TORONTO – The Minnesota Wild is what it looks like when you try to pry open a window that has long decided to slam shut, when you rear back and swing for the fences in the salary-cap NHL and are still taking cuts at the air long after the lights have dimmed and the pitcher has left the mound.
Wild owner Craig Leipold wasn’t necessarily wrong to aggressively pursue and successfully land the top two unrestricted free agents of the summer of 2012, when his club inked Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to twin 13-year, $98-million contracts.
We want our playoff teams to strive to become Stanley Cup teams, don’t we? We love the drama of an all-in push.
But what we can’t stomach is seeing the poor gambler who lost his all-in bet trudge back to the ATM for one more round.
When the Wild’s best chances to contend ended up with parades in Chicago and L.A. instead, it’s the reluctance to embrace a reset in the vein of, say, the Rangers, that is on full display today. The Wild — which made five consecutive playoff appearances but missed the dance last season — roll into Toronto taking solace in beating the Ottawa Senators, a franchise aware that it’s best served by a loss.
"I will say this: I’m much happier coming in here 1-4 than 0-5. It’s a pretty daunting task at that stage. I mean, it’s not like we’re out of the woods or anything," said Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau Tuesday morning, already pumping the brakes on the prospect of stealing back-to-back games in Ontario.
"Every team is built differently. Our team is not going to win 6-5 games, so we better win 2-1 and 3-1 games. It might be difficult tonight, but that’s what we’re planning on trying to do."
Cap-wise, roster-wise, identity-wise, schedule-wise… is there a more confounding team than the Wild, a maddeningly constructed club in a hockey-mad state?
Some examples of the issues facing the Wild ahead of Minnesota’s tilt against the talent-loaded Maple Leafs:
• The Wild are the second-oldest club in the NHL, with an average age of 29.3. The bulk of its vets, from the No. 1 goalie (Devan Dubnyk, 33) to the No. 1 defenceman (Suter, 34) to the top two centremen (Mikko Koivu, 36, and Eric Staal, 34) are still under contract for years to come and are still leaned on for front-line minutes.
"We’re not saying ‘don’t score’ to our guys ever. Sometimes you gotta rely on experience versus youthful exuberance," Boudreau said. "When you get older and more experienced, your roles change a little bit, and your mindset changes a bit. Joe Thornton did it tremendously last year in San Jose."
• The Wild rank bottom-10 league-wide in offence (2.4 goals per game) and, perhaps more concerning, third-worst in goals allowed (4.2 per game). Defence is supposed to be their calling card.
• Boudreau is bizarrely working under his third GM in Minnesota, despite only being a few games into his fourth season.
• Mats Zuccarello, the 32-year-old whom former GM Paul Fenton signed to a whopping five-year, $30-million contract on July 1, is already injured (lower body). The UFA splash has yet to register a point with his new team and is minus-six through four games played.
• Another significant summer signing, RFA Kevin Fiala, will be healthy scratched Tuesday after securing a juicy two-year, $6-million raise over the summer.
"Kevin’s gotta earn it," Boudreau said. "I just think we can get more out of him. He’s a really skilled player. We need more from our skilled players. It’s as simple as that."
• Fiala’s scratching comes on the heels of a scratching for another younger forward with promise, Ryan Donato (zero points in four games).
"Sometimes you just need a real jolt of reality," said Boudreau, trying to pull whatever strings available.
• The Wild’s leading goal- and point-getter is depth defenceman Brad Hunt (2-2-4), who is still wearing a Vegas Golden Knights sweater in his NHL.com headshot.
• Minnesota’s first man up is the unheralded Gerald Mayhew, an undrafted forward in his fourth AHL season. He’ll make his NHL debut Tuesday. Mayhew’s is a lovely tale of perseverance. He has earned his call-up. But the fact a 26-year-old late-bloomer is here should be telling of the state of the prospect pool.
• Not only do the Wild compete in a stacked Central Division, but its unfavourable early-season schedule is only making its task tougher. Thirteen of Minny’s first 18 games are on the road, to which the optimistic Boudreau was able to spot a silver lining.
"Meal money’s good," he quipped. "It’s a tough go.
"It’s either going to make you stronger, or…" The coach didn’t need to finish the thought.
Yes, aging and cap-strapped, the 2019-20 Wild is a stark reminder of how quickly opportunities can dry up in the new NHL and, perhaps more importantly, how the contending years need to be savoured and seized while they’re here.