Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Wild's Fletcher looking for improved play now, or else

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news, Wild practice Updated: December 2, 2010 - 7:54 PM

Good evening. Rachel Blount's making her triumphant if only temporary return to cover the Wild's game against Calgary on Friday as I work on my Sunday stuff and hit the road for Dallas, where the Wild plays on Saturday.

If I had to guess, Nik Backstrom in net vs. the Flames, Jose Theodore in Dallas. The Wild needs fresh blood in goal in Dallas.

Had a long talk with GM Chuck Fletcher today regarding the state of the team.

-- First of all, in response to some emails and tweets I received today: The fact that the Wild's pro scouts are here, this is something that's been planned for weeks. Fletcher gathers his pro staff for three days three times before the trade deadline, which is Feb. 28 this year. So Blair MacKasey, Jamie Hislop and Chris Kelleher will be here in January and February, too. They weren't summoned to Minnesota, as a reader told me somebody reported today.

Every team every year brings in their pro and amateur scouts at separate times to meet, and Fletcher always does it around a couple home games because he wants his pro scouts to see the teams they work for once in awhile, too. In fact, Hislop will see three in a row because he was in Calgary on Monday.

-- Also in response to emails/tweets, regarding these 19 scouts at the game last night. That's not a signal that anything's imminent. As even Fletcher noted, most the scouts were Minnesota-based scouts that have seen several Wild games, he can't speak for what Phoenix may be up to (and I know for a fact they're also looking for pieces) and of the scouts there, he said he's only had trade talks recently with a few of the scout's teams but the majority of the scouts there, he hasn't had substantive talks with their teams in awhile.

It likely was just a scheduling quirk. In fact, I talked to one of the scouts there today and he said the same scouts have been at most the home games of many of the teams in the midwest since Thanksgiving. The way the midwest team home schedules are, he said, you can see a game a night for a week to 10 days in the midwest. It's the same thing that often happens in California. You'll be in a press box that is packed with a dozen scouts because the way the schedules work, scouts could see seven games in nine or 10 nights between LA, Anaheim and San Jose.

I wouldn't make much of the scouts.

But, there is no doubt the Wild's at a pivotal juncture. It's lost five of six and has slipped to 13th in the West.

Things must change, or there will be players shipped out I'm betting. Trade talks have picked up, Fletcher says.

"I've had a lot more conversations the last couple weeks than I had the previous few weeks. I don’t think I’m alone. Every manager once teams get to that 20-, 25-game mark start to get a better feel for their team and things they'd like to try to do.

"I guess I can characterize it as I'm getting more calls and making more calls. ... It’s that time of the year where there's more opportunities to look into the trade market."

But before he pulls the trigger, Fletcher is willing to give his players one last chance to improve. He's not happy with the play of some guys, specifically several of the veterans whom he says aren't playing up to normal levels.

“The first thing we’re trying to do is simply get our players executing better, playing better and regaining the confidence that they’ve lost over the last stretch,” Fletcher said. “For whatever reason, we have several of our veteran players that aren’t playing up to the levels that they normally play at. We seem to be fragile group right now.”

Although disappointed by Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to Phoenix, Fletcher left the arena more optimistic than he’s been in awhile at the team’s ability to generate 5-on-5.

"It was by far the best game I've seen in a long while at even strength from the Koivu line. Bouchard and Havlat had chemistry. In the third especially, O'Sullivan, Cullen and Clutterbuck were playing very well."

With Pierre-Marc Bouchard back, Chuck Kobasew close to being back and Patrick O'Sullivan in the fold, he wants to see if this team can execute and perform better, or if last night was just a blip in the radar.
 
"We have more depth up front than we’ve had all year, so let's see if we can get some line combinations to work and bolster our even-strength scoring."

He says quite bluntly in Friday's Insider that if that doesn't happen, if things don't get better quickly, he will look more aggressively at the trade market for a shakeup. I wrote in the paper players I think could be involved.

He made it very clear to me that he first plans to hold the player's accountable before holding coach Todd Richards accountable.

In the NHL, coaching changes often occur when there’s a string of off-days so a new coach or interim can have time to practice. Trust me, I covered a gazillion coaching changes in Florida. There’s two potential Wild windows on the horizon – four days off starting Sunday and three days off starting Dec. 13.

But Fletcher gave me no indication that anything like that, at least in terms of being this imminent, is in his thoughts. You can read Fletcher's quotes on Richards in Friday's column.

"I think as a group, our defense must do a better job moving the puck and forwards must do a better job at winning battles and managing the puck better, too. It comes down to execution, [not coaching].

"We haven’t been at the level we're at now all year. We'll see what we have now and give everybody a chance to regain confidence. We have more depth up front and we'll see if it translates to more success on the ice, and then if it doesn’t obviously the next step is to look externally."

We'll see what happens here. There's a theory that standings don't change much after Thanksgiving.
 
It's actually fairly accurate. In 2009-10, the only team that was in the top-8 at Thanksgiving that didn't make it was the Rangers (Montreal). In the West, Vancouver and Detroit moved in, Calgary and Dallas moved out. IN 2008-09, all eight teams in the top-8 in the East on Thanksgiving made the playoffs. In the West, the Wild and Nashville backed out and Columbus and St. Louis moved in.
 
Right now, the Wild's four points back with 58 games to go in 13th place.
 
The Wild’s 30 percent through the season, so to me, it is what it is now. This is the seventh-lowest scoring team in the NHL. It’s dropped to the middle of the pack in goals against. It has difficulty getting out of its zone and going on sustained attacks. It goes into extended lapses due to turnovers and penalties. When something in a game goes badly, it doesn’t stabilize. It compounds.

And so far there’s been no solution – 24 games in.

One of the worst signs: Middling play at home – 7-6-1 (one loss in Finland). Even last season’s 13th-place team managed a 25-12-4 home record. At one point, the Wild was 20-6-2 at home – the same number of regulation losses in 28 home games as it has in 14 this year.
 
This doesn’t bode well when there’s 31 road games left -- starting with four in a row Saturday in Dallas, where the Wild hasn't won at since 2003.

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