There was something perfectly fitting about Chuck Fletcher talking to a swarm of reporters inside the Hornet’s Nest on Sunday morning.
Now that Mike Yeo has been fired as coach of the Wild with the objective of lighting a match under this extinguished hockey club, the spotlight now shines on the general manager. Inside Edina High School’s locker room at Braemar Arena, Fletcher talked about his culpability with a team that in five weeks has plummeted from seventh in the NHL standings to 22nd — and has fallen five points out of a playoff spot.
“I take full ownership. I’ve hired the coaches. I’ve brought the players in,” said Fletcher, in his seventh season as Wild GM. “So, obviously, when you’re the general manager, you’re accountable for everything. I take full ownership.
“We let a very good person go and as I told the group [Sunday], that’s an indictment on all of us.”
Not long after Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Boston — the Wild’s eighth consecutive defeat, eighth in a row at home and 13th in 14 games since beating Dallas on Jan. 9 — Fletcher broke the news to Yeo inside the coach’s office.
Fletcher said the gut-wrenching decision was his, although there’s no doubt he felt pressured by owner Craig Leipold, who has found the results in the new year unacceptable. The Wild has won three of 19 games in 2016.
“He poured his heart and soul into this team, this job,” Fletcher said of Yeo, who guided the Wild to the playoffs three years in a row, the second round twice and had a .559 regular-season points percentage. “He worked, he tried and he looked at everything. He’s disappointed. But he held his head high.”
Fletcher’s hope is a “new voice” and “new energy” can save the season with 27 games to go. In comes John Torchetti, 51, the AHL Iowa Wild coach who won a Stanley Cup as Chicago Blackhawks associate coach in 2010. He has held, albeit briefly, an interim label as head coach of the Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings.
“He’ll bring an intensity and a lot of emotion,” Fletcher said. “This guy’s a good coach. He’s a straight shooter.”
Since last month’s victory in Dallas, the Wild has unraveled. Yeo’s firing seemed inevitable, but Fletcher waited as long as he could in an attempt to make a trade to spark the team. But with the Wild coming off a second 0-3 homestand in four weeks and set to begin a three-game road trip in Vancouver on Monday, he felt there was no other option.
A trade has yet to transpire, maybe because of other teams’ salary cap situations, maybe because so many teams are in a playoff race, maybe because Fletcher is handcuffed — in part because of his own doing — by difficult-to-move, underperforming players.
“It’s difficult to make trades. And I’ll also suggest that adding one player may or may not have sparked us, but right now we have a lot of guys that aren’t playing to their potential,” Fletcher said. “We need a lot more from the group we have.”
Zach Parise has one goal and is minus-14 in the past 13 games. Mikko Koivu has one goal in the past 20 games. Jason Pominville has one goal and is minus-7 in the past 22 games. Thomas Vanek has four goals in the past 25 games. Mikael Granlund has one goal with the goalie in net in the past 36 games. Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker have struggled remarkably.
“It’s awful that it had to come to something like this,” defenseman Matt Dumba said of Yeo’s dismissal. “He’s a great guy, and you never want to see that. It was a result of our poor play, and we owe it to everyone and ourselves — to the fans who support us night in and night out — to do better.”
This is the third consecutive winter swoon by the Wild. In previous ones, the Wild ultimately catapulted itself out of it. There has been no sign of that recurring yet.
“Sometimes the message goes stale or whatever,” Vanek said, “and a new voice is a new beginning.”
Added Charlie Coyle, one of the team’s few bright spots: “We were a good team early in the year, then whatever happened happened. We have the guys in here to make the playoffs, and have a deep run. I think everyone else feels the same thing. It’s up to us. We have a clean slate.
“But we have no time to waste. We have to get going, right now.”
We’ll see. Everybody is under the microscope now, and not only the oft-criticized youngsters who mostly have not taken a step this season, but the oft-ballyhooed leadership group of Koivu, Parise, Pominville and Ryan Suter.
Yeo remained loyal to them until he was led to the unemployment line.
Asked about that group, Fletcher said, “There’s not one player in that room that’s playing as well as they can.”
Leipold has given no indication that Fletcher’s job is in jeopardy. But if this season completely implodes, Leipold surely will evaluate the job Fletcher has done. That means contracts signed, trades made, draft picks selected.
“We’re all on the clock,” Fletcher said. “As soon as I took the job [in 2009], you’re on the clock. I don’t worry about my job. I’ll hold myself completely accountable. But this is about getting our team back and becoming a good hockey team.
“There’s plenty of time to right this. This story isn’t finished being written yet. I think we have an opportunity to make it better, and we’ll learn a lot more about the team in the next 27 games.”