General manager Bill Guerin says Wild’s poor start is on the players

The Wild returned from Sweden on Monday with a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) and a lot of serious questions about the future of this team’s season. They’re not simply underachieving; they’re one of the worst teams in the NHL.

“Things can change,” general manager Bill Guerin said during an interview with the Pioneer Press on Tuesday. “We’re better than a lot of teams that are ahead of us. We need to focus.”

But it has to start, like, now.

The Wild have only played 17 of 82 regular-season games, but they head into Friday’s 7 p.m. puck drop against Colorado at Xcel Energy Center 11 points behind first-place Dallas in the Central Division, and five points out of Western Conference playoff position.

Guerin and coach Dean Evason said they liked a lot more of what they saw during a 2-1 shootout loss to Ottawa and 3-2 overtime loss to Toronto in last weekend’s Global Series games, and the team certainly looked better than it did in an 8-3 loss to Dallas in its last game before leaving for Stockholm.

“I liked our positives,” veteran wing Marcus Foignon said after Sunday’s loss to Toronto. “I thought we were more on our game than they were.”

But while it’s nice to see improvement, to have something to build on, it’s the points that matter now. At this point last season, the Wild were 7-8-2, with two more points than the Wild have now. They then went on a 15-5-0 run to pull themselves back into relevance. As Guerin said, things can change.

“Some guys,” he said, “haven’t played to the level that they can.”

Guerin already has made a couple of trades to strengthen the back end, jettisoning Calen Addison and adding veteran Zach Begosian on Nov. 8. But even then he said, “You can’t trade your way out of problems,” and he is not inclined to start moving more pieces from what is virtually the same team that finished last season with 103 points.

That includes Evason, whose last two teams were a combined 99-47-18.

“Listen, Dean’s doing a good job,” Guerin said. “Are there areas we need to be better at? Yeah, and nobody knows that more than him. He can’t do it for the players, and the players have to buy into what we’re doing.”

One positive is that with forward Freddy Gaudreau’s return for Sunday’s game, the Wild are the closest they’ve been all season to being the team Guerin put together for the 2023-24 season, with Jared Spurgeon, Matt Boldy and Gaudreau all back from long injury absences. The only big piece still missing is veteran blue liner Alex Goligoski, who played only two games before suffering a lower-body injury during a practice in Montreal.

Overcoming those injuries has been more difficult than usual because $14.7 million in dead cap space (from the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts) not only kept Guerin from re-signing veteran defenseman Matt Dumba, and adding any free agents, last summer, it has limited who the Wild have been able to recall from Iowa.

“We have more of the whole team going forward,” Guerin said. “But staying healthy now is a big part of it, too. I can’t just discount the impact of those injuries and say it means nothing. Of course it means something.”

On the other hand, there is a lot to fix. And while the statistics put into stark relief where the Wild are failing — NHL-worst 27 first-period goals, the league’s worst penalty kill and a defense that ranks 31st among 32 teams in goals-against — the solutions inevitably require 20 players executing with maximum effort. That’s not easy.

One can wonder about the effort, but the execution has been conspicuously shoddy, with issues ranging from lackadaisical puck handling and blind passes into danger to inconsistent support and bad decisions when entering the offensive zone.

Even considering the play in front of them, goaltenders Filip Gustavsson and Marc-Andre Fleury have been erratic, with sub-.900 save percentages and one stolen game between them. Skaters Boldy, Kirill Kaprizov and Marcus Johnasson simply aren’t supplying the team with the offense or execution it needs.

Kaprizov looks conspicuously lost. After scoring 114 goals in parts of three NHL seasons, the team’s highest-paid player has one even-strength goal and has struggled to make even simple passes.

“He doesn’t look as confident as he has been, and confidence is a powerful thing,” Guerin said. “When you have it, you feel like you can conquer the world; when you don’t, you feel like you can’t do anything. But he’s a great player. He needs some help right now.”

Overall, Guerin acknowledged being “a little baffled” by his team, which with the exception of Dumba is essentially the same one that made the postseason for a third straight season last year, four if you include the 2020 COVID tournament.

After that 8-3 loss to Dallas, he called a players meeting and gave them what-for — something he experienced several times in an 18-year playing career that included five all-star game appearances and two Stanley Cup victories.

“I know they’re capable of more. I know there’s more in there, for sure,” Guerin said. “I think the trip … we lost in a shootout and lost in overtime, but the bigger thing is we really showed up. They played hard. Did we want four points? Absolutely. But we’re on way better footing than the one we left on, that’s for sure.”

But with a hole as deep as the one they have dug early, the Wild need to stop holding onto the moral victories and start bringing home real ones.

Asked what he wants to see of his team on Friday against the Avalanche, Guerin said, “I want to see them play hard, play their asses off. And the execution level has to be way better.”

Bottom tier

The Wild returned from Sweden on Monday one of the NHL’s worst teams, and the statistics go some way to explaining why. They rank among the bottom 10 of 32 teams in several key statistical indicators:

                       Statistic     Rank     Avg.
Wins               5                T-30        8
PK%               66.5           32 7        8.6
GA/1P            27              32           17.5
GA/G              4.00           31          3.17
FOW%           45.5           30           49.4
GA                  68              28          56.0
PP%              15.2            24          27.1

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