When Chuck Fletcher sat down with Craig Leipold during the Wild owner's extensive search for a general manager to replace Doug Risebrough, Fletcher knew he would be in for a huge challenge.
The Wild, if you dug deep into the innards of the franchise, was a mess and heading in the wrong direction, although Fletcher never would throw anybody else under the bus.
"All I'll say is I never thought we'd miss the playoffs for three years and we have, and I'll take responsibility for that," Fletcher said.
In 2009, Fletcher showed up in Minnesota as one of the NHL's bright, young executives. He grew up around the sport and learned the managerial trade from his Hockey Hall of Fame father, Cliff. In Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh, Fletcher worked with and was mentored by some of the respected executives in the game, from Bobby Clarke and Bryan Murray, to Brian Burke and Ray Shero.
Fletcher is now 44, a lot grayer than when he arrived and a lot more stressed.
After a tremendous start to this season, the Wild spiraled uncontrollably during an excruciating 52-game plunge. Largely because of injuries, the on-ice product was hideous at times, the entertainment value lacking.
Fletcher's honeymoon period is over. So far, his tenure has been a disappointment, but with the draft-and-development pipeline coming, he says, "I believe strongly in the direction we are going in. This is the first year I feel confident going into the summer that we are very close to getting over the hurdle."
Mistakes have been made
Fletcher has made his share of mistakes.
His first, arguably, came a month after he was hired, passing over experienced Dave Tippett and Peter Laviolette as coaches for rookie Todd Richards. Tippett was named Coach of the Year with Phoenix the same season, Laviolette took the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals. Richards was gone in two years.
Fletcher's second mistake, arguably, was succumbing to the pressure of immediately replacing Marian Gaborik when he left as a free agent. After two players said no, Fletcher signed Martin Havlat to a six-year, $30 million contract. Havlat never fit on the ice or in the locker room, and Fletcher was forced to fix the problem last summer by trading him for Dany Heatley.
"It's funny, I talked to [Washington GM] George McPhee and he said, 'Whatever you do, don't make any decisions for one year.' I remember thinking, 'Easy for him to say,'" Fletcher said. "I knew we needed some skill since Gaborik had left. You wanted to go out and add a skilled player, and ... . In hindsight, everything is crystal clear."
• His third mistake, unarguably, was trading his first first-round pick, Nick Leddy, to Chicago for Cam Barker in 2010. Sixteen months later, Fletcher bought out the disappointing Barker.
Fletcher calls the Leddy trade a "disastrous" one and continually beats himself up over it.
"I take 100 percent blame for that. It was a mistake on different levels," Fletcher said. "It kind of represents and stands for everything [I'm against], and that's why I am disappointed in myself."
Fixing past problems
Of all the franchises that needed new general managers the past three years, Fletcher walked into what might be the most challenging.
When Fletcher was hired in May 2009, the Wild had just missed the playoffs. Its best asset, coach Jacques Lemaire, who probably added 10 to 15 points a year in the standings just by being Jacques Lemaire, resigned. Its best player, Gaborik, was out the door.
And, the Wild was loaded with bad contracts, had a roster full of 30-somethings and literally no quality youth ready to make the jump. In fact, the Wild had one legitimate prospect in the organization, the at-the-time very raw, undeveloped Marco Scandella, selected in the second round the previous June.
After the Wild missed the playoffs in 2009-10, Fletcher recalls thinking he needed "to quickly get some young assets into our program."
The Wild signed three college free agents, including Nate Prosser and Casey Wellman, discovered and signed Jared Spurgeon and loaded up on draft picks, selecting Mikael Granlund, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson and Jason Zucker in the first 59 picks of the 2010 draft. In 2011, the Wild drafted Jonas Brodin and Mario Lucia in the first and second rounds and traded Brent Burns for Devin Setoguchi, blue-chipper Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick that became Zack Phillips.
It's simple to see why the Wild has fallen behind most the rest of the league the past three years.
From 2004 to '08, the previous regime swung and missed on five consecutive first-round picks (A.J. Thelen, Benoit Pouliot, James Sheppard, Colton Gillies, and although it might be too early to declare, Tyler Cuma). Then Fletcher compounded matters by trading Leddy.
Look at the Wild's opponent on most nights and count how many of that opponent's first-round picks are in the lineup. The Wild has had one -- Mikko Koivu (2001). It hasn't developed a top-six forward since Pierre-Marc Bouchard in 2002, an elite defenseman since Burns in 2003.
What's more, go through the 29 other teams and look at their top players. Most teams' top scorers are their own draft picks and many from the 2004 to '08 drafts. This season, in the Wild's regular lineup from the 2004 to '08 drafts were five players total -- Scandella, Cal Clutterbuck, Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk and Matt Kassian.
That, frankly, is unbelievable.
So, if you want to know exactly why the Wild lacks skill compared with its opponents, look no further than the fact it wasted six consecutive first-round picks, lost Gaborik for nothing, struck gold on precious few in the 2004 to '08 drafts and has four players remaining from the 2000 to '03 drafts (Koivu, Bouchard, Josh Harding and the reacquired Stephane Veilleux).
Prospects offer hope
So with no prospects to infuse the lineup, Fletcher began patch-and-fills (guys like Shane Hnidy, John Madden and Petr Sykora) to try to field a competitive team while he could draft, develop and catch up. He signed veterans Havlat, Greg Zanon, Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom.
With so many prospects on the horizon, that should largely stop.
"When you look at the last two drafts, we have added the equivalent of four first-round and four second-round picks, if you count the Coyle trade," Fletcher said. "That's four years of work we have jammed into two years. As we stand here today, every one of those eight players are still prospects. There hasn't been any major disappointment.
"If anything, we have had some positive surprises as to how quickly a Zucker or Larsson has developed. Mario Lucia's development has been stunning. ... I think we recognized where we were at, and we quickly made some moves that have allowed us to aggressively add a lot of young assets in a short period of time."
The next step is to convince a big fish or two, such as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, that the future in Minnesota is bright.
"We have not been able to convince a top player to come here yet," Fletcher said.
The pressure is on Fletcher. The previous regime can't be blamed forever. These prospects must deliver. If not, in a few years, Leipold might be conducting another GM search.
"It's not going to happen overnight," Fletcher said. "We are not instantly going to become an elite team, but I think we have a lot of pieces in place now and when you look at having another top pick this year, I think we are going to turn the corner very quickly."