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Zulgad: Wild were a pleasant surprise this year, but expectations will be far greater next season

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Vegas Golden Knights
May 28, 2021; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Minnesota Wild left wing Kirill Kaprizov (97) celebrates after scoring a second period goal against Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) in game seven of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Wild’s season-ending 6-2 loss to the Golden Knights on Friday night in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series in Las Vegas might have been disappointing but it wasn’t disheartening. That’s an important distinction to make when it comes to this franchise.

The Wild’s last playoff appearance — we’re not counting the preliminary round in the bubble last summer in Edmonton — came in 2018. Minnesota fell behind the Winnipeg Jets 3-1 in the opening round and then lost 5-0 in Game 5. It was an embarrassment and left many wondering where the Wild were headed.

The hope that Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Co., could lead the franchise to a Stanley Cup had disappeared and the roster had become an unlikeable group that seemed ambivalent about the importance of success. General manager Chuck Fletcher was fired after that season and replaced by Paul Fenton, who lasted only one season before being shown the door.

But Fenton began to make important changes and Bill Guerin continued to reshape the roster after taking over just before the 2019-20 season. Guerin also was able to get 2015 fifth-round pick Kirill Kaprizov to leave Russia and sign with the Wild. The 24-year-old spent the pandemic-shortened 2021 season proving he possessed superstar talent (27 goals, 24 assists in 55 games).

As the Wild departed the ice on Friday, they did so with a much different feeling than the club that had been embarrassed by the Jets three years earlier. Where there was once no direction, there now appears to be a plan that will continue to be worked on in the coming months.

It’s no secret that this should be a busy offseason for Guerin. The loss to Vegas reinforced how much the Wild need help at center. Marco Rossi, the team’s 2020 first-round pick, should be part of the solution but Guerin likely will look to add another center who can play with either Kaprizov or winger Kevin Fiala.

Ryan Hartman made the move from wing to center and did his best to help, and the slow-skating Victor Rask also was forced into a role in which he didn’t belong. Nico Sturm, who was a fourth-line center this season, should move up in 2021-22, but right now the only sure top three center on the roster is Joel Eriksson Ek.

The Wild will lose a good player to the Seattle Kraken in the July expansion draft (possibly defenseman Carson Soucy) and there are others (Jordan Greenway, Matt Dumba and Rask) who could be moved. Marcus Johansson, Bonino, Nick Bjugstad and Ian Cole were all regulars who will be eligible for free agency.

Then there is winger Zach Parise, who scored his second goal of the playoffs on Friday after being a healthy scratch for the first three games. Parise and the Wild appear to be headed for a divorce, despite the fact the 36-year-old has four years remaining on his contract. The move figures to be financially painful for the Wild, but there’s little chance that Guerin’s plan involves Parise being in Minnesota on opening night next fall.

What’s clear is that plan isn’t only about the on-the-ice product. Guerin has worked hard to give the Wild locker room a different feel — the Bonino and Cole additions were definitely about chemistry — and the name on a player’s back, or dollar figures in his contract, aren’t going to stop Guerin from making changes. It helps that he now has some success to show for his moves.

There were many who figured the Wild would battle Arizona for the fourth and final playoff spot in the West Division this season behind Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis. The NHL had teams play games within newly formed divisions this season to limit travel during COVID-19. The Wild made the most of the fact they were in a division with bottom-feeders such as the Sharks, Ducks and Kings, along with the disappointing Coyotes, and managed to finish in third place.

Then they got behind Vegas 3-1 in their first-round series before rallying for two victories to force a Game 7. While it’s safe to say the Wild overachieved, things will be much different next season when the team is expected to return to the Central Division and the NHL goes back to its normal schedule.

Kaprizov, whom the Wild will offer a mega-contract extension this summer, should take another step in becoming the best player in franchise history. Guerin also will look to sign restricted free agents Eriksson Ek and Fiala to extensions and expect their games will continue to grow.

If Guerin can find a few more pieces to go with his cornerstone players, there is no reason the Wild can’t make a long playoff run. This much is certain: Expectations will be much higher for coach Dean Evason’s team and a loss in the first round of the playoffs will be considered a failure instead of a stepping stone.