When did you give up on the Wild?
Was it after the 1-6 start to the season? Was it when Jason Zucker was dealt to Pittsburgh ? Was it when Bruce Boudreau was fired as coach and Dean Evason took over in an interim role? Maybe it was when Zach Parise was nearly shipped to the New York Islanders at the trade deadline.
Whatever the case, no one could be blame you if you checked out on the Wild at some point and said, “Tell me when Kirill Kaprizov arrives.”
If that was the case, we’ve got news for you. It’s time to give consideration to getting back on the bandwagon. The Wild’s turn around continued on Thursday night with a 3-2 victory in San Jose. That put the Wild back in a playoff position for the first time since Dec. 6, moving them into the seventh and top wild card spot in the Western Conference.
The Wild have 15 games remaining and there were seven teams within seven points of each other entering Friday, beginning with Calgary at 77 points and extending to Chicago at 70. The only three teams out of the Western Conference race are San Jose and Anaheim (62 points apiece) and Los Angeles (58 points). It’s the Wild good fortune they are in the midst of a three-game road trip that still include stops in Los Angeles and Anaheim on Saturday and Sunday. Minnesota has won six in a row on the road and is 14-6-1 in the past 21 games.
The season began so poorly that it looked as if the Wild would end up as part of the NHL draft lottery and potentially get a high draft pick. Minnesota has not drafted in the top 10 since taking defenseman Matt Dumba seventh overall in 2012, and the last time it drafted in the top five was in 2005 when the Wild took center Benoit Pouliot.
The thought of adding a top talent, especially a center, to a team that is expected to get talented winger Kirill Kaprizov from the KHL next season made the thought of putting up with a down season much easier to take.
The difficult thing now is figuring what to make of the Wild’s run of success and whether it can be productive in the short term. The Wild are 7-3 since Evason replaced Boudreau and have been riding the hot hand of Alex Stalock in goal.
The Wild have played a more up-tempo style under Evason and winger Kevin Fiala has shown superstar potential on a nightly basis. Stalock has played in eight of 10 games under Evason, going 6-2 with a 2.02 goals-against average and .932 saves percentage. Fiala, the right winger on the Wild’s first line, has seven goals and seven assists in the same time.
A young core that includes Fiala, Joel Eriksson Ek, Ryan Donato, Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin definitely looks like they are making substantial progress. That’s the good news. But we also have been here before and the Wild have to hope that this group of players can continue to take the type of steps that the previous young core of Mikael Granlund, Nino Neiderreiter, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker failed to take when expectations were raised for them after Minnesota beat Colorado in seven games in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs.
Here’s where the Wild’s current run of success also can be viewed with some skepticism. The 2015-16 Wild had lost eight in a row in February of that season when general manager Chuck Fletcher dismissed Mike Yeo as coach. When Yeo walked out the door, the Wild looked like a lifeless team with no real playoff hopes.
John Torchetti was promoted from Iowa of the AHL to coach the Wild for the remainder of that season and everything changed. The Wild won four consecutive games and seven of their first 10 under Torchetti. Sound familiar? Even losing their last five regular-season games couldn’t keep the Wild out of the playoffs but, once there, they were ousted in six games by Dallas and Torchetti was replaced by Boudreau that spring.
So is Evason playing the role of Torchetti and are veteran players now working harder for him, just as Yeo’s dismissal gave them a swift kick in the breezers? The roster has changed since that time but given that guys like Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon are still around, it’s definitely a question that needs to be asked of a franchise that is often maddening but rarely boring.