Wild players, GM Bill Guerin own up to shortcomings, vow to rediscover lost identity in 2024-25


ST. PAUL, Minn. — It’d be easy for Minnesota Wild players to call this a “lost season” due to all the injuries.

You’d almost expect them to make excuses.

But on Friday, the earliest exit interview day in Minnesota in four years, players had brutally honest criticism of how they got to this point. They were mentally fragile, a term both coach John Hynes and general manager Bill Guerin agreed with.

They weren’t hard enough to play against.

They shrunk under pressure.

They weren’t vocal enough on the bench or in the dressing room.

“This isn’t who we are,” alternate captain Marcus Foligno said.

This group was a stark contrast from the #GRITFIRST and resilient Wild teams of the past. Remember that team two years ago that came from behind constantly and set an NHL record with 19 six-on-five goals?

Not this year, when the Wild couldn’t rally or hold a third-period lead. When they couldn’t kill a penalty. When they became a team that crumbled at any sign of adversity. When they couldn’t beat the top teams in their division even once.

If there’s any chance of next season being different, they’ve got to rediscover that identity. They’ve got to regain their swagger.

“There was a little ‘poor me’ type vibe,” Foligno said. “It just felt like there was a sag.”

“I’ve always said in years past how much I would have hated to play against us,” Ryan Hartman said. “And this year, I don’t know if I could have said the same thing.

“I think everyone needs to take a look in the mirror.”

The Wild’s roster could get a slight makeover by next season, with Guerin vowing to look hard into free agency or trades to upgrade the size and depth of the forward group and also find a potential top-six forward to take some pressure off Kirill Kaprizov and Matt Boldy.

Kaprizov put the Wild on his back during an incredible second half after a slow first half, finishing with 46 goals and 96 points. But you could tell how much it pained him to miss the playoffs, which is why next season is critical in giving the superstar a reason to believe he should re-sign when eligible in July 2025.

“Kirill wants to win. I know that,” Guerin said. “And, yeah, I do feel we need to show him we’re committed to winning.”

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Guerin should have cap space to play with — from $7 million to possibly close to $10 million if he trades Filip Gustavsson. But, for the most part, it’ll be the same group — the one that went 0-10-1 against the top three teams in the division and won nine of 31 games against the nine teams ahead of it in the West — that’ll be charged with “getting over the hump.”

As Guerin quipped, they didn’t even get to the hump this year.

“There are no excuses,” Guerin said. “There were injuries, but that wasn’t the reason we didn’t make the playoffs. It’s a contributing factor but not the big reason. When I hear that our players say they were mentally fragile, I would agree with them. And if they said they weren’t competitive enough in big games, I would agree. We have to find our swagger.”

There was no sign of it early this season, when a 5-10-4 start, including a seven-game free fall, cost coach Dean Evason his job. The Wild fell behind too early in games, then fell behind in the standings, which as Guerin said can be “unforgiving” in this league.

“I just felt like we didn’t have that energy,” Foligno said. “That usually wasn’t the case seasons before. I’m a big believer in reading the team, reading the bench. I just felt that this year we really, when it came to being down a goal or two, it felt like we were a little bit sorry for ourselves. … It just got a little bit stale there, and we just felt like when obviously (Evason) got let go, maybe guys were waiting for a change or something.”

It didn’t help that captain Jared Spurgeon missed the first month of the season and played only 16 games, his season ending due to back and hip surgeries. Foligno, the team’s most vocal leader, was in and out of the lineup and had season-ending groin surgery. They had already lost their “heartbeat” in Matt Dumba, who left in free agency.

“There’s nothing worse than guys not talking,” Foligno said. “You can hear it. I’ve been in games where you can hear the other bench hooting and hollering when they make a nice play and it sounds like they’re cohesive and we’re kind of just waiting for some spark. … It’s something that needs to be addressed coming into training camp next year where we need to be that team that has energy all the time.”

The Wild did get a spark when Hynes was hired in late November, going on an 11-3 run to pull into playoff position by points percentage Dec. 30. That’s when they lost Gustavsson and superstar Kaprizov to injury in Winnipeg. The resulting 1-7-1 stretch, which included at times seven injured guys from the lineup, dug them too deep of a hole for even a post-All Star break resurgence to erase.

“These players never quit,” Guerin said.

The issues facing the Wild aren’t just being loud or the “vibes.” Very few teams can survive bad goaltending, and both Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury had save percentages under .900. We don’t know what their tandem will be next season — Gustavsson at least acknowledged he could be traded — but Gustavsson, Fleury and touted prospect Jesper Wallstedt allowed a combined 20 goals above expected.

The penalty kill was 30th in the league, giving up 67 power-play goals. This is an area Hynes says he’ll hammer down in training camp. He wants to “get ahead of the curve” by studying opposing power plays and penalty kills with his staff this offseason.

Secondary scoring was slim to none. Wild forwards who averaged 14 minutes or fewer combined for 32 goals in 317 games. They are counting on a bounce-back season from Freddy Gaudreau, who had just five goals in an injury-plagued campaign, among others. Marcus Johansson, entering his contract year, needs to produce more than just 11 goals and won’t be handed a top-six role. Mats Zuccarello tailed off and scored two goals and five assists in 439 five-on-five minutes without Kaprizov.

“It’s an empty feeling, just like you’re going from a hundred to zero right away,” Zuccarello said. “What are we doing now? I think at a certain point we as players have to be better.”

Still, there was a lot of pressure on the top guys, and Guerin acknowledged that he didn’t do a good enough job adding depth, both with the NHL club or in Iowa. The Wild got impressive seasons from young players like Brock Faber, who could be staring at an extension of $9-plus million a year this offseason; Marco Rossi; and short stints by Marat Khusnutdinov and Liam Ohgren.

But the only way for Minnesota to get to the playoffs entering the final year of $14.7 million in dead cap hits is for there to be that relentless competitiveness and complete effort from the entire roster.

“We want to win now,” Guerin said. “What we want from our younger players is to push the makeup of our lineup, to push the older players, get some internal competition. If one of our younger players can push out one of our older players and take his spot in the lineup because he’s better, then do it. If you can jump up on our second line and put our second-line guy down on the third or fourth, then do it. That’s what we want. We want the internal competition.

“That’s what drives great teams and great players. You can’t sit around and wait for a spot to open up and us to put you in there. No. Take it. And you know what? I hope the older players get scared that somebody’s going to take their job, and that scares them into playing better — because it happens.”

Hynes said his exit meetings with players weren’t about reading them the “riot act” — or giving tough love. They were about building players up, trying to find a way to get the most out of them next season and helping them get better. There were discussions about changing and, in some cases, revamping their summer training programs. He said there will be check-ins throughout the offseason.

Hynes was encouraged with his players’ accountability and honesty in their assessments and their plans going forward.

“I believe in this group, 100 percent,” Hartman said. “We’ve shown we can be an entertaining team, win meaningful games. And we just didn’t do enough this year. But it’s there.”

The Calder Trophy-caliber season by Faber was a promising sign. So was Rossi establishing himself as a top-six center, with 21 goals when many wondered if he’d even stick in the NHL for a full season. Wallstedt showed flashes of why he’s the Wild’s goalie of the future. Ohgren can be a contributor from the start next season, along with Khusnutdinov and, potentially, Riley Heidt.

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Wild coach John Hynes and GM Bill Guerin address the media after locker room cleanout day and exit meetings with players. (Michael Russo / The Athletic)

Eventually, the Wild will be out of cap hell and able to spend more to augment this short-handed roster. While the franchise and its fans carry the burden of getting out of the first round just once since 2015, Guerin doesn’t believe the current group should feel the weight of the past.

Is this the right group to stop talking about the “hump”?

“I sure as hell hope so,” Guerin said. “It is a thing. We talked about this last year … the hump and getting over it and getting past the first round and this and that. I don’t know. I haven’t been here for 25 years, so I’m not as crazy about it as you guys are because I haven’t gone through it.

“I’m doing what I feel is right as a general manager in building a team, building a team that is going to be built for long-term success. I could care less what’s happened in the past here. I wasn’t here. Most of these players weren’t here. We don’t care. We don’t care. It’s all about moving forward.”

go-deeper

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(Top photo: Nick Wosika / Getty Images)





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