Earlier this week, columnist Chip Scoggins and I sat down with Wild owner Craig Leipold for the first time since the Wild's season came to an end in the first round against the Chicago Blackhawks. Here is the Q&A:
Q: Now that you’ve had time to reflect on the season, do you look back on it?
Leipold: I would say success. Clearly moved forward, got better [but] feel a little empty. I feel like we didn’t accomplish what I thought we had the ability to do. I believe our team and all of our employees kind of feel the same way. We had progress and we should be happy. We made the playoffs and that’s great. That’s the first step. We always knew that was going to be the first step. We accomplished that. But there’s a feeling like we didn’t quite get to the next level. So everybody is pretty hungry for next season. No one went home, back to Canada or Europe feeling like they achieved the objectives that they wanted when we started the season.
Q: Why did you decide to retain Mike Yeo and Chuck Fletcher?
Leipold: Because I think we’re on the right course. I absolutely think we’re on the right course. Everything that is happening in the locker room is really positive. The exit interviews with the players were good. They feel like the communication is great in the locker room, the leadership is good. Yeah, there are some changes that we’ll probably look at for next year and that’s good because we need to get better. But I think all the players are still excited about the direction that we’re going as a team. I don’t think anybody is really questioning our leadership in the locker room or in the hockey [operations].
Q: You mentioned that empty feeling. Does that come from the financial aspect that you made?
Leipold: It’s not for the business side. The business side we were great. Honestly, yes the lockout cost us money. It cost every team money in the short term for the first season. Going forward, we’re going to be seeing the benefits of that financial investment. The lockout was costly for the first year, but the ticket sales were incredible. The sponsors came back in droves. We couldn’t be more happy with what the reaction was from our fans. So we feel good about that and we achieved all our business objectives. From the hockey ops side, our objective was to make the first round. That was our budget. That’s where we wanted to go. We did that. So we should feel [like], ‘Yeah, we did it. That’s great.’ But we were better than that.
I think everybody kind of senses that. Every team has bad breaks. We had some really tough breaks at the end of the year. Jason Pominville going out and Heatley, two big scorers. With Jason Pominville, we still really don’t know what we have. We’re excited about bringing him back in next season and being a very active part of our offense. Heater we know has the ability to throw up 25 goals and he’s typically a guy who plays 82 games a year. Unfortunately, he had the shoulder problem and that cost him the rest of the season. The issue with Backstrom at the end of the year was a really bad break. Really bad break. That stuff just doesn’t happen. That’s like a movie. So those are some of the reasons we feel like we just didn’t have the breaks. But we also didn’t achieve what we thought we could do.
Q: How much does Koivu need to rehabilitate his image here?
Leipold: I think people need to understand what Mikko’s role is. He’s an unbelievable leader. He’s a great player. He wants to win more than anyone else. But the first line versus the first line of Chicago, the first of Chicago didn’t do anything either. Toews, I don’t think he had a goal against us. Other than I think was one power play goal that Hossa had, I don’t think the first line got any points for Chicago. That’s what our first line did to stop their first line. I think if you look at the first line of Chicago, that is one powerhouse line and we shut them down.
[Koivu] is a great defensive-offensive player and he showed that. He certainly doesn’t have to rehabilitate his image in our business. Yeah, he didn’t score. He can have droughts like that. His real expertise or real skill is to be a leader on that first line. He’s got to do two things: shut down their offense, and he did that unbelievably well. We need to score more. We didn’t do that so we need to work on that part of it.
Q: Are you concerned about Backstrom's age or level of play?
Leipold: We had unfortunate situations with our goaltending corps. And it caused us to really use Niklas a lot. I would say we probably played him too much at the end. I think we can sit back and say, when you’re playing the last 20 games, that’s pretty tough, particularly when every game is so important and so stressful. But that’s just the way the situation was for us. Last year was not one of his best years and we think we may have overplayed him. That would be one of the reasons. But he’s a good goalie. There’s a lot of teams in this league and a lot of teams in these playoffs that would like to have him. What’s available on the market? I don’t know, but we know Niklas is available and we know exactly what kind of player he can be and we know what he can do. He keeps himself in incredible shape. We are not uncomfortable with Niklas Backstrom as our No. 1 goalie.
Q: How much patience will you have next season? Whether you like it or not, every list of coaches on the hot seat, Mike’s name will be near the top.
Leipold: I don’t know why that would be.
Q: Because you spent a lot of money and people think you underachieved this year.
Leipold: We didn’t achieve the goals that we wanted so I guess there’s a lot of ways to characterize that. I can just tell you that we like Mike. He’s our guy. If some list puts him on the hot seat, that’s just people doing that. That’s not going to affect us.
Q: This is going to be Chuck’s fifth year. When do you feel like this team needs to make a big jump?
Leipold: There’s no question the team made progress last year. We feel great about the players. The players that we have on our roster right now, the prospects that are ready to come up. We feel good about all that. I’m certainly not going to say, ‘Well, what if, what if?’ Who knows? If you were to lose three or four players throughout the year, particularly two of your key players, there’s a lot of factors with what you do with staff. I can only tell you right now absolutely that Chuck and Mike are our guys, they’re taking us into the future and I feel really comfortable with both of them.
Q: Will you make another aggressive move on July 4?
Leipold: I don’t know how we can. The cap situation certainly does limit us. The moves that we made last summer were strategic and long-term. No one can make those kind of splashes unless they just like to make splashes.
Q: Do you like to make splashes?
Leipold: Only if I think it’s strategically good long-term, not for the sake of just getting into the playoffs for a one-year deal. As an example, Jason Pominville is a good example of that. I know when we were out in San Jose, and Chuck was talking about Jason Pominville, it was, ‘This guy’s a great leader, he’s a natural scorer, he’s great on defense, he’s the kind of person that we’re trying to build our team around. Other players respect this guy.’ So he was brought in not just because we needed him at the end of the year or wanted him but because we would like to have him longer-term. Fortunately, we’ve got him this year again and we’d like to think that maybe he likes it here well enough that he’d like to stay.
Q: The price for Pominville was exorbitant. Was that Chuck or was that you saying, ‘we’ve got to get into the playoffs and get somebody?'
Leipold: One hundred percent Chuck and Brent [Flahr, assistant GM]. Yeah, 100 percent Chuck and Brent.
Q: Does it concern you now the price that was given up (Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett, a first- and second-round pick) compared to the outcome of the season?
Leipold: Only after the fact does it always concern you (laughs). Now that we’re talking about the draft coming up, you’d sure like to have that No. 1 pick. But on the other hand, you just remember, we got Jason Pominville coming in. It’s expensive at the time. We went out and brought Jason in and unfortunately a real questionable hit by Dustin Brown took him out for what was really the rest of the season. That’s just unfortunate because I think he could have been a great contributor in the playoffs. He got back, but he wasn’t himself.
Q: How important is it as an owner to show your team or your fan base a willingness to go for it?
Leipold: It probably appears as if I’m always willing to take the team to the cap. The fact of the matter is we have a business and everything we did last summer were for two reasons: making the team better and completely changing the image that the Wild have in this market. We needed to change our business model, which attendance-wise was going down, down, down, down every year until we made that change and flipped it right back up.
Q: What do you think the image was?
Leipold: Complacent. That the team was getting complacent, that we weren’t building it fast enough. The prospects at the time, we think were good and as you recall, we were really selling that. But those prospects, that’s three years from now and it wasn’t going to be fast enough. So that’s the reason we made the big splash.
Q: Did you have an epiphany where you said we’re changing now?
Leipold: There was no epiphany. You could just see our numbers. It was just going down every year. You could sense it in the excitement level of our fans and what our fans were telling us. And we knew it. We’re fans, too. We knew exactly what was happening. We made the decision strategically that we needed to get better, that we had the cap space, and by spending the money to get those guys, we were investing it to generate more revenue by selling tickets and sponsorships. I can tell you that the plan worked. And yes, they cost us a lot of money, but we also received returns from that. So we don’t have any second thoughts of that decision that we made to get both of those guys. They did everything that we could have wanted them to do.
Q: When you look at the playoffs now, do you feel you’re still a long ways away?
Leipold: You know it’s really funny, it’s really interesting how playoffs go. Yes, we’re not like a Chicago Blackhawks. We’re not that deep. We don’t have the first, the second, the third and the fourth line those guys have. So that’s one of the things you identify. The importance of those lines, the importance of size. Yeah, we’re a couple players off, but we’re not that far off. I do believe that. … People that are saying we are far away from winning the Stanley Cup, I don’t think you’re looking at all of our players individually and what kind of team we can have if players step up and have the kind of year that they believe that they can have.
Q: Because of the limited cap this summer, do you feel Chuck will need to get aggressive on the trade market so you’re not standing pat?
Leipold: Everything’s on the table. I don’t think any team can come back with the same team. … If you don’t win it, you have to do something to make yourself better. And I’ve got all the confidence in the world that Chuck is trying to do that and I think he’ll accomplish doing that. I can’t tell you how or what players. I do know we love all of our players and every time you think about just ‘what if we don’t re-sign this guy or what if we trade that guy,’ we all go, ‘Man, we’re going to have a hole when that player leaves.’ But that’s Chuck’s job and he’s been pretty good at that.
Q: How long after a series like that do you decompress?
Leipold: I just kind of stayed home and went up to the cabin for about five days. Family was there, so you kind of get away from it. The problem is I’m watching every single game because they’re so good. I mean, my gosh, they’re really exciting games. This one, I just felt like there was bad karma going into it, when you start out with Backstrom going out, show me another team that could survive that. … Things have to work out for you, and I would definitely agree the stars had to really line up for us. We had to have an unbelievable goaltending effort throughout the series no matter who our goaltender is in order to win that.