It was a different season than we have gotten used to seeing from the Minnesota Wild, yet in the end it resulted in yet another first round playoff exit.
No one in professional sports lives off moral victories so we will not call qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs and forcing a game seven after being down three games to one a success.
That said there are things to get hopeful about with where the Wild appear to be heading. Kirill Kaprizov was absolutely as advertised providing many highlight reel goals and jaw dropping plays. Kevin Fiala continued his maturation process and Cam Talbot was a rock in the Wild net.
Following the Wild's early exit from the bubble last season, Wild GM, Bill Guerin, called out his goaltenders (Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock) saying that their play was unacceptable and had to be better. He went out and signed Talbot and later dealt Dubnyk to the Sharks.
He had the reigning AHL top goalie, Kaapo Kahkonen, waiting for his shot to crack the roster, and that occurred when Alex Stalock unfortunately got COVID-19. Stalock had complications from COVID-19 that caused him to be sidelined through training camp and the first month and a half of the season.
During that stretch Kahkonen asserted himself as a very capable NHL goaltender, and when Stalock was cleared to make his return, his job was lost. Stalock subsequently was waived and claimed by Edmonton. It was not the ending of Stalock's Wild career that anyone wanted to see, but in the end the business of Hockey is just that, a business.
Kahkonen provided the Wild some stellar performances through the first half of the season when he was called on a couple times to carry the load during Talbot's two extended absences from the Wild lineup. It almost appeared that once the two goalies were healthy that it would be a 1 and 1A type scenario.
That all changed when Talbot returned to 100% health and he took full control of the Wild crease and relegated Kahkonen to the backup role that was initially intended. Talbot, itcould be argued, was the Wild's MVP as he stood tall in the Wild goal stealing points for the team on many occasions. He gave the Wild the chance to win every night and that is exactly what you ask of your goalie.
So the goaltending situation sorted itself out and Guerin made a tremendous signing with Cam Talbot at $3.66M for 3 years (2 remaining). Kahkonen showed us signs that he is the heir apparent to the Wild crease with some outstanding play and better still was the experience that he gained of being up all year and learning from a pro in Cam Talbot.
The Wild defense has been the staple of the organization with the top four having played together now for seven seasons. That is unheard of in today's sports, and yes it most likely will come to an end now with the expansion draft looming and the Wild in need of signing some of their key core forwards, Matt Dumba's $6M does appear to be the straw as they say...
Jonas Brodin has long been the Wild's most consistent defenseman game in and game out providing steady play and being Matt Dumba's defensive conscience through his maturation process. Ryan Suter gets the accolades and rightfully so, he is a beast of a defenseman despite his lack of physical size. Suter is one of the league's finest dmen and without him I am not sure how the Wild would fare.
That said, Suter became more effective this season with some reduced ice time. He was clearly being overused by the past Wild head coaches. Evason's more efficient use of Suter will only serve the team better moving forward and prolong the sure fire hall of famer's, Wild career.
Suter's defensive partner, Jared Spurgeon was annointed the Wild's new captain, following the departure of Mikko Koivu. The weight of the "C" appeared a bit heavy for those that only look at offensive production, but Spurgeon was his usual self playing in every situation and excelling as he always has since his arrival back in the 2010-11 season. Spurgeon finished the season with offensive production numbers very similar to what we have come to expect.
The big question mark heading into the Wild season was who will be the pivots on their top two lines? Would Fiala and Kaprizov play on the same line? Who will pair well with either of the Wild's snipers?
Nick Bonino, Nick Bjugstad, and Marcus Johansson were all acquired via trade with the expectation that they would compete along with Joel Eriksson Ek and Victor Rask to determine who would be the Wild's top two centers.
Well it played out that Ryan Hartman converted from right wing to have the biggest impact centering either of the top two lines depending on how things were going. Joel Eriksson Ek was simply amazing all season and really took his game to a whole new level. JEE had established himself as a premier shutdown center, but thisbseason his offense really came to light and his line with Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno was the Wild's best trio by far from the beginning of the season until the final hornbin game 7.
Marcus Foligno showed once again that he is the glue guy on the Wild offense delivering the big hit, making a huge play defensively, or even the occasional fight to spark the boys, Foligno always has his finger on the pulse of the game for the Wild.
Ian Cole was acquired mid-season for Greg Pateryn, in what appeared to be a bit of a head scratcher trade at the time, but Cole's leadership and experience were just what the Wild third D pair was lacking.
Bonino, Bjugstad, Johansson, and Cole along with Brad Hunt and Kyle Rau, are all UFAs with no guarantees that any will be back in Wild green next season. Bonino and Cole definitely made cases for themselves to be offered new contracts, however if either is going to stay it would have to be significantly reduced money.
Eriksson Ek, Fiala, and Kaprizov all are RFAs in need of new contracts, and despite Kaprizov's lack of any bargaining power, his situation needs to be handled smartly to keep the new fave of the franchise smiling for years to come.
It is never easy to make the playoffs and there are no guarantees from year to year. So as promising as the Wild future looks with the young talent on the roster today and Matt Boldy, Marco Rossi, and Calen Addison among others waiting to show what they can do, success is not promised.
The players that make it through to wear the Wild sweater in 2021-22 will have to draw on the experiences of this season, with the compete level raised and the will to win that much higher, if they intend on competing when the stakes are the highest.