Craig Leipold knew the stars needed to align if the Wild was going to upset the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL playoffs.
So imagine his reaction when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who was sitting in the Wild owner’s suite, informed Leipold that goalie Niklas Backstrom was injured during warmups before Game 1.
“I go, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Leipold recalled. “He said, ‘Look at the TV.’ ”
Leipold turned and saw Backstrom being assisted to the bench. He immediately sent a text message to General Manager Chuck Fletcher.
“We were going to rely heavily on Niklas Backstrom, and he’s out for the series 10 minutes before the puck drops?” Leipold said. “That’s kind of an unfortunate event.”
A series in which Leipold felt “bad karma going into it” ended in five games. While the Wild returned to the postseason after a four-year absence, the ending left Leipold, who invested $198 million into signing free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last summer, feeling a “little empty.”
As the Wild prepares for the June 30 draft, Leipold talked about his team’s season and its future.
Q: Now that you’ve had time to reflect, how do you look back on it?
A: 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. We made the playoffs and that’s great. But there’s a feeling like we didn’t quite get to the next level.
Q: Why did you decide to retain Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo?
A: Because I absolutely think we’re on the right course. Everything that is happening in the locker room is really positive. 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.
Q: You mentioned that empty feeling. Does that come from the financial commitment you made?
A: The business side, we were great. Yes, the lockout cost us money. It cost every team money in the short term. 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. So we feel good about that and we achieved all our business objectives.
Q: Are you concerned about Backstrom’s age or level of play?
A: We had unfortunate situations with our goaltending corps [Josh Harding’s two-month absence due to multiple sclerosis] and it caused us to really use Niklas a lot. I would say we probably played him too much at the end. … 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. But he’s a good goalie. … We are not uncomfortable with Niklas Backstrom as our No. 1 goalie.
Q: This will be Fletcher’s fifth year. When do you feel like this team needs to make a big jump?
A: 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 have another aggressive July?
A: I don’t know how we can. The cap situation certainly does limit us [the Wild has $6.2 million of cap space]. 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: After squeaking into eighth place and losing in the first round, does it concern you now the price that was given up for Jason Pominville [acquired from Buffalo for Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett, a first- and second-round pick]?
A: 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 [Los Angeles’] 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.
Q: How important is it as an owner to show your team or your fan base a willingness to go for it?
A: It probably appears as if I’m always willing to take the team to the [salary] 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.
Q: What do you think the image was?
A: 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: When you look at the playoffs now, do you feel you’re still a long way away.
A: 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.