ST. PAUL, Minn. -- If you're a run-of-the-mill Minnesota Wild fan, you had a rough week. After a promising, noisy overtime win last Sunday in Game 3 of their best-of-seven affair with the powerful Chicago Blackhawks, in which the Wild scored three goals and pulled within 2-1 in the series, it all went downhill in a hurry.
The Wild would score just one more goal in the season, falling 3-0 at home on Tuesday, and quietly bowing out of the playoffs on Thursday with a lopsided 5-1 loss in Chicago.
Perhaps the only way your week could've gone worse is if you were a passionate Wild fan who had gone to the trouble of buying the www.FireMikeYeo.com domain name. For all of the clatter in April and May about dissatisfaction with the Wild's young coach, first for the struggles late in the regular season which almost cost them a trip to the playoffs, then for the quicker-than-fans-had-hoped bow-out to Chicago in the post-season, the crew running practice in training camp a few months from now will be essentially the same.
Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher would've preferred to be at Xcel Energy Center for Game Six on Saturday. Instead he and Yeo were there for a post-mortem press conference in which Fletcher admitted his disappointment that the team was done playing. And the head coach's presence made it abundantly clear that Yeo will get a third season behind the Wild bench.
"My job as a general manager is not to overreact to a playoff defeat to the President's Trophy-winning team," Fletcher said. "They're a good team. It's disappointing that we're here, and we certainly aspire to be a team that goes further than the first round and competes on a yearly basis for the Stanley Cup. But when I sit here and look at where our team is today compared to a year ago today, there's a dramatic difference."
Fletcher rattled off a list of statistics, noting how the team improved in nearly every category - penalty kill being the rare exception - from Yeo's first team, and added that most significantly they were one of the NHL's 16 playoff teams for the first time in five years. He added that by signing Ryan Suter and Zach Parise last summer, and by trading for Jason Pominville during the regular season, the team now has what Fletcher called "four cornerstones" (Mikko Koivu completes the quartet) in place around which they expect to build.
In Chicago the Wild found an immovable object, especially on the power play. The Wild had the man-advantage 17 times over the span of five games and scored zero power play goals. But Fletcher also saw in the Blackhawks a vision of where the Wild want to be, and a potential roadmap for how to get there. While Chicago was forced to unload several key players after winning the 2010 Stanley Cup, they were able to build around a nucleus and return to the top of the league - in the regular season anyway - within three years. It was worth noting that while Chicago had a dozen or so players who own Cup rings, the Wild had 11 players who skated in the playoffs for the first time.
That list includes goalie Darcy Kuemper, who finished Game Five after Josh Harding was yanked in the second period. Harding (who played in a whopping one playoff game in 2008) of course was the unexpected starter in all five games of the series after Niklas Backstrom was injured during warmups prior to the first playoff game. Kuemper finished the last two games. Harding left Game Four after 20 minutes after injuring his left leg during a collision with Chicago's Jonathan Toews in the crease. That came after a regular season where he appeared in just five games, and spent the better part of two months in the pressbox wearing a suit and tie as he and doctors worked to find the right mix of medicine to allow him to practice and play while fighting multiple sclerosis. He and Fletcher are both confident that Harding will be part of the team's goalie picture next season.
"I played five games in nine days (in the playoffs)," Harding said on Saturday. "Without that little injury I was feeling great. This summer will be huge for me in getting some weight back on that I had lost, getting stronger and getting everything dialed in."
Backstrom, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, will have surgery to repair a sports hernia, and Fletcher expects him back at full strength within a matter of months. He also thinks it's likely the Finn will be back in Minnesota next season, as part of a suddenly very deep goaltending picture.
While the big-money signings of Parise and Suter last summer created a local buzz that a Stanley Cup parade down West Seventh Street this June could be penciled in on the calendar, the more realistic expectation among the team and impartial observers was something different. When the NHL season finally got underway in January after a months-long lockout, just one national hockey journalist of note - Barry Melrose of ESPN - picked this version of the Wild to make the Cup finals.
The more realistic expectations came from players like Parise, who way back in July when he first held up a Wild sweater with his name on the back said that his arrival, with Suter, was a start, and they intended to act as de facto recruiters for other high-end players looking for an exciting place to play. The salary cap will be smaller next season, meaning that Fletcher will have tough decisions to make about who he can retain and who he can add. With that in mind, he made it clear on Saturday that the team will look different when they get back together in St. Paul for training camp.
Both Yeo and Fletcher also stressed that making decisions now, when the disappointment of a rough April and a hasty playoff exit is so fresh in their minds, would be an error. But both echoed Parise's idea that this was a start, and a positive step toward a better next season. The playoffs will continue in places like Pittsburgh and Chicago and San Jose for another month or more. But for the Wild, the real work of taking another step next season is beginning now.
"It starts in the summer, with how they train and how they prepare for the season ahead," Yeo said. "We've seen a huge improvement in that area...I really believe we're taking the right steps toward having that winning culture and that winning attitude that you need."
As opposed to the sky-high expectations of many fans, 2013 will have to serve as the first step, not the final step.