ST. PAUL, Minn. Chuck Fletcher was still awake early Saturday morning, unable to sleep a little over 24 hours after the Minnesota Wild's season ended with a first-round series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
It was 3:30 a.m. and Fletcher was staring at the ceiling, still stinging from an abrupt end to a season filled with so much promise. Ever thinking and unable to sleep, he was running scenarios in his head about losing the first-round series to Chicago, 4-1, and what he needs to do to get his club to reach the Blackhawks' level.
"We've got a lot of work this summer," Fletcher said. "Let's not kid ourselves. I'm really happy with the progress we made and I mean that, not just saying that. We're really happy how far we came this year and making the playoffs was an achievement. When you look at Chicago and the talent they have and the depth they have it's not just us, it's most of the teams in the league but there's another level to get to."
Minnesota made strides this season, improving in nearly every statistical category except for penalty killing. The Wild made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Yet, improvement was expected and playoffs weren't the lone goal following the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Minnesota didn't give Parise and Suter matching 13-year, 98 million contracts without thoughts of possible Stanley Cup championships following.
So, after the Wild lost in the first round of the playoffs, there was disappointment. Once the emotion of losing in the playoffs subsides, Minnesota will be able to celebrate its improvement and focus on getting better for next season.
"My job as a general manager is not to overreact to a playoff defeat to the President's Trophy-winning team," Fletcher said on Saturday in his season-ending press conference. "They're a good team. It's disappointing here today. We certainly aspire to be a team that goes further than the first round and competes on a yearly basis for the Stanley Cup. But when I sit here today and look at where our team is now compared to where we were a year ago today, there's just a dramatic difference."
As Fletcher has often noted, Parise and Suter were signed to 13-year deals, not just for a one-year run this season. Parise and Suter were joined by Torrey Mitchell and Zenon Konopka in free agency. Mike Rupp and Jason Pominville were added in trades during the season. Rookies like Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker joined the lineup.
After a poor 2011-12 season, Fletcher has pieces to build around and complement. Fletcher said the team now has four "cornerstone" players in Parise, Suter, Pominville and Mikko Koivu.
Joining Koivu, the long-time captain, Parise scored 18 goals to tie for fifth in the Western Conference. His pace for 30.75 goals in a full season would have been the highest total by a Wild player since Marian Gaborik scored 42 in 2007-08. Suter might win the Norris Trophy for the best defenseman in the league after passing out 32 assists and leading the league in average time on ice. Pominville had four goals and five assists in just 10 games in the regular season after coming over at the trade deadline from the Buffalo Sabres.
Brodin led all rookies in average time on ice and was tied for 24th among rookies in scoring. Coyle was 17th in rookie scoring with 14 points and tied for 8th among rookies with eight goals. Zucker was tied for 25th among rookies in goals while playing in just 20 games.
"Last year we were talking about all these kids we have coming and some of those kids are now pretty good players in the NHL," Fletcher said. "There's a good chance we'll have a Norris Trophy winning defenseman. In my opinion, we should have had a Calder Trophy winning defenseman. And we have a pretty good mix of veteran players and young assets, so we've come a long way."
The stats show the improvement. Scoring and shooting were up, goals and shots against were down. Minnesota finished 12th in the West last season with 81 points. This year Minnesota was eighth and on pace for 93.96, the most since the Wild won the Northwest Division in 2007-08. Minnesota scored an NHL-low 2.02 goals per game last season and allowed 2.65 per game. The Wild averaged 2.46 goals per game this season, tied for 22nd, while allowing 2.60 against per game. They went from being outshot by 4.9 shots per game to outshooting opponents by 1.7 per game.
"I really do feel in a lot of areas of our game from last year to this year, we spent the summer looking at every aspect of our game, looking at every team in the league and I thought that we really brought some things in that made us a tougher team to play against," coach Mike Yeo said. "There's some areas of our game that I felt we really helped give our players a better chance. And we have to do the same thing again this year, especially on the defensive side of things. On the offensive side of things we're not just going to, from our standpoint, we're not going to just sit here and hope that we all of a sudden sign 12 goal scorers and all is great."
Fletcher will be doing his part to change the roster and close the gap on the Blackhawks.
"The goal for us now is to continue to make the playoffs every year and try to find a way to push past where we did," Fletcher said. "On the whole, when I look at this, I'm pleased with the progress we made this year. I think it was a real positive step for our franchise. Playing Chicago clearly tells you where you have to get to, you marvel at their talent and the depth they have. Their third line, their fourth line had big series. They're deep everywhere and that's a real credit to them and it shows you where we have to get to, but looking back where we were a year ago, we've also come a long way. So, we're trending the right way. This summer is a big summer, like every summer. Certainly we'll go about trying to improve our team and that will be what we do over the next two months."
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