Stanley Cup playoffs: Future completely uncertain for knocked-out Wild

USA TODAY Sports

The Blackhawks have moved on in the playoffs for the first time since winning the Cup in 2010, but the left-in-the-dust Wild have plenty of questions to answer

Over a five-game Western Conference playoff series victory, the Chicago Blackhawks showed exactly why they have lost a grand total of seven games in regulation out of 53 this season.

Speed, skill, depth, grit, defense, goaltending, experience. Chicago has it all. And if you listen to the head coach, Chicago isn't "there," yet.

"I still think we have to be better. I’m not doing cartwheels the last two games," Joel Quenneville said after Thursday's 5-1 home win over the Minnesota Wild that gave Chicago a 4-1 series win. "I still think there’s another level we gotta get to, to be more consistent in our game."

I don't want to be the guy that forgets this, or tries to act like it isn't important. Anyone who thought the Blackhawks somehow got away with a fluke in the regular season should be convinced at this point that this team is completely legit. It will take an amazing effort for anyone in the NHL to beat this team four times in seven games.

However, the Wild made moves last summer aimed at making the franchise relevant. While it made the playoffs for the first time in five years, a late-season swoon cost Minnesota a shot at the Northwest Division title, and it almost cost Minnesota a playoff spot.

Speculation going into the team's season finale at Colorado was that coach Mike Yeo would be in trouble if the team didn't qualify for the tournament.

Is one win and two generally non-competitive performances over five playoff games enough to change that? Should it have been that way in the first place?

The head coach is just one spot where the Wild will have to make a tough decision heading into the summer. With the salary cap set to drop, it's expected that free agent Pierre-Marc Bouchard will not return to the club. Matt Cullen is a huge question mark, as is restricted free agent forward Cal Clutterbuck, who might see his rights traded despite his status as a bit of a cult hero in Minnesota.

Goalie Niklas Backstrom is a free agent, too, and could very well have played his last game for Minnesota.

Dany Heatley has a large cap number, declining production, and might have the last year of his contract bought out. Or maybe not. Heatley was a presence in the lineup and was a leading scorer for Minnesota before a shoulder injury cost him the season. He was greatly missed, especially on the power play, where the Wild went a staggering 0-for-17 in the series against Chicago.

Thursday's game featured a strong Minnesota start, but again, the Wild couldn't score.

"Great start, can’t seem to buy that first goal and they grab the lead," Yeo said. "We’re still pushing and second goal seemed to do us in, kind of similar to last game."

So what happens to Yeo?

Star Tribune ace Michael Russo mentioned after the game that he believes general manager Chuck Fletcher is safe. He also said that if there's a coaching change, it's a decision Fletcher makes and not one handed down from owner Craig Leipold. That's an interesting nugget, because Leipold admitted multiple times that he's not the most patient chap out there, and that was before he authorized $200 million in contracts for forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter last summer.

If Fletcher fires a second coach in his four-year tenure as GM, it may end up saying more about him than it does Yeo. But that doesn't mean Yeo should skate here.

Yes, there were injuries, including what seems to be an obvious injury to top-line center and team captain Mikko Koivu. Heatley went down hours after the Wild traded for Buffalo captain Jason Pominville at the deadline. Matt Cullen was injured April 1 and never the same afterward, though the exact extent of his knee injury is unknown. Pominville missed three playoff games after taking a dirty elbow from Kings captain Dustin Brown April 23.

But there were other things that happened along the way. The Wild were set up with a must-win in Colorado April 27 after losing 6-1 at home to Edmonton the night before. The game started with a staged fight between Zenon Konopka of the Wild and the Oilers' Mike Brown. That fight was made possible by Yeo's decision to counter the Oilers' fourth line with his own fourth line, and not the top line, to start the game.

The goal-less power play was slow to adjust in the Chicago series, and ineffective when it did adjust. The top line of Koivu, Parise, and Charlie Coyle was completely shut down, largely because of Koivu's injury, but Yeo never really mixed up the personnel.

Is the late-season swoon and quick exit enough to drive Yeo out of town? One can hope not, because the list of potential candidates doesn't exactly inspire. Lindy Ruff missed the playoffs seven out of 11 years, and Dave Tippett -- whose deal with Phoenix is up this summer -- coaches a defensive style that might not mesh with the Wild's stable of young talent.

(Parise did have a 38-goal season under defensive-minded coach Jacques Lemaire in New Jersey, so maybe it isn't an awful fit in that regard.)

More than that, and not to sound like a Yeo excuse machine, the Wild made significant changes last summer, and Yeo didn't have a full training camp to get used to his team. And the players didn't have a training camp to get used to the coach.

I think Yeo should return, and it should be interesting to see how this team develops. There's plenty of room for improvement, and Fletcher has to find a No. 1 goalie. Promise exists, but much work is needed before that promise can be fulfilled.

As for the winners, the Blackhawks get a short respite, and then what should be a great series against the red-hot Sharks or heated rival Red Wings. 12 wins to go for Chicago on its mission, and it looks completely attainable.

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