JOHANNESHOV, Sweden — Pat Maroon and Zach Bogosian were chatting at neighboring stalls in the Wild dressing room this week.
It had to feel a little like unfamiliar territory.
They had reached the mountaintop together with the Tampa Bay Lightning, having won the Stanley Cup in 2020; Maroon, of course, won three in a row. They’ve also seen some lows, too, with Bogosian on some lean Buffalo Sabres teams and Maroon’s hometown St. Louis Blues finding themselves in last place in the NHL on Jan. 3, 2019, the year they eventually made a coaching change and won the first of his three straight Cups.
The Minnesota Wild are currently close to the Central Division basement after having lost three in a row and seven of their last nine.
“I mean, we’re not there yet, but we don’t want to get there either,” Maroon said, referring to the Blues’ sink to the bottom before turning it around.
This is a frustrating and tense time for the Wild, their slump casting a cloud on what was supposed to be a fun Global Series trip to Sweden. It is times like this when Cup winners like Maroon, Bogosian and Marc-Andre Fleury can exert their influence and experience on how to get out of it.
“We’ve got to find a way to get back to the basics,” Maroon said. “Focus on what we can control. I don’t think we’ve really had a lead besides the first game of the year. And it’s tough when you’re chasing the game. Then bad habits creep in. In (15) games we might have had one good start.”
“Every team goes through it, teams that are good, teams that aren’t that good,” Bogosian said. “The little details matter. They all add up in the big picture.”
The big picture right now can seem bleak. Only the worst-in-the-NHL San Jose Sharks have given up more goals than the Wild and only the Sharks have trailed more in games, which is stunning considering defense was supposed to be this group’s identity. Their penalty kill is dead last in the league, having given up a franchise-record five goals in Sunday’s 8-3 loss to the Stars.
“Embarrassing,” Fleury, who gave up a career-high eight goals, called it. “It’s already happened too many times to us. We’ve got to find ways to prevent that so we don’t have to open up to get back in the game. We need to play our game plan. But we had some good talks to get our spirits up. It’s a long season, but everybody’s good in our conference, everybody’s getting points. We need points, too, and now.
“We can’t wait too long. We’ve got to get going here.”
After shaking off the jet lag from a Tuesday afternoon arrival in Stockholm, the Wild practiced on an Olympic sheet of ice at Hovet Arena on Wednesday morning. The arena is right next door to Avicii Arena, where the Wild play the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday (10 a.m. CT) and Sunday (7 a.m. CT).
Frederick Gaudreau and Alex Goligoski, both on long-term injured reserve, practiced the first half of the skate before the Wild sunk into a much-needed special teams practice. Gaudreau is closest to returning. In fact, if he handles the contact he’s expected to receive Friday and Saturday, he’s eligible to come off LTIR on Sunday.
Kirill Kaprizov, who also missed Monday’s practice due to maintenance, skated with Marco Rossi and Mats Zuccarello and is expected to play this weekend. His parents and brother are in Stockholm and will get to see him play this weekend. As he made clear Wednesday, this is a business trip for the Wild: “Who said that we’re here to have fun?”
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) November 15, 2023
While the power play was an area to practice Wednesday, so especially was the penalty kill. The Wild made some subtle tweaks to the PK before their last road trip, but so far nothing has seemed to work. That has cranked the pressure up on assistant Bob Woods (who runs the PK) and the rest of coach Dean Evason’s staff.
“We’ve talked extensively about our penalty kill systematically,” Evason said. “That we will be changing — again. That’s what we have to try to do, right? We need to move forward. But we need to change something or do something. You just can’t keep continually saying, ‘OK, we’re standing beside guys, get the job done.’ We’ve got to change some stuff, where we’re giving the players, the team hopefully the confidence, the structure to get the job done.”
In a normal situation, the Wild don’t have the bodies or cap space to, let’s say, bench a player or send someone down due to performance. With Gaudreau and Goligoski on LTIR, they were able to bring an extra forward in Nic Petan and two extra defensemen — one of Jon Merrill, Daemon Hunt or Dakota Mermis is expected to play Saturday — to Stockholm. But as for holding players accountable or sending messages this season, Evason has to do it in other ways, like sitting his top players during a third-period power play Sunday.
“Honestly how many times do you see coaches sit a guy? It’s like you’ve got your guys and your salary cap,” Evason said. “If it was 1982, you could sit a guy or send him down. But today’s game, you don’t see it as much. They’re the best players in the world, they shouldn’t have to get sat out or benched in order to motivate them.”
Evason has been more publicly critical of players this season than he has in the past, from calling out Goligoski’s ill-timed unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that doused momentum in a Game 2 loss to Toronto to calling out the entire top line a week later. On Sunday, Evason said a lot of guys “sucked,” stressing he needed more from top, highly paid players Kaprizov and Matt Boldy.
But it’s fair to question how much responsibility Evason and his staff should carry.
“One hundred percent, we’re accountable, too,” Evason said. “We talk, we meet, we try, but we’ve got to do a better job. We can talk about the players having to execute. We as coaches have to execute as well, there’s no question.”
The Wild appeared to have turned the corner a couple weeks ago, having come through with a thrilling 5-4 come-from-behind victory over the New York Rangers at Xcel Energy Center. Alternate captain Marcus Foligno called it a potential “season changer.” Evason had met individually with the captains the day before, challenging them to do more vocally and on the ice. For that brief moment, it looked like it worked, as Minnesota won two straight for the first time this season.
But Foligno said it’s frustrating because now “we’re right back where we were.” They just seem discombobulated, lacking confidence.
“We can complain and get angry and do all that stuff, but that’s not gonna help us,” Foligno said. “We like to think we’re an experienced group and can get out of this. There’s a time and place for getting angry, but yeah, we’re angry.
“We’re not happy with what’s going on.”
This Sweden trip could help in terms of the group banding together and bonding. Perhaps they can hash things over a dinner or beers outside the microscope of the Twin Cities.
“Just get out of the routine a bit, get away from this stress — be together as a team every day,” Fleury said of the trip. “We have some practice time. It’ll be good, but it needs to happen now. It’s not going to get any easier, but this isn’t acceptable.”
And that’s the point: The Wild can escape 4,000 miles away from the Twin Cities, but they’ll be back soon enough. And if they continue to head south like Maroon’s Blues did in 2019, it’s the nature of the sport: Changes could be coming.
As disenchanted Wild president of hockey operations and general manager Bill Guerin told fans during a meet and greet Q&A after Wednesday’s practice in Sweden, “We’re here for four points. And don’t hesitate to tell the players when you meet them.”
If you’re in Sweden, please join @JoeSmithNHL and me at O’Leary’s Tolv near Avicii Arena tomorrow night from 6-8 pm for a #mnwild fan meetup, tons of giveaways, a live podcast and food and drinks specials pic.twitter.com/LAmEIyfi82
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) November 15, 2023
(Top photo: Maxim Thore / Bildbyran / Sipa USA via AP Images)