A BIG STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTIONApr 17, 2017
By Tom Witosky
Much better, but just not quite good enough.
That’s the consensus among Iowa Wild officials, coaches and players in assessing the club’s performance as the season ended Sunday. A host of club and individual records were shattered by a team that overcame a slow start and the loss of a number of players through trades, call-ups and injury to register the best season record in Iowa’s short four-year history.
But, one goal remained unachieved – a spot in the Calder Cup playoffs -- and is the one that bothered everyone connected to this year’s effort.
“It was frustrating not making the playoffs, but we have made big strides,” said Brent Flahr, the Iowa Wild general manager and Minnesota Wild assistant general manager. “We had some issues with injuries and got hurt at the trade deadline some. But, the product was much better on the ice night in and night out.”
Derek Lalonde, Iowa’s first year head coach, agreed that the failure to make the playoffs for the first time in Iowa franchise history is more than a little annoying, but the silver lining included these accomplishments.
-- First winning record in the Iowa club’s history at 36-31-7-2 – a major improvement over the previous three seasons and 12 wins more than last season.
-- A club record season attendance mark of 228,727 breaking the club’s first year record of 223,559. The club drew a club record average of 6.019 fans in its fourth season in Des Moines.
-- An overall winning record, 30-27-6-3, in head-to-head competition within the highly competitive Central Division compared to last season’s 21-35-3-5 record against Grand Rapids, Chicago, Cleveland, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Manitoba and Rockford.
-- Winning records at home and on the road for the first time in the Iowa club’s history. Compared to the previous three seasons, Iowa’s 17 home wins exceeded the 10 or 11 wins in previous seasons.
-- A club record nine-game winning streak on the road and an 11-game streak in which the team collected at least a point.
-- The club’s record-setting 182 goals scored in a season and a dramatic reduction in goals against from an average of 235 goals over the last three seasons to record low 196.
-- Managing to finish the season with a winning record despite having the second lowest number of goals in the entire league.
“It’s disappointing due the fact that we were right there to the end,” Lalonde said. “I am most disappointed in that I couldn’t get this team into the playoffs because it has been such a good room, such good buy-in, such good care.”
Lalonde agreed that early in the season the expectations for the club began plummeting as the Wild struggled to a 5-11 record in its first 16 games. Part of the problem was the loss of starting goalie Alex Stalock to a virulent sinus infection that forced Lalonde to ban Stalock from even coming to the rink until he recovered.
In addition, Iowa’s scoring woes didn’t seem to improve until the Iowa defense got better. Lalonde said that during this period the coaching staff and players focused a considerable amount of time on changing the team culture.
“We were showing all the characteristics of what had been causing the losing here,” Lalonde said. “But those guys drew a line in the sand to turn it around. It was a special feeling in the room led by the veteran leaders that made that happen.”
Tyler Graovac, the only member of the Iowa Wild roster for all four seasons, said the culture of the locker room did change with the arrival Lalonde as well as veteran players like Mike Weber, Pat Cannone, Jeff Hoggan, Max Fortunus and Alex Stalock.
“Everyone was together,” he said. “There wasn’t any pointing of fingers when we lost three or four. Everyone really was on the same page – winning as a team and losing as a team. That’s the way we bonded.”
Graovac said Lalonde’s positive message was instrumental.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Coach Lalonde,” Graovac said. “Sometimes, a change of face and attitude can bring about something positive. He is such a great communicator and knows the game. He wants what’s best for all of us.”
Gabriel, who just finished his third season with Iowa, said the veteran leadership made a major difference in changing the Iowa culture into a winning one.
“Our culture has changed and we should be happy we did change it,” Gabriel said, pointing out that the club was in the hunt for a playoff spot up until the last week of the season not eliminated early in the season. “It’s been positive and focused.”
Lalonde said he is particularly proud of the accomplishment of a winning record despite the club’s difficulty scoring.
“To finish at the bottom of the league in scoring and have a winning record speaks volumes of the kind of approach and character we had,” he said. “That is an unthinkable stat.”
Lalonde said the emphasis on defense and the buy-in of the players to that style of hockey played a big role in the midseason surge that included the road winning streak and the string of games that resulted in wins or games going into overtime.
He said the team’s commitment to defense even overcame an abrupt change in the roster at the March NHL trade deadline when the Wild lost two centers, Zac Dalpe on waivers to Cleveland and Grayson Downing in a trade with Arizona and its top scorer at the time, Teemu Pulkkinen. The club also had a series of players including Graovac, Gabriel and Jordan Schroeder move up to the Minnesota Wild, forcing a lot of shuffling within the line-up.
“After the roster shake-up, we still managed to win three in a row and continued to compete well,” he said.
But Lalonde said the club couldn’t withstand the loss of veteran defensemen Mike Weber, who missed 15 games late in the season recovering from a lower body injury.
“To me the real tough blow was the Weber injury,” Lalonde said. “He was our extra coach in the room, he was the heart and soul, he was our captain.”
Lalonde said that the defense fell apart after Weber’s loss and struggled to find enough offense to offset the weakened defense. He also said that fans should recognize the Wild is playing in one of the toughest divisions in the AHL.
“This division is a bear,” he said. “Chicago and Grand Rapids are committed to winning at this level and financially no one is going to compete with them.”
He said both Cleveland and Charlotte made moves to strengthen themselves and pointed out that the battle for playoff positions in the division didn’t end until after the last game of the season.
“It’s a good thing in that it makes the division really hard,” he said. “It’s also made this organization elevate what we have done this year.”
So what does this mean for next season?
Right now, the club has four unrestricted free agents – Weber, Cannone, Fortunus and Ryan Carter. In addition, the club officials have to deal with a roster that has six restricted free agents – Mike Reilly, Gustav Olofsson, Steve Michalek, Kurtis Gabriel, Zack Mitchell and Zach Palmquist.
Both Mitchell, who also has played three seasons in Iowa, and Gabriel said they would like to remain in the Minnesota organization.
“I love playing here and it is a great organization,” Mitchell said. “If I am back, that’s great. If not, that’s ok too.”
Gabriel said he wants to remain with Minnesota.
“I want to stay with this organization,” he said. “I want to be an NHL player here.”
Those decisions will rest with the Minnesota organization including Flahr and Lalonde.
Flahr declined to talk specifics, but said that decisions on the NHL roster will likely include trying to find more space under the NHL salary cap.
“Up top, we have decisions because of the salary cap,” Flahr said. “Realistically, we are going to have to move a couple of guys for either young players or something else. That will give opportunity to the ones down here,” Flahr said.
As a result, the club will still be looking for veteran players, particularly for the backline, Lalonde said.
“We are going to be extremely green on the defensive end,” he said. “If we go all in with young defensemen, we will be right back where we were before.”
Flahr said he understands the challenge, particularly after having a successful though not stellar year.
“We need to have quality vets to step in next season, but I do think the quality of our younger players will continue to be stronger that what we’ve in previous years,” he said. “Our product is going to get better.”