Wild crashed after early success

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2012 - 8:29 AM

GM Chuck Fletcher's big offseason moves worked well for a while. But the Wild ended up where it had been the previous three seasons -- out of the playoffs.

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Coach Mike Yeo sees a promising future. “It takes time to find the right pieces for the right spots. But I think our time is getting very close.”

Photo: Ann Heisenfelt, Associated Press

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One year ago, Chuck Fletcher felt he was running an organization stuck in mud.

The Wild had missed the playoffs for a third year in a row and second under his watch. It kept taking steps backward in the standings, scoring fewer goals, having trouble luring that big fish this hockey-salivating community so craves and deserves.

So the general manager took an aggressive approach. He fired the first coach he hired -- Todd Richards -- a day after the season and eventually replaced him with another rook -- Mike Yeo. Then, Fletcher made two mammoth trades that jolted the NHL to pay attention to this forgotten-about marketplace.

Out went Brent Burns and Martin Havlat. In came Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley -- the intention to add more of a shooter's mentality and thus more goals to an anemic offense.

Nine months later, a season that began with so much promise and created lofty expectations -- the Wild led the NHL in points as late as Dec. 17 -- spiraled uncontrollably.

That anticipated offensive boost never came, and the Wild scored only 166 goals, finishing with the fewest goals in the NHL since the 2004-05 lockout. This morning, the Wild begins its fourth consecutive premature offseason and sixth in the past eight.

"It hasn't ended the way we wanted, and it has been very disappointing to miss the playoffs after the start we had," Fletcher said. "I think going into the season we recognized we weren't the most gifted offensive team and we were going to have to play a team game and a strong defensive game to be successful.

"We did that for a while, but as the season progressed, essentially our entire second line was pretty much deleted from the organization."

Devastating injuries

The Wild was ravaged by injuries. For the second consecutive season, Guillaume Latendresse's year was destroyed, this time by a concussion that cost him 66 games. Pierre-Marc Bouchard missed 45, captain Mikko Koivu 27.

That created mayhem throughout the lineup.

"We simply didn't have the depth and particularly the offensive talent to overcome the injuries we did," Fletcher said.

But in the next breath, Fletcher sells hope: "We're not far away at all."

Fletcher believes in the Wild's foundation, from Koivu to Kyle Brodziak to Tom Gilbert to Niklas Backstrom. Combine the core with an influx of potentially elite prospects on the horizon (defenseman Jonas Brodin and forwards Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker and Zack Phillips) along with an immense amount of salary-cap flexibility to try to land a big free agent or two, and Fletcher vows, "We're going to get better on a lot of different levels very quickly."

Fletcher will continue to be the man to build the Wild. He has one more year left on his contract, and at least a one-year extension is expected soon to put his future in sync with the development timeline of the prospects.

Targeting Parise, Suter?

Even though the Wild brass can't comment, all indications are that the offseason's plan centers around persuading Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to come to Minnesota. If Parise, a New Jersey star and Minnesota native, gets to free agency along with Suter, a stalwart Nashville defenseman, the Wild plans an aggressive recruitment like no other in team history.

That includes selling the two that the Wild is being built to be a perennial contender with quality prospects and a strong core.

Fletcher is not allowed to talk about free agents but says it's time for the organization to take the next step and land top-end guys.

The dilemma is that dozens of teams will be in hot pursuit of the same two guys, including popular landing spots such as Detroit and New York.

So there better be a Plan B. Fletcher said there is.

"We have the available cap space and young assets to make a good trade, too," he said. "We will be patient. There's going to potentially be a lot of very good hockey players available over the next two or three summers -- a lot, a lot of big names."

Changes are coming

Examine the roster, and there likely will be three or four spots up front, two or three spots on the blue line and one in goal for prospects or external additions.

Granlund is a lock to make the club and could make an immediate impact. The Wild will give opportunity to others, too.

Some fans are worried the Wild is trying to punch a lottery ticket. They have reason to be skeptical. The previous regime did a shoddy job drafting, rarely hitting on post-second-round picks and arguably whiffing on first-round picks from 2004 to '08.

At one time, Benoit Pouliot, James Sheppard and Ondrej Fiala were considered top prospects, too.

Some prospects flame out, some get injured, some don't develop the way you anticipate. But Fletcher has trouble buying that will be the case for the majority of the Wild's picks over the past two drafts.

However, few teams have better prospects than Edmonton, which boasts Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall. The Oilers finished 29th ths season.

Clearly the Wild will have to surround its prospects with quality players.

"We have one thing a lot of these building teams don't have -- Mikko Koivu," Fletcher said. "I believe he's a superstar. You can attach your own label, but we have the one of the elite centermen in the NHL."

Fletcher went on to laud the core of the team -- forwards Heatley, Setoguchi, Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Cullen, defensemen Gilbert, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella, and Backstrom.

"We have the foundation of a successful team," Fletcher said. "We have a lot of good pieces, and most importantly, we have an owner that will spend money and we have cap flexibility. That's why I'm saying we're not that far away."

Depth will be important

Because of the better depth coming, the Wild should be better prepared to deal with injuries next season.

The Wild spent $6.85 million between Latendresse and Bouchard and got only 53 games from them because of concussions. Bouchard, who has a year left on his contract, still has symptoms, but Fletcher believes he'll be back. He'll gauge Latendresse's health in June before deciding whether to re-sign him on the "right contract."

Bouchard's injury hurt. The Wild was on a 99-point pace with him in the lineup, a 94-point pace with Koivu.

Losing the Wild's top two playmakers especially affected Heatley, who ended the season with the lowest goal total of his career (24), and Setoguchi, who battled inconsistency.

"It's not so much how many man games we lost, but the timing," Cullen said. "We lost Butch, Gui, Mikko and Seto all at the same time -- four out of our original top six. That's a pretty tough hill to climb.

"But great teams figure out a way to get through it. We didn't, and I guess that's part of the growing here."

It also didn't help either that the Wild had the lowest-scoring blue line in the NHL. No defenseman even had 100 shots, although Fletcher is optimistic that a full season of Gilbert and the another year's maturity for Spurgeon and Scandella will be huge.

Will the fans buy in?

The big question is whether the loyal fan base is willing to be more patient.

Judging from the atmosphere at Xcel Energy Center this season, the State of Hockey went from ticked off to depressed. At the midway point, boos rained down on the Wild nightly. But as the season grew older and the Wild's non-playoff destiny became obvious, the crowds became almost indifferent to the losing.

Yeo believes that with a little more tinkering the Wild will be on its way to being a perennial contender.

"Chuck has a plan. He knows how to build a team and has a really good understanding of what we need," Yeo said. "You can't just go to the grocery store and grab this, this and this. It takes time to find the right pieces for the right spots. But I think our time is getting very close."

Looking at next season, Fletcher said, "I am confident we will have as much depth as we've ever had. But we really need to make the right choices this summer in terms of who we bring back and who we pursue.

"I'm excited about the opportunities in front of us."

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