Wild owner Craig Leopold opened his wallet and swallowed hard in July when he brought in the two most coveted free agents in hockey in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Suddenly the fan base of a team that had failed to make the playoffs four straight seasons began to think not only post season, but hoisting that big silver cup that bears the name Stanley.
A work stoppage and six months later, Leopold's squad isn't exactly playing the way he had envisioned. The team is 4-4-1 and has scored two or fewer goals in five of the nine games including back to back one goal outputs in their last two contests. The thought entering the season was that the Wild would be a deeper team with more secondary scoring. That simply hasn't happened. The top line of Parise, Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley have accounted for 24 of 39 points produced by the forwards and 12 of the 20 goals scored by the entire team.
"We all know we aren't playing as well as we need to," said Matt Cullen. "We've been kind of treading water here but it's going to be a short season and we all know that we need to make our push and we have a higher level of play in us and we need to find that and figure out a way to get there."
Cliché? Absolutely, but the veteran forward is right, this team is not playing well at all. The season is nine games old and typically no one would be blinking about a .500 record this early in the year. This isn't like a typical season. The 48 game schedule is now down to 39 and with each passing minute the sticks seem to be gripped a little tighter.
"I think there are too many games already this year where we've come out of it saying ‘you know, we did things okay'. The bottom line is we're not winning," said Parise following the Wilds 2-1 loss to Phoenix.
The team made a pair of moves yesterday in calling up forward Charlie Coyle from Houston. Coyle will provide a bit more grit up front, something the Wild are obviously missing. In addition, they traded Darrel Powe and Nick Palmieri to New York for veteran gritty forward Mike Rupp. Those moves and the demotion of Devin Setoguchi and Mikael Granlund to the fourth line sent a message to the team that if there wasn't a sense of urgency before, there should be now.
They also called a players only meeting following their 0-2 road trip that saw the team score two combined goals and at times play dominating hockey, and at others not so much. The team dominated the second period against Phoenix forcing turnovers and ultimately scoring their lone goal (Parise's 6th of the season) but then went 12 minutes in the third period without registering a single shot on net.
"It's not an issue of talent, it's not an issue of ability. It's just a matter of doing it a certain way," said head coach Mike Yeo. "Goals are scored in this league the way they scored them tonight. A deflection, a rebound and sometimes you are going to have the nice pretty one and you are going to have the great play but more often than not if you are going to score goals you are going to need those ones around the net."
Following the loss to Phoenix, there was a players only meeting held. Those two words aren't put together in any good way and typically they work once, maybe twice in a year. The Wild burned one of theirs early in hopes to help figure some things out. What is known is that for a team that was thought of when it came to making a playoff run, would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs began today.
Lucky for them, they don't.
Maybe 10 games from now everyone will take a deep breath and forget about the sluggish start. Management and the players certainly seem to see the need for urgency. It is yet to be seen if their play on the ice follows suit.