Not even the best showing in franchise history last season could spare the Wild from a fate that's become all too familiar.
Despite winning and scoring more than ever before and having a superstar lead the way, the Wild still flinched in the opening round of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.
Plenty has changed since then, but the aftershocks of that demise remain because the Wild kick off training camp with the expectation that the disconnect will be addressed.
"Last year was great," General Manager Bill Guerin said. "But that's last year, and we didn't come home with anything. We need to build off that, but we all have to understand that we need to be better."
This isn't a new refrain for the Wild — who begin reporting to training camp Wednesday — but the context is different.
They were one of the elite teams in the Western Conference, ranking second only to eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado, and their up-tempo offense was behind that success.
Kirill Kaprizov became the Wild's first 100-point player and a top-five scorer in the NHL. Kevin Fiala and Ryan Hartman were 30-goal scorers, Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno had 20-plus goals apiece while shutting down stiff competition and Matt Boldy was a second-half revelation as a rookie. Mats Zuccarello turned back the clock to his prime.
Overall, 10 players reached double digits in goals and the Wild's penchant for scoring made them one of the league's gutsiest with 25 comeback victories.
The team needed that resiliency the most in the postseason against St. Louis after falling behind in the best-of-seven 3-2.
Instead, the Wild crumbled in a must-win Game 6, the culmination of that once scorching offense cooling, a questionable decision in their crease and pesky problems with the power play and penalty kill.
What was also an eyesore was Game 4 when the Wild failed to exploit a beleaguered Blues defense and a new opposing goalie to take a commanding lead in the series, a misstep that has team brass emphasizing the need to be clutch.
"You can't play the same way with five minutes to go in the third period with a one-goal lead as you do in the first period," Guerin said. "You just have to manage the game a little bit better and stick to your game plan and things like that. It's the way you win, and we have to be stronger mentally to be able to do that."
At the helm of this assignment will be many of the same faces but not all.
A steep salary cap crunch, exacerbated by the increasing costs of the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts, meant it was impossible to preserve the lineup and Fiala was traded to Los Angeles for a first-round draft pick (Liam Ohgren) and Gophers defenseman Brock Faber.
"It's tough to see players like that go," Guerin said, "but you can't keep everybody."
Goaltender Cam Talbot was also on the move to put a bow on an unceremonious end to his Wild tenure.
After a 13-0-3 stretch to close out the regular season, Talbot was benched for the start of the playoffs in favor of trade deadline acquisition Marc-Andre Fleury. Not until the Wild was facing elimination was Talbot ushered into action after not playing for two weeks, and the netminder vocalized his disappointment.
Eventually, five days after the Wild re-signed Fleury to reunite with Talbot who was under contract for another season, Talbot was shipped to Ottawa for backup goalie Filip Gustavsson.
"That wasn't necessarily planned," Guerin said. "But things change, and you gotta make moves. So, I'm happy with where the goaltending is now."
Dmitry Kulikov was also dealt, to Anaheim, which alleviated the logjam on defense and created some much-needed cap space; aside from Fleury, the Wild only re-signed forward Connor Dewar and defenseman Jake Middleton and brought in center Sam Steel and former Gophers captain Sammy Walker in addition to a handful of two-way contracts. Gone are Jordie Benn, Nick Bjugstad and Nic Deslauriers.
That leaves the team with some flexibility before finalizing its opening night roster (approximately $5.7 million, according to capfriendly.com), and there are holes to fill.
Finding a lineup
Jordan Greenway and Jon Merrill won't be available for the beginning of the season after undergoing offseason surgery on upper-body injuries; Guerin figures they could return at the end of October.
Marco Rossi, the ninth overall draft pick in 2020, will vie for a spot up front and so will Calen Addison on the back end. The likes of Nic Petan and Andrej Sustr, two of the team's depth pickups during the offseason, will also contend, and the audition process in front of coach Dean Evason and company will be lengthy.
First up are physicals and fitness testing on Wednesday, and then Wild players hit the ice on Thursday for practice before playing the first of seven exhibition games on Sunday against the Avalanche at Xcel Energy Center. The regular season begins Oct. 13 vs. the New York Rangers at home, the start of a trek where the ending is unclear but the directions aren't.
"The group needs to challenge each other," Evason said. "It starts with us challenging ourselves as a coaching staff and then making everyone accountable. That's going to be a focus for us here through the preseason."