Wild GM Fletcher's reputation in kids' hands

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2012 - 12:25 AM

Wild owner Craig Leipold expects GM Chuck Fletcher's work to come to fruition as gifted youngsters get a chance to merge with veteran stars over the next couple of years.

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Wild owner Craig Leipold

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Craig Leipold bought the Wild in 2008 just before the franchise won its first and only division championship. In the four full seasons since he has owned the Wild, Leipold has only gotten to watch the playoffs on TV.

Leipold is as passionate an owner as you will find. That's why this past season was so painful for him. Despite the Wild's acquisitions last summer of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, Leipold always knew this season would be a bridge to the Wild's infusion of top prospects over the next few years.

But when the Wild got off to a 20-7-3 start, Leipold's expectations grew with everybody else's.

Leipold sat down recently with the Star Tribune to talk candidly about the future and the past.

"Thank goodness we've got so many things to look forward to," Leipold said. "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."

Like the fans, Leipold is anxious to see forwards Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker and Zack Phillips and possibly defenseman Jonas Brodin officially turn pro next season.

Judging by the seasons they have all had since being drafted in the first and second rounds in 2010 and 2011, all seven prospects are tracking like they will develop into high-quality NHLers.

Leipold has seen Granlund play in Finland. He saw Larsson and Brodin lead Sweden to a gold medal at the world junior championships. He is salivating over the fact that Coyle and Phillips are tearing it up for Saint John in the Quebec League playoffs. He got sneak peeks this season at Bulmer and Zucker in Wild jerseys.

He's excited and says the success of these prospects will go a long way toward determining the success of General Manager Chuck Fletcher, who has been at the helm of the Wild for three of the four non-playoff years.

"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," Leipold said. "That's when we're going to see what Chuck Fletcher has done to move the Minnesota Wild to a different level.

"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."

As the Wild transitions on the ice with an influx of youth, Leipold said it's also time for the franchise to transition off the ice by finally landing a big-name free agent or two.

Leipold cannot name names, but he said the Wild won't "be shy" July 1. All indications are that it will aggressively pursue New Jersey star and Minnesota native Zach Parise and Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter if they become free agents.

"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," Leipold said. "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."

And what if the Wild strikes out July 1? "You've got to try to get somebody else. You look at trades," Leipold said. "There's always a Plan B."

As for this past season, Leipold said he believes fans understand how significantly injuries affected the Wild. The Wild lost nearly 400 man games to injury, 27 by Mikko Koivu, 111 combined by Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse.

The Wild was the lowest-scoring NHL team since the 2004-05 lockout, with Heatley, about whom Leipold exclaimed, "wow, wow, wow," when Fletcher acquired him for Martin Havlat, scoring a career-low 24 goals.

"I'm not disappointed at all in the Dany Heatley trade," Leipold said. "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. ... I think next year will be a great year for Dany. The hope is that we can keep Mikko healthy and Mikko will be feeding him assists next year."

Leipold praised coach Mike Yeo -- even though winning games in the final days cost the Wild a top-five draft pick. Barring a trade, Minnesota will select seventh June 22.

"Now it just makes [assistant GM] Brent Flahr's job a little tougher," Leipold said, laughing.

Despite the collective bargaining agreement set to expire Sept. 15, Leipold said he's confident next season will start on time. And Leipold himself says he's still committed to owning the team for the long haul.

"I'm not going anywhere. I'm here," he said. "As long as this continues to be a good hockey market and we've got the commitment from this market, I'm all in."

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