Wild owner happy with hires, progress

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 1, 2010 - 7:33 AM

Craig Leipold praised the efforts of GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Todd Richards in plotting the team's direction.

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Wild owner Craig Leipold

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Wild owner Craig Leipold doesn't have any regrets about buying the club in 2008 and remains happy with naming Chuck Fletcher as general manager and Todd Richards as coach, despite the Wild nearing mathematical elimination from playoff contention.

"I love it, it's great, the fans are unbelievable," Leipold said. "You know you can walk into the Xcel Energy Center, every game is a sellout. It has been just a blast. St. Paul and the Twin Cities are ... all about hockey. I feel very, very fortunate to be there."

As for his decision to hire a new general manager and head coach within about a month of each other in 2009, Leipold is very happy with his choices.

"Of course [former coach] Jacques [Lemaire] left, and we all knew that he was going to be leaving right after the end of the season," Leipold said. "I thought it was time for a change [at general manager also]. I think Chuck Fletcher came in and has done all the right things. We feel good about the future and the direction that we're going in. They were tough decisions to make at the time, but in hindsight, I'm very happy with them."

I was one of many in the media who were shocked when Leipold fired former GM Doug Risebrough, who I thought had done a good job building an expansion team.

"We didn't have enough players in our system, the development of some of our younger players was not where we would like to see it," Leipold said. "And you know after 10 years, sometimes the best thing to do is to go in a different direction, and we think with Chuck there, we've done that."

Leipold describes Fletcher and Richards as superstars.

"Chuck has a strategy," Leipold said. "We talk constantly. He's the kind of guy that will take us to the next level. Todd, as a new coach with a new system, [it] took us a little longer than we had hoped to get the players used to the new system. We had a tough first month; after that first month, I thought we've been playing really, really well.

"So, I like the changes that we made, and I think that it really puts us in a good position for next year. Absolutely, no question, and we talk about that internally.

"Mikko Koivu, we think he is the core of our franchise. We've got a great defense, we've got a great goaltender, good defensemen, good forwards, and now we've got to build around that. We think with Mikko and Brent Burns and [Niklas] Backstrom as kind of being the [leaders of the] offense, the defense and the goaltending. We think that we're in a really good position to build around those three players."

I certainly am not a hockey expert, but Fletcher and others have talked about the Wild's lack of a top scorer as the team's biggest weakness. They had that person in often-injured Marian Gaborik, who has 40 goals and 40 assists for the New York Rangers this season.

"Well, there's no question, you always regret that," Leipold said about losing Gaborik as a free agent. "When you have a marquee player like Marian Gaborik, you want to keep those players playing. Of course there's always the downside.

"[With] Marian, you never know whether he's going to be healthy or not healthy, and we needed to have a player in there that we could count on for 75 of the 82 games, and at the type of money that Marian wanted [he signed with the Rangers for $37.5 million over five years] ... if you make a mistake with Marian Gaborik at that kind of money, then you are going to be out of the playoffs for a long time.

"But he's a great player, a high-skill player. No question that we would love to have kept him in the fold at the right price and ... on the ice."

Extension for Smith

I consider Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith a class act. And over the past three years I have gotten to know him as well as or better than most people in the media. And when he tells you something, Smith has the reputation that you believe him.

Two weeks ago, when the Auburn, Georgia Tech and even the Oregon rumors were spreading, Tubby made it clear to me that he wasn't going anyplace.

Sure, if somebody made a ridiculous offer like doubling his $1.8 million salary, he would have to consider it. But that hasn't happened.

Meanwhile, University of Minnesota lawyers and Smith's agent are negotiating an extension that likely will make Smith one of the highest-paid coaches in the Big Ten. The four years remaining on his contract will be increased in the near future.

Jottings

About the rumors the Vikings might trade quarterback Sage Rosenfels to the Raiders, the man who should know -- coach Brad Childress -- said there is absolutely nothing to that report. "We need three quarterbacks, and that is what we have now," Childress said. Of course, he was counting Brett Favre, who I'm convinced will return, and Tarvaris Jackson.

Cory Joseph, the brother of Gophers guard Devoe Joseph who is being recruited by the U, scored two points on 1-for-6 shooting for the West in its 107-104 victory Wednesday over the East in the McDonald's All-American Game in Columbus, Ohio.

Former Gophers hockey player Jordan Schroeder was held off the scoresheet for the first time since being assigned to Manitoba by the Vancouver Canucks in Tuesday's 2-1 loss to Abbotsford. Schroeder has three goals and three assists in his first five games. ... Two former Gophers recently scored their first professional goals. Mike Carman scored his last weekend for Lake Erie of the AHL, and Tony Lucia scored his in his only game played so far for Worcester of the AHL.

Watching Gophers football practice last weekend was highly recruited Valor Christian (Colo.) quarterback Brock Berglund, who might commit to Minnesota in the near future.

In its April issue, ESPN the Magazine polled 50 unidentified NHL players with questions about the life of a NHL player on and off the ice. The Wild's guest quarters was selected as the best visitors locker room, getting 42 percent of the vote. Additionally, Wild winger Derek Boogaard was selected as the league's best fighter, garnering 46 percent of the vote.

John Coatta Jr. is the new Blake High School football coach. Coatta, who was the football coach at Bloomington Kennedy from 1999 to 2001 and an assistant football coach and offensive coordinator at Minnetonka since 2002, is the son of former Wisconsin and Minnesota State Mankato coach John Coatta.

Former Gophers basketball player Vincent Grier is back playing overseas; he has signed with Mersin Buyuksehir Belediyesi in Turkey.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com

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