Under General Manager Chuck Fletcher’s guidance the past nine years, the Wild achieved a competitiveness that’s become unique in the NHL amid the parade of parity.
The organization is usually a lock for the playoffs, advancing each of the past six seasons. It’s a run that only two other teams have matched.
But none of those pursuits culminated in the ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.
And while that consistency is impressive, it started to dull in comparison to the growing stash of early exits and missed opportunities — so much so that Fletcher was ousted Monday without a contract renewal.
“I just don’t see us with this team getting to the championship series,” owner Craig Leipold said. “I just don’t see it. I think we’re a good team. I really do, and I just talked to our players about this. They’re a good team, but they’re not good enough right now.”
This decision surfaced only three days after the Wild was eliminated from the playoffs by the Winnipeg Jets, with the final blow a crushing 5-0 rout. It was the second straight year the team was ousted after five games and the fourth time in that six-year streak the Wild hasn’t advanced past the first round.
Fletcher’s dismissal, however, wasn’t motivated by the loss to the Jets, with Leipold stressing how difficult it was to be successful amid injuries to defenseman Ryan Suter and winger Zach Parise. But a change had been on Leipold’s radar since he opted not to extend Fletcher when he began the final year of his contract, the owner said.
And when he noticed the “good is not good enough” motto in the team’s practice facility two weeks ago, he interpreted it as a sign before finalizing his decision a couple of days ago.
“What I want is a new set of eyes and take a look at where our strengths and our weaknesses are,” Leipold said. “Somebody will come in that doesn’t feel an ownership to certain players, and I want someone to take a look at what we can do to tweak our team.”
Revisions rather than a rebuild are the target; Leipold won’t fill the position with someone who’d prefer a major overhaul. But he does want a replacement to “shake it up” while sharing his vision. And his outlook is the window to win is very much still open even though improvement — perhaps via trade — is necessary, especially as it relates to size, speed and skill.
“I want someone to help me with a plan that for the next three or four years [is] to win a Stanley Cup,” he said.
Consider Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton a candidate to fill that role.
Not only has Fenton been mentioned in other recent GM searches, a nod to the work he’s done in helping the Predators become a Stanley Cup finalist last year, but he worked alongside Leipold when he owned the Predators until 2007.
Leipold and team president Matt Majka will conduct the interviews, a process that won’t include coach Bruce Boudreau. But he will communicate with Leipold, who believes the two are on the same page.
Boudreau and the rest of the coaching staff are “going nowhere” right now, Leipold said, and he’s also not looking to change the rest of the hockey operations department, although he did acknowledge a new manager might have “very strong, specific ideas.”
A timeline to make a hire is unclear, but the preference tends to be to have front offices at full strength before the draft in late June. In the meantime, senior vice president of hockey operations Brent Flahr will be acting GM.
The new hire will be the franchise’s third GM.
Fletcher, who was hired May 22, 2009, declined to comment when reached via text message Monday.
During his tenure, the Wild went 359-265-80 while rising from a four-season playoff drought to a regular postseason participant. That prowess was spurred on by acquisitions such as defenseman Jared Spurgeon, goalie Devan Dubnyk, center Eric Staal, Suter and Parise. The Wild also drafted defensemen Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba and forwards Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Luke Kunin and Jordan Greenway in that time.
But after adding center Martin Hanzal before last year’s trade deadline during the Wild’s most successful regular season to date, the team fizzled as legit contenders and the roster couldn’t regain that hype after losing forwards Erik Haula and Alex Tuch in the expansion draft and bringing in the likes of Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Matt Cullen.
And although more change is on the horizon amid the decision to cut ties with Fletcher, the plan is it signals the beginning of progress rather than the start of a setback.
“My hope,” Leipold said, “is that we’re a better team in the very near term because of this.”