Jim Souhan column: Newfound maturity impacts Wild's season
The Wild have behaved like an immature franchise for years.
Under Chuck Fletcher, early in his tenure, the organization often seemed to make moves just to distance itself from Risebrough’s regime.
The Wild replaced its wise old head, Jacques Lemaire, with one rookie coach, then another, and force-fed youngsters onto the big-league roster, hoping one or more would stick.
For much of the past decade, the Wild behaved like a losing gambler placing his faith in one more roll of the dice.
That changed in late March, after the team captains held meetings with all of the players. The Wild accumulated 13 points in its next seven games, and a season that could have been lost, that could have led to coach Mike Yeo’s firing, produced a seventh seed and led to two series of high drama in the playoffs.Over the past two months, the Wild have displayed the maturity, if not the roster composition, of a champion.The impetuous owner, Craig Leipold, held off on making any rash decisions on Yeo when he could have justified a midseason coaching change. He was rewarded with six home playoff payouts.Fletcher, the energetic general manager, stuck with his best young players even when they slumped during the regular season.He was rewarded with outstanding playoff performances from Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula, among others.The button-pushing coach, Yeo, calmly guided his team during playoff crises, refusing to wallow in self-pity or referee-bashing, keeping his players’ eyes on the obstacle to be cleared, not the one that had just tripped them.The team leaders, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu, didn’t always play well in the postseason, but each displayed his own form of leadership.The Wild’s best young players performed better in the playoffs than in the regular season.The Wild’s fringe veterans, Kyle Brodziak and Dany Heatley, accepted playoff benchings without complaint and rose to make the plays that won Game 7 in Colorado.The common theme: Maturity. This team, and organization, matured before our eyes.The next step in the Wild’s growth might not be so obvious, or linear.While fans will expect the Wild to take the “next step” next season, by winning a second-round playoff or earning a top seed in the Western Conference, that might be difficult even if the Wild continues to improve.Not many of the other top teams in the Western Conference are graduating seniors.The Avalanche displayed its immaturity in its loss to the Wild — and Minnesota still required an overtime goal in Game 7 to win that series.The Blackhawks’ core players are either young or in their prime.St. Louis faltered in its series against Chicago because of key injuries, but otherwise might have defeated the Blackhawks and represented a daunting matchup for the Wild.San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles are all perennial contenders, and Edmonton is stocked with young talent that, like Colorado’s a year ago, has yet to blossom.Hockey culture demands that players and coaches perform daily self-administered psychological evaluations, but even if the Wild does all it can to improve, it will not necessarily find next year’s playoffs any more welcoming or easy.The Wild have grown up nicely. This newfound maturity should make it a playoff team for years to come.Once the playoffs begin, though, the Wild as currently constituted will be just one of a half-dozen teams capable of winning the conference championship.The young players will be asked to play 82 — or 100-plus — games at a high level. The general manager will have to improve his current roster without meddling with its core players or internal leaders. A goalie will have to emerge who can steal a playoff game the way Chicago’s Corey Crawford did on Tuesday night.Growing up means facing heightened expectations. Mature as they seem to be, let’s see how the Wild’s key figures handle those before we start stenciling anyone’s name on next year’s Cup.
Jim Souhan is a sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.