Three years ago, Chuck Fletcher pulled Craig Leipold off Xcel Energy Center’s draft floor to tell the Wild owner: “It’s done. We’re going to trade Brent Burns.”
Leipold instantly got butterflies: “I’m thinking, ‘Oh geez, we’re in our arena. What reaction are we going to get by trading an incredibly popular player?’ ”
Fletcher, the Wild general manager, was nervous, too. His daughter, Kaitlin, 13 at the time, was the Wild’s draft runner. So before NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Burns was heading to San Jose for Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick, Fletcher shooed Kaitlin to the other end of the table in case, as assistant GM Brent Flahr said, “we had food thrown at us.”
“It was pretty evident quickly that our fans were happy,” Leipold said. “They weren’t happy losing Burnzie. They were very happy they had a GM that wasn’t scared to pull the trigger if he felt it would make the team better.”
It has been five years and a month since Leipold hired a brown-haired, 42-year-old Fletcher, a Harvard graduate who grew up inside the game as Hall of Fame manager Cliff Fletcher’s son.
He inherited a bare-boned franchise that had lost respected coach Jacques Lemaire and was about to lose goal scorer Marian Gaborik. The Wild had no prospects close to making the NHL leap and a roster full of 30-somethings and bad contracts.
Despite a franchise in need of rebuild, Fletcher never envisioned missing the playoffs his first three seasons. It has been a grind, but in the past two years the Wild made the playoffs and last season advanced to the conference semifinals.
With a stable of quality veterans and promising youngsters, we’re starting to see the fruits of Fletcher’s labor as he approaches his sixth draft at the Wild helm Friday and Saturday.
There have been hits and misses. And like that Burns trade, there have been a host of gutsy decisions that have made Leipold fall hard for his bold, brash general manager.
Leipold won’t reveal how long Fletcher, now 47, has left on a contract many believe was extended last season.
“The beauty of not telling you is we don’t have to answer questions, ‘Are you going to re-sign him?’ ” Leipold said, letting loose a playful laugh. “Nobody knows when he’s due. He’s locked and loaded.”
Gutsy hits and misses
Fletcher’s outward appearance is what Leipold calls “Ivy League conservative.” But in 2009, what Leipold kept hearing from Ray Shero, the former Pittsburgh Penguins GM who strongly recommended his right-hand man, is that Fletcher had a great sense of humor and was aggressive.
That first interview, it was clear to Leipold that Fletcher “thought outside the box and was incredibly prepared.” But Leipold didn’t see that personality come out until a second interview over dinner.
“You could see a different side of him, and I was sold,” Leipold said. “Now, I never saw this maverick guy that would do the big trades. But clearly he’s not afraid to pull the trigger, and I love that in him. He listens to input from his great staff, and when he’s ready to do it, he goes, ‘Let’s do it.’ He’s got guts.”
• The Jason Pominville trade with Buffalo in 2013. In exchange for the Sabres captain and a fourth-round pick, Fletcher parted with prospects Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett and first- and second-round picks.
“When it was decided it was going to be Pominville, the scouts were like, ‘No, please don’t give away our first-round pick. Please, please, please, please,’ ” Leipold said. “But at the end of the day, he makes the decision.”
Pominville, whose five-year, $28 million extension starts in October, led the Wild with 30 goals in 2013-14.
• In Fletcher’s first draft, he dropped four spots in order to draft Nick Leddy, the Minnesota Mr. Hockey from Eden Prairie High and soon-to-be Gopher 16th overall, and picked up two draft picks that would become Hackett and Erik Haula. But less than a year later, Fletcher dealt Leddy and essentially the rest of Kim Johnsson’s contract to Chicago for former third overall pick Cam Barker.
“Little did we know, Barker … wasn’t as good as most people thought,” Leipold said, laughing hysterically at how kind he was trying to be. “That deal didn’t work out. You hope most of them turn out. This one, I would say, didn’t. So what? You move on.
“Now the good thing about Chuck is he didn’t become gun-shy. He was still ready and willing to pull the trigger and never said, ‘Oh my gosh, what if this becomes another Leddy deal?’ He’s like a goaltender. Goal goes in, you forget about the goal and move on to the next shot.”
Fletcher said “that trade was flawed on a couple different levels and actually goes against my philosophy. I take full responsibility for that trade. That was me. That was a classic case of trying to force something that didn’t need to be forced.
“But there was no reason to become conservative after that. You just have to learn from it.”
Sixteen months later, Barker was bought out.
“There’s some misses along the way,” Fletcher said. “There’s risk in everything, but if you don’t make moves in this business, your franchise is never going to get better.”
There were also risks associated with hiring rookie coaches. Fletcher’s first coach, Todd Richards, was fired in 2011 and replaced by Mike Yeo.
“I really challenged him on that one,” Leipold said, “but he loved Mike and looked at our team and Mike’s strength of working with and developing younger players. He had that much confidence that he was willing to bring in Mike knowing it was the biggest decision he had [to that point].”
In Fletcher’s first interview with the owner, he told Leipold how important draft and development would be before delving deep into the free-agent market. In addition to the draft, Fletcher wanted to be aggressive in the college, European and junior free-agent markets. The Wild has found players from Jared Spurgeon to Justin Fontaine.
The hope is every now and then you get lucky by finding a sleeper to supplement the draft picks selected by what Fletcher calls “our excellent scouts.”
“And the picks we’ve had, most of them have worked out,” Leipold said. “That in itself is huge. Go back the years before [Fletcher], we had a lot of misses. It was terrible. It was a dry time, and we were quickly able to turn that around.”
Three regulars last season — Mikko Koivu, Marco Scandella and Clayton Stoner — were drafted by the Wild before Fletcher’s arrival.
After missing the playoffs in 2012, Fletcher vowed the Wild wasn’t far from “turning the corner very quickly.” He pinpointed one final hurdle: “We have not been able to convince a top player to come here yet,” he said.
A couple of months later, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed identical 13-year, $98 million deals. Fletcher “assured” Leipold it would work because of the young kids coming down the pike.
Since, players such as Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and others have started to emerge.
“I mean, what good are bringing two players like that in if you can’t surround them with good guys?” Leipold said. “When I think of all the contributions Chuck has made to this organization, the biggest is the way he has drafted and developed. That enables us to do everything else that we do.”
Outwardly, Fletcher might be conservative, but he has proved to be anything but. That’s why it won’t be shocking if Fletcher, even though he says this may be a summer where he lays off the pitch, again swings for the fence this weekend or in the first few days of free agency July 1.
“I like his style,” Leipold said. “His style fits well with our relationship. It’s important for the GM and owner to be in sync. He knows what my end game is here and that’s it. We want to bring the Cup here. That’s why we’re all driven.”