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To deal with such lofty expectations, especially after a franchise-record 113-point season, the hardest part of Monday’s exit meetings for Wild players was trying to reconcile that regular-season success with the empty feeling they felt Monday as eight other NHL teams prepped for the second round of the playoffs as the Wild headed into yet another early offseason unfulfilled.
“It doesn’t matter what you do in the regular season, how good your regular season is. Once you get to playoffs, if you’re not performing and you’re out, that’s where the feelings are raw right now,” captain Jared Spurgeon during locker-room cleanup day. “It’s just disappointment. We did have a really great season, but at the same time, right now, it feels like it is a failure.”
But, as Kevin Fiala said, “There’s 31 teams who fail. Everybody has the same goal, and obviously, we have the goal to win the Stanley Cup. … Yeah, it was a good regular season, but it doesn’t really matter.”
Especially because this was one of the tightest-knit Wild teams in memory, a group that “loved” playing together, but a group that can’t all be together next season.
That’s the nature of pro sports, of course, but the Wild now enter three years of an ultra-tight cap squeeze that will cause them to have to fill a full roster next season with a cap ceiling of $69.8 million – or $12.7 million less than most of the other 31 NHL teams. General manager Bill Guerin and coach Dean Evason will hold their end-of-season news conference Tuesday morning.
“I think the positive thing is that no matter what, we built something here this year,” veteran Marcus Foligno said. “And I think we have to grow in it. No one in this organization is thinking about taking a step back. That’s not what we’re thinking about. I think we have to focus on the strides we took, the culture we built. This is a negative right now. But the seven months or eight months of hockey we played was a huge, huge positive, a huge, huge stepping stone for this organization. I think this room is unbelievable. It’s going to be a great culture for anyone coming in here.
“You know changes have to be made. I get it. But the mindset doesn’t change. Next year we’re going to have a sour taste in our mouth from this. But we built a really good group and something that we can improve on.
“The reality is, we’ve got a great thing going here. We know it’s a special group. The leaders led all season and guys followed tremendously. Just needed to show up in playoffs and that’s a learning thing that we’ve got to take now and make sure everyone is coming back pissed off and closer than this year.”
Fiala: “We will just have to see what happens.”
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) May 16, 2022
One casualty of cap hell could be Fiala, who is coming off a career-best 33-goal, 85-point season (second-most points in a single season in Wild history) before he had no goals, three points and 16 penalty minutes in Minnesota’s first-round loss to the St. Louis Blues.
Fiala is a restricted free agent and enticing trade bait for Guerin because Fiala is due a significant raise from his $5.1 million salary. Without freeing up significant cap space via trades, the Wild can’t currently afford to re-sign Fiala, with only $8.18 million of available space and other roster spots that need to be filled and players who need to be re-signed.
Asked if he wants to stay with the Wild, Fiala said, “Well, actually, there’s no other answer than we’ll see. I don’t know. We just lost and there’s (been) no conversation yet and not in this two days either, so we’ll see.”
Fiala, one of the hottest players in the NHL during the last month of the season, admitted he put pressure on himself to try to carry over what he started in the regular season because he wanted “to make it happen this year with the team we had.”
Fiala said his mind is at peace despite his uncertain future.
“I’m relaxed right now, to be honest,” he said. “I mean, there’s nothing I can do. And right now, like I said, it was a tough, tough loss here, so I’m still in that focus, and everything else will settle later. We have time.”
Fiala called it a grind of a season and to have it end so quickly was devastating for everyone. He’s disappointed he wasn’t able to produce in the playoffs and alluded to the difference with the regular season, when there’s always time in an 82-game schedule to overcome a slow start and get on a tear. He has proven he can get red-hot throughout his Wild tenure. He’s also proven the latter when it most matters – the playoffs.
“I tried. I tried my best, tried to get it going,” Fiala said. “You know, playoffs are playoffs. You can’t score every game and make points. There’s so much other stuff you have to do. I had a lot of other situations, you know, with PK, defensively and stuff like that. So it wasn’t horrible. … If you look at my statistics, obviously not very good. But, it’s just such a shame to go out like that.”
He said not scoring in the playoffs doesn’t ruin his season as a whole.
“I had a great regular season and because of the playoffs, I wouldn’t just take me down like that,” he said. “I want to forget, but not forget. You don’t want to forget. Even if it sucked, you have to keep it in your head and know what is coming next year and analyze and get better next year. But, still, you take the positive from the whole picture, from the whole season.”
Just about the only way to re-sign Fiala would be to trade Matt Dumba, who is entering the last year of his contract at $6 million. That would turn $8.18 million in available space into $14.18 million.
But Dumba has a 10-team no-trade clause and has survived two expansion drafts and several other offseasons of trade rumors. He plans to do so again and will ignore the churning rumor mill that’s inevitable.
“I don’t go on Twitter, I don’t go on Instagram, I don’t listen to that stuff,” Dumba said. “I love it here in Minnesota. Me and my girlfriend got a place out in Eden Prairie now. We’ve got our dogs. This is home to me. I’m going to do whatever it takes to be the best player I possibly can for the Minnesota Wild and be the leader I know I can be. I hope everyone else believes in that, too. Yeah, we’ll see.
“BIlly’s got some decisions to make and he’s going to do whatever is best for this hockey club. I want to be a part of that. We all do. But hockey is a crazy business. You see it every year. Never once have we carried over the same team since I started playing. Things happen. It’s a business. But I’m not going to think about it too much.”
Regardless, like all his teammates, it’s frustrating to Dumba that the Wild again couldn’t get over the hump.
“There’s so much good that came with this year with what guys were able to do individually and what we were able to do as a team,” he said. “It’s hard to see those things right now, though. They’re clouded by the disappointment of exiting here in the first round. A hump we haven’t been able to get over here. But it does feel different. I do feel this team is closer than ever. We know we can learn from these experiences as well.
“We’ve got a great group of young guys and the experience of playing in the playoffs is huge. Moving forward, I think we all need to be better. There were mistakes made. We’re going to tighten that up and come together and use this experience for the better.”
Dumba suffered a scary injury
On April 5, after Dumba nailed 6-foot-6 Nashville Predators forward Michael McCarron with an open-ice check, the defenseman had to be taken to a Nashville hospital after desperately trying to catch his breath. Turns out, Dumba said Monday, he broke one rib, and dislocated another, and that caused a punctured lung. He ended up missing the next 12 games before returning for the playoffs.
“It was tough to go through,” Dumba said. “Thanks to our staff working with me every day or I wouldn’t have been able to come back at the rate that I did and even play. Those guys pushed me knowing I wanted to get back and help this team in whatever capacity because it’s just so much fun to be a part of.”
Dumba, normally a sharpshooter, didn’t play on the power play in the playoffs, a sign that the coaching staff didn’t feel he was healthy enough to shoot the puck the way he’s accustomed to. He did score a goal in the series finale.
“I was going to play no matter what,” Dumba said. “I really wanted to push to have one game in before. We wanted to give it a test run. I felt good enough to play.”
Dumba said he doesn’t need offseason surgery.
“Mostly just rest,” he said.
Eriksson Ek’s mouth is a mess
After being high-sticked late in the first period of Game 6 by teammate Dmitry Kulikov, Joel Eriksson Ek broke three or four teeth and sustained a “hole through my bottom lip.” After Monday’s exit meeting, he was returning to the dentist for more work on his mouth.
Joel Eriksson Ek’s face is a mess from the friendly fire high stick in Game 7. He went through a lot of gruesome stuff in the medical room in order to come back in that game. Unfortunately for the #mnwild, it was basically 4-0 by time he was back. pic.twitter.com/ygmCuI7k9s
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) May 16, 2022
“They had to pull them out (Friday),” Eriksson Ek said. “They tried to glue them together at first.”
He said he didn’t feel much pain the night of the game because he was so “fired up” for doctors to finish up so he could return in the second period, but he said he was in discomfort the next few days and especially on the flight back to Minnesota and is having trouble eating.
Wild defenseman Jake Middleton, the Wild’s resident dentistry expert with a number of missing teeth, gave Eriksson Ek some pointers.
“He spent a lot of time in the room there in St. Louis, and I think they were trying to save them,” Middleton said. “I said to him after the game, ‘Get those out of your mouth.’ They were all hanging and stuff.”
Middleton said doctors originally wanted to save his teeth, too, but “I was like, ‘Just get it out of there.’ It’s way less painful to get the root canal or whatever. (Eriksson Ek) did the next morning, and they were gone. I don’t know if he took my advice or the dentist’s.”
Deslauriers, Middleton hope to be back
Newcomer Nic Deslauriers, who was dealing with a myriad of injuries down the stretch and had to sit out Game 6 due to injury, is an unrestricted free agent. He can sign anywhere. Middleton is a restricted free agent, so he should be back provided the Wild extend him a qualifying offer this summer.
“I loved it,” Deslauriers said. “Obviously, I’m a big family guy. I want my family to be here and kind of experience this new place. We love it. Obviously now it’s part of the business to see what happens, but we strongly love Minny, and there’s hope I come back for sure, but it’s all about business now.”
He says the Wild’s future is bright.
“Everything, just to start from the group of guys, the organization, the coaching staff, upper management and this fan base is unbelievable,” he said. “When I brought my kids here for the first game, I told them, ‘You’ll see when you’re in the rink. It’s something special.’ … It’s still bittersweet. You’re pissed about everything, but if you look, you guys have 95 percent of the core coming back. You hope you have 100 percent. You know how business is. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but there’s something special here. It’s not a thing where it’s a one-year thing that you’re done. You guys have the main core.”
As for Middleton, he can’t believe how far he’s come since he came to San Jose’s training camp expected to play another season in the minors.
“It’s been a pretty gnarly ride,” he said, laughing. “I was so cool to be a part of. I’m bummed it’s over because it’s been some of the most fun I’ve ever had. Bummed, but looking back, I’m pretty happy with how things worked out.”
(Photo of Kevin Fiala: Scott Taetsch / Getty Images)