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Zulgad: Waiting on Kaprizov: Winless Wild’s season already looking like lost cause

ST. PAUL — Three games into the NHL schedule is too early for any team to give up hope. So it did not come as a surprise that everyone affiliated with the Minnesota Wild attempted to remain positive following the first 0-3 start in franchise history.

The team hadn’t even played its home opener.

That came on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center and, well, now it’s time to get realistic. The Wild’s 7-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins put Minnesota’s goal differential at minus-11 this season and sent the announced crowd of 19,157 home with little hope that things will improve.

The building basically emptied afterJake Guentzel scored at 10:48 of the third period on a power play to make it 6-2. The Wild, aka The Furious Rallies, returned to their old ways with two goals late in the third but Pittsburgh got an empty-net goal as the Wild lost in regulation in their home opener for the first time in 19 years.

“We have to figure it out quick or it’s going to be a long year,” defenseman Jared Spurgeon said.

“Every year you have to create your identity and the good teams get to that identity right away and the teams that struggle out of the gates, I think that’s a big part of it. They’re trying to find that identity and obviously we’re that team right now,” defenseman Ryan Suter said.

All of this offers hopes that things can take a drastic turn for the better. Don’t count on it.

The Wild’s younger players don’t yet look skilled enough to help and the older players appear to be too slow. Zach Parise and Eric Staal combined for zero of the Wild’s 33 shots on Saturday and were a combined minus-3. Coach Bruce Boudreau might want to rethink his usual desire to start Devan Dubnyk on a nightly basis considering some of the juicy rebounds the goalie is giving up. There was talk before the season that the Wild might be able to contend for a wild card spot in the Western Conference but that now appears laughable.

There is little reason for optimism for the 2019-20 season, only hope that Kirill Kaprizov will leave the KHL after this season and combine with a top-five pick from the 2020 draft to give this franchise and its fan base a much-needed spark.

The most perplexing thing Saturday didn’t happen during the game. It was Boudreau’s decision to scratch young winger Ryan Donato and play center Victor Rask, who was scratched from the first three games. Rask, obtained from Carolina for Nino Niederreiter in what will go down as the worst trade in the Wild’s history, is making $4 million in the fourth season of a six-year, $24 million contract.

Rask isn’t a good skater and adds little to the team — he was on the fourth line with Marcus Foligno and Ryan Hartman to open Saturday’s game — but Boudreau likely figured he should play the veteran at some point. Rask did get an assist on the Wild’s second goal.

But why did his playing time come at the expense of Donato?

This isn’t to say Donato is a fantastic player. He got off to a solid start after the Wild obtained him from Boston last February for Charlie Coyle before finishing with one assist in his last seven games. But new general manager Bill Guerin and Boudreau must get a look at their young core every chance possible.

The answer on Saturday would have been to scratch Staal, who reportedly has been playing with some type of injury and now has an assist in four games. Watching Staal, it’s clear that he should be rested until whatever is wrong begins to heal.

In most cases, this might sound harsh. Scratching a guy like Staal might be difficult. But that type of move, with a team that appears to be this bad, really isn’t difficult at all. It’s common sense.

Guerin, who was assistant general manager in Pittsburgh before being hired to replace Paul Fenton in August, watched his former team beat up on his new club from the press box. Guerin might not have been happy but he also knows he has plenty of time to fix this.

This might be his problem but it isn’t the team he built and that means no matter how positive owner Craig Leipold might try to be in the name of ticket sales, Guerin can inform him that this is going to be a long winter and there’s nothing that can be done to change that.

Ultimately, this might be the best thing that could have happened to the Wild. First-round playoff exits had become the norm and nobody was excited about a team that was just good enough to make the postseason but not make a run once it started.

Guerin will undoubtedly try to convince Kaprizov (he has 10 goals and 18 points in 16 games in the KHL this season) that his presence — and likely that of a high draft pick — can help to change that beginning next season. Unfortunately, there are still 78 games remaining in a 2019-20 season from which hope already is heading out the door.


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