ST. PAUL, Minn. Devin Setoguchi was drafted by the San Jose Sharks as the eighth-overall pick in 2005 and spent two more seasons in junior hockey before getting his break in the NHL.
By the time he arrived in San Jose, the Sharks had become one of the best teams in the Western Conference, reaching the playoffs three straight years. With Setoguchi, San Jose would advance to the playoffs the next four seasons and then the high-scoring forward was traded to the Minnesota Wild last offseason. As Setoguchi recalls, he's advanced to the playoffs every hockey season since he was 16.
He now feels what Minnesota has felt all too often recently. Setoguchi is watching the playoffs instead of participating in them.
"It's been a while since I've had this feeling of not being in the playoffs," Setoguchi said. "It obviously stinks."
It's a feeling Wild first-year coach Mike Yeo hopes sticks with his players. Minnesota's epic collapse from the top of the NHL standings in mid-December to the seventh-worst point total in the league was painful for everyone involved. The Wild (35-36-11) missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season and suffered their first losing season since the second year of the expansion franchise in 2001-02.
When the season finally ended on April 7 with a 4-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, it was just another loss in a season filled with them. The finality of it all didn't really matter to Minnesota. It had been officially eliminated from playoff contention since March 25 and, in reality, long before then. As Yeo said, regardless of the outcome of that final game, the feeling wasn't going to change.
"It's an empty, disappointed, embarrassing feeling," Yeo said after the game. "And we have to use that, every one of us, as a force that drives you to be better next year."
From Yeo to captain Mikko Koivu, the message after the game was about remembering the empty feeling, using the disappointment as motivation going into an offseason that could be marked with more change and, this time, a sense of optimism with big salary cap space and exciting prospects on the way. But for the players returning, the feeling of being out of the playoffs is one that the Wild hope serves as an added push in offseason preparations.
Though a new year brings a clean slate, no one wanted to simply turn the page after the final game of the 2011-12 season.
"You can't do that,'' Koivu said. "You have to take everything you can. You have to learn from it. Obviously, there's things we can do better. We have to do better. So you can't just sweep it off and move forward.
"You have to learn from it. You have to really analyze what we have to do better to get where we want to be."
Koivu is a good start to getting to where Minnesota wants to be. With their captain in the lineup, the Wild went 27-20-8. While he missed 27 games due to injury, they were 8-16-3. But Koivu himself didn't want to use injuries Minnesota also missed top-6 forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse from the start of January to the rest of the season as an excuse, saying there were playoff teams that also dealt with injuries.
Healthy, the Wild led the NHL in points as late as Dec. 17. The unexpected rise to the top might have added undeserved expectations. Minnesota wasn't expected to compete in Yeo's first season, with a roster that had been turned over, ridding several aging or injury-prone veterans for a younger roster, especially on the defensive end.
Adding Setoguchi and Dany Heatley was supposed to improve the offense, but the defense was filled with young players such as Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk and Nate Prosser. Conversely, the Wild tied for 14th in goals against, but their 166 goals were the lowest total by a team since the lockout ended. Averaging 1.98 goals-per-game is one reason the fall from the top was so precipitous.
Yeo believes Koivu's injury played a big part in the fall. With Koivu back in the lineup at the end of the season, Minnesota won four of its last six games.
"It gives us a lot of validity to what we did earlier in the season, I think, because it wasn't just a fluke," Yeo said of the strong finish. "We did it. (Koivu) was a part of our team and he was leading us and we were playing a certain way. We were getting the results, and obviously he's out of the lineup along with a few other real key players, but when he comes back we're able to get back up to that level again and I think that's a real encouraging thing for us going into next season."
With a healthy Koivu, Bouchard and Latendresse, the Wild had won 20 of its first 30 games. They finished with seven regulation wins in their last 52 games, hardly the type of ending most teams would want to cling to.
But the Wild wants to hold on to the feeling just a little longer, just long enough that they don't become accustomed to it.
"We have to come to the camp next year remembering this feeling and use it through the course of the summer, use it in the training camp next year and use it all through next season to get to the point where we never want to feel it again," Yeo said. "I really believe it comes with sort of an expectation or commitment at the start of the year of where you're going to get to. And all year long you have to work through that."
Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.