The Minnesota Wild are building something, but it's not a finished product yet. They forced a decisive Game 7 but fell 6-2 at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights. In a game that the Wild needed the most, their lack of depth burned brightest as their biggest need for the future.
Instead, Vegas proved to be the deeper team. Max Pacioretty returned for Game 7 and had a goal, but it was Mattias Janmark who scored early and often, capping off a hat trick in the third period to get the Golden Knights into the second round.
Coming into the series, the Wild looked to have the edge when it came to scoring depth throughout the lineup. Sure, Nico Sturm can be a difference-maker. Yes, Zach Parise scored two goals and added an assist in three games. It goes without saying how Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov both had amazing moments during the series.
However, all that depth the Wild think they have means very little without centers that can play in both ends, win faceoffs and drive play effectively against some of the best of the NHL. It'll probably come out that Joel Eriksson Ek was dealing with an injury during this seven-game set. But when he's literally the only guy the Wild can depend on, that's a problem.
Center depth should improve when Marco Rossi potentially slots in next season, but that's no guarantee. The Wild have one legitimate center in Eriksson Ek. Behind that, Victor Rask is playing above his skill level and Ryan Hartman is playing out of position. The Wild couldn't push the puck into the Golden Knights' end with any frequency. And while Vegas is a good team, they were ripe for the picking if the Wild could have sustained a forecheck. Even the Marcus Foligno-Eriksson Ek-Jordan Greenway line, which controlled the puck better than any line, didn't create enough havoc around the net.
Also, the Wild didn't seem to know what to do with Sturm all season long, swapping him between center and the wing constantly throughout the year. He has played well enough for an expanded role on the team, but Evason gave him 10 minutes in Game 7. Promising prospect Calen Addison got just under seven minutes after the bench was shortened for Brodin's injury.
The Wild put forth a valiant effort to push this series to the brink, but they had no answer for the Golden Knights' forecheck. With Eriksson Ek missing time in the second period of Game 7 and Jonas Brodin suffering what appeared to be a shoulder injury after 1:56 of time on ice and three shifts, the Wild played far more of Game 7 in their own end.
That forecheck was relentless. The Wild saw it throughout the series, and it paid dividends in every game except 1 and 6. Minnesota never seemed to adjust to those ebbs in the game and allowed Vegas to flow whenever they wanted. So while the Wild tried to show they were better than they've been, head coach Dean Evason appeared to be satisfied just being there rather than making meaningful changes to the roster or adjusting strategy to secure the victory.
The 6-2 finish speaks volumes to that.
Minnesota now turns its eyes to the future. The Wild need to re-sign Eriksson Ek, Kaprizov and Fiala this summer. Nick Bonino was solid this year in a depth role. However, Marcus Johansson and Nick Bjugstad's roles can be filled internally by graduating prospects to the NHL. Rask is a buyout candidate, and Parise's status with the team remains in flux.
The NHL will bring in a new franchise and change the landscape of the league once again. Bill Guerin has his work cut out for him in the Expansion Draft, and then there's the NHL Entry Draft in late July. How teams will scout and draft 18-year-olds without seeing them play is a question Judd Brackett and the Wild will need to answer. Having two first-round picks in the draft is great, but they have to hit on them given they are in win-now mode.
The Wild are building something, but it's just not a finished product yet. So while this is yet another first-round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, this one feels different. There's more promise with two real scoring studs on this team, but the center situation will improve. Even losing Game 7 is a disappointment because of the missed opportunities to push this underdeveloped team into the second round.
These are all correctable things, and this will be the biggest summer for Guerin yet.