There's no prize for the runner-up. No tenth-place ribbon. No "Playoff participation" banner. Only thing that matters is winning the Stanley Cup.
However, we all know it isn't this simple. Every year, we see franchises take big steps forward. Dallas and Columbus had already done that this playoff year.
Sometimes, those teams keep moving forward, like Chicago did from 2009 to 2010. Sometimes, those teams fall off the face of the earth (see: "Panthers, Florida").
The Minnesota Wild hope to be more like Chicago and less like the Panthers. And the roster seems to suggest they'll get what they are looking for.
The 2014 postseason unquestionably represented a huge move in the right direction for Minnesota. With its coaching staff staring down the final year of their contracts, the Wild soldiered through two awfully rough patches in the regular season. The first of those came in late December into January, keyed by an injury to forward Zach Parise and goalie Josh Harding having to sit because of MS complications. It led to a ton of speculation that head coach Mike Yeo was going to be ushered out. Minnesota then won consecutive games over Buffalo and Washington, seemingly saving Yeo's gig.
In March, the Wild hit another lull, getting blown out in back-to-back games against Vancouver and St. Louis. The team had a day off in Phoenix, but a "team leadership" meeting (captains and at least one notable veteran, that being goalie Ilya Bryzgalov) allowed the team to pull together and push to the playoffs.
Not satisfied with making the postseason, the Wild got by Colorado in an exciting seven-game series. Parise scored 10 points, but the emergence of young players Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, among others, had just as much to do with the win as veterans like Parise did.
A rematch with Chicago loomed, and while the Wild lost again, the team competed much harder and played much better than it did in last year's five-game loss to the Blackhawks. In doing so, Yeo and his team earned a lot of respect. That doesn't win a Stanley Cup, but maybe it will stop some national pundits from continuing to talk like the Wild are the same slow-down team they were under Jacques Lemaire.
(By the way, Lemaire left five years ago now. Just saying, since his name and the style he coached still seem to get mentioned a lot when Minnesota plays on national television.)
Photo credit: Hannah Foslien
Now that the season is over, hopefully Wild fans are fired up about the future. It appears to be bright.
Six key players -- forwards Charlie Coyle, Granlund, Niederreiter, and Erik Haula, defenseman Jonas Brodin, and goalie Darcy Kuemper -- played this season on their entry-level deals. Only Niederreiter and Kuemper have to be re-signed this summer.
Per CapGeek, the Wild have 17 players signed for $48.375 million. That leaves six roster spots -- assuming everyone under an NHL deal makes the team next fall -- and an estimated $22.7 million to spend to the cap. GM Chuck Fletcher won't want to spend all that. The young players I just mentioned are all going to get more expensive, and it wouldn't be prudent to eat up all the available cap room now unless it's absolutely necessary.
The Wild have long been linked to forward Thomas Vanek, an impending free agent. I used to think this was a good idea, but Vanek's not getting any younger, and Minnesota just dealt with a full season from a declining scoring forward in Dany Heatley. While Heatley was, by all accounts, a great teammate in Minnesota, he was also an expensive one, and his contract tied up the Wild's salary cap to a point where it limited other potential moves, both last summer and at this year's deadline.
Don't make that mistake with Vanek. He's going to get too much term and money for a guy who could very easily decline as precipitously as Heatley did.
The Wild could use a right-shot defenseman, and while Minnesota native Matt Niskanen is tempting, be careful of that money, too. Minnesota has some great young prospects in Matthew Dumba and Gustav Oloffson, and you don't want to freeze out young players to overpay veterans.
Twilight of an Enforcer
(That said, Niskanen looks like he could be a great fit with the Wild, and I'd be shocked if they didn't pursue him, assuming he gets to July 1. And why wouldn't he at this point?)
Fletcher has to solve the goaltending conundrum. Harding's MS kept him out of the lineup after Dec. 31. Niklas Backstrom struggled with injuries throughout the season. Kuemper should get a one-way deal. And while Bryzgalov was fantastic against Chicago, there doesn't appear to be room for him unless someone leaves on their own accord.
(Or Fletcher suckers Garth Snow into giving up a conditional pick for Backstrom.)
(Yes, I'm kidding.)
The Wild were a few bounces away from forcing a Game 7 against one of the best franchises in all of sports. It's a huge move forward for Minnesota, and now it's time to take the next step.