Good evening...I trust you've been enjoying the playoffs, which have been sensational.
I will be on KFAN with Paul Allen at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
So as you know by now, Tommy Thompson has been fired (or as team's like to say, contract not renewed), a move that is not unexpected at all.
When GM Chuck Fletcher was hired last May, there was one month until the draft and Thompson’s contract didn’t expire until June 30, 2010. So with the Wild well into its draft planning, Fletcher decided to retain Thompson and evaluate the team throughout this season.
But it was extremely apparent Thompson’s replacement was hired last July when the Ottawa Senators gave permission to Fletcher to hire Director of Hockey Operations Brent Flahr to be his right-hand man and assistant GM.
Under the previous regime, Doug Risebrough had two assistant GM’s – Tom Lynn to negotiate contracts and run Houston and Thompson to run the scouting department/player personnel.
Well, Fletcher assumed Lynn’s role as contract negotiator last June and hired Jim Mill to be Houston’s GM. Flahr was hired to run the scouting department, the draft table this June and run all of amateur and pro scouting.
Where did that leave Thompson?
That was Thompson's job, and there were clear signals all season that Thompson was being phased out. He suddenly wasn't scouting tournaments or camps he normally did and Flahr was the go-to guy for all quotes in the past few months regarding prospects, signings like Casey Wellman and Nate Prosser and the draft.
So I can't imagine Thompson was shocked.
I don't know though because he's actually on his way to Europe right now. Fletcher made his decision to let Thompson go, and out of respect for Thompson, didn't want to drag it out anymore. He wanted to give Thompson plenty of advance warning to get himself together and get looking for a new job (good bet he winds up back with Doug Risebrough when (if) he's hired as Tampa's GM or someplace else).
But Thompson had this scouting trip planned for today as flights began going overseas again. Fletcher gave Thompson the option to cancel the trip, but Thompson decided to go.
But this will be his final duty. He'll write up his reports and that'll be it upon return. He won't be involved in any internal meetings to formulate the team's draft list and for the first time in 11 drafts, he won't be at the draft table in June.
I have scrutinized the Wild's lack of talent compared to so many others for some time. All of it was not Thompson's fault. He didn't have a lot of chambers in the gun the last few years (nine draft picks in 2007 and 2008 total), and you get better in the NHL by being either very good or very bad -- not by being essentially mediocre year after year like the Wild.
The one year the Wild wound up with a top-four pick, it was No. 4 in 2005 (Benoit Pouliot) behind Sidney Crosby, Bobby Ryan and Jack Johnson. Yeah, they missed on players, no doubt, but the sure-things were top-3. And the Wild was 4!
Thompson's picks after the initial Marian Gaborik draft were 6, 8, 20, 12, 4, 9, 16, 23, 16 and 9. This is what happens when you barely make or miss the playoffs most every year.
I mean, look at the Avalanche. Two years ago they're beating the division champion Wild in the first round. Last year they're atrocious and get rewarded with Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly because of it. A year later they're in the playoffs with a 2-1 lead over San Jose.
That stuff never happens to the Wild. They just get the 12th pick or the 16th or the 23rd or something.
As I wrote in Wednesday's paper, Thompson's biggest undoings were: zero top-six forwards developed since 2002, four post-2nd-rounders who played more than 56 games with the club in history and poor first-round picks in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Pouliot was at least turned into Guillaume Latendresse. Obviously both excelled with fresh starts, although if you've paid attention, Pouliot's been MIA for Montreal the past few months and is getting criticized again (one goal in last 17 games).
\The biggest second-guess will be James Sheppard at No. 9 in 2006. They made it out like he was this superstar junior player, but 30 and 33 goals his final two years in the Q is not exactly lighting it up stuff. I mean, Stephane Veilleux scored 48 goals and 115 points once in the Q. I could probably score 10 in the Q. At least five.
The top-eight picks in the 2006 draft have so far been great picks. Then there's Sheppard. And then there's a ton of other high-end forwards -- Florida’s Michael Frolik (10th overall), Bryan Little (12th), Michael Grabner (14th), Chris Stewart (18th), Claude Giroux (22nd) and Patrik Berglund (25th)
Personally, I like Thompson. He's a straight shooter, doesn't worry about being politically correct and an all-around nice guy. I went after the Wild's lack of talent a lot the last few years, so much so that I was accused of having an agenda. That was never the case.
Professionally, my job is to tell it like it is and you can't hide the lack of talent on the Wild compared to other teams. Heck, just watch the playoffs.
Unfortunately, while maybe there's plenty of blame to go around, Thompson's the one with the title, so the responsibility falls on his shoulders.
I do think things are getting better. Marco Scandella should be a top defenseman (2008 second-rounder). Justin Falk and Cody Almond (2007 picks) look like they're developing nicely. Obviously, it's way too early to say anything about 2009, and Fletcher's already traded Nick Leddy in a trade where the jury's undeniably still out (Cam Barker). But Wellman and Prosser have been nice additions, so the reserve list is getting better.
The changes are probably not all done. Fletcher said there still could be some "restructuring" of the hockey ops department, and it's too early to speculate what that might be.
OK, I'm going to watch some playoff hockey now. Since I couldn't speak with Thompson today, I thought I'd toss up this column I wrote mostly regarding Sheppard from earlier this season.
By MICHAEL RUSSO
Wild assistant GM Tommy Thompson, the head of the Wild draft table, has been under fire lately from fans and media alike for the perceived lack of prospects in the system.
The web site, hockeysfuture.com, recently placed the Wild’s organizational ranking in terms of prospects at 30th.
The Wild blew its 2004 first-round pick with A.J. Thelen. Benoit Pouliot and James Sheppard, 2005 and 2006 first-rounders, respectively, haven’t developed as planned.
Arguably, the Wild hasn’t developed a top-6 forward since Pierre-Marc Bouchard in 2002.
“Mind you, there’s one guy I saw score the shootout winner [Thursday] night that looks like a top-6 forward to me --[Edmonton’s] Patrick O’Sullivan,” said Thompson, referring to the Wild’s 2003 second-rounder who was traded to Los Angeles along with a first-round pick for Pavol Demitra in 2006.
“Does James Sheppard have a point? No. I look at him and I say, ‘Why?’ Clearly the responsibility’s on James Sheppard, no one else, but I’m saying I think this guy has the potential to be a good forward.
“I use the term ‘top-9 forward.’ I’m not being obstinate, but I think you have nine forwards and four defensemen. … I use top-9, and I think [Sheppard] can be. Pouliot’s been erratic, but I look at his talent level, why can’t he be? [Cal] Clutterbuck he’s a top-9 guy.
“Right now, if you flip them and say Clutterbuck was our first-round pick in ‘06 [instead of Sheppard], people would say, ‘I like him. I want to buy his jersey and see him play.’ [Original free-agent signee Niklas] Backstrom, he’s like a pick.”
The Wild doesn’t have young, top-end players like so many others, partially because the Wild’s been so competitive that it rarely gets high draft picks.
“Sure that helps, but you say that, and I look at [Mikko] Koivu, [Brent] Burns, Bouchard and Backstrom as three or four of our most important guys,” Thompson said. “I mean, do I wish a guy like Sheppard was scoring a ton of points right now? Yeah, I sure do. I sure do.”
Over the summer, Thompson predicted Sheppard would have a breakout season.
“You’re darn right, and that was based on how he finished last year,” Thompson said. “And he had a solid preseason. He had four points in six games. What does that translate to? A 50-point year? That’d be pretty good right now, and he’s got zero.”
Asked if he takes that personally, Thompson said, “No. No. I wish guys were playing better that have potential to do that. That’s all.”
Asked what he saw in Sheppard as a teenager in Cape Breton, Thompson said, “Rephrase your question: What did I see from Sheppard in the preseason? I saw confidence. There is an ability to make a play, go to the net. He scored goals in Chicago and Philadelphia right in front of the net. He made good plays. He worked two-ways.
“Not spectacular. But solid.”
To be fair, Thompson also hasn’t had tons of draft picks at his arsenal (nine total in 2007 and 2008).
Under former GM Doug Risebrough, the Wild traded a third-rounder to move a single spot to take defenseman Tyler Cuma, a second-round pick to move three slots to draft third-liner Colton Gillies and traded many other draft picks. The Wild also let many unrestricted free agents leave for no compensation.
“I’d like to have more cracks at it, sure,” Thompson said.