John Shipley: Wild’s biggest challenge will be staying ‘engaged’

For the second time, the Wild’s 2023-24 season has come off the rails.

Battling to stay alive in the Western Conference playoff race, the Wild laid an egg in a lifeless, 6-0 loss to Arizona in a head-to-head matchup of teams eager to eliminate the other from contention.

It was Minnesota’s eighth loss in nine games, and among the ugliest in a season already bloated with ugly losses. Afterward, players held a closed-door meeting to, in the words of veteran Mats Zuccarello, “air some things out.”

“A lot of this game is about confidence and helping each other out, and I think we’re gonna get back to that building each other up,” Zuccarello said. “It’s not gonna get better by digging a hole for ourselves, and feeling sorry for ourselves. We’ve gotta step up and be better.”

The Wild have 40 more games, almost 50 percent of their season, to turn things around. That’s the good news. The bad news? That hole Zuccarello was talking about has been dug. The team has been trying to get out of it since a seven-game losing streak in November cost Dean Evason his job.

It’s just deeper now.

After a 3-2 victory over Boston on Dec. 23, their second in a week over the Eastern Conference leaders, the Wild had scratched to within two points of a playoff spot. On Sunday morning, they were at the last stop to Bottomsville in the West, 10 points separated from lottery-bound Anaheim, Chicago and San Jose but nine points out of a playoff spot with five teams ahead of them for the eighth and final spot.

It’s not where the Wild expected to be after finishing last season with 46 wins and 103 points, Minnesota’s fourth-best finish since it joined the NHL as an expansion team in 2000-01.

“No, of course not,” goaltender Filip Gustavsson said. “We have almost the same team as last time. I still think we have some great players. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot all the time. That’s the reason.”

The Wild are not a complete team. They have talent up front, and the requisite speed to dictate pace, but the goaltending has been more erratic than expected with future hall of famer Marc-Andre Fleury backing up Gustavsson, who last season was, statistically, the second-best goaltender in the NHL.

The blue line also is thin, exacerbated by long-term injuries to top veterans Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon, who have missed a combined 42 games. Both remain on injured reserve ahead of Monday night’s 5 p.m. puck drop against the New York Islanders at Xcel Energy Center, although Brodin has been skating with the team for the past several days.

And a $14.7 million dead salary cap hit meant the Wild have been able to even call up certain players from their American League club in Iowa. On Nov. 8, general manager Bill Guerin traded defenseman Calen Addison to San Jose and replaced him with veteran Zach Bogosian, acquired from Tampa Bay for a late draft pick. When he fired Evason on Nov. 27, he played the best card in his deck.

Head coach John Hynes canceled practice on Sunday, perhaps in part because the team has been hit by a flu-like illness, perhaps because the Wild are playing three games in four days and perhaps because players already knows what’s required to win. After Hynes succeeded Evason, the team went 11-3-0 despite missing key players at various times, among them Brodin, Spurgeon, Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman.

“We need to get back to the way we were playing when we were winning, when we enjoyed winning, when we enjoyed the process,” star wing Kirill Kaprizov said through an interpreter on Saturday after returning from a seven-game injury absence.

That was Hynes’ main talking point upon taking over: Players need to focus on, and enjoy, the process — the parts compose the wins — and it hasn’t changed in a month and a half.

Players insist the effort has never wavered.

“I think this team is all about effort, but a little smarter effort and a little bit more team game and hopefully get some wins down the stretch here,” Zuccarello said.

But effort, Hynes pointed out Saturday, isn’t just physical exertion.

“We’ve gotta get our game in order,” Hynes acknowledged, “but that starts with playing a skating game and being competitive in your puck battles and being engaged and tonight we didn’t have that.”

That last one appears to be the hard part for a team in danger, for the second time this season, of becoming accustomed to losing. Staying engaged, in fact, might be the hardest part — especially for a team with such a long row to hoe.

“We’ve had a stretch at the beginning of the season where we had a lot of losses in a row, and we shouldn’t get back there,” Kaprizov said. “We should focus on the future. We shouldn’t forget about the games; we should think about how we can use each game to do what’s better the next game and think positively and get back to loving the game.”