The Annual December Slump is becoming one of the Minnesota Wild's most sacred traditions, right up there with the "Let's Play Hockey" chant and wondering what the hell a Nordy is or why it exists. With the Wild having lost 6 of 7 games going into December, Hockey Wilderness decided to profile each of the Wild's mid-season swoons for the past 5 years, and see if we can identify the common trends. Today, we start with the 2011-12 Wild.
Setting the stage: Mike Yeo started off his coaching career making a huge impression. After his Wild stumbled out of the gate to a 3-3-3 start, Minnesota started clicking on all cylinders, rattling off two 5-game win streaks in November before stringing together a 7-game streak in December. After beating Phoenix on December 10th, the Wild shocked the world by boasting the NHL's best record.
When it unraveled: December 13th was the turning point of that season. The Wild had out-played Winnipeg, only to find Bryan Little scoring a late-third period goal. Even more impactful was Zach Bogosian boarding Pierre-Marc Bouchard in the game's final minute, which gave him a concussion that eventually shut him down for the season. That was the beginning of a stretch where Wild lost 8 consecutive games, and 15 of 17 games.
The low point: February 9th vs Vancouver. Mikko Koivu returned from a month-long injury, but he couldn't stop the bleeding as the Wild got stomped on home ice, losing to the Canucks 5-2. Yeo laid into his team afterwards saying "We flat-out stink these last two months. We stink.... We should have absolute desperation in our game playing against a team like this. We have too many guys not ready to pay the price."
More notable than simply losing this game was the fact that Phoenix defeated Calgary in overtime that night. That win would move the Coyotes out of a tie for 8th place, and pushed Minnesota out of the playoff picture after sitting atop of the standings just two months prior.
When it ended: It didn't. The Wild would never even threaten to break the West's Top-8 again, putting up a 15-29-8 record over their last 52 games. Had the Wild played the whole season at that pace, they would've had a league-worst 60 points.
What happened? Minnesota was undone by two things that year. The first was injuries- Koivu, Bouchard, and Guillaume Latendresse spent significant amounts of time out with injury, and the Wild simply didn't have the depth to cover up their losses. In addition, Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi also missed stretches of time in December, when Minnesota was just beginning to tailspin.
The second, and perhaps more important issue was that this was a team that was never really that good to begin with. Not only did the Wild not have depth, but this was a team with no high-end scoring talent up front, even before the injuries. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher had pinned his team's goal-scoring hopes on off-season trades for Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. Neither of them were terrible, but Heatley didn't turn in the rebound season the Wild had hoped for, and Devin Setoguchi looked more like a secondary scoring option than a difference-maker.
Even more concerning than the forwards was how little mobility there was on the blueline. The list of games played leaders for defensemen included Clayton Stoner (51 games), Nate Prosser (51), Justin Falk (47), and Greg Zanon (39). The Wild traded long-time defensive defenseman Nick Schultz for the mobile Tom Gilbert, but it was too little, too late to fix that.
Combine the middling forward corps and the lumbering defensemen, and you have a team that was able to win with only smoke, mirrors, and a stellar performance from Niklas Backstrom. Looking back, this slump was obvious and inevitable given that this was a flawed roster from Opening Night on.