Wild players know changes are coming after a season of bonding that ended too soon
The toughest pill to swallow for everyone involved, players and coaches alike, was that this exact group will never been the same
ST. PAUL — Usually extremely personable after wins and extremely accountable after losses, Wild alternate captain Marcus Foligno had trouble looking reporters in the eyes Thursday night in St. Louis. He powered through each of his answers, providing thoughtful responses despite the fact that he was still coming to grips with a once-promising season coming to a disappointing early end.
This group was not supposed to go out like this.
“It’s tough to put into words right now,” Foligno said after the Wild ended their season with a 5-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series. “Just how close this group was and how positive the regular season was. It’s just disappointing.”
After the best regular season in franchise history — a 53-22-7 record and 113 points — the Wild looked primed for a deep playoff run heading into their series with the Blues. Understandably, the early exit left a sour taste as this version of the Wild couldn’t escape the fate of so many Wild teams that came before it.
The toughest pill to swallow for everyone involved, players and coaches alike, was that this exact group of players will never been the same. It’s the nature of the business in professional sports. So much changes season to season, and the Wild are no different.
While star winger Kirill Kaprizov is under contract for the foreseeable future, along with captain Jared Spurgeon, shutdown center Joel Eriksson Ek, emerging rookie Matt Boldy, and a handful of other key contributors, there are a lot of question marks heading into this offseason.
No matter how many players general manager Bill Guerin decides to bring back, it won’t be the same roster when next season rolls around.
“It sucks,” coach Dean Evason said. “They actually love playing together. There’s no individuals. There’s no (complaining) on the bench. There’s no, ‘I should get this ice time; I should be on the power play.’ They play for each other, and that’s what’s so disappointing. It’s like, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The biggest reason this season felt different was because of how close Wild players were on and off the ice.
It’s something the leadership group tried to instill from the very beginning, with Spurgeon leading the way. Though he had some help from Foligno and fellow alternate captain Matt Dumba, it was Spurgeon who spearheaded the culture shift inside the locker room.
There was no hierarchy. If someone had something to say, regardless of their age or years in the NHL, the leadership group wanted them to feel comfortable speaking up. That wasn’t always the case in the past.
“You can’t say enough about the guys in our room and how special they are,” said goaltender Cam Talbot, who personified that selflessness throughout the playoffs, maintaining professionalism after being passed over in favor of fellow goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. “I think that’s what stings the most. This team has been building something special.”
As far as Foligno is concerned, that doesn’t have to stop. He called this season “a huge, huge stepping stone” in the grand scheme of things. Even if it might not feel like it in aftermath of another unsuccessful pursuit of the elusive Stanley Cup.
“No matter what, we built something here,” Foligno said. “We have to grow in it. No one in this organization is thinking about taking a step back.”
That’s the focus heading into next season. While the roster might look different, the mindset isn’t going to change.
“The reality is we’ve got a great thing going here,” Foligno said. “We know it’s a special group. The leaders led all season and guys followed tremendously. Just needed to show up in playoffs. That’s a learning thing that we’ve got to take and make sure everyone is coming back pissed off.”
Except it won’t be everyone. Not from this group at least.
“I don’t really know what to say right now,” veteran winger Mats Zuccarello said. “I’m really proud of this group. We all competed with each other every game. It’s a great group. It’s kind of disappointing that it ended so quickly.”
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