Three years ago, Chuck Fletcher pulled Craig Leipold off Xcel Energy Center’s draft floor to tell the Wild owner: “It’s done. We’re going to trade Brent Burns.”
Leipold instantly got butterflies: “I’m thinking, ‘Oh geez, we’re in our arena. What reaction are we going to get by trading an incredibly popular player?’ ”
Fletcher, the Wild general manager, was nervous, too. His daughter, Kaitlin, 13 at the time, was the Wild’s draft runner. So before NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Burns was heading to San Jose for Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick, Fletcher shooed Kaitlin to the other end of the table in case, as assistant GM Brent Flahr said, “we had food thrown at us.”
“It was pretty evident quickly that our fans were happy,” Leipold said. “They weren’t happy losing Burnzie. They were very happy they had a GM that wasn’t scared to pull the trigger if he felt it would make the team better.”
It has been five years and a month since Leipold hired a brown-haired, 42-year-old Fletcher, a Harvard graduate who grew up inside the game as Hall of Fame manager Cliff Fletcher’s son.
He inherited a bare-boned franchise that had lost respected coach Jacques Lemaire and was about to lose goal scorer Marian Gaborik. The Wild had no prospects close to making the NHL leap and a roster full of 30-somethings and bad contracts.
Despite a franchise in need of rebuild, Fletcher never envisioned missing the playoffs his first three seasons. It has been a grind, but in the past two years the Wild made the playoffs and last season advanced to the conference semifinals.
With a stable of quality veterans and promising youngsters, we’re starting to see the fruits of Fletcher’s labor as he approaches his sixth draft at the Wild helm Friday and Saturday.
There have been hits and misses. And like that Burns trade, there have been a host of gutsy decisions that have made Leipold fall hard for his bold, brash general manager.
Leipold won’t reveal how long Fletcher, now 47, has left on a contract many believe was extended last season.
“The beauty of not telling you is we don’t have to answer questions, ‘Are you going to re-sign him?’ ” Leipold said, letting loose a playful laugh. “Nobody knows when he’s due. He’s locked and loaded.”
Gutsy hits and misses
Fletcher’s outward appearance is what Leipold calls “Ivy League conservative.” But in 2009, what Leipold kept hearing from Ray Shero, the former Pittsburgh Penguins GM who strongly recommended his right-hand man, is that Fletcher had a great sense of humor and was aggressive.
That first interview, it was clear to Leipold that Fletcher “thought outside the box and was incredibly prepared.” But Leipold didn’t see that personality come out until a second interview over dinner.
“You could see a different side of him, and I was sold,” Leipold said. “Now, I never saw this maverick guy that would do the big trades. But clearly he’s not afraid to pull the trigger, and I love that in him. He listens to input from his great staff, and when he’s ready to do it, he goes, ‘Let’s do it.’ He’s got guts.”
• The Jason Pominville trade with Buffalo in 2013. In exchange for the Sabres captain and a fourth-round pick, Fletcher parted with prospects Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett and first- and second-round picks.
“When it was decided it was going to be Pominville, the scouts were like, ‘No, please don’t give away our first-round pick. Please, please, please, please,’ ” Leipold said. “But at the end of the day, he makes the decision.”