The Minnesota Wild enter the 2015 offseason with a familiar question: How do we improve and increase our chances of beating the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup playoffs?
The Blackhawks reached the Western Conference final for the fifth time in the last seven seasons with a 4-3 Game 4 win to a complete a second-round sweep of the Wild on Thursday night.
Aside from the Los Angeles Kings, who’ve won two Cups in the last four years, the Blackhawks have been the gold standard in the West and have prevented many talented teams — San Jose Sharks, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Wild, etc. — from reaching the Cup Final.
The Hawks are one series win away from becoming the first team to reach the Stanley Cup Final three times in the salary cap era. With superstars such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith signed long-term, Chicago isn’t likely to fall from championship contender status for a while.
As a result, the Wild have difficult decisions to ponder this summer.
Despite having a fantastic roster that features a strong mix of established veteran stars and talented young players, they have been eliminated by the Blackhawks in each of the last three postseasons and there is nothing to suggest a different outcome is realistic next season unless changes are made.
The team’s core, which is largely signed long-term, might not be easy to break up.
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Which team is going to take Vanek and his $6.5 million salary cap hit for two more seasons after underperforming in the last two playoffs with lackluster effort and scoring production? Wild captain Mikko Koivu, who played in a No. 1 center role in the second half of the season despite being nowhere near that caliber, has a $6.75 million cap hit through 2017-18.
Luckily for the Wild, they have several quality young players who could be dangled on the trade market to fulfill their needs, which include a sniper and a top-four defenseman.
Vanek was supposed to be the sniper capable of scoring important playoff goals, but he hasn’t shown anything to suggest he’ll fill that role. The Wild scored just seven goals in this Round 2 series, while Kane had seven by himself. Minnesota didn’t even have a single lead in any of the four games.
Adding depth to the blue line also should be a top priority because No. 1 defenseman Ryan Suter hasn’t played particularly well in the last two postseasons. This could be a result of him playing nearly 30 minutes per game in the regular season. That kind of wear and tear catches up to you in April and May.
The Wild, much like the Blues, need to determine if their current core is good enough to beat the Blackhawks in a playoff series next season and beyond. The division playoff format isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, which means any Wild run to the Cup Final would almost certainly include a series against Chicago.
But after spending over $200 million in the free-agent market since 2011-12, finding a competent goaltender in Devan Dubnyk this season and drafting well in recent years, it’s time for the Wild to be aggressive and pursue a trade or two that will vault them to legit contender status.
Thumbnail photo via Marilyn Indahl/USA TODAY Sports Images. Salary cap information via General Fanager.