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Zulgad: Extreme makeover: Wild GM backed up his words with actions to turn around franchise

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Minnesota Wild
Mar 14, 2021; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Wild center Nick Bonino (13) celebrates his third period goal against the Arizona Coyotes with teammates at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after the Wild were ousted from the NHL’s playoff bubble last August in their opening round series against Vancouver, general manager Bill Guerin appeared on a podcast hosted by Michael Russo of The Athletic. Guerin, who had watched the Wild for a full season at that point, did not hold back.

“What’s the issue? Why have we been falling short? That’s the part I’ve got to figure out,” he said. “The teams are good. The guys play hard. But there’s something rooted here that’s not working. And it’s not just trading players or changing the GM and things like that. It’s something in the way we operate everyday. It’s something in the culture and we need to change it.”

Seven months later, the Wild are riding a five-game winning streak, are within two points of first-place Vegas in the West Division (entering Wednesday night) and are 12-3-1 since returning from a week-plus pause caused by a COVID-19 outbreak on the roster.

So what’s changed?

The most obvious answer is the Wild have added a dynamic player in rookie winger Kirill Kaprizov, and the goaltending duo of rookie Kaapo Kahkonen and veteran Cam Talbot have provided a consistency that had been lacking with Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock in recent seasons. But to stop there would be selling short the overhaul that one-year-and-done GM Paul Fenton started and Guerin has nearly completed.

Guerin was right in pointing out that there were many things with the Wild that had to change, but the reality is it did begin in the locker room and anyone who spent anytime around the team knew it. Former coach Mike Yeo had talked about the issues between the older and younger players on his way out the door in 2016 so this was nothing new. But these were former general manager Chuck Fletcher’s players and he wasn’t about to hit the detonate button on his roster.

It was Fenton who traded away Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund. Guerin continued the purge by trading Jason Zucker to Pittsburgh last February and then dealt Eric Staal, Ryan Donato, Luke Kunin and Dubnyk after the Wild were eliminated in their return to play. Longtime captain Mikko Koivu also was told his services no longer would be required in Minnesota. Guerin’s goal wasn’t to get as much in return as possible, but rather to jettison certain players.

Kunin brought back veteran Nick Bonino, a fourth-line center who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins when Guerin was an executive in Pittsburgh. Defenseman Ian Cole, who also was on the Penguins’ two Cup teams, was acquired three games into the season from Colorado for another veteran defenseman, Greg Pateryn. Bonino and Cole, both 32, are far from top-line players, but what they bring is the type of veteran leadership this franchise has lacked for so many years. Guerin was a captain in the NHL and won two Stanley Cups as a player. He knew what winning looked like and quickly identified that the Wild had some talented players but lacked winners.

The term culture is thrown around in sports way too much these days, but in the case of the Wild it’s appropriate to say that this team appears to have a quality culture and chemistry. Even as the Wild made six consecutive playoff appearances after signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter as free agents in 2012, there was never a feeling that the type of cohesiveness needed for a long postseason run was in place. Not surprisingly, there were four first-round eliminations and two in the second round.

Parise and Suter are still around but their roles certainly have changed. The 13-year, $98 million men each have four-plus seasons left on their contracts but no one is counting on them to carry the Wild to their first Stanley Cup championship. Suter’s 22 minutes, 34 seconds of ice time per game are his fewest since his third NHL season and Parise’s average ice time of 15:46 are his least since his rookie season. Parise already has been a healthy scratch for a game this season, punishment for over-extending a shift that helped cost the Wild an overtime goal in a loss at Vegas, and has seen limited ice time in key situations since.

This is a credit to Dean Evason, who took over for Bruce Boudreau last season when Guerin decided to make a change behind the bench. Evason is the first Wild coach since Jacques Lemaire who appears to have the ability to put his foot down with players, and there is no question that Guerin has his coach’s back. There was a time not long ago when making Parise a healthy scratch would have been out of the question. Now, it serves as a great way to remind players that they aren’t in charge and if they overstep their boundaries there will be ramifications.

If there are any issues, guys like Bonino, Cole, Marcus Foligno and new captain Jared Spurgeon can address them. Guerin’s moves also have empowered some of the players who have emerged. Big winger Jordan Greenway was told by the GM after last season that it was time to produce on a regular basis. He hasn’t disappointed and is second on the team to the marvelous Kaprizov with 20 points (five goals, 15 assists).

Joel Eriksson Ek, who at one time looked like a first-round bust, has continued to develop this season and is the Wild’s best center. Ek has a team-leading 11 goals and is an outstanding defensive presence. Kaprizov, meanwhile, is the Wild’s best player since Marian Gaborik left town and already might be the most talented in franchise history. He leads the Wild with 25 points, including 10 goals, and should win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.

Kaprizov also seems to have found the perfect linemate in 2019-20 free agent disappointment Mats Zuccarello, who is third on the Wild with 19 points (five goals) despite missing the first 11 games of the season while recovering from surgery on his arm.

How far can the Wild go this season? That’s an interesting question. The club lacks a true No. 1 center and Guerin is unlikely to mortgage any of his important future assets before the April 12 NHL trade deadline. Then there is the topic of the Wild’s feeble power play, a unit that is operating at an NHL-worst 8.1 percent in the not-so-small sample size of 86 opportunities (seven goals).

But when fans can start returning to the Xcel Energy Center on April 5 — 3,000 will be allowed for that game — they aren’t likely to be fixated on the negatives. What they will see is a team that enjoys playing together, is led by a superstar who combines phenomenal skill with hard work, gets solid goaltending and appears headed in the right direction.

In other words, a very different team than what they had become used to watching.