Almost exactly 20 years after Nashville was awarded an NHL expansion team, the market is buzzing with the Predators two victories from the Stanley Cup Final.
Nine hundred miles away in downtown St. Paul, the man responsible for bringing hockey to Nashville before selling the franchise nine years ago and purchasing the Wild talked about his current team’s latest disappointment — a one-win, first-round playoff exit nearly a month ago.
“I’m envious of four teams right now, and [the Predators] are one of them,” Craig Leipold said Wednesday of the four conference finalists. “I was terribly disappointed [by our finish]. … I’m not over it. Not over it. I watch these games now and go, ‘That could be us.’ ”
The Wild owner looks back at the April’s five-game series loss to St. Louis and still believes it could have gone either way. Regardless, he says, the Wild “crapped out,” and now it’s up to management to dissect what happened and address it over the next six weeks.
“I’m not satisfied where we are,” Leipold said. “In my feeling with the playoffs, we took a step back, and we never expected that. We didn’t think that was going to happen, so it’s causing us to think, ‘What do we need to do?’
“But I’m still … I like our team, I like the way it’s built. Sure, there’s some issues that we need to address, and we will. But I’m not disappointed with our team. I’m disappointed with how we ended the season.”
Leipold reaffirmed his confidence in Chuck Fletcher and his staff. Fletcher will enter his ninth season as the Wild’s general manager next season. Leipold won’t say how long Fletcher has left on his contract.
“It’s not soon enough that I need to worry about it,” Leipold said.
The Wild has made the playoffs five consecutive years but has not advanced past the second round.
“Look, we just played an 82-game season, got 106 points, the most points we’ve ever had,” Leipold said. “I look at the prospects that we have coming up, and we’ve got great prospects. So, our cupboard is as full as it has ever been, and that gives you hope for the future and also gives you assets, so you can do some things.
“And that’s all been created by Chuck and [assistant GM] Brent [Flahr] and their organization. Again, you look back at those five games and you go, ‘How did that happen?’ I can’t certainly blame Chuck for any of that, and I don’t. … A lot of good things happened last year. We just ended up bad. We have to identify what happened there, and we need to address those, and I know Chuck is doing that right now.”
Leipold, who is taking Fletcher, Flahr and others to his vacation home in the Bahamas on Thursday for a retreat, also doesn’t blame Fletcher for swinging for the fences by trading a first- and second-round draft pick to Arizona for Martin Hanzal and Ryan White (the teams also swapped fourth-rounders) before the trade deadline.
Leipold, in fact, said the Wild nearly pulled the trigger on a Hanzal deal during the 2015-16 season. But getting only one playoff victory after adding Hanzal gave the owner pause.
“In hindsight, geez, I wish we wouldn’t have done that,” said Leipold, adding there was much discussion about the trade before it was consummated. “I supported that decision at the time, and I’m willing to live with it.”
Leipold still believes in the leadership core of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, saying, “We’re not going to retool this whole thing.” He also said he’ll never bottom out like Edmonton and Toronto so the Wild can draft franchise cornerstone players such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
“It’s not a model I’m willing to take,” Leipold said. “That’s not a model that I think our fans want.”
Leipold also discussed other topics, saying the new practice facility at the old Macy’s in St. Paul won’t be done by training camp but should be later in the fall and he “would not be disappointed if we were to address [the current playoff format at the league level] and take a look at it. But I’m not aware of any movement of that happening.”
Leipold also said he hopes the NHL adds a 32nd franchise via expansion. “I would expect to, but I don’t think anything is really happening as we speak.”