The date was February 15, 2016. The Wild had just defeated the Vancouver Canucks 5-2 to snap an 8-game losing streak that was punctuated by the dismissal of head coach Mike Yeo and captured their first victory for John Torchetti. The newly installed interim coach ascended the podium following the game and told the press, "When you take over jobs, there is a reason why you are here and you just have to make sure to try and build confidence in the team." For many players and the team as a whole, Torchetti has fulfilled that promise and teased the Wild back to relevance while rediscovering its game. But as has become the typical situation for this hockey team, they have been unable to finish strong and have left their playoff destiny up in the air with plenty of opportunities to close it out. So what is really going on here, and how can we understand what continually leads to such uncertainty at the end of the season?
The win in Vancouver that night ignited a 4-game winning streak in which the Wild scored no less than 5 goals in each game. That streak then gave way to a 3-game skid as the adrenaline from the coaching change wore off. But the team immediately rebounded and went on to another 4-game winning streak. Under Torchetti, the Wild has put together strings of wins (6 games, 4 games, 4 games) featuring marquis wins over Chicago (twice), Los Angeles and Colorado when it has counted most. But the team has also experienced losing streaks (3 games twice, 2 games twice) with losses to lesser opponents such as Ottawa (twice) Winnipeg, New Jersey and Edmonton. The team has a total record of 15-9-1 under Torchetti, which includes their first OT victory of the season. There is a clear pattern of Jekyll-and-Hyde inconsistency with the team that has again lead to uncertainty in their playoff destiny with only 2 games to go.
Torchetti has certainly changed the culture in Minnesota. He has held true to his promise to bring accountability to the team and we have seen clear evidence in his consistent scratching of struggling core players such as Thomas Vanek, Jason Zucker, and now (gasp!) Matt Dumba. He has flipped the deployment of players on its head with overhauls to the power play and penalty kill units and consequently transformed both special teams from weakness to strength. His redistribution of TOI reflects the players who have earned it with their play, and he has found magic in igniting a number of players including those left on the scrap heap by the previous regime (see: Haula, Erik). The Niederreiter-Haula-Pominville/anyone line has been among the most dominant in the NHL since they were put together and we've seen a revival from a struggling Zach Parise while Ryan Suter racked up assist after assist.
Though the Wild was out of the playoff picture when Torchetti took over, a run of 15-6-1 prior to the latest losing streak asserted the Wild back into playoff contention, even momentarily providing the illusion of possibly not being a wild card team. So it makes very little sense that the team has failed to follow through in the eleventh hour and deliver themselves into the playoffs. With a secure spot within reach, the team has sputtered, lost its mojo and regressed to some very bad habits. At this point the playoffs are still pretty much guaranteed, but the Wild has again failed to display the killer instinct to put the Avalanche away and move on to preparing for the postseason.
Torchetti has seemingly delivered all of the things the fans and players were asking for that Mike Yeo refused to do. The locker room seems looser and the team appears to have found its unity again following a Yeo-reported divide. The players are working together to pick each other up and play a complete team game. Personnel and deployment have been completely redistributed across the roster and special teams have been corrected. Players who are struggling are not playing high pressure minutes, and the guys who are playing best are being utilized when it counts most. The team found its mojo after looking completely lost for a month. So what gives?
As discussed when Yeo was dismissed, the change would demonstrate whether it was indeed the coach causing the issues or the players. The impetus would shift from the management to the players for the rest of the season, provided Torchetti did an adequate job of relieving some of the internal pressure and correcting the systems. As shown above, Torchetti has exceeded those expectations and the gaze shifts completely to the players. The proof for the remainder of the season was to be in the putting, and the players have failed to completely deliver. Though it is very likely the team makes the playoffs, they enter having limped their way to the finish line. In a situation when their backs were miraculously not against the wall, the players have stalled and provided cause for team management to take a long look in the mirror this offseason and decide whether it is time to really shake up the roster.