I chatted with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher on the phone for about a half-hour. Here is Chuck on several subjects, including why he signed John Madden, how this affects James Sheppard and Casey Wellman, how players better show up in shape and ready to work, on his effort to sign Mike Modano, on how Pierre-Marc Bouchard is doing, on where he is in the contract negotiations for potential assistant coach Rick Wilson and the possibility of hiring a third assistant.
Read with a fine-toothed comb, skim it, ignore it, whatever you want, ... but I thought you'd find interesting and at least provide you with an update on the Wild six weeks before training camp. Just an fyi, I transcribed and published. I didn't read over again because I should probably actually start writing for Saturday's paper, so long story short, there may be some typos.
Why the fit with Madden? “We like the fit for a few reasons. The things he does really well are always areas you’re looking to get better in – defensive play, killing penalties, faceoffs. He brings a lot of experience to our team. He certainly makes us much deeper at center. Going into training camp and the regular season, there should be a real healthy competition for ice time. There will be a lot of incentive for players to be in good shape and perform well early in the season because there will be a lot more competition this season for ice time and important roles.”
How important is it to add this type of character and winning experience to your team? You’ve mentioned all summer you felt there was a character, work ethic issue last season, so is this a continuation of Cullen, Nystrom, Staubitz additions? “I think so. When I looked at our team last year, we had some disappointing parts of the season. We had some portions of the season where I thought we lost our way too easily. The more people you have on your team that have won and that have winning attributes and professional attributes, I think the more difficult it is to go on these downward spirals. We wanted to improve on that. I want to make one thing clear, we have some terrific leaders and character people in our room. I think the idea isn’t to invent a leadership group. It’s to augment the existing group that’s already here. There’s some great leaders in our group, but I’m not sure we had enough of them. You can never have too many character people.”
You mentioned defense earlier in our conversation. Everybody wonders who’s going to score goals for you, but the reality is the biggest problem is you gave up 42 more goals last year than the year before. Have you improved that with additions like Madden? “Exactly. I’d say conservatively we’ll have to reduce our goals against by 20 or 25 goals this year. If we execute properly and work hard, I don’t see why we can’t achieve that. We have to give up fewer goals. … We need to be a better team defensively, more consistently. Defense, some of it’s systems, some of it’s execution and some of it’s just hard work. Players like John Madden and Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom and Staubitz are players that work hard and compete and certainly have the ability to play well on the road.
Where do you put Madden now at this stage in his career compared to the old John Madden – the one we watched Florida play four times a year, the one that was one of the best defensive, shutdown centers in the league [for New Jersey]? “Well, it’s difficult to say. John’s 37. I don’t think any of us at 37 is quite what we were at 23. He’s still a quality two-way center. He still excels at winning faceoffs and killing penalties. He’s clearly still one of the better defensive centermen in the game. And, he’s a player that scored 20 goals just a couple seasons ago and this past season scored 10 goals. He can shoot the puck and has the ability to be opportunistic defensively. We just want him to come in and play a quality two-way game and just contribute like he did last season [for Chicago]. You watch him last season, he was a quality contributor for a very good hockey team, so we have no reason to believe he can’t help our team win games this year.”
You mentioned the competition at training camp, where does this put Wellman, or would you like to see him start to Houston. And the same thing with Sheppard? “The great thing is I don’t think my opinion’s going to matter too much now. The coaches will have to look long and hard at the players in training camp, and ultimately the decision will rest with the players. In my opinion, last year, I’m not sure the conditioning level of some of our players was at an acceptable level at the start of last year’s training camp. We’ve tried to address that with them and set higher standards to where we expect them to be at training camp. But actions speak louder than words and to me, the level of competition we’ll have at camp will be at a high level. And if you’re not prepared to play from the start of camp, then you’re going to fall behind. I think that’s what we need. We need to have a good start. We need to win some hockey games in October to set the tone for the year, and the only way we’re going to do that is by having a good camp. The competition we’ll have at camp will be exciting. I’m going to sit back and watch what the players do and the players performances will dictate our roster at the end of camp.”
Are you OK Wellman being the 13th or 14th forward if you’re healthy, or would you rather him be in Houston? “I really haven’t set any conditions as to any of that right now. Ideally, you’d prefer to have young players be important parts of an American League team than a bit part of an NHL team, assuming they don’t have to clear waivers (Russo note: Wellman doesn’t, Sheppard does). But we’ll have to see the makeup of our roster at the end of camp and how we look as we get on the plane to Finland. We’ll have to build a team and put some lines together and see what makes sense. But everything’s open. Everything’s on the table. We didn’t have a good enough season to set any conditions at this point as to roles or positions available.”
Still, you have 22 one-way contracts now. There’s not a lot of flexibility, right? “Yeah, I know it’s a cliché. Certain players probably know they’re not going to be sent to Houston, but I’ll say it this way, there’s a lot of playing minutes available (laughs). The difference between second and third line and third and fourth line can be significant in terms of role and ice time. So I really do think there’s a lot to play for this training camp.”
Regarding Sheppard, the second I put out the Madden tweet, I got questions from readers asking if this signals the end of Sheppard here. Does this signal that Sheppard’s gone? “Not necessarily at all. The performance of players in training camp will determine what we do. If players have a terrific camp and earn the right to make the team, then we’ll have to make some decisions. But I think that’s what we want. That’s ideally what you want to get to. You hope you have some tough decisions to make. James is definitely still a part of the mix. He’s part of the group of players we think we can win games with next season. He’s going to have to battle for ice time and role, but right now, he’s a part of our group.”
When you bring up conditioning like you did before, can you be more specific as to the problems and how you’ve addressed it? “There’s some players – some of them aren’t here anymore – I’ll say this: Some guys were in pretty good shape, some guys were average and some guys were below average, but as a group, I don’t think our numbers were high enough when you average them out. I think we can be fitter. Obviously we need to play better, but to me, it all starts right that first day. When you have too many players in average or below average conditioning, it just sets the wrong tone for camp. You look at our season last year, it seemed right from Day One things didn’t go the way we wanted them to. We’re pretty determined to try to improve upon the things we can control, which is conditioning and practicing and those type of things right from the get-go and start to develop some proper habits and start the season the right way.
I know you’ve offered the assistant coaching job to Rick Wilson. What’s the latest with that? “I think it’s really close. I’m optimistic we’ll be able to get this done and hopefully have an announcement to make next week. It’s just been slow for various reasons. It just hasn’t been the most efficient work week in terms of having everybody in the same place. Everybody’s on vacation, everybody’s everywhere. There’s moving parts here. I’m sure it’ll get done.
As you reported, there’s [three] teams here [with Tampa and Dallas]. … Just because there’s more parties and more people involved, it just takes longer. I don’t think there’s been any major point of contention (Russo note: I’ve heard Tampa scoffed at Wild’s original offer to Wilson because it felt Wild was intentionally lowering its offer so Tampa would pick up a bigger chunk of the $600,000 it owes him). When you get three or four parties involved, sometimes it takes three phone calls to ask one question, and then one person’s on vacation and one person’s out golfing and then it’s the next day. If everyone was at their desk, you’d get this done in two days (laughs). But I think it should work out. We’re assuming it will. But it’s not officially done.”
Does Wilson’s potential hire signal that you could be potentially changing the up-tempo way of your defensemen? I’ve heard from many people that Wilson feels the defensemen should play a certain way, and it’s not that way. “I don’t know if that’s accurate or not. In Dallas, certain defensemen went all the time and certain guys didn’t. The skilled players there over the years – Zubov, even Sydor – they went. I’m sure he has certain core beliefs, and I know Todd [Richards] and he spoke at length. They felt there was a lot more areas of agreement than disagreement. I don’t think there’s any question we’re examining everything we do on and off the ice, but that’ll be up to Todd and the coaching staff to determine how we’ll play and what the rules of engagement are for players. … But we can talk more when we have an official announcement. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But it’s not meant to signal a change of direction. We’re trying to replace what we lost in Mike Ramsey and getting a real quality, veteran guy that has a proven track record. There’s a lot of upside in a few of our defensemen that we’d love to untap.”
How much did you go after Modano? “We had a few phone calls. But the puck was always in Mike’s court. It was Mike’s decision to make like any unrestricted free agent. I can’t speak for Mike at all. I just know as of a couple week’s ago, my sense was that he was leaning toward Detroit for various reasons that seemed to make a lot of sense to me as well. He has to find the right fit for him at this point of his career for role and expectation in what he’s trying to accomplish, and he certainly picked a terrific situation to go to. I don’t know how serious an option we were to him. I don’t think he was looking at a ton of teams. I know he was looking at us. But I had a conversation with him and certainly had a few with his agent [Mike Liut], and they were very professional and straightforward. But it wasn’t a big surprise to us [he signed with Detroit], let’s put it that way. As time went on it became clearer what he felt was the right fit.” (Russo note: Modano said at his presser today that if Detroit didn’t come after him, he’d probably be retiring, and that it didn’t make sense to sign elsewhere).
How long have you been talking to Madden?: “We didn’t formally make an offer until recently, but we’ve had conversations with [agent] Bill Zito since the beginning of July. There’s been a few conversations over a few weeks with Bill. Lots of teams were kicking tires with him, just like we were kicking tires with a few guys. This just seemed to make sense this week to move forward and give him a chance to set up here and give our coaches a chance to start looking at potential scenarios.”
How much deeper does this make you at center? “Now you’ve got legitimately four, potentially five other guys besides Mikko [Koivu] who played in the league and know how to play and can play different scenarios. We’ll see how it all flushes out. I think if you don’t have depth at center, you’re really in trouble because that impacts your ability to score and your ability to defend. It was the weakest link of our team last year. I believe if you’re strong at center, or at least deep at center, you can win and you can compete. I mean, that’s our theory, and we’ll see.”
What do you hear lately on Bouchard? “I know [trainer] Don Fuller’s kept in touch with Butch and I had a good chat with Allan the other day (agent Allan Walsh), and he’s doing way better. He’s on the bike 30-plus minutes every day. He’s started lifting weights. He’s going to start skating with the group of players that get together in Montreal. I don’t know what that means in respect to contact and this and that, but I know his condition has not worsened with the exercise. And that’s a positive. I know he’s feeling better. So everything’s trending in the right direction. It’s been steady progress. All signs point to him being healthy sooner rather than later. Now, whatever that means, I don’t know. If he’s ready to start the year, great. If it’s November or whatever, that’s fine, too. But I don’t think there’s that uncertainty of ‘will he play this year?’ I think he’s clearly going to play this year. He’s come along way. Now he’s got a little bit more to go. I just wanted to make sure we have depth, too, so if it takes a month or two, you’re not scrambling. There’s options now that won’t be available then. You’d much rather have too many than be short, so I think this is the smart way to go. We’ve got lots of guys that can play wing, lots of guys that can play center.”
So are you done, maybe a defenseman? “Right now I’m comfortable with what we have. We’re not actively pursuing anything right now. I mean, there’s always conversations you have with agents and teams. If there’s something there that will make us better, we’re definitely not done. But looking at the landscape now, I don’t see anything that’s imminent. We’re comfortable going to camp with this group and get into training camp and see how things transpire. If anybody exceeds expectations or doesn’t perform to expectations or gets injured, we may have to react to different scenarios once camp starts. But I think going into camp we’re comfortable with the mix of players we have now. It’s a pretty good mix of veteran players and I think we have some young players that can challenge and I think we have some quality returning players. I mean this sincerely, there’s a core group of players here that I really like. I think the goal’s been to surround those players with pieces that make us better in certain areas, whether that’s the defensive side of the puck or competing or leadership or having a track record of winning hockey games at important times of the year. We feel we’ve found some players that make us better in certain areas. You never fill every hole, but that’s the nature of the cap system. On paper, we’re a better team now than we were at the end of last season. If players come to camp and work hard and execute, I think we have the ability to be substantially better than what we were last year. We’ll see. I’m excited about the level of competition and I think there’s risk-reward for not being in shape versus being in shape. That’s the type of environment we’re trying to foster going into the season.”
Have you made a decision whether you want to hire a third assistant or another scout? “No I haven’t. I know Todd and [assistant GM] Brent [Flahr] are looking at options. I don’t want to do something just for the sake of doing something. If we can add a person who can improve us in a material way, or for the scouting perspective, improve our coverage and make us better, then we’ve got to look at it. I’ve left it up to Todd to look at the coaching scenario and Brent to look at the scouting scenario, and we’re going to spend some time next week together and I’m sure at the end of the week they’ll give me their recommendation and we’ll see what makes sense.”
Russo note: If it’s the coach, I believe the vision is for this person to basically be around home practices and games. I think former Wild center Darby Hendrickson is the guy Richards really wants. But Hendrickson makes good money as a Northwest Division rep for the NHLPA and I'm told by multiple sources that he's been offered the Gophers' color job from Fox Sports North. Plus, he works for FSN as a Wild analyst. So Hendrickson has a lot of options to weigh through. But I'm sure Hendrickson would be very intrigued by a unique coaching opportunity with his hometown Wild. So we'll see where this goes with time.