I was going through some of my albums the other day (yes, I am that old to have vinyl records AND a turntable to play them on) when I came across the classic Judas Priest album, Sad Wings of Destiny. That album contains one of my favorite Judas Priest songs, Victim of Changes. In a nutshell, the song is about a relationship going bad over time. Which got me thinking about the recent firing of Bruce Boudreau.
Bruce Boudreau came to the Wild four seasons ago after he was let go by the Anaheim Ducks. In his five seasons with the Ducks, Boudreau was 352-208-104. In three of those seasons with the Ducks (not counting his first season taking over for Randy Carlyle or the Lockout shortened 2012-13 season) Boudreau’s Ducks posted 100+ point seasons. He also guided the team to first place in the Pacific Division in all but his first season. But those flashy regular season numbers never translated to playoff success. Boudreau’s post season record with the Ducks wasn’t bad, coming in at 24-19. Unfortunately, Boudreau’s Ducks could never win the “Big Game”. In the four seasons the Ducks made it to the Playoffs under Boudreau, they never made it past the conference finals. In all four Playoff appearances, it was a game seven that did in the Ducks, earning Boudreau the dubious reputation of never being able to win a “Game Seven”. After losing in the first round of the 2015-16 Playoffs three games to four to the Nashville Predators, Boudreau was fired by the Ducks.
But Boudreau didn’t stay unemployed long. A week after he was dismissed by the Ducks, he was snapped up by the Minnesota Wild. The Wild had dismissed long time coach Mike Yeo in February 2016 and replaced him with assistant coach John Torchetti. The Wild went 15-10 down the stretch, stumbled into the Playoffs and promptly exited the first round, only winning two games against the Dallas Stars. That 15-10 record and four games to two first round loss to the Dallas Stars convinced Wild GM Chuck Fletcher that Torchetti was not the man to lead the Wild forward. Fletcher immediately extended an offer to Boudreau, and Boudreau signed on the dotted line a week later.
For the 2016-17 season under Boudreau, the Wild posted only their third 100+ point season. The team seemed revitalized under the more offensive minded Boudreau. Mikael Granlund and Eric Staal and hit 69 and 65 points, respectively. Mikko Koivu, Nino Nederreiter, and Charlie Coyle contributed 58, 57, and 56 points. On defense Ryan Suter contributed 40 points and Jared Spurgeon scored 38 points. Young defenseman Matt Dumba had a breakout season, scoring 34 points. But this was all for naught. For when the Wild entered the Playoffs facing the St. Louis Blues, their potent offense all but disappeared. Through the first three games the Wild managed to score only three goals. This was from a team that finished second overall in the league in goals-for-per-game at 3.21. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins with Sidney Crosby scored more goals per game (3.39). The Wild seemed to find some life in the fourth game, winning 2-0. But that was soon dashed with a 4-3 loss to the Blues and the Wild crashed out of the Playoffs.
The 2017-18 season saw the Wild regroup, and again feature a relatively potent offense. They averaged 3.05 goals per game, and posted another 100+ point season, the first time in team history with back-to-back 100+point seasons. Whatever Boudreau was doing, he was pushing the right buttons to get the Wild scoring at a decent clip. Unfortunately for the Wild, starting defenseman Ryan Suter suffered a devastating ankle injury with a week to go in the season, effectively crippling the Wild’s defense. The Wild faced the hated Winnipeg Jets in the first round. But without defensive stalwart Ryan Suter anchoring their defense, they bowed out of the series losing two games to four. There started to be rumblings of Boudreau not being able to take care of business in the Playoffs.
That Playoff loss started a series of changes. Wild owner Craig Leipold had seen enough and informed current GM Chuck Fletcher his services were no longer needed. During that press conference, Leipold stated that he didn’t want a GM that would rebuild the team, for he felt the team was just a tweak or two away from a Stanley Cup. About a month later, Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton was brought in to “tweak” the team to a Stanley Cup. Many times the press asked Fenton if he was going to extend Boudreau, who was coming up on the final year of his contract. But Fenton steadfastly refused to state whether he would extend Bruce Boudreau. Many wondered if Boudreau was going to be on a short leash, especially with Fenton hiring former Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason to assist Boudreau on the bench. The Wild started the 2018-19 season fairly quickly going 7-3-2 in October, but then began their annual holiday meltdown, going 11-14-1 over the holidays. They recovered a bit after the New Year, going 8-4-0 in January. It was during January that Fenton made his first major move with the team, trading popular but struggling winger Nino Niederreiter to the Carolina Hurricanes for struggling center Victor Rask. When the Niederreiter/Rask trade failed to inspire the team, Fenton proceeded to trade the rest of the “core” of the team: Charlie Coyle to Boston for Ryan Donato, and Mikael Granlund to Nashville for Kevin Fiala. These trades still failed to inspire the team, and the Wild failed to make the Playoffs. Soon after the end of the season, in a shocking move, Wild owner Craig Leipold relieved his hand-picked GM Paul Fenton of his duties.
The start of the 2019-20 season saw the Wild with a new GM, this time Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin. Again, there was talk of challenging for the Stanley Cup and having a really good team, despite having the oldest roster in the NHL. They began the season playing most of their games on the road. Which was an unmitigated disaster. The team went 4-9-0 (1-8-0 on the road) in October and found itself in last place in the Central Division. Many wondered if Boudreau would weather the storm, since Guerin also refused to answer if he would extend Boudreau. Popular winger Jason Zucker made an ill-advised comment to the press about how everyone on the team had to be better, including Boudreau. Zach Parise was vocal about how the team needed to practice the power play more after the Wild ranked towards the bottom of the league in power play efficiency. All of these instances made it seem like Boudreau was losing the room and was on thin ice. Fast forward to February 2020. GM Bill Guerin made his first major move, trading Jason Zucker to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The move was supposed to send shockwaves through the locker room. Instead, the Wild returned from the All-Star break and sleep-walked through a 6-1 drubbing by the Boston Bruins, despite the Bruins having played the night before in Winnipeg and the Wild having nine days off to rest and recharge. After this debacle, the Wild seemed to wake up and went 7-3-1 over the next several weeks, coming within three points of the final Playoff spot. Unfortunately for Boudreau, it wasn’t enough. GM Bill Guerin relieved him of his duties on February 14, 2020, almost exactly three years after Chuck Fletcher relieve Mike Yeo of his duties on February 13, 2017. Guerin gave his reason for the dismissal as the team needing a new voice in the room, which was echoed by alternate captain Ryan Suter. Guerin also hinted at players complaining about ice time and personal goals. Which is a curious statement, since usually it is veteran players who are concerned with ice time and personal statistics, because of contract bonuses they are usually tied to.
For all the promise that Bruce Boudreau brought with him of exciting, offensive minded hockey and 100+ point seasons, he was never able to elevate this group to the next level. There always seemed to be something holding this team back. Certainly, injuries to key players played a part. Boudreau couldn’t prevent Suter’s ankle injury in 2017-18. He also couldn’t prevent Matt Dumba’s pectoral injury or Mikko Koivu’s knee injury in 2018-19. But other teams have injury issues as well and manage to overcome them. Is there something deeper going on with this team, souring the relationship between the head coach and the players over time? GM Bill Guerin now has the opportunity to appoint the 6th head coach in the Wild’s 20-year existence. Rumors for who will be the next head coach have run the gamut from the no-nonsense Mike Babcock to to recently fired Gerard Gallant to longtime Guerin friend Doug Weight. Will the new coach get this aging franchise to the Stanley Cup before their ever-narrowing window closes? Or will he be the next victim of changes?