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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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.''
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.”
Morning from Nashville, where the Wild will play its final road game of the season tonight. The morning skate is in a few hours. The only potential lineup change will be Warren Peters entering for Cody Almond.
Peters was supposed to fly in yesterday, so if he’s able to play, Almond would have to be reassigned because he’s an emergency recall.
My guess is, if healthy (he’s been walking gingerly), Niklas Backstrom will start vs. backup Anders Lindback.
There’s been lots of talk lately about the Wild finally winning games and thus, potentially, ruining its draft position after such a disappointing season.
Hey, I get it. If you’ve read me for years, I’ve always contended that one of the Wild’s biggest problems throughout its history is the fact it’s always just good enough to get the 10th pick or the 12th or whatever. If you’re going to miss the playoffs, you might as well get a real, legit, bona fide consolation prize for it.
I talked to coach Mike Yeo about that yesterday. Yeo finds himself in the awkward position of defending the Wild … winning games lately.
You can read that story here.
My random thoughts in reaction to a couple things that have been tweeted or emailed to me by readers:
1) What’s Yeo supposed to say? His job is to win games, not lose them.
2) One of the things I agree with Yeo on: It does just come down to quality drafting, not necessarily where you pick (see Benoit Pouliot at No. 4 in 2005).
First of all, other than the first couple in this upcoming draft, there are allegedly no sure things. And as I pointed out in the article, years from now, we may find out that Mikael Granlund (at 9th overall) and Jonas Brodin (at 10th) were better draft picks than some of the guys taken ahead of them.
One big reason the Wild’s where it’s at isn’t so much the fact that it didn’t get top-5 picks (although it would have helped) but that the previous regime absolutely swung and completely missed at arguably five consecutive first-round picks (Thelen, Pouliot, Sheppard, Gillies and, maybe too early to declare, Cuma) and the new regime traded its first first-round pick, Nick Leddy.
I mean, just think about that: The Wild absolutely blew SIX consecutive first-round picks. You don’t recover from things like that very easily. Throw it the fact the Wild got squat for Marian Gaborik, and … thit is why the Wild’s got such little skill, such little depth at top-6 forwards, why it’s so far behind so many teams in this league.
Look at the Wild’s opponent on any given night and count how many of their OWN first-round picks are in the lineup compared to the Wild.
The Wild has ONE – Mikko Koivu. That’s completely unforgivable, and the terrible Leddy trade aside, this is why the Wild’s new regime needed to stockpile prospects with quality drafting (Granlund, Larsson, Bulmer, Zucker, Brodin, Phillips, Lucia), quality college and junior free-agent signings (Spurgeon, Prosser) and quality trades the last few years (Coyle).
Now, in the next few years, Wild fans will hopefully start to see those dividends.
3) The idea of tanking is impossible. I’ve written this so many times, but again, I keep reading comments, “Fill the team with minor leaguers, … bring up Hackett, … force Koivu to sit.” This stuff cannot happen. Years ago, the league and players’ union implemented a rule where you can only have FOUR post-trade deadline callups. Otherwise, it’s an emergency recall. That means, if you have 12 healthy forwards, they stay. If one forward gets hurt, an emergency callup can come up. When the one forward returns, that forward must go back. Same with goalies. So when Josh Harding and Backstrom returned, Hackett HAD to go back. Why is this? Myriad reasons: 1) Keep teams from shutting down NHLers and filling them with minor-league scrubs (union’s fairly interested in making sure its players don’t have jobs and ice time taken away); 2) The concept that the team you pass the deadline with should in large measure be the team you enter the playoffs with; 3) Since there is no roster limit after the deadline, it prevents gross stockpiling at the NHL level.; 4) It also protects the competitive integrity of the AHL season -- AHL would have major issue if there wasn’t some limit on number of recalls; 5) Similarly, protects the competitive integrity of the NHL season. I think last year the Chicago Blackhawks would have had a pretty big issue if on the season finale, the Wild dressed a bunch of ECHLers against Dallas.
4) On the concept, “Is the Wild building a culture of winning or is the Wild winning games because the pressure’s off,” I think that’s a great debate. I do agree with many readers that it’s mostly the latter. Where was this when the season mattered? Where was this great play by certain individuals when the season could have been saved? You see this annually: An out-of-playoff team suddenly playing well when it’s allegedly playing for pride and trying to save jobs. I talked to Yeo about that, and he says it’s a different kind of pressure, but it’s still pressure. I’ll try to squeeze in those quotes tomorrow or in the next few days.
5) On the idea that Yeo wants to build a culture of winning, yet a lot of readers have noted many of these guys won’t be back. I was asked a few times by fans whom I think will definitely be back.
Barring trades, the following will be back: Koivu, Setoguchi, Heatley, Brodziak, Powe, Zucker (NHL or AHL), Clutterbuck, Gilbert, Backstrom, Prosser, Scandella … and injured Bouchard (can’t buy out an injured player), Spurgeon, Cullen, Kassian (AHL or NHL), Kampfer (AHL or NHL).
Guys I could see being back: Stoner (unrestricted) and Veilleux on a two-way contract. Wild has decisions to make on restricted free agents, Justin Falk and Nick Johnson. I’d think you’d tender them qualifying offers, but Johnson in particular has been so lost defensively in the second half, it’s becoming a major issue and hurting them often in games. Because he’s restricted though, he I’d think they bring him back.
Christensen, though, is an unrestricted free agent. I don’t think he’s brought back despite the big goals lately. First, when they needed him, he went 15 games without a point. That game in Chicago doesn’t get to overtime without Christensen and Johnson being so poor defensively, and that’s been a common theme with Christensen. If you start penciling in potential free agent signings and the Granlunds and maybe Coyles and Zuckers next year, where does Erik Christensen fit? On the fourth line? Uh, no. Erik Christensen cannot be an effective fourth-liner. He’s skilled, not gritty. Also, the Wild will have plenty of shootout options next year with the kids. Let’s put it this way: I don’t see Christensen being re-signed before July 1. If he’s brought back, my guess is it’s because they missed on some things post July 1. I could be wrong, but that’s my sense.
If guys like Jed Ortmeyer and Warren Peters are brought back, it’ll be on two-way deals.
I don’t see the injured Latendresse coming back unless they get him on a quality one-year deal at a great price. But this is two years in a row the Wild’s been hamstrung by him missing an entire season with injuries.
The Wild will have to make a decision on Josh Harding, and part of that decision will be Harding’s.
Kurtis Foster won’t be back. Mike Lundin won’t be back. And like I said, I have my doubts that Christensen will be back.
6) Frankly, the Wild’s improved play of late, I think, proves just how big of a loss Mikko Koivu was. That’s why it’s incumbent on GM Chuck Fletcher to fix this problem. It’s inexcusable that the Wild annually is a Mikko Koivu injury away from disaster. I think the Wild could have survived Latendresse and Bouchard alone, but when Koivu went down with those two, and then it lost Devin Setoguchi, the Wild went from being a team with interchangeable parts to a team that couldn’t survive the loss of so many top-6 forwards. Players changed their roles and never got rediscovered that early season “stick-to-it-ness identity. Koivu’s presence stabilizes everything. His presence allows others to get better matchups, it allows others to play their appropriate roles, it forces teams to respect his line, it allows him to take the big faceoffs and play the big special-team shifts. This one player missing fouls everything up because the Wild, at least the past two years, didn’t have the depth. Hopefully, now that the Wild’s actually drafted well the past two years, the depth is on its way. That depth still will need to develop though. The Wild’s not going to be able to snap its fingers and just be good – barring the signing of a potential star forward and defenseman, of course.
OK, I'm out of breath. That was a lot of writing. Digest, and I'll be back after the skate to update this blog with the highly-anticipated, "Will Warren Peters play? and Who's in goal?" news.
For more on Kampfer, here's a good profile that was written last year by CSNNE. Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr knows Kampfer well as part of the Anaheim scouting staff that drafted him in 2007.
Also, I'll be on KFAN with Paul Allen at 9 a.m.
Here is Chuck Fletcher talking late this afternoon on a conference call.
Fletcher on Greg Zanon, traded to Boston for Steve Kampfer: “Heart and soul player, blocked shots, physically competitive every night and gave us everything he had every game he played. He did everything we asked of him and he was a very good teammate.”
On Nick Schultz, traded to Edmonton for Tom Gilbert: “Represented the Minnesota Wild as well as any hockey player could represent us, both on the ice, off the ice, played 743 regular-season games for our team, was part of the Wild team that had a run back in 03, popular teammate, great in the community, good family man, was a very solid defensive defenseman and played very hard for us.”
“Today’s trades were not about getting rid of those players as much as adding different pieces for us going forward.”
Getting puck moving defensemen for defensive guys: “I’ve heard some characterizations of Tom Gilbert as an offensive type of guy. I’m pretty familiar with Tom. Tom played in Wilkes-Barre a few years ago when I was general manager of that team on loan from Edmonton. … I think Tom is a strong puck mover and has the ability to contribute offensively, but ideally he has a very solid two-way game. He logs a lot of minutes. When the Minnesota Wild played Edmonton this year, Tom Gilbert was often playing on [a shutdown] line with Ladislav Smid. He’s a guy that can play in any situation, he moves the puck well and he does have an offensive component. But I don’t know if I’d characterize him purely as an offensive defenseman. I don’t think that’s fair to his talents. Our ability to transition the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone is an area we wanted to improve.”
On Kampfer: “He’s going to start off in Houston. He’s missed some time this year. He’s been down in Providence getting some ice time. We felt it would be best for him to go down. John Torchetti is a great coach. We play the system in Houston that we do here in Minnesota and give him a chance. I think between [Providence and Boston], he’s only played 20-odd games. He’s a young guy, he needs to play, let him get his confidence, get his game going and he can learn from there instead of just throwing him into the fire. We’re carrying six defensemen. We do expect Clayton Stoner back hopefully within two weeks and Steven is available if anybody gets hurt. So we have depth. … He’s not big in stature (5-11). He’s competitive. He’s mobile. He can move the puck. He’s spent last year with the Bruins for a lot of the year and was the seventh defenseman for a lot of this year. He did have an injury earlier this season that knocked him out for awhile. … We feel he has some upside and provides us some depth for this season and going forward hopefully can be a guy that can be part of our group.”
When Gilbert trade talks started: “Even though we’re in the same division, I do talk to Tamby (Steve Tambellini) quite a lot. I remember having a conversation about Tom Gilbert three summers ago to be honest with you when I first took the job. He’s one of those types of players I just felt would help our team. Over the last couple days the conversations picked up. They were looking for a particular fit and we were looking for a particular fit. It’s a trade that probably benefits both clubs in terms of the types of players that they have on their team.”
How agonizing is it to trade a popular teammate like Schultz? “Extremely hard. There’s been a lot of people singing his praises today and rightfully so. It was a hard conversation. This was a hockey trade. This was not a salary dump or dumping a player that we didn’t appreciate or we didn’t value. You’re trading a good player for a good player. That’s always difficult. We felt going forward we needed to … add a little bit more puck-moving ability to our back end. Over the next couple seasons, we hope to add more and more talented, young forwards. It’s no secret we’ve struggled offensively this season and I think this is a natural evolution for our team. I can tell you one thing: There would have been a lot of other pieces I would have preferred to move besides Nick Schultz, but Steve Tambellini knows the players and knows the league. It wasn’t an easy price, let’s put it that way.”
Lots of salary cap space, flexibility this summer? “At least last summer, we felt we were a bit stuck in terms of not being able to get over the hump for the present and maybe not having enough assets going forward. … We’re very cognizant of the fact that over time here we have to add more NHL talent, too. Part of our push as we get better will be from young players, part of it will be from adding NHL players. In order to do that, you either need cap space or you need young assets to trade, and the good news is we feel we have both. Whether it’s this summer or this winter, we think we’re in the best position we’ve ever been in terms of being going out and get better quickly.”
Big fish is next objective? “It’s funny. I was talking to [Chicago GM] Stan Bowman the other day and their big break was Brian Campbell. They had all these young players and they went out and got a player to come play for them and they took off. Again, whether that’s a trade, and we have assets now, again we have some good, young players, we have some extra picks now, or whether it’s free agency, whether it’s a trade next year during the season, at some point we want to go out and try to add some top-end guys. I think keeping Mikko Koivu here was extremely important for our franchise. I think adding Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi was very important, particularly a guy like Heatley, who’s a top offensive player in this league. So I think we’ve made some strides. But clearly when you look at our team this year, we have a good core of players. But we just need a few more. And that’s our challenge. And how quickly we get there, I can’t say. But we’ll certainly try. That’s the next step for us as a franchise.”
On not doing anything else: “If you look at the trades we made, all three of them (including Zidlicky), all of them we feel can help our team right now. We’re competing for a playoff spot. We have some work to do. But we’ve won three of our last four games. We’ve shown a lot of heart recently. And I feel we have the capability at taking a run at this. We’re always interested in adding younger assets, and I think for the most part, we were able to accomplish both. We were not looking to sell players. We were not looking to dump players off our team just to pick up draft picks. We had some opportunities. It was a non-starter. We weren’t interested in being quote-unquote sellers.
On not trading Harding: "Josh is somebody that can very well be part of our future going forward. He’s a big part of our present. I wasn’t looking to sell him. If there was ever a hockey trade that makes sense, you’d consider him. But we were not looking to just to move Josh Harding or sell him. He’s won a lot of hockey games for us. He’s a young goalie and we haven’t dismissed the idea of attempting to re-sign him for the future.
Todd Richards is the new coach of the Columbus Bluejackets.
Richards, fired as coach of the Wild after last season, takes over on an interim basis after Scott Arniel was fired this morning. Richards had been Arniel's top assistant.
Columbus has the worst record (11-25-5) in the NHL. Richards' appointment will last the remainder of the season; he was 77-71-16 with the Wild from 2009-11.
The Bluejackets' next game is Tuesday night in Chicago.
Arniel was 45-60-18 since starting the 2010 season as head coach.
Richards, 45, was 38-36-8 in 2009-10 with the Wild and 39-35-8 last season.
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