There’s no doubt Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher has to be thrilled with the performance of his biggest offseason signee in new head coach Bruce Boudreau, who has the team in first place in the Western Conference and playing some of the best hockey in franchise history.
Still, Fletcher said he believes that while Boudreau’s personality and coaching, along with his staff, have made a big difference this season, he thinks the Wild is simply playing the way it did two and three years ago.
He was asked if he has been surprised by anything in particular this season.
“I wouldn’t say surprised. I would say we’ve had a lot of guys play the way they did two years ago,” Fletcher said. “We had back-to-back, 98- and 100-point seasons, we had a couple real strong regular seasons two and three years ago, and some of our young players looked like they were starting to come, and last year we just struggled individually and collectively.
“We didn’t play as well as we wanted to last year, so I think we’re seeing players playing back to their potential, whether it’s [Jonas] Brodin, [Mikael] Granlund, [Nino] Niederreiter, [Charlie] Coyle, [Jason] Zucker, a lot of these players are emerging as quality NHL players, and that has really helped the depth of our team.”
Fletcher said he has been very pleased with the Wild’s play.
“So far, it has obviously been a great season. We’re finding ways to win games,” he said. “There’s a lot of confidence with the group. It’s a good hockey team, a lot of good players, a great coaching staff, probably most importantly, and just right now a lot of confidence and belief that no matter the situation we can come back and win a game. A long way to go, but we put a lot of points on the board so far, and that should help us down the stretch.”
When it comes to the Western Conference, there’s really no other team playing at the Wild’s level. Its plus-51 goal differential is by far the best in the conference, and it leads the conference in goals scored with 160 and in fewest goals against with 109.
Is this a Stanley Cup team in the general manager’s eyes?
“Oh definitely, definitely. We have a long way to go, but we’re right up there,” Fletcher said. “We played most of the top teams in the league and it will be tough, but I think we’re a very competitive team. We have depth. Injuries are the one thing you can never predict, and you have to hope you’re healthy, but I like the talent and the spirit of this group. I think we’re definitely a competitive, contending team.”
While Fletcher thinks that his team is back to playing at the level it showed in some previous seasons, he said Boudreau has exceeded his expectations.
“He has been outstanding,” Fletcher said. “He has a way of motivating players, of teaching players; he holds them accountable, but they all respect him and he’s just a great communicator so you always know where you stand with him. I think he has had a tremendous impact on a lot of the players. We’ve had a lot of players have bounce-back seasons and play the way they did a couple years ago. He and his staff have done a great job.”
What are his strong points?
“Just communicating, meets with players on a regular basis,” he said. “Every week he is reaching out and meeting with the players. He gets to know them personally and he tries to give them a chance to be successful. He listens to what their concerns are and works with them, and then he tries to put them in a position to succeed. He’s a no-nonsense, just straightforward, honest guy. I think players and people like being around him and playing for him.”
If there was one thing that could be viewed as a bit of disrespect, it was that the Wild has only two All-Stars, along with Boudreau as the coach, in defenseman Ryan Suter and Devan Dubnyk, who has been the best goalie in the NHL.
But Fletcher said that, while some may see that as disrespectful to the best team in the conference, he thinks it shows how great the team is as a whole.
“That’s the strength of our team,” he said. “Suter and Dubnyk definitely deserve to be there, I think [Eric] Staal or Granlund, Coyle, [Mikko] Koivu, any of those guys could go and you have to have players from every team and there’s a lot of great players around the league. I think we’re happy with our All-Star haul, but I think you hit it on the head, we have better depth this year and it truly is a team.
“Over 82 games, you’re going to have nights where players don’t feel great, and it’s such a compressed, crazy schedule this year, a lot of fatigue mentally and physically, and we’re fortunate we’ve had enough players going every night that we’ve found ways to win games. But it really is a good team right now and good depth and good strength throughout the lineup.”
• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked if he expects left tackle Matt Kalil, who was sidelined with a hip injury, to come back next season. “I don’t know. He’s a free agent and we’d like to have him back, he seems like he’d want to come back, he’s doing good in his rehab right now and he seems pretty healthy,” he said. “You know the crazy thing about it is, I really felt like he was on track to have a really good season. He had a very good preseason and he gets hurt in the first ballgame. That was disappointing I’m sure to him and to us, as well. Just when you’re starting to get a guy and he’s using the techniques and using the things you want to do and he’s not able to do it the rest of the year, that’s disappointing.”
• Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino was talking about the great environment in Williams Arena during last weekend’s Wisconsin game. “I wouldn’t trade this environment for anything in the world,” he said. “We don’t only need it versus Wisconsin, though, we need it every night. I get it if you don’t want to come in November, fine, but we need you versus Maryland [on Saturday].”
• Mark Hall, the former Apple Valley six-time state wrestling champion, is ranked No. 7 in the country at 174 pounds for Penn State. Hall is 18-2 as a freshman.
• Matthew Hurt, sophomore basketball player at Rochester John Marshall whose brother Michael plays for the Gophers, has 18 scholarship offers, from such schools as Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky as well as the Gophers and Wisconsin.
Sid Hartman can be heard Monday and Friday on 830-AM at 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org