Jim Souhan
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Less than three weeks into the most promising season in franchise history, the Wild played without grit or intelligence in a 4-1 loss to Vancouver, a failure that could alter expectations and shorten tenures surely as it brought jeers raining down on the Xcel Energy Center ice on Thursday night.

In hockey, when you've tried everything but firing the coach and your team doesn't respond, you tend to fire the coach. Maybe owner Craig Leipold won't force that move immediately, but he has no reason to be patient after making an immense investment in front-line talent and watching his team fall apart.

Whether Mike Yeo is responsible for his team's slump is irrelevant.

When you sign two players for about $200 million, print T-shirts that read "Take the Next Step; No Excuses," call up your best prospects, alter your best line, threaten the jobs of a couple of veterans, hold a players-only meeting, trade for an enforcer, watch one of your two incoming saviors play like he's still learning to skate backwards, and then embarrass yourself at home against a prime rival, the owner owes it to his accountants and fans to consider all possible means of improvement. And he's not going to cut Ryan Suter in the first month of a 13-year deal.

Suddenly, with the on-ice product disintegrating like a cheap grocery store's paper bags, Leipold's brain trust looks vulnerable.

"We just didn't show up," Zach Parise said. "Pretty simple."

Why not? "I don't know," he said. "We'll have to find out."

Parise looked devastated. While team captain Mikko Koivu pretended the Wild had played well enough to win, Parise has standards. He almost won a Stanley Cup last year. He expected to contend this year. Late Thursday night, he sounded disgusted.

Suter sounded surprised. "We came out dead," he said. "There's no excuse for that. ... It's not fun right now. Things aren't going well."

The Wild wanted Parise to be their guide to that promised land known as the next level. Turns out they need him to keep from scraping bottom.

Parise has been the Wild's best player this season, but even he was minus-2 on Thursday. The Wild's best players might have been rookies Jonas Brodin and Charlie Coyle. Their more experienced teammates should be ashamed.

Mikko Koivu, playing alongside Parise, is minus-2 on the season. Suter and Kyle Brodziak, an inspiration early last season, are minus-7. Cal Clutterbuck is minus-1. Dany Heatley and Matt Cullen are minus-2.

Even with Parise's six goals, the Wild ranked 26th in the NHL in scoring entering Thursday's game. Even with Parise's five road goals, the Wild has scored a total of nine goals in four road games, including one in each of their past two road games.

Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher has accumulated excellent prospects. Mikael Granlund, a healthy scratch Thursday, will be fine once he gets stronger and more accustomed to the NHL style. Coyle is already impressive. Brodin is highly skilled.

Fletcher has not performed well when acquiring veterans. Martin Havlat, Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Brad Staubitz and Darroll Powe are or were disappointments. He traded Eden Prairie's Nick Leddy for the immovable object known as Cam Barker. He also brought in Brodziak, who has been ineffective this season.

The Wild will play Nashville, Calgary, Vancouver and Colorado from Saturday through Thursday. Their playoff chances could be ruined that quickly. If you were going to fire a coach in a short season, you'd do it between Feb. 15 and Feb. 20, when the Wild plays one game in six days.

"We just need to grow up a little bit," defenseman Tom Gilbert said.

This franchise used to brag about its patience. That was before Leipold started writing the kind of checks that make you double-check the number of zeros.

Fletcher has hired two young coaches. The veterans he passed up, such as Ken Hitchcock, Dave Tippett and Peter Laviolette, have excelled.

Because Leipold had to pay so much for players, someone will pay if the Wild can't quickly recover. The young coach whose team imploded last year is the most likely target.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com