In a recent wide-ranging interview with the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo, Wild owner Craig Leipold discussed the notion of “bottoming out” and letting the franchise get so bad that it potentially could rebuild with young stars through the draft.
Leipold dismissed the idea, saying: “It’s not a model I’m willing to take. That’s not a model that I think our fans want.”
In the near term, that seems to be a sound strategy. While Wild fans (and Leipold) are disappointed Minnesota was bounced so quickly from the playoffs — the Wild’s fifth consecutive trip to the postseason, with only two first-round series wins to show for it — the Wild played much of this season as one of the best teams in the NHL.
But the concept of bottoming out has merit. It could be argued, in fact, that the Wild probably should have bottomed out after coach Jacques Lemaire’s departure in 2009. And it should be a consideration in the future if things fall apart with the current plan.
The Wild never has chosen higher than No. 3 in any draft — and that came in 2000, when it picked Marian Gaborik, the most talented scorer in franchise history. The Wild didn’t have a first-round pick in 2013 and won’t have one this year. In between, Minnesota didn’t chooser higher than No. 15.
Minnesota still has done a reasonable job of amassing talent. But if the biggest knock on the Wild in recent playoff appearances is that it lacks high-end finishers, those are the kinds of players that are usually found at the tops of drafts.
For examples, look no further than Pittsburgh and Chicago, winners of five of the past eight Stanley Cups.
The Penguins, after a great run in the 1990s, bottomed out from 2002 to ’04. That led them to draft Sidney Crosby No. 1 overall in 2005. Pittsburgh has won two Stanley Cups since then and could win another this year. Chicago likewise bottomed out and nabbed Jonathan Toews (No. 3) and Patrick Kane (No. 1) back-to-back in 2006 and 2007, key players on their three Stanley Cup-winning teams.
It’s true that hockey is different from other sports in that playoff seeding doesn’t always mean much. In that sense, just getting into the playoffs as the Wild has done the past five years gives a team a true chance to win a cup. A hot goalie can negate years of smart planning. Devan Dubnyk has played at times like a goalie who can lead a Cup run.
It’s also true that Minnesota fans know bad hockey when they see it and might not be tolerant of a lengthy rebuild. There also is no guarantee that bottoming out will work. It still takes good fortune. Sometimes you get stuck in a perpetual bottoming out cycle for so long that you no longer know where the floor is (different sport, but the Timberwolves know a thing or two about this).
But it can feel just as hopeless to be perpetually average as truly bad. If teams bottom out and do it right, they can get the kinds of difference-makers the Wild has lacked.