Why did this season go wrong for the Wild?
Bruce Boudreau walked into his house late Tuesday night, April 2, kicked off his shoes and aimlessly wandered the hallways, as reality slowly started to sink in.
“What now?” Boudreau thought to himself an hour after the Wild were officially eliminated from the playoffs. “It’s no fun.”
While the Wild still have two games left in the regular season, they won’t get the chance to chase down the ever-elusive Stanley Cup when the NHL playoffs roll around.
It’s an unfamiliar position for the Wild, who qualified for the playoffs in each of the previous six seasons. It’s an even more unfamiliar position for their 64-year-old coach, who joked that he felt like Eeyore driving to the rink on Wednesday morning.
You have to go back a couple of decades to find the last time Boudreau missed the playoffs in a full season as a head coach. That came way back in 1997-98 when he was coaching the now-defunct Mississippi Sea Wolves of the East Coast Hockey League.
“Hopefully it stays with everybody,” Boudreau said. “It’s important to realize how much we hate not being where we’re supposed to be after eight months of really hard work.”
That disappointment was evident after practice Wednesday morning as goalie Devan Dubnyk reflected amid an empty locker room.
“As soon as that final buzzer sounds (on Saturday night) it’ll hit us that we won’t be playing again for awhile,” Dubnyk said. “We play to make the playoffs, so when we don’t do that, it’s going to be disappointing.”
A few minutes after Dubnyk wrapped up his conversation, Ryan Donato walked into the locker room. He quietly shed his equipment with all of his teammates already long gone.
“It’s a deflating feeling,” Donato said. “Nobody is happy with how it all went down. I think guys are going to be making sure they do everything right this summer to come back and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
It raises the question: Where did it all go wrong for this version of the Wild?
Unknowingly at that time, high-powered defenseman Matt Dumba suited up for his final game of the season on Dec. 15.
After delivering a legal hit in a game a couple of weeks earlier, Dumba was jumped by Calgary Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk in response. He tore his pectoral muscle in the fight and hasn’t played since.
“It’s impossible to look past Dumba going out,” Dubnyk said. “It was a major loss for us. He was our best player, hands down. That’s not taking away from anyone else. He was just that good for us.”
It’s not a surprise the Wild struggled with Dumba out of the lineup. His blistering slapshot was nearly unstoppable through 32 games; he had 12 goals and 10 assists before his injury.
Besides losing Dumba as a scoring threat, the injury forced the Wild to shuffle their blue line. That meant way more minutes for players like Greg Pateryn and Nick Seeler, both of whom are probably better suited for a role in the bottom pairing.
Then veteran forward Mikko Koivu went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and a torn meniscus in his right knee on Feb. 5 after a collision with Buffalo winger Tage Thompson.
His absence was another blow.
“Obviously he’s a big part of our team,” Dubnyk said. “That didn’t help our case at all. You could see the affect that had on us.”
A few months ago, the Wild had 55 points heading into the all-star break. They were comfortably locked into third place in the Central Division, ahead of the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.
Unfortunately for the Wild, they didn’t do themselves any favors coming out of what ended up being weeklong hiatus. They went 1-6-3 during a 10-game stretch after returning from the break, and that dropped them all the way to last place in the Central Division.
With the way the Wild have bounced back from the midseason swoon in past, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that they were able to right the ship a bit with an impressive stretch that culminated with a dominant victory over the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
Instead of using that impressive performance as a launching pad toward future success, the Wild went 3-6-1 during a 10-game stretch that followed.
That proved to be the kiss of death.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” Dubnyk lamented. “We just weren’t able to take advantage of some opportunities when other teams were losing. You’re always going to go back and look at different things that happened.”
No doubt the biggest thing that played a role in the Wild missing the playoffs was general manager Paul Fenton dismantled the roster at the trade line.
In what certainly felt like a statement from Fenton as he took ownership of a roster inherited from former general manager Chuck Fletcher, he traded Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask, Charlie Coyle for Ryan Donato, and Mikael Granlund for Kevin Fiala.
All three moves were designed for the roster to get younger as Fenton shifted his focus to the future.
“Those guys came in and did a really nice job with their energy level and the contributions they gave us,” Dubnyk said. “They came in and did a great job for us and are going to be great players for us moving forward.”
There’s something to be said about team chemistry, though, and Niederreiter, Coyle, and Granlund were among the most popular guys in the locker room.
Those moves forced Boudreau to shuffle lines at a rapid rate, playing the young guys big minutes, while also trying his best to make the pieces fit together amid the chaos.
It was a less-than-ideal situation, and while Boudreau found a way to make the most out of it, it eventually caught up with the Wild, as they missed the playoffs for the first time in more than half a decade.