Saturday, the Wild’s bosses no longer had a need for their playoff slogan, “Fight ’til the end,’’ so they tried a different strategy. They tried to talk ’til we believed.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher played rodeo clown, waving positive statistics in our faces to distract us from the results of the past five weeks, and the fact that whether or not he wanted to fire coach Mike Yeo, he can’t afford to, because that would signify two bad coaching hires in four years.
Yeo spoke of the Wild’s “culture change’’ as if signing two star players wasn’t enough of an explanation for the team’s improvement.
Fletcher used the old lawyer’s trick of stating a bunch of truths to bolster a lie, but here’s the real truth: Last July, Wild owner Craig Leipold spent $196 million to sign Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, then told everyone who would listen that he expected his team to make a lengthy playoff run. Ten months later, his team collapsed in April, almost missing the playoffs in a sport where every mediocre team earns a berth, then won one playoff game.
This season was a failure. The Wild finished eighth in a 15-team conference, closer to last place than first, after choking down the stretch. Fletcher kept citing the quality of the Blackhawks as an excuse for a five-game first-round playoff loss, but a show of competence in April would have left the Wild with a sixth seed and a fighting chance.
There’s nothing wrong with Fletcher and Yeo selling hope, saying that their team will be better with a full training camp and a year of continuity. Fletcher even cited the Wild’s travel schedule as an excuse for this season’s performance. Maybe he mentioned gridlock on 94, too. How can players concentrate when dealing with traffic?
Retroactively downplaying expectations is a cheap trick to fool fans into taking pride in mediocrity, and from the sounds reverberating around the X the past few weeks, it’s a cheap trick that has no chance of working.
The truth is, four years into Fletcher’s tenure and two years into Yeo’s, we still don’t know if they’re good at their jobs.
Yeo made plenty of mistakes this year, and his game-by-game motivational tactics often seemed to fall flat. Maybe he’ll grow into a quality coach. What is certain is that next fall he will be listed by NHL writers as one of the coaches most likely to be fired if his team starts poorly.
Fletcher passed over a half-dozen excellent coaches while hiring Todd Richards and Yeo. He traded Nick Leddy for … what was that guy’s name again? He traded Nick Schultz for Tom Gilbert, and while neither has thrived in his new arena, Schultz is missed in St. Paul. He has brought in slew of veterans, from Martin Havlat to Eric Nystrom to Zenon Konopka, who ranged from worthless to disastrous.
The Wild roster is better today than it was a year ago because Leipold spent crazy money on two excellent players, and because Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr have drafted and developed a few excellent prospects, the most notable being the phenomenal Jonas Brodin.
Fletcher also traded for Jason Pominville, who could wind up becoming our Hockey Herschel. To get Pominville, Fletcher dealt Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett, a first-round draft pick and a second-round pick. Larsson could be a star. Hackett could be the No. 1 goaltender this franchise will be desperate for if it doesn’t re-sign Niklas Backstrom. And the Wild can’t tell us that the picks aren’t important after spending the past four years telling us that high picks were the key to rebuilding.
The Wild might have traded the wrong goalie. If Hackett becomes a No. 1 goalie and Darcy Kuemper doesn’t, the franchise could regret it for a decade.
Leipold deserves credit for upgrading the roster. Fletcher and Yeo did little with it this year. Here’s the only statistic Fletcher should concern himself with: He and Yeo will probably get one (1) more year, or less, to prove they’re the right people to run the show in St. Paul.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon
and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN.
His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib.