IOWA WILD REFLECTS ON THE 2017-18 SEASONApr 27, 2018
By Tom Witosky
Ok, let’s all acknowledge the obvious: This one hurts -- a lot.
To a person, those connected with the Iowa Wild 2017-18 season know the club’s coming up short on making the Calder Cup playoffs is going stick with players, coaches, and fans like a fish bone caught in the throat.
“There’s no doubt it feels like a missed opportunity, where we were sitting late in the season to not making the playoffs,” said Head Coach Derek Lalonde. “We improved one point from last year, so basically had the same season as last year, if not better, statistically. And now we’re sitting here feeling empty on how it ended, rather where last year, where we viewed it as a success.”
Cal O’Reilly, the Wild’s captain, echoed his coach when asked about it.
“It is very disappointing and very difficult for me to swallow,” said O’Reilly, who set individual season records for most points (64) and most assists (49). “To be in it so well, second or third place and up and down, even losing a lot of overtime games and we were still in it. I don’t have the words to explain why this happened.”
On the surface, there are plenty of reasons. The club was bedeviled with call-ups of offensive players early in the season – three in one day for example -- as well defensive woes until December. The club then lost two top defenders, Nick Seeler and Ryan Murphy, to Minnesota at the end of the season. Carson Soucy, who would set a club record being plus-12 on the year, soon followed and an improving Hunter Warner had to be shut down early to undergo shoulder surgery.
With a team-oriented more to offense than defense this season, the loss of four defensive players at a critical time in the schedule was simply too much to overcome, despite some strong efforts, including a two-game sweep of Grand Rapids on the road with a roster made up with a significant amount of college and ECHL players.
Lalonde said the early season and late season woes combined with the club’s 5-16 record in overtime and shootouts were instrumental in the club’s inability to make the playoffs, but that the team has to accept responsibility for it.
“It feels like disappointment, but I’m going to call it a missed opportunity,” he said. ”I don’t want it to be about the injuries and the call-ups because we left a lot out there as a staff and as a team in just about every category. Special teams, which we were in the top 10 for most of the season, fell apart. Team defense fell apart, the goaltending fell apart. There is definitely some ownership from the staff.”
At the same time, Lalonde said the final five games of the seasons, which included a two-game sweep of Milwaukee and points in four of the final five games, illustrated the team’s resilience and commitment to “making sure we didn’t take a step backwards.”
“We broke a ton of records and we ended the season with one point more than we had at the end of the season last year,” he said. “We aren’t where we want to be, but I give the guys a ton of credit. They kept playing.”
Overall, the Wild set 40 club and individual records including most home wins in a season (18), most points (82), most goals in a season (232) and highest attendance (233,802).
Several team members agreed that the club exceeded a lot of expectations and proved to be a challenge in what many believe is the most competitive division in the AHL.
“Being so close and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel shut off is pretty hard for us to take,” said veteran defenseman Zach Palmquist, who set the club record for assists by a defenseman (28) in a season. “The fact is we had a great season, it was just too bad it ended this way. Unfortunately, you can’t go back and fix it.”
Sam Anas, who set four club records including most goals (26) and longest point streak at 10 games, said players were disappointed, but also had a great deal of pride in how the club played throughout the season. Anas attributed a lot of his success to playing on the same line with rookie Justin Kloos, who set five individual records as a rookie including most points (48) and Gerry Mayhew, who excelled at forechecking and keeping the puck in the offensive zone.
“It came out of nowhere really,” Anas said of the alignment that stayed together for almost the entire season. “We were put together when we weren’t producing that well at the time. We just decided to play with energy and see what happened. We worked hard and had fun doing it.”
Mayhew agreed, adding that he hopes the line will be able to stay together next season. Mayhew is a free agent, but Anas will be a restricted free agent and Kloos will be in his second year of his three-year contract with Minnesota.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a line for that long. It’s been really a lot of fun. We are just a bunch of small fast guys who work really hard,” Mayhew said.
He also added he will need to come up with a nickname for the line if they are reunited next season. “That will be my summer project.”
Lalonde said he expects to have a solid core of players returning to Iowa. Several veterans such as O’Reilly and veteran forward Landon Ferraro are under contract for a second year. On defense, rookie Brennan Menell, who set three rookie records including most games played (72) and most points by a rookie defenseman (25), and Warner remain under contract.
Menell, who became one of the pleasant surprises of the season, said he is anxious to get back to playing already. Next season, he is likely to be one of the Wild’s call-up during the season and given the excellent performance of Nick Seeler, this season may draw substantial attention.
“Looking back to where I was to where I am, I am really grateful for the chance that I have been given,” Menell said. “I have become is a much more well-rounded and a lot different than where I was a year ago.”
For Lalonde, that is another sign of accomplishment and an important one for the future of the Iowa franchise.
“Our responsibility is to develop players,” Lalonde said. “To see Nick Seeler, Carson Soucey, Ryan Murphy and all the forwards who went up, that was a positive. Bottom line, we are here for Minnesota and we are designed to help them win. If we did that, that is a positive for this season.”
At the same time, Lalonde said Iowa Wild fans are beginning to expect better performance at the AHL level even when there are injuries or call-ups to the big club.
“We broke the attendance record again, but it has been a different crowd,” he said. “The fans were much more enthusiastic and invested in what we are trying to do. We have turned them into a disappointed crowd at times and we need to make sure we do that as seldom as possible.”
He added that the next season the big goal remains the one that was in front of the franchise at the start of the season – making the playoffs. That won’t be easy in a difficult division that includes Chicago, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee and Manitoba
“This is going to be bear but it is what we signed up for,” Lalonde said, pointing out the club finished the season with winning records against Manitoba and Grand Rapids and split the season series with Chicago, 4-4. “We were at the bottom of this division two years ago. We pushed back on those teams. We aren’t going backwards.“