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Wild reflect on disappointing season: 'I don't want to be in this spot'

The Wild's first season in salary cap misery was like living in a house of mirrors.

Every problem was exaggerated.

They never caught up from a slow start, injuries were insurmountable and individual struggles became eyesores. For only the second time in 12 years, the Wild didn't make the playoffs.

And the approximately $14.7 million charge against the team for buying out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter three years ago is sticking around for one more season.

But now that they know just how unforgiving this situation is, the Wild should understand what it takes to avoid the same fate ahead of an even more significant summer.

After all, their weaknesses were impossible to ignore.

"I don't want to be in this spot," alternate captain Marcus Foligno said. "That's when the fingers start being pointed. I don't want to have any more fingers pointed at me in the sense of leadership and qualities of that and why we're not taking the next jump.

"I think the future is bright, obviously, but I don't think it's years from now. I think it could be next season."

Money is why the Wild are in this predicament, but money can also help their turnaround.

They'll have around $6 million to spend this offseason, according to CapFriendly, if the NHL salary cap rises as expected. Management could increase the budget through the trade market, but whether the team will have enough funds to address its deficiencies remains to be seen.

A rash of injuries exposed how thin the Wild were, on their roster and in the minors.

So, bringing in reinforcements who can step up when times get tough is key. Improving the forward group is on President of Hockey Operations/General Manager Bill Guerin's radar.

"We need to create better depth in the organization to help insulate the other guys," Guerin said. "Whether those players are in the NHL or in Iowa to start or wherever, we have to be better."

This imbalance was emphasized by the top teams in the Central Division — the Wild's battles against Dallas, Winnipeg and Colorado were a 0-10-1 mismatch — but the Wild also lacked size and strength.

"I've always said in years past how much I would hate to play against us," forward Ryan Hartman said. "This year, I don't know if I could have said the same thing about our group and how sometimes we approached games."

Acquiring more muscle is one solution, but the Wild as-is can also up their competitiveness.

Foligno noticed a sag and a "poor-me" vibe around the team. That can be remedied by getting healthier; Foligno and captain Jared Spurgeon, who had season-ending surgeries, are expecting to be ready for training camp. But better production from their returnees should also rebuild their confidence.

Frederick Gaudreau went from 19 goals to five. Marcus Johansson scored 11 after chipping in six goals in almost 60 fewer games a year earlier after a trade from Washington. Even Mats Zuccarello felt he was "a little too on and off" despite posting a team-high 51 assists; he had 12 goals.

"I'm sure some of our players are not going to have the seasons that they had this year," Guerin said.

There's also the boost the Wild could get from their prospects.

Marat Khusnutdinov will come back with NHL experience after joining the Wild from Russia earlier this year. Liam Ohgren also didn't look out of place in the four games he played, picking up his first NHL goal and assist.

"I hope the older players get scared that somebody's going to take their job and that scares them into playing better," Guerin said, "because it happens."

Bottom line, the Wild should feel urgency to rebound quickly.

Their buyout penalty drops to a nominal amount during the 2025 offseason, and that's also when the Wild will be eligible to sign Kirill Kaprizov to a contract extension. The Wild MVP racked up 46 goals — one shy of his career high — but wasn't happy with his season because it didn't culminate in a playoff berth.

"We'll see what happens next year," Kaprizov said. "I can't say if we don't make playoffs. I hope we make playoffs next year."

Last season showed just how punishing a reality like the Wild's can be.

If it can get any easier is up to them.

"We're doing everything in our power to make sure next season when we come in it's a better year," Foligno said, "and we obviously know what's on the line."