Craig Leipold is not a patient man. That’s not a knock on the Wild owner. That’s actually a good thing for those who carry a rooting interest in the team.
Leipold doesn’t just talk about his desire to put a successful product on the ice. He shows it, unencumbered by cost or fear of failure. That’s not always the case with professional sports owners.
Every team in every sport talks about its commitment to winning. Not all act accordingly, which often forces fans to digest a bunch of lip service.
Leipold provided more evidence last week that he’s willing to open his checkbook and/or sacrifice draft picks in order to improve his team and give it a chance to win immediately. Leipold authorized General Manager Chuck Fletcher to trade a pair of second-round picks and disgruntled winger Torrey Mitchell to acquire top-six forward Matt Moulson and grinder Cody McCormick from Buffalo.
The Wild looked like a playoff team before that move. But that alone wasn’t enough to satisfy Leipold. Been there, done that.
“Last year we made the playoffs, and that was really good,” Leipold said. “We didn’t do well in the playoffs. Now we’re looking past that. Making the playoffs again is going to be great, and that’s what all the teams are trying to do. But we’re hungrier than just making the playoffs. We want to get past the first round.”
As they studied their roster and the teams at the top of the Western Conference, Leipold and Fletcher determined that the Wild needed more scoring pop and toughness in order to contend with St. Louis, Anaheim and Chicago. So they made a necessary move.
The addition of Moulson, McCormick and rental goalie Ilya Bryzgalov doesn’t guarantee the Wild will make the playoffs or win a playoff series. The team still would be viewed as underdogs against those aforementioned opponents. But the Wild’s aggressive approach certainly is preferable to status quo or the peddling of false hope.
The NHL and NBA are similar in that playoff success often becomes a process. Teams usually encounter incremental steps as they climb toward championships. The Wild took its first step last season. It made the playoffs but looked completely overmatched by Chicago in the first round.
A repeat of that this spring won’t sit well with Leipold.
“When we talk in our organization about what is our strategic plan, our plan is to win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “We made a step last year. Now we need to make another step this year. We can’t trade any of our young players that we think are going to be a huge part of winning that Stanley Cup. We were able to accomplish that and still get a great player [Moulson] and a player who we think can take us to another step. That’s why we did the trade. It’s not so we make the playoffs, it’s so we get to go further.”
Leipold and Fletcher have overhauled the roster the past two years to make the Wild relevant and rekindle hope within the fans base. They committed $196 million to sign Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. They traded a first-round pick and a pair of prospects to acquire Jason Pominville. They parted ways with some underperforming veterans, including Cal Clutterbuck and Devin Setoguchi.
Leipold admitted he tried to send a message to his team — and Wild fans, too — by making another splash in adding a proven scorer in Moulson.
“We wanted to help them understand that we’re with you and we want to make another step,” Leipold said.
Does that put more pressure on coach Mike Yeo and his core group of top players? Unequivocally. But any competitor would choose higher expectations over the feeling that something is a lost cause.
“It says to the players, ‘Hey, we believe in what you’re doing,’ ” Parise said. “When you can get players of that caliber, it doesn’t come easy, but it’s good for the players.”
That optimism was evident after the new-look Wild finished its first practice together last week. As a few veterans sat at their lockers, captain Mikko Koivu retrieved some sports drinks and passed them out. Without saying a word, Koivu raised his plastic bottle in a mock toast. The others did the same.
Their owner and management made an already good team better on paper last week. As players or fans, that’s all you can ask for.