Hall: Wild’s offseason equally as important as last

ST. PAUL, Minn. — When the Minnesota Wild won the NHL’s offseason by signing the two top prized free agents in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, they had designs on winning in the postseason as well.

Minnesota likely ends the season feeling unfulfilled following Thursday night’s 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks and 4-1 loss in the first-round series.

In giving Parise and Suter matching 13-year, $98 million contracts, the Wild had their sights set on division titles, playoff appearance and Stanley Cup chases. In the first season with Parise and Suter, Minnesota ended its four-year drought of playoff appearances, but fell short of its own expectations.

The Wild had their chances. The lockout-shortened season started slowly before Minnesota adjusted. But an inconsistent finish left the Wild as the eighth-seed in the Western Conference, needing to win on the season’s final day to make the playoffs, which brought a series against the league’s top regular-season team in Chicago and an early playoff exit.

Where the Wild go from here becomes interesting.

With those monumental signings of Parise and Suter and a talented group of prospects, Minnesota tried to change the direction of the franchise. This summer might be just as important as landing Parise and Suter.

In losing to the Blackhawks, the Wild saw their shortcomings against perhaps the most talented and deepest team in the league. Minnesota was one of the strongest defensive teams in the league this season, led by Suter, rookie Jonas Brodin and goaltender Niklas Backstrom. But Backstrom’s injury and a lack of scoring hurt the Wild in the playoffs.

More changes are in store for Minnesota.

Backstrom, 35, is an unrestricted free agent. Backup Josh Harding is signed for two more seasons, but he missed much of the year with complications from multiple sclerosis. After trading Matt Hackett to Buffalo to acquire Jason Pominville, Darcy Kuemper is considered the goaltender of the future, but are the Wild ready to start that future? Backstrom showed his worth by starting 26 of the team’s final 27 games.

On defense, Minnesota got inconsistent play behind Suter and Brodin, the top pairing that played almost half the game at times. Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Justin Falk are restricted free agents. The only unrestricted free agent is Brett Clark, who played sparingly once he was signed midway through the season.

The Wild could be looking for more depth on defense, including another reliable veteran and someone willing to play a physical game in front of the goaltender.

Up front, Minnesota still struggled to score. The Wild were tied for 22nd in the league during the regular season, averaging 2.46 goals per game. They were the lowest-scoring team in the playoffs at 1.40 goals per game.

Adding Parise, Pominville, rookies Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle have helped and all are signed through at least next season. Yet scoring, at times, seemed to take an immense effort from the Wild. Minnesota could use one true goal-scoring sniper added to the mix.

Center Matt Cullen, 35, is an unrestricted free agent. Cullen finished fifth on the team in scoring and his line with Zucker and Devin Setoguchi was the team’s best scoring line at times. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, 29, who played the full season, is also an unrestricted free agent, along with Stephane Veilleux. Cal Clutterbuck and Carson McMillan are restricted free agents.

The Wild will likely need more next season from center Mikael Granlund, who was once the pride of their talented prospect pool, but struggled with two goals and six assists in 27 games for Minnesota this season. Dany Heatley, who had 11 goals and 10 assists in 36 games, is owed $7.5 million in the final year of his contract next season.

A disappointing end to the season likely will mean more changes for the Wild, with general manager Chuck Fletcher never being apprehensive about moves in his time with the team. What those changes will entail will be interesting to watch.

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.