It was clear Saturday that Chuck Fletcher hadn't completely gotten past the Wild's quick exit from the NHL playoffs. As the team's general manager reflected on a season that ended with Thursday's loss to Chicago in Game 5 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, he spoke repeatedly of his disappointment and frustration, even as he beamed about the improvements that got the Wild that far.
Fletcher knows there will be little time to salve those wounds. He awoke at 3:30 a.m. Saturday, he said, and stared at the ceiling as he pondered what the Wild's roster might look like next season. He expects less drama than last summer, when the signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter ratcheted up expectations, but he doesn't plan to stand still, either.
Fletcher confirmed that coach Mike Yeo will return for a third season. He will discuss the future with goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who can become a free agent on July 5, next week. Fletcher also will conduct a detailed analysis of the Wild, though he said his preliminary study indicates improvements in nearly every area.
A reduction in the NHL salary cap means that signing key free agents and adding fresh talent will be even more challenging this summer. But while losing to Chicago in the first round left Fletcher feeling empty, it also sharpened his desire to keep moving ahead.
"I look at where we were a year ago to where we are now, and there's just been a dramatic improvement, a dramatic difference," Fletcher said. "Clearly we're on the right path. But you play a team like Chicago, you see where you have to get better. Their talent level, their depth is pretty impressive.
"Last year, we were Mikko Koivu and a bunch of prospects. Now, we've got four cornerstone pieces in Mikko and [Ryan] Suter and [Zach] Parise and [Jason] Pominville, and a lot of those prospects we talked about for a few years are now players. … We still have work to do, but we're trending the right way."
In support of Yeo, Fletcher said that the Wild made gains this season in every statistical area other than penalty killing. He was particularly impressed by the fact that the team gave up far fewer shots this season. The Wild was sounder defensively, spent less time in its own zone and was more disciplined, which Fletcher said were signs of a well-coached team. He added that he expects the full coaching staff to return.
At the same time, Fletcher said the Wild's execution must improve. The Wild has proved to be a team that still has to work to exhaustion to score goals, and Yeo said the coaches and players must find ways to rectify that.
Fletcher believes that having Pominville, a six-time 20-goal scorer, for a full year rather than nine regular-season and two playoff games will help. He also talked about Dany Heatley, injured April 3, as if he will be back and won't be bought out, although Fletcher said no decision has been made. He also expects that youngsters like Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle can and will take the next step offensively.
Fletcher said he would scour the free-agent and trade markets, but there are no assurances he will be able to fill the void externally, especially with the salary cap dropping to $64.3 million. The Wild has about $9 million to play with before even deciding on a No. 1 goalie or potentially re-signing players like Matt Cullen, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Cal Clutterbuck.
"It's going to make it a little bit more difficult to be aggressive pursuing players from the outside," Fletcher said. "Compared to where we were last year, the decisions we'll have to make this summer aren't quite as dramatic. There are ways to get things done so we can come back with a good hockey team."
The biggest decision Fletcher will need to make resides in goal. Backstrom, 35, is undergoing surgery to repair a sports hernia Wednesday. Fletcher plans to speak with him this week, and with the goalie market so fuzzy this summer, it has been speculated that it might be best to re-sign Backstrom.
Fletcher also gave votes of confidence to Josh Harding, who played well in the playoffs after missing much of the season while being treated for multiple sclerosis, and young Darcy Kuemper.
Yeo said he saw great improvements this season in the players' professionalism, preparation and commitment, a sign that cultural change is taking hold in the Wild organization. Like Fletcher, he still felt the sting of the season's end, but he also is eager to move forward.
"We'll look to see what we can do to be better, not sit around and hope for new players to come in and make us better,'' Yeo said. "We have to keep building on the things we've done.''