Advertisement

Neal: Eulogy for a bad season. May the Wild's future come quickly.

The Wild will complete their underachieving 2023-24 season on Thursday with a home game against Seattle, making today an appropriate time to present this eulogy.

A eulogy is when one says nice things about someone, right? That's the intention here. While the Wild's realistic chances of reaching the playoffs expired weeks ago, there are reasons to praise this group of skaters and the Bill Guerin-led front office. That's because, by the end of the season, they took the right approach with the roster and look poised to move forward with a smart strategy.

For proof, consider Monday's 3-1 victory over Los Angeles, one of their most comprehensive road victories of the season.

Coach John Hynes crafted a line that included Liam Ohgren and Marat Khusnutdinov, two highly regarded prospects Guerin has been eager to debut. They were able to get shifts with Kirill Kaprizov or Matt Boldy, a big plus. Defenseman Declan Chisholm, whom the Wild picked up on waivers from Winnipeg for a look-see, was paired with John Merrill.

It was nearly perfect, except that Filip Gustavsson was in the net instead of the promising Jesper Wallstedt, who won his previous two starts.

How Ohgren, Khusnutdinov, Wallstedt and other young players evolve will determine how soon the Wild return to the postseason. With Kaprizov notching another 45-goal season, Boldy pushing 30 goals, Marco Rossi finally getting a full season and the nightly performances of the fabulous Brock Faber, the core of 20-somethings is in place. Seeing them all on the ice during the final games of the season makes the near future more comforting. There are indications that the Wild is aware that it is time to embrace the future. Bravo.

The timing couldn't be better. A year from now, the $15 million cap hit for buying out the contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will be expiring. We have seen how this has weighed down the team. Guerin has been restricted from building a deeper roster with more scoring options and more size. When a cap-strapped team such as the Wild suffer injuries, which was often this season, they are hard to absorb.

Sign up for our Wild Update newsletter

Once free of those financial restrictions, Guerin will have more payroll flexibility and his 20-somethings will be forged with another year of experience. And here are two decisions Guerin can make soon to accelerate the development going into next season:

1. Trade Gustavsson. Trading for the "Gus Bus" was one of Guerin's best moves last season, as the steady Gustavsson gave the Wild goaltending depth that was the envy of the league. This season, he was terribly inconsistent and his numbers sagged across the board. A team strength became shaky.

Now Gustavsson is in the way of Wallstedt. The Great Wall of St. Paul has made three starts this season and seems to have settled in after being thrown to the wolves on Jan. 10 in his debut, a 7-2 loss at Dallas. Wallstedt would serve as an apprentice to goaltending savant Marc-Andre Fleury, whom I expect to return for 2024-25. Gustavsson is only 25 years old, so the Wild should be able to find a trade partner for him.

2. Move on from Alex Goligoski. The former Gopher has played in over 1,000 NHL games and has filled multiple roles in nearly three seasons with the Wild. He will be 39 next season, and retirement is a possibility. But if he wants to play another season, the Wild should head in a different direction. They claimed two-way defenseman Chisholm off waivers and are giving him a chance to be part of the blue line going forward.

Goligoski and Gustavsson made a combined $5.75 million this season, so those are funds that can be allocated elsewhere. It's not a lot, but when you have $15 million less to spend because of buyouts, any little bit helps.

A year from now, Guerin will be salivating over free agents he can finally afford. The young players will have more seasoning. Who knows? With better health and a couple of breaks, perhaps the Wild can quickly return to the playoffs at this time a year from now.

If the Wild have truly concluded it's time to look toward the future, this season will be quickly forgotten.