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John Shipley: Wild fans are done with ‘steps in the right direction’

GM Bill Guerin did a terrific job assembling the 2021-22 Wild. Unfortunately, the bottom line was the same

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues
Minnesota Wild goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) reacts after giving up a goal to St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly (90) during the third period in Game 4 of the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Sunday, May 8, 2022, at Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
Jeff Le / USA Today Sports
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Before the postseason started for the Minnesota Wild, general manager Bill Guerin was asked about Kevin Fiala, the implication being that what the winger does in the playoffs would make an impact on his future in Minnesota.

“You’re only as good as your last game,” Guerin said before quickly adding, “I’m kidding.”

Well, yes and no he was kidding.

Like the Wild as a whole, Fiala had a wonderful regular season and an underwhelming postseason, and while Fiala’s disappointing playoff performance won’t affect whether Guerin wants to re-sign him as an unrestricted free agent this summer, it will take the edge off the loss in the likely event that the GM won’t be able to afford him.

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Anyone stumbling upon these words knows why. Wild fans are done with feeling good about the regular season. Since the 2003 team’s surprise, and immensely entertaining, run to the Western Conference final, Wild fans have slipped well into “GoodFellas” mode, and because this is a family paper, we paraphrase.

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“You won the Northwest Division in 2007-08? Don’t care, you lost in the first round of the playoffs.”

“You set a franchise record with 106 points in 2016-17? Don’t care, you lost in the first round.”

“You set a franchise record with 52 wins in 2021-22? Don’t care, you lost in the first round.”

Guerin might have been half-kidding — or maybe one-fourth kidding — when he said you’re only as good as your last game, but when it comes to the Wild and the playoffs, it’s true.

“This team had something special about it,” Guerin said during a postmortem with coach Dean Evason on Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center. “And we made tremendous steps in the direction that we want to be going in.”

This was Guerin’s third season as the Wild’s GM, but it has been Minnesota’s team for 21 years. It’s impossible for anyone else, and maybe especially a professional hockey man, to understand the disappointment of what has been an intensely loyal fan base. It’s kinda done with steps in the right direction. Without a deep run, at least another trip to the conference final, there is no forward motion. Everything else is treading water.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Minnesota Wild at St. Louis Blues
St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington (50) makes a save against Minnesota Wild center Joel Eriksson Ek (14) during the first period in Game 6 of the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs May 12, 2022, at Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
Jeff Le / USA Today Sports

So, after building what might have been, in fact, the Wild’s best team since the franchise started play in 2000-21, Guerin goes back to work.

Fiala’s last game was zero points in a 5-1, season-ending loss at St. Louis. His entire postseason was something of a whimper, three assists and no goals in six games after a career-best regular season, 33 goals and 85 points. Right now, his postseason is what remains fresh. Likewise for Guerin, who had an even better regular season than Fiala did.

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Until the Wild brain trust decided to ride Marc-Andre Fleury in the postseason, everything Guerin touched turned to gold — from buying out the contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to acquiring Jake Middleton and Nicolas Deslaurier at the trade deadline.

The internal consensus reported Tuesday was that the Wild just got off track in the playoffs, that what they did well in the regular season — stuck to the game plan and responded to adversity — just didn’t happen in the playoffs. It wasn’t so much an objective diagnosis as comfort food: All the Wild, largely as composed, have to do next year is stay on script in the postseason.

One wonders if that includes the way the team handled the goaltending situation. Fleury might have been a key cog after being acquired at the deadline, but he wasn’t as sharp as fellow veteran Cam Talbot down the stretch. Yet instead of sticking with a successful tandem, the Wild — “We all talked about it. We all have input,” Evason said — chose to ride Fleury, and it plain didn’t work.

Fleury might not have been the reason the Wild didn’t beat St. Louis — there were other underwhelming performances — but it seems fair to say he didn’t play the way the team had hoped. And still they put him out there for five games. “Because he had three Stanley Cups,” Evason said. And he still does.

Guerin insisted Tuesday that he wants to keep both Talbot, under contract next season, and Fleury, a free agent for 2022-23. It makes sense because it worked so well in the regular season — for whatever that’s worth.

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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