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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Late last night, I had a conversation with Kurt Kleinendorst, who lost his job Sunday night as head coach of the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate in Des Moines. See this blog for that news.
Following a loss to Chicago that put Iowa’s record at 2-10, Kleinendorst met with Wild director of minor-league operations Jim Mill and was informed of the team’s decision that he was being dismissed as coach. It left a sour end to Kleinendort’s 29th wedding anniversary to wife, Deon.
After finishing last in the AHL’s Western Conference last year, this was Kleinendorst’s 25th year as a hockey coach and it was by far his toughest.
Kleinendorst said he’s disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated and relieved that it’s over. He says the Wild had little choice but to let him go. Whatever he tried the past two years didn’t work with a group that wasn’t responding to him in Iowa, so now it’s his friend John Torchetti’s chance to retake the reins of a struggling team that lacks confidence right now.
Here is a Q and A with the 53-year-old who now will enjoy eight months of paid vacation:
On getting fired: “It’s interesting. I’ve never been through it. You watch your peers go through it and you feel for them because it’s not fun obviously. These are high-profile positions. At the end of the day I do appreciate that [GM Chuck Fletcher] gave me an opportunity in the first place.”
Were you surprised? “Oh no, Jim and I, we go back, and anybody that knows me, would agree that I can self-evaluate. He and I have actually been having dialogue for some time because it’s been such a struggle. Since Day One, it’s been a struggle. You can’t let something like this go on too long. I understand that. The last thing any organization wants is for their young kids to be developing in a losing environment because it’s not healthy. We tried and tried and tried. We tried pretty much everything. At the end of the day, what options are left? This is what’s left, so I get it. I totally get it. I understand. I’m disappointed, but I understand why they felt they needed to do what they needed to do. I’m completely on board with it. It’s just disappointing because generally at some point you’d expect you’d get your players to kick a little bit, and it just didn't happen and that bothers me."
Why not? Looking at your career, this hasn’t happened to you at any level? Are the kids not the right kids? “I’ve been with these guys every day. I’ve got a good idea of why, but I’m going to keep that to myself. I will say this though: This needed to be done. Now Chuck is going to know it was either the guy behind the bench or it was the players out on the ice. What is it? So at the end of the day, Jimmy, Chuck, they’re in a good situation because they will be able to determine if it was the guy behind the bench or just maybe we’re not as good in Iowa as we think we are. It’s got to be one or the other. I totally understand that. I think the time was right-you just could not let this continue to fester.”
Can Torch jumpstart this team? “Torch and I go way back. I was in Raleigh when he was that taxicab driver (see previous blog for context). I love Torch. He’s a friend. I think he’s the right guy to come in and do what Chuck and Jim need him to do, plus he’s got a relationship with some of these players already from Houston, so I think that will be helpful. He’s a no-nonsense guy most of the time. I’m a no-nonsense guy most of the time with less bite and I think this group needs that extra bite. I think they need a guy that is going to be a miserable jerk, and I think Torch can be that guy – and trust me, that’s no disrespect to Torch. He's a solid person. You have to be who you are. The year that we won the [Calder] Cup [in Binghamton], I had a group of guys that connected with me. They wanted to play for me. They appreciated to be coached the way I coach. My Calder Cup year we did have a group that responded to my approach. That's how you win. Not every team is the right fit for every coach and vice versa. This group, I think they need 90 percent jerk. Maybe that's what they deserve and that’s what he’s going to give them. I will always be true to myself and stick to what I believe in.
They just didn’t connect to you? “It bothers me. It’s not often that I have a group that isn't willing to push for me. It does come down to the willingness to do what you’re being challenged to do. We challenged and we challenged and we challenged, and most every player will tell you, we put our time in, we did everything we thought would help this group click, and it just didn’t happen. It just didn’t happen. You get to a point where you have a big cloud over the locker room, and the only way you’re going to get rid of that cloud is by winning, by making a trade or by getting rid of a coach. And in this league and at this time of the year, it’s not the easiest thing to trade players. And you don’t want to be trading assets for the sake of the American League anyway, you really don’t.”
How tough was it with the Wild’s top-end prospects being in the NHL most of your tenure and guys shuttling back and forth because of injuries? “The NHL, we all know, is the best league in the world, but the hardest league to coach is the AHL in my opinion. No. 1 you’ve got a bunch of guys that don’t want to be here and a bunch of them who don’t think they should be here. That's an interesting dynamic in itself. You’ve got guys at all different developmental levels. You’ve got your veteran guys that get it, you’ve got your middle of the road guys that some get it and some don't but think they do, and you’ve got your young, developing guys that are just happy to be in the locker room. I mean, it’s a tough, tough league to coach, and that’s what makes it such a great challenge. But there are some good pieces here for sure. Justin Falk, Brett Sutter, Stephane Veilleux played their hearts out for me and are the veteran depth guys that every NHL team needs: Mark Hagel, Zack Mitchell are all in. Listen, when you’re winning, you’re not going to find out anything about anybody-not when things are going well. Anybody can be a good boy and a positive person and be uplifting when things are going your way. It’s when things aren’t going your way when we’re really going to find out about ourselves. Justin Falk is an unbelievable character. Brett Sutter is an unbelievable character. Stephane Veilleux is an unbelievable character. These are guys, that fought for me and their teammates every day, and as a coach, I respect that and appreciate that.
“You’ve got a third of your group, your core leaders, you've got your middle third and then you've got your bottom third. Your bottom third is generally your young kids, the middle third are the group of guys that could go either way. What we weren’t able to get to was, we had a really strong upper group, but we just couldn’t get the middle group to come up and join them, and because of that, you can’t get the bottom third to get pulled to the middle. But Falky, Sutter, Steph, I can’t express enough how much I appreciate them for what they did. Justin has come far. He's the one guy that I will walk away feeling the best about. In some very difficult circumstances, he's a guy that stepped up, did everything I asked of him. He wanted to be part of the solution and was a guy who was pulling for me, trying to make it work, and his game grew the most. Isn’t that how it is supposed to work? Listen, put in the time, work hard and grow. Crazy how that works. He’s taken a big step in getting back to the NHL. And Sutsy, you wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”
Can Torch turn this around though? “They’re bringing in the right guy. Don’t expect him to flip it in a day. The guys are just not in a good place right now. It’s more than likely going to take a little time.”
What’s next for you? “I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it. I feel bad that this didn’t work out. If there could have been a comedy of errors in a bad way, it would have been the start to this season- nothing went our way. It was almost like it was never meant to be-if you believe in such things. I have a daughter who is a grad assistant coach in Vermont at Castleton College so I’m going to go out and spend some time with her. We’ve got a place out in Park City I will get out there.
“When I left on Sunday, I was disappointed and embarrassed. I always feel that your teams are a reflection of you, and this team was by no means a reflection of me. It was difficult to get this group to buy in to what I needed them to do and I own that. I won't pass that off on anyone. I was disappointed, and in the end embarrassed for the way we were playing, but I was also relieved that it was over. It was like we had tried everything and it wasn’t happening-it happens. Time to move on from a bad experience. Plenty of good coaches have been let go and come back to have success. [Devils GM Lou Lamoriello] taught me to be a good self-evaluator and I believe I do. I know everything that needed to be done and what I could control was done.
“I’m going to take some time. I won't come back to coaching until my belly’s burning and I'm excited to get behind the bench again. My belly’s not burning right now. Hockey is a great game and coaching’s such a great profession. I’ve got something to offer. We'll just have to wait and see where that will be.”
With the Iowa Wild off to an American Hockey League-worst 2-10 start after finishing last in the Western Conference a year ago, Kurt Kleinendorst is out as head coach of the Wild’s minor-league affiliate, sources say.
The Wild has tabbed John Torchetti as Kleinendorst’s replacement, according to sources, and he will be on the ice to coach the Baby Wild during Tuesday’s practice. Torchetti, 50, who won a Stanley Cup as a Chicago Blackhawks assistant in 2010, returns to the Wild after coaching the Houston Aeros to back-to-back postseason berths. He was supposed to relocate with the team to Des Moines, but he exercised an out clause to take a job in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League last year.
Kleinendorst, 53, was informed of the Wild’s decision by director of minor-league operations Jim Mill after Sunday’s loss to the Chicago Wolves. An announcement is expected Tuesday morning.
The Iowa Wild, despite such prospects as Tyler Graovac, Kurtis Gabriel, Zack Phillips and Brett Bulmer and skilled players like Jordan Schroeder, Michael Keranen and Zack Mitchell, averages only 2.25 goals per game, has allowed 3.8 goals per game and has won once at home.
Johan Gustafsson is off to a 2-6 start with a 3.70 goals-against average and .884 save percentage.
It’s been more and more clear the past few weeks that General Manager Chuck Fletcher was growing increasingly displeased with Iowa’s play and was worried about the development of some of its prospects would stall.
After the latest loss Sunday, Kleinendorst was quoted on Tom Witosky’s Twitter account (@toskyAHLWild) regarding the season’s tough start, “Trust me I know. It hurts. It is not pretty. Obviously, it is a huge, huge reflection on me.”
Assistant coach Steve Poapst and the rest of Iowa’s staff was retained.
Kleinendorst, a Grand Rapids, Minn., native, came to the Wild after coaching the University of Alabama-Huntsville for one year. The longtime New Jersey Devils assistant coach was a finalist for the Aeros’ head-coaching position in 2010. It went to now-Wild coach Mike Yeo instead, and Kleinendorst was hired by the Ottawa Senators to coach their AHL affiliate in Binghamton. Coincidentally, Kleinendorst’s Baby Sens rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to beat Yeo’s Aeros before Yeo came to Minnesota.
Torchetti, 50, coached CSKA Moscow last year after having an out clause in his Wild contract with the Aeros. At the time, Fletcher said Torchetti couldn’t pass up a “huge deal,” but he apparently left after one year because of the unrest politically in Russia last year. Torchetti went 32-20-2 in Moscow.
Torchetti's Houston Aeros went 75-51-26 in two seasons. He has been an interim head coach with the Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings (so he has been through transitions before) and has been an assistant with Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Chicago.
He has got almost 20 years of pro coaching experience, spending time in the ECHL, CHL (Coach of the Year in 1995 in San Antonio), IHL (Coach of the Year in 1998 in Fort Wayne), AHL and NHL, and was also a minor-league general manager.
From my Torchetti hired blog a few years back:
He’s a former minor-league goal scorer who got his career started playing for Rick Dudley for the old Atlantic Coast League’s Carolina Thunderbirds in the mid-80s. Dudley used to drive the buses and Torchetti would sit in the front seat and stay up every night ‘til 3 or 4 in the morning talking hockey and life with Dudley. They’ve been tight ever since.
When Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr ran the San Antonio minor-league franchise for Florida, Torchetti was the head coach and they became good friends.
Torchetti is a guy who worked for free in his first coaching job in Greensboro. On the side, he drove a taxi to earn a living. He hails from Northeast and has the thickest Boston accent you’ve ever heard, so get ready for that.
Mike Yeo has agreed to a three-year contract extension to continue coaching the Wild. His contract was set to expire June 30.
“Very well-deserved,” first-line left wing Zach Parise, who led the Wild in playoff scoring, said during a phone interview. “I think he did a really good job – [the entire coaching staff] all did a really good job – down the stretch for us, especially in the playoffs. I mean, we were really prepared. We knew exactly what to expect. We exploited weaknesses. It’s a big chess game, the playoffs. I think they did a really good job making adjustments on the fly. It was real impressive.”
You can hear more from Parise in Sunday's paper. Here's a preview.
Here is the link to my story in Saturday's paper.
"I am very excited to continue to coach the Minnesota Wild and pursue a Stanley Cup for the State of Hockey,” Yeo said in a press release. “Our fan support has been amazing and it went to a new level during the playoffs this season. We are all motivated to reward them.”
“Mike has done a very good job the last three seasons as our Head Coach and we look forward to his leadership going forward,” said GM Chuck Fletcher in the press release.
The Wild will hold a news conference Thursday because Yeo, Fletcher, assistant GM Brent Flahr and a few Wild executives traveled to Exuma, Bahamas, to conduct budgetary meetings at owner Craig Leipold's home.
This is the precursor to organizational meetings that will occur June 9. That’s when the coaches, front office personnel and pro scouts meet to evaluate the past season and prepare for the next season. There, the Wild will discuss which of its unrestricted free agents it should try to re-sign (I still believe defenseman Clayton Stoner and forward Cody McCormick are the likeliest), which unrestricted free agents it is interested in pursuing, which players on the trade market it may be interested in pursuing and which of its players it should dangle on the trade market.
Yeo coached the Wild to the postseason in two of three years. He is 104-82-26 (.552 points percentage) in three years. The Wild ranks 10th in the NHL in wins since the start of the 2012-13 season and is one of 11 teams to advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs the last two seasons.
In other news, if the Wild doesn’t sign 2012 fifth-round pick Daniel Gunnarsson by Sunday, the Wild loses the big defenseman's rights and he can reenter the NHL draft. He has already re-signed to play Farjestads the next two seasons, so even if he signs, he will likely remain there. The Wild hasn't talked with his reps since Friday. In the old days, teams would own the rights for all European draft picks for 10 years. Not anymore. It’s two just like North American non-collegiates. Of the 2012 draft picks, Matt Dumba and Raphael Bussieres are signed, John Draeger (Michigan State), Adam Gilmour (Boston College) and Louis Nanne (RPI) are in college and Christoph Bertschy is considered a defected player (there’s no Swiss/NHL agreement right now, so like Russia, teams keep their rights beyond the normal two years).
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.
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