HELSINKI, Finland -- The "X" stamped onto all of the Wild's jerseys and at center ice at Xcel Energy Center seems more like a bull's-eye than a 10th anniversary signature.
Never, in its decade-long history has this organization been so under stress.
Even opening the 2010-11 season last week 4,600 miles from home doesn't seem far enough to hide that this franchise, so successful relative to past NHL expansion franchises, is at a crossroads.
The Wild has missed the playoffs two years in a row and hasn't been past the first round since 2003. There's talent, such as relentless Mikko Koivu and charismatic Brent Burns, and more depth with the additions of Matt Cullen, Eric Nystrom and John Madden, yet the team lacks an electrifying superstar. And for the first time, the Wild, spending nearly $60 million on payroll, is working tirelessly to fill its arena.
Two losses to Carolina in Finland have the Wild already in a hole when they open their home schedule on Thursday vs. Edmonton.
This has put immense pressure on everybody, particularly second-year coach Todd Richards. It will be his task to end the postseason drought because the expectation from the team's owner is as blunt as a punch to the gut.
"Nobody in our front office thinks we're a team that's not going to make the playoffs. Period," Craig Leipold said.
Last season's slow start -- 3-9, and 0-8 on the road -- arguably destroyed the Wild's playoff hopes. With eight of its first 10 games at home after the Wild returns from Finland, it's hard to believe Leipold will let a slow start obliterate another year.
As much as Leipold and GM Chuck Fletcher believe in Richards, it's conceivable a slow start would signal the end of his first NHL coaching job.
"It could. It could happen," Richards said. "It is a thought on my mind without a question. But that's out of my control.
"I mean, really all I can try to control is what's happening on the ice. And I have to do the job the best that I can and do what I think is right.
"(Former Milwaukee Admirals coach) Claude Noel told me a long time ago, 'The one thing you can truly appreciate is peace of mind.' For me, peace of mind is living your life the right way, but it's also doing your work the right way. I can honestly say that I believe we're doing all the right things, so I'll just focus on what I can control."
Fletcher keeps his short- (and long-term) focus
Mario Tremblay, passed over to be the Wild's next coach after Jacques Lemaire resigned, is doing a radio show in Montreal. The former Wild assistant made headlines recently when he hammered away at Richards, saying on the air he hopes Richards "realizes his days are numbered."
He predicted that Michel Therrien, the former Canadiens and Penguins coach who's now doing part-time scouting for the Wild, would replace Richards early in the season.
Now, let's make clear, these are opinions of an ex-employee. And Therrien, because he's a Lemaire disciple, is unlikely to be the next Wild coach.
But Tremblay's larger point is that things are heating up for the Wild, which for the first time in franchise history is struggling to sell tickets. If the team falters, Richards might not be afforded the latitude to turn it around when there are coaches out there like, say, Ken Hitchcock, who's won 533 regular-season games and a Stanley Cup.
Last October, after a 0-5 road trip, Fletcher tried to shake things up by acquiring Chuck Kobasew. This season, with little salary cap flexibility, a player shakeup so early might be impossible.
Fletcher has managed the Wild for only about 16 months, but he understands the fan base is clamoring for a playoff run.
Normally, even after missing the playoffs, the summer break allows a team and its fans to reenergize. But heading into training camp, tension was evident. Whenever Fletcher was asked about Richards' long-term job security, he avoided the subject, turning the conversation to the long-term goal here.
"When I took the job, I said we would do two things: We would try to be as competitive as we can in the short-term while aggressively adding young players to improve our skill level in the future," Fletcher said. "It's a real competitive business. There are 30 teams trying to get the best young players. There are 30 teams trying to win the Stanley Cup. It's hard to get from here to there quickly. That's just the reality of it.
"So we feel we will be a competitive team this year, but we think we've added a lot of young assets in the future. We have a long-term objective. Short-term, we expect we'll have a better start this year and we expect to be competitive, and we'll go from there."
Matt Majka, the Wild's chief operating officer, says the Wild has had to be more creative and work harder than ever to sell tickets. Between the economy, the Wild's lack of success the past two years and the Twins and Vikings capturing much of the area's attention, the Wild's season-ticket base has decreased, although he won't say by how much.
He said the Wild would still be top-six in the NHL, but the team's final exhibition game drew an announced 15,554, well short of the customary 18,064 capacity.
"In a strange way, it's woken up the organization," Majka said. "But hockey in Minnesota, when we get things right, we will be in a great spot again with the fans."
Majka said he believes the future is bright. But he admits, "The team has to do its part, and probably it's true that in our 10th season, that matters more than in our first or fifth season. I know Chuck and his folks feel that pressure, but we feel it on the business side, too.
"We can't just sit back in the office and hope for the team to do well. ... But the danger for us in not giving the fans across the organization the kind of product they deserve is not that they'll be turned off to hockey. But they may reject the Wild to some degree ... because there are other options for hockey, and we're very aware of that and respect that.
"I hope we get back to a place where we have season-ticket base that is maxed out, but right now these are learning lessons that will serve us in the future."
Richards' work ethic is unquestioned. He arrives well before the players and leaves well after. But despite the long hours at the rink, the Wild never has mastered his system, an about-face from the risk-free system implemented by Lemaire.
Sure, the Wild shows glimpses, like during a six-week stretch last season and last week's exhibition victory at Ilves Tampere, when the Wild suffocated the Finns during an unyielding third-period forecheck.
But many of the same problems that plagued the Wild last year were recurring throughout training camp -- poor puck management in its own end and mental lapses after allowing a goal.
Take the North American preseason finale against Columbus. The Wild allowed goals twice on shifts after Blue Jackets goals. Richards says that was a huge reason for 16 three-goal periods allowed last year.
"It is my responsibility," Richards said. "You can't have those lapses. That's when you lose games, and we found that out too many times last year."
Richards often accepts the blame for his team's play. But at some point, he says the driving force for change must come from inside the locker room.
"Your job as a coach is to get guys to overachieve or at least reach their potential," he said. "And last year, frankly, I didn't do that. I didn't help guys reach their potential."
But a coach can do only so much, and in a team meeting before an exhibition game last week, the word "identity" was discussed a lot.
Center Matt Cullen, so optimistic heading into camp, said there is concern about the Wild's 0-4-2 preseason. "Yeah. You'd be turning a blind eye if there wasn't," he said. "We haven't played nearly to our capabilities and we haven't played nearly as well as we need to win a game.
"We all know there's a lot of work to do. The start will be really important. We can't get off to a bad start. We need to get in a good position early. There's more urgency now than probably there ever was."
Richards parallels it to golf.
"You can't win the golf tournament on the first day, but you can lose the golf tournament on the first day, and we found that out last year," he said.
But he also said you can't get ready to "tee off thinking you have to shoot a 72. Then if you triple-bogey the first hole, now stress is created in the game."
Being a native Minnesotan, Richards respects how badly Wild fans want a winner. He has sensed all the negativity around the Wild, and it's motivated him to work as hard as ever to bring success to the team.
"All I can control is coming to the rink and trying to be in good spirits, having a good attitude, some good energy, and then doing my work as hard and hopefully as best I can," Richards said. "That goes back again to my peace of mind. I believe in what we're doing."