To win a Stanley Cup you have to multiply that by about one hundred times. It is literally that hard.
But I hold these truths to be self-evident, the WILD "core" group isn't Cup-worthy. The team depth isn't Cup-worthy. The goaltending? As a tandem Filip Gustavsson and Marc Andre' Fleury are upper-level for regular season play. I feel that Gus has emerged as the team's number one.
How much higher can he elevate his game? I also know that next season is likely to be the last for Fleury, then he can make that trip to Toronto in five years to get his Hockey Hall of Fame ring. I'll be cheering as loudly as anyone when that day arrives.
With Jesper Wallstedt playing for the Iowa WILD and building his pro experience level the club could have one of the best tandems going within three years and be set for several seasons between the pipes. That is a great start. Many a successful GMs have built their Cup winner by going from the goal out. The WILD's strategy in that regard has been inconsistent over the years.
After that, and considering the salary cap "handcuffs" the team will be wearing for the next two seasons that will inhibit their ability to build and fill out the team roster, what would I do? First I'd stop the denial that exists within this organization. They do not possess a Cup contender now and will not until they decide to exit from the fantasyland that they can build a winner or have a "soft" rebuild on the go.
It's time to tear it down and build it the right way. Guerin mistakenly thought he could beat the formula of building a winner that way when he made a small pile of acquisitions this year leading up to the trade deadline. He thought the team was close enough to contender status to roll the dice on these. How did that go?
Gus Nyquist and Marcus Johansson were good, but after that not so much. John Klingberg's defensive deficiencies were exposed. Oskar Sundqvist was injured and was a non-contributor. These deals didn't cost the club much but did not put the club over. On the upside none of them had long-term contracts that were going to further hold the club down in the future.
At this point, I would lock on to what I could make the team look like when the dead cap space restriction is lifted. I would take an inventory of what assets I had at this time along with what their age and contract status would be at the end of it. If there are players who don't still fit by the time that arrives, or if their current deals are a drag on the team's cap status, I'd move them. I would shave this thing right down to the skull. Why not? This team won't be winning a Cup at any time in the next two seasons or more. What is there to lose? Absolutely nothing.
From the big roster I'd keep, Boldy, Eriksson Ek, Gaudreau, Johansson, Brodin, Faber, Middleton, Spurgeon, and Gustavsson. I start entertaining offers on Kirill Kaprizov because I have a sneaking suspicion that he will not sign another deal in St. Paul. Get everything you could for him and do it now. For "In the system" players, I'd keep Bankier, Firstov, Haight, Milne, Novak, Ohgren, Rossi, Walker, Hunt, Lambos, Masters, and Spacek.
I'd put my scouting processes into hyper-drive, and if the team happened to play poorly enough to actually get a top-three spot in the draft lottery for a couple of years, so be it.
This team needs a real, true number one, stud-level D-man, (which they have never really had in their history) and they need a couple of high-performing centers. And then they need to be very intelligent at how they build the remainder of the roster.
It is a huge positive to have a team that has a "good room" and gets along with one another. The WILD have that. It absolutely helps, but then I consider if this team has dipped its collective toes into a "country club" status. I wonder because those clubs almost always have problems and don't win titles. And that is exactly where this team is at right now. The club playoff theme this year was "Grit First." That didn't take them too far. When the team gets past the next two years, here's a new one, "Win First." PEACE