Wild needs major infusion of talent

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 11, 2011 - 11:05 PM

Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher talked about the release of coach Todd Richards during a news conference Monday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

The only surprise in Monday's sacking of Wild coach Todd Richards came in the timing. The usually deliberative Chuck Fletcher pulled the trigger more quickly than anticipated, which was probably a merciful gesture.

Richards' dismissal seemed inevitable, because this is how the pro-sports wheel turns. Failure requires a human sacrifice. Coaches, unless they have the cover of an enormous buyout clause, tend to be the easiest targets. So the management hands them the blindfold and the cigarette, utters the standard speech about having to make a painful but necessary change, and hopes that will satisfy the paying customers.

This time, it shouldn't. Richards bears some blame, but much of the responsibility for the Wild's sorry performance lies with a roster that simply doesn't have enough talent, particularly for the up-tempo style he tried to institute. And Fletcher, though handcuffed by the poor decisions of the previous regime, has to accept a share as well.

The Wild general manager took the first gamble of his tenure by hiring Richards, who had never been a head coach in the NHL and had spent only one season as an NHL assistant. His task: Take a limited amount of talent, jettison the franchise's defense-first philosophy in favor of a crowd-pleasing offensive style, and get back to the playoffs.

Given that tall order, it would have been more prudent to hire an experienced coach. Fletcher instead chose a rookie he expected to become the NHL's next rising star behind the bench. Richards clearly struggled to keep his players motivated and to handle sensitive egos and their agents (see: Martin Havlat), and rumors circulated that his authority was not respected by all. None of this is surprising for a first-time head coach, yet Richards got the hook after just two years of his three-year deal.

If Fletcher can convince a proven leader to take over -- and if owner Craig Leipold is willing to pay for one, on top of a payroll that's nearly maxed out -- maybe a new coach can conjure a few more victories out of this bunch. To expect anything more would be folly. Until the Wild adds some true top-line talent, it's going to be hard-pressed to move up in the Western Conference, and it risks alienating even more fans.

In his efforts to reshape the roster, Fletcher has been limited by the mess created by former GM Doug Risebrough, who gave away several draft picks, wasted others on poor choices and negotiated some overly generous contracts. That said, Fletcher hasn't gained much ground with the moves he's been able to make. Havlat led the team with 22 goals this season, but $30 million over six years is a steep price to pay. Matt Cullen scored 12 goals, was minus-14 and made $3.5 million. Cam Barker, acquired in a trade for popular local kid Nick Leddy, didn't come close to justifying his $3 million salary this season.

There is no easy fix here, because the $59 million the Wild is spending on mediocrity leaves little salary-cap room to add the goal scorers the team needs. And without injecting some excitement into the roster, the Wild can expect to see more empty seats at Xcel Energy Center.

As much as hockey is woven into this state's fabric, so is the insistence on getting value for one's hard-earned dollars. Minnesotans will not continue to pay premium prices to watch a bunch of plumbers miss the playoffs. They proved it this season, ending a 409-game sellout streak, and further defections will make it harder to fund the kind of payroll needed to make a run in the postseason.

Richards' firing doesn't solve any of those problems. It just means the Wild must start over again with a new coach, with no guarantee he will have any more horsepower. Fletcher's comments Monday indicated that he doesn't plan major changes; he said the team "needed a new voice to maximize production from this particular group of players."

After Jacques Lemaire left the Wild in 2009 -- when his defensive-minded style was declared too dull -- he predicted it would not be able to transform into an up-tempo team unless the roster changed, too. "Anyone can do offense, but go get the players, then," he said.

The Wild's brass ignores that advice at its own risk. A new coach, particularly a veteran, might help. But unless it is willing to bring in some new players, too, it's going to have a hard time convincing fans that its best days are anything more than increasingly dim memories.

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Atlanta 7 FINAL
Pittsburgh 5
Miami 5 FINAL
St. Louis 3
Baltimore - LP: K. Gausman 4 FINAL
Detroit - WP: J. Nathan 6
Minnesota 4 FINAL
Boston 5
NY Yankees 5 FINAL
Tampa Bay 6
Philadelphia 1 FINAL
Toronto 4
Cincinnati 13 FINAL
Cleveland 2
Los Angeles 9 FINAL
Chicago WSox 6
Kansas City 3 FINAL
Seattle 0
Seattle 1 FINAL
Milwaukee 15
San Diego 3 FINAL
Arizona 3
Washington 3
LA Angels 8 FINAL
Chicago Cubs 4
Colorado 3 FINAL
Texas 6
Oakland 6 FINAL
San Francisco 4
Indiana 107 FINAL
Milwaukee 111
Pittsburgh 2 FINAL
Carolina 5
New Jersey 2 FINAL(OT)
Washington 3
Los Angeles 3 FINAL
NY Islanders 2
Arizona 4 FINAL(OT)
Buffalo 3
Anaheim 3 FINAL(OT)
Boston 2
Nashville 3 FINAL
Tampa Bay 2
San Jose 6 FINAL
Detroit 4
NY Rangers 5 FINAL
Ottawa 1
Florida 4 FINAL
Toronto 1
Montreal 2 FINAL
Winnipeg 5
Colorado 4 FINAL
Vancouver 1
Wichita State 70 FINAL
Notre Dame 81
North Carolina 72 FINAL
Wisconsin 79
Evansville 89 FINAL
Louisiana 82
West Virginia 39 FINAL
Kentucky 78
Xavier 60 FINAL
Arizona 68
St Johns 55 FINAL
Villanova 63
NC State 79 FINAL
Temple 80
Missouri 55 FINAL
Michigan 65
Oral Roberts 64 FINAL
Louisiana 65
Duquesne 39 FINAL
West Virginia 60
Ole Miss 70 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 82
Northern Colorado 60 FINAL
St Marys-CA 77 FINAL
Sacramento St 69
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: What are you following most closely right now?

Weekly Question