Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.
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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.
UPDATE: In today's session with the media, Fletcher said much the same. Yeo was alongside him and added this:
When asked about his growth as a coach, Yeo said he believes he and his staff did some things that made the Wild a tougher team to play against this year--and he expects that improvement to continue next season, from coaches and players alike. He keeps notes throughout the season and will go through those in the coming weeks to identify issues and potential solutions.
"There were areas where we helped give our players a better chance,'' he said. "We have to do the same next year, We can't just hope all of a sudden we sign 12 goal scorers. We have to do more on our side when we talk about shooting percentage. Is there something we can do different or better? We'll look at that.''
Yeo addressed the speculation that Backstrom's injury may have been caused by overuse. He and Fletcher noted that seven goalies played more than Backstrom and did not get hurt. "It's what we were forced to do,'' he said of starting Backstrom in 27 of the last 28 regular-season games. "If you're going into a really important game, it's really important that the players look at the most important position and say, 'OK, we're good tonight.' Backy has that respect from teammates. We were playing crucial games, and he is an important veteran presence. I would do that again.''
Yeo said he is confident that Backstrom can play 55-60 games next season. Backstrom said he expects to get back to his regular routine three weeks after the surgery. Team officials noted one other offseason surgery: Mike Rupp, who will have a torn meniscus repaired in his knee.
Yeo also talked about the "culture change'' that has been such a buzz phrase for the Wild this season. "From the players, there's a different mentality around the feeling after you lose a game,'' he said. "That's a real important quality a winning team has to have. The level of professionalism that the athletes come to the rink with every day, that starts in the summer with how they train and prepare for the season ahead, we've seen huge improvement in that area. The work and commitment put in through a long and grinding season, we've seen large improvements in that area, too. We've got a great deal of character, a great deal of leadership on this team. I really believe we're taking the right steps toward having that winning attitude, that winning culture you need.''
Thursday at the State Fair, Wild coach Mike Yeo was gracious enough to come down to the Star Tribune booth to talk to the fans about the upcoming Wild season.
Yeo talked about lines (Matt Cullen will start training camp on the left side of Mikael Granlund and Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard will skate with Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck and the fourth line will start as Darroll Powe, Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell), defense pairs (Ryan Suter will start with Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella will be with Tom Gilbert and Clayton Stoner will be with Justin Falk, Nate Prosser or Jonas Brodin), training camp, travel changes, the need to get tougher, how Matt Kassian fits on a team with Konopka, etc.
Part 1 of the interview is above. The other two links are below.
On Saturday, I sat down with a disappointed but very optimistic Wild owner.
Craig Leipold bought the franchise just before the Wild won its first and only division title in 2008. In the four full seasons he has owned the team, it has not made the playoffs.
With the NHL postseason about to begin tonight in markets outside the Twin Cities, here is a partial transcript of my sitdown last weekend with Leipold.
Leipold talks about his disappointment, the future, the Dany Heatley trade, his assessment of the job done by GM Chuck Fletcher, Fletcher’s future, the need for the Wild to land a big fish, the fact the Wild squandered a top-5 pick with its late 4-0-1 stretch and six wins in 10 games and the fact that the collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Sept. 15:
Well, first of all, how disappointed are you? “Disappointed. This is the last practice. What a bummer. It’s no fun. We started off the year, we thought we had a pretty good team. See what’ll happen. Never thought we would get off to the kind of start we did, so our expectation level probably went higher and everything just cratered for us right after the road trip that was so successful [in December]. And it’s just a disappointing year. Thank goodness we’ve got so many things to look forward to. Without that, I think I would be in a deep depression, but there’s just something about these new kids that you think we really have something that we can build on.”
I sat down with you in September, and you told me when Chuck Fletcher first told you about the Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat trade, you said, ‘Wow, wow, wow,’ and were amazed there were no other pieces given up in the trade. Do you still feel that way? “ I’m not disappointed at all in the Dany Heatley trade. He has been one hell of a leader. Part of why we think we have a good locker room is Dany Heatley. He’s just incredible in the locker room. Yes, we would have expected more on the ice, but that would be true of almost everybody. We had too many lines that we were trying to move around with the injuries. I think next year will be a great year for Dany. The hope is that we can keep Mikko [Koivu] healthy and Mikko will be feeding him assists next year.”
It’s clear Havlat did not fit in well here. Do you regret signing him and do you think you guys succumbed to the pressure of replacing Marian Gaborik immediately when he left in 2009? “Yeah, there was definitely not just a hockey need, but there was a PR need. We had to make a splash. We just lost Gaborik, and we had the money. We needed to go out and do something. Havlat can make a difference, and probably didn’t fit in here. I think he’ll fit in well in San Jose, but yeah, there was pressure on us.”
Are you disappointed that Chuck hasn’t found a way yet to make this team an annual Koivu injury away from collapse? “I would say it this way: We’ve learned Mikko is as important to this team as we always thought he was. Chuck had to build this team for this year knowing who he’s got coming in for future years. In isolation, if he only had to build one year’s worth of team, he probably would have done it differently and maybe we would have gotten a higher end centerman, but we’ve got a lot of centers coming the next two years. So who you going to get on a one-year contract?”
Russo note: (This is a great point that I’ve mentioned a few times in the past. Last summer, this is why the Wild was silent on the free-agent front, and this is why this season when the Wild got hampered by injuries, Fletcher wasn’t willing to go out and add somebody will more than one year left on his deal (i.e. Erik Christensen). This is a cap system. You always have to plan for the future. You can only have 23 players. You add a guy on a three- or four- or whatever-year deal, that can adversely affect your ability to put a prospect on the team or even go out and sign a big free agent this summer to a long-term deal. So, in a lot of ways, what’s coming in the next few years hamstrung Fletcher’s ability to react to the injuries this year).
So you’re saying this season was a bridge to the future no matter what this season? “Exactly. When Chuck made the Setoguchi and Heatley trades last year, we were excited and thought this team will be a better team than we thought it would be, but it was always looking at the next couple years and making sure we were going to build the team with our future prospects. Because of the great start, all of a sudden expectations changed.”
Still, you cannot be happy you’ve missed the playoffs four years in a row? “No. I don’t like it. It’s tough. I really think the injury Gods have been working against us for all [four] of those years, but it is what it is. Everybody’s got injuries and we’ve got to deal with it. We’ve got to get deeper and we think that’ll happen. But yes, you’re always disappointed when you miss it one year. If you miss it [four] years, you’re triply disappointed.”
Can you assess Chuck as a GM? “I think he’s done a great job. Yeah, we’re all disappointed that we didn’t get in this year. but Chuck’s importance to this team, the contributions that he will make to the legacy of the Minnesota Wild is coming in the next couple years. That’s when we’re going to see what Chuck Fletcher has done to move the Minnesota Wild to a different level. You’re going to begin to see that next year. Let’s not overblow this that we think we’re going to be a Stanley Cup winning team next season. But we’re going to be a whole lot better – faster, quicker, younger -- because of these guys coming in. Our expectation level is high. We hope we’re not disappointed. We don’t think we’re going to be. At every level, the [Charlie] Coyle, and the [Mikael] Granlund and the [Zack] Phillips and the [Jason] Zucker, [Jonas] Brodin, these kids are all continuing to play at high levels on the teams that they’re on.”
Russo note: I reported last week that Fletcher will likely receive a one-year extension to give him two years left on his deal.
How about Mike Yeo? “He’s a great coach. He’s passionate. He hates losing. I read in your story today and I know his feeling. I hate losing more than I like winning. I love to win. But I freaking hate to lose. I hate to lose. Even now, we’ve been on this little winning streak in the last five games, you read the blogs, ‘Will you guys stop winning? You’re going to ruin the draft.’ You do kind of go into the game thinking, ‘It’s OK if we lose this, we’ll have a better pick.’ Then I’m at the game and I’m watching it and I only want to win the game. I’m just like every one of those players. It has nothing to do with our draft pick. It’s all about winning and it doesn’t matter where you are. Now it just makes [assistant GM] Brent Flahr’s job a little tougher . He’s back on the road again. (laughing)”
I know you can’t name names, but how essential is it for you guys to finally land a big fish or two? “Yes. Where a star player wants to come here, wants to play here. It’s important to our franchise that we become one of those markets where players want to come to, they want to play for the fans here, they want to play because the culture’s the way it is, because the coaches are the way they are, because management treats their players a certain way. We want to get to that point. I mean, this is such a great market. I have to believe that players would want to play in this city. It’s our job to create that kind of atmosphere and culture, and winning is important. It’s a big part of that. They’ll come here if they think they can win the Cup.”
How would you sell a free agent on this franchise and market? “Now if I’m an unrestricted free agent and I’m looking at this team and I’m looking at the future of this team and the committment that we have to winning and the coaches, this is a good market. We think we have a lot to sell. We don’t plan to be shy. We don’t know who’s going to be a UFA come July 1, but we’re going to be looking. We need to make our team better. We need to get more goals. And we need to get better defense.”
And what if you strike out on the big fish? “Then you have to do something else. You’ve got to try to get somebody else. You look at trades. And we may start off the year with a certain team, but after 10-15 games, you get phone calls. There’s always a Plan B.”
I know you’re not permitted to say a lot on this issue, but the white elephant in the room is the fact that the collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15. In 2004-05, we lost an entire season. Will this season start on time? “What I can say is that we are preparing to start next year on time. I have no reason to believe that we’re not going to start on time. The relationship is good with the players union. We’re planning to start on time.”
Are the issues more or less complicated this go-around? “I probably shouldn’t talk about it. I can only get my hand slapped.”
Are you making money? “We’re not making money, and that’s one reason we need to fix our system. We need to fix how much we’re spending right now. [The Wild's] revenues are fine. We’re down a little bit in attendance, but we’re up in sponsorships, we’re up in TV revenue. And so the revenue that we’re generating is not the issue as much as our expenses. And [the Wild's] biggest expense by far is player salaries.”
What are you hearing from fans? How frustrated are they? “Stay the course. Every month, I have lunch with about 20 fans and we go around the room and we talk about things. Everybody gets it. This is a hockey market. We’re fortunate that they understand who our players are. Frankly the media does a good job communicating what all our prospects are doing. I think most of our fans know that our future is the next five years and injuries impacted us significantly this year.”
Are you still committed to being owner of this franchise for the long haul? “Absolutely. No question, no question. I’m not going anywhere. I’m here. As long as this continues to be a good hockey market and we’ve got the commitment from this market, I’m all in. I love doing it. I love coming here. I love this business. I love the players and the team and the fans. I’m all in.”
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