When training camp began for the Minnesota Wild in mid-September, players were issued t-shirts to wear under their jerseys that read, “GOOD IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”
It was an instant message of what this season’s mantra will be from coach Bruce Boudreau.
Last season, the Wild were good. They were not good enough.
After finishing with the second-most points in the Western Conference and scoring the most goals in franchise history, the Wild disappointed in the playoffs by managing a single victory against the St. Louis Blues.
That buzzkill was the lasting memory heading into an offseason that included losing Erik Haula and prospect Alex Tuch to expansion and trading Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to Buffalo.
“I listen to the NHL Network too much.” Boudreau said. “It bugs me that they pick every other team in the Central Division to make the playoffs except for us. To me, it’s like, ‘We want to show you.’ I hope that’s the attitude of the players because that frustrates me.”
In Boudreau’s eyes, the Wild still return with the majority of their core even though they did cut loose key depth players like Jordan Schroeder and Nate Prosser.
Up front is where Boudreau is particularly excited. Not only does he believe last year’s Mikael Granlund and fellow $5 million man Nino Niederreiter should pick up where they left off, he expects big things from Matt Dumba, Jason Zucker and rookie Joel Eriksson Ek, a bounce-back year from Jonas Brodin and newcomers Marcus Foligno, Tyler Ennis and Matt Cullen to solidify the bottom-six forward positions.
In Boudreau’s eyes, the Wild know what they have in goalie Devan Dubnyk and have no question marks with top-four defensemen Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Brodin and Dumba. He’s hoping Gustav Olofsson and Mike Reilly are able to take the next step on the third pair with newcomer veteran Kyle Quincey.
“The last time we called up Mike Reilly last year, he was 10 times better than he was at the beginning of the year,” Boudreau said. “Olofsson, same thing, the second time he was called up, I thought this guy was going to be a really good player. He has had been able to train all summer and has put on a lot of muscle and weight. We really need these guys to perform.”
Boudreau agrees with the fan’s sentiment that it’s time for the Wild to take the next step in the postseason. But that’s not his concern right now.
“What happens in the spring is the great unknown because all we worry about now is making the playoffs,” Boudreau said. “My job isn’t to say, ‘Let’s peak in April, get the eight spot and we’ll be fine.’ I just think if you put your goals that low, sometimes you don’t achieve them. You’ve got to try to be the best.
“We’ll know when the time comes if we’re ready to take the next step. But in this league, you’ve got to first get in the playoffs. It’s a hard, hard league.”
“It bugs me that they pick every other team in the Central Division to make the playoffs except for us. To me, it’s like, ‘We want to show you.’ I hope that’s the attitude of the players because that frustrates me.” -Bruce Boudreau
It will be interesting to see how the league shapes up this season.
For instance, the Pittsburgh Penguins, fresh off winning two Stanley Cups in a row and striving for a three-peat, lost some significant pieces from the 2016-17 team: Cullen, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and of course, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Could this be the year Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finally take the step the Wild have also long been searching?
Standing in their way will no doubt be the Tampa Bay Lightning, who will be among the legit Cup contenders by many pundits heading into the season especially with Steven Stamkos on track for a return, and Columbus Blue Jackets, who added Artemi Panarin.
One team everybody should look out for is the Toronto Maple Leafs. There is no doubt coach Mike Babcock is confident his team is ready to ascend into the true contender category with the continued development of young stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander and addition of still fast, high-scoring veteran Patrick Marleau.
As for the West, like the Maple Leafs, the Edmonton Oilers should be daunting with the continued rise of superstar Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
The Dallas Stars, at least on paper, did more than any team in the league this offseason. First and foremost, they hired veteran bench boss Ken Hitchcock, who typically pushes and prods his teams to 100-point seasons his first year. Secondly, they added a goalie in Ben Bishop, a scoring winger in Alexander Radulov, a rugged defenseman in Marc Methot, a checking center in Martin Hanzal and maybe a bargain skilled forward in Tyler Pitlick.
If one assumes the Nashville Predators will pick up where they left off after riding their hot streak to the Stanley Cup Final and the Chicago Blackhawks (got the band back together with Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp’s return) and St. Louis Blues will be contenders like usual, the Wild will be in a dogfight with the Winnipeg Jets, who added a goalie in Steve Mason but often blow themselves up eventually.
If five teams are to make the playoffs from the Central, that would mean only three can make it from the Pacific. That’s hard to imagine with the Oilers, the Calgary Flames (added goalie Mike Smith), the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings also battling.
This type of competition is why Boudreau says, "Good is not good enough.”
“Watching that St. Louis series again, just execute,” Boudreau said. “I get all mad again watching it over. Our lone goal, get into the playoffs playing the best hockey we can, and then make sure we’re playing 10 or 15 percent better once we get there.
"I don’t want them to have a letdown heading into this year. I want them to be angrier because all the great stuff we did last year was pretty well wiped away.”
After 12 seasons covering the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune, Michael Russo now covers the Wild and National Hockey League for The Athletic (theathletic.com). He co-hosts the Russo-Souhan Show on mnspn.com and can be heard on KFAN (100.3-FM) and seen throughout the hockey season on Fox Sports North. Follow Russo on Twitter at @RussoHockey.