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 hearing "When are they going to be the North Stars again?" With the Wild having lost 6 of 7 games entering December, Hockey Wilderness decided to profile each of the Wild's mid-season swoons fo rthe past 5 years, and see if we can identify the common trends. Today, we continue with the 2012-13 Wild.
Setting the stage: Coming off a disappointing 11-12 season, Chuck Fletcher made one of the biggest Free Agent splashes in history, signing coveted stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts. The excitement surrounding that team was off the charts- Wild fans were anticipating making the playoffs for the first time in four years, and some experts even predicted these moves would make the Wild a Stanley Cup team.
Some of that was obvious hyperbole, but it wasn't nearly over-the-top to suggest that the Wild had changed the course of their franchise. The addition of Zach Parise (along with the arrival of über-prospect Mikael Granlund) made it so that opponents would have to shut down more than Mikko Koivu's line to win- they would now have to account for two lines. Ryan Suter was the #1 defenseman the Wild had desperately needed, and he would make others better just by putting them in roles they were better suited for. Parise and Suter provided Wild fans with light at the end of the tunnel that was the 2012 NHL Lockout.
Minnesota struggled out of the gate, going 4-5-1 as the players tried to figure out how they fit together, but at the end of February, fans started seeing this team's potential. Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi were firing at all cylinders, giving the Wild the secondary scoring to go on a blistering 13-4 run. At the end of March, the Wild had 44 points, good enough for the 3rd-best record in the West.
When it unravelled: On April 3rd the Wild made a bold move to bolster their offensive depth, acquiring Jason Pominville for a sizeable package of prospects and picks. But in that night's loss to the San Jose Sharks, Dany Heatley (who had come on as of late, scoring 8 points in his last 10 games), took a series of slashes and physical play from Marc-Edouard Vlasic that injured Heatley's knee and ended his season. All of a sudden, Pominville wasn't giving the Wild more firepower. He was there to help them tread water. The Wild would slide, going 3-7-1 to start April, putting their playoff spot in jeopardy.
The low point: For my money, April 26th, 2013 wasn't just the low point for the Wild's season, it might have been the most embarrassing game in Wild history. With a chance to clinch a playoff spot on home ice against the lowly Oilers, Mike Yeo sent out enforcer Zenon Konopka out against Edmonton enforcer Mike Brown on the opening face-off. They traded punches to start off the game, and 25 seconds later Corey Potter scored to put the Wild up 1-0. It got worse from there, as Edmonton piled up 6 goals in the game's first 34 minutes.
Koivu would notch a goal in the third period, but it was far too little, far too late. The Wild were humiliated on home ice, now needing to win a game in Colorado to clinch a playoff spot. It was credibly speculated that if the Wild lost in Denver, allowing the Columbus Blue Jackets to sneak in the playoffs, Yeo would be fired. The combination of missing the playoffs the year after getting Parise and Suter, combined with letting the coach Yeo replaced (Todd Richards) squeeze the Wild out of the postseason would be too embarrassing to come back from.
When it ended: The Wild defeated Colorado 3-1 to make the playoffs, but you could argue that the slump never really ended. The Wild played the #1 seed Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, but they didn't put up much of a fight, as Chicago rolled them in 5 games.
What happened? Goaltending was a massive issue for the Wild that season. The Wild had initially planned to split time with aging goaltender Niklas Backstrom and longtime backup Josh Harding. But when Harding had leave to deal with symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis, things changed drastically. Yeo was reticent to spell Backstrom for untested goalie prospects Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper, leaving Backstrom to carry the load. To close out the season, Backstrom started 27 of 28 games. With a condensed schedule due to the lockout, that kind of workload wasn't suited to the 35-year-old goalie. It would eventually show in his performance. At the beginning of March, Backstrom had a .921 Save%. He would then post an abysmal .889 mark in April, when his team needed him most.
But depth wasn't only an issue in net. This was an extremely top-heavy team. As we mentioned earlier, acquiring Pominville was meant to address that, but that went out the window when Heatley got injured. As much attention as the forwards got, the depth on defense may have been worse. Suter and rookie Jonas Brodin were a rock-solid pair, while Jared Spurgeon was starting to come to his own. There was nothing after that, however. Tom Gilbert struggled mightily, while Clayton Stoner and Justin Falk were ill-suited to their roles.
Parise and Suter had indeed transformed the Wild. Without their help, they may have been the worst in the league. Instead, they were able to drag an extremely flawed Minnesota team into the playoffs.