(Rather longish post with my thoughts about the recent moves of the Wild and a take on their future)
In the last week, the Wild have made some pretty clear statements about their intent and plan. They have stepped back from the stance that making the playoffs is the primary goal.
Since Fletcher was hired, the Wild have had the dual mission of trying to catch up and add as much talent as possible but still push to get back in the playoffs. With a salary cap team already, there wasn't much Fletcher could do about the latter goal, except hope for good health and some player breakthroughs. They had terrible health, inconsistent play, and a general lack of motivation. The moves that Fletcher made specifically for the short term goal of the playoffs have mostly not worked, and have been expensive. Cam Barker has gotten worse, and Chuck Kobasew was never able to take control of his opportunities to get on a scoring line, or make much of any impact. Resigning Marek Zidlicky was expensive. Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom are expensive for what they offer. The good news is that none of these deals have really cost the Wild a great deal, but they have slowed down the possible re-growth of this team.
The signs have been around that Fletcher was looking to more aggressively reshape this team, to rebuild, or at least restock, the team. Last year's draft was the first obvious move, with the 4 players taken in the first two rounds, as well as signing Wellman and Prosser. The dual mission was still in place, and the team didn't get younger or add more prospects during the off season... though they did invite some interesting young guys to prospect camp that ended up paying off big... Jared Spurgeon and Justin Fontaine.
I think that finally, after this past season and holding on to the UFAs and still falling short, that Fletcher was finally able to cast his full vision for Leipold. What good the playoffs if you don't have a team that can compete once you get there? The owner bought in and you could tell in the fact that Fletcher hired Mike Yeo to be the head coach. He has a proven track record for developing players, getting the most effort out of guys, being confident and direct, and for being well liked by his players despite being demanding. If the Wild were looking strongly at the playoffs for being their goal, then the Wild would have hired a veteran coach to try to squeeze 5 to 10 more wins out of the guys the Wild have.
The Yeo hire signaled the change in course. Trading Brent Burns was like figuratively burning the bridge back to the old course. The Burns trade serves two purposes. Firstly, it is the public and obvious statement that this team is stepping back, beginning to look long term, and get more offensive talent on board. It allowed the team, both Fletcher and Leipold, to address the fan base and pitch the new direction and a longer term vision. Secondly, and most importantly, the trading of Burns has added 3 highly touted younger, offensive, players. Devin Setoguchi is a top 6 forward, 24 years old, fast, plays aggressively, is a shooter and a goal scorer. The Wild needed all of those things on the top line winger, a right winger. Coyle is considered a blue chip power forward prospect, one who at 19 is already considered rather mature in his game for his age and is coming off a year where his already high stock got even higher. Zach Phillips is a highly thought of two-way center, and I think a bit of a steal at pick #28. Interesting note, Setoguchi was the 8th pick in the 2005 draft, 4 picks after the Wild picked Pouliot, and was one of the kids that I had hoped at the time that the Wild would take.
It should be clear for everyone to see. The Wild are not committed to reshaping this core of the franchise. They are committed to getting young talent, getting faster, more aggressive, better. There are still some questions. Are the Wild done making moves this offseason? Will they buy out Barker (probable)? Will they make any more trades (possible)? Will they make a splash in FA (unlikely)? What can Yeo do with the players he has? Which of the younger players is going to make the team? Will any of them have a breakthrough season, or any of the current Wild players (like Clutterbuck)? If the Wild play positionally sound defensive hockey, with a solid and steady transition game, play faster and more aggressively in the offensive zone, with a solid top 2 lines, the Wild still have a shot at playoff hockey next year. If Bouchard, Koivu, and Setoguchi find chemistry, stay healthy, and are indeed on the same line, that could be one heck of a potent pairing, and Seto might just find himself excited about this team after all. If Gui comes back healthy, in good shape, and motivated, and is paired with a locked in and interested Havlat, and whichever center wants it the most, we could have a rather dynamic 2nd line. Who knows if Wellman, Gillies, Fontaine, or any of the other youngsters, can make an impact for the Wild this year. I don’t predict a playoff appearance, but it is a possibility with the muddled West.
The reality though is that the Wild have circled a date 3 years from now. Granlund and Larsson will probably come over after next season. Most likely both players will start with the Aeros for the beginning of the 2012 season, though maybe Granlund proves he needs no transition time. Zucker, Bulmer, Coyle, (maybe Zack Phillips too) probably turn pro for the 2012 season and will spend the year playing for the Aeros. Brodin is probably coming over to North America for the 2013 season. So, 2013 the Wild will have current players Havlat, Koivu, Setoguchi, and Nick Shultz under contract. Right now, the rest of the roster is open. We should see Matt Hackett in the goal for 2013. We should see Granlund on the wing or holding down the second line center spot. We might see some of Larsson, Coyle, and any of the other young guys who have progressed and are ready for the NHL. I predict that we’ll also see Clutterbuck, maybe holding down a regular 2nd line wing spot. The old youth core of the Wild was Gaborik, Burns, Bouchard, Schultz, and Koivu. We now see the Wild reorganizing to create a new core… to be seen on the ice in a couple years.
It should be an interesting ride, bumpy and probably filled with some more losing, but with a definite plan and direction. Now, the Wild just have to hope that their scouts have targeted the right core of young guys, that Yeo and staff, plus whomever they hire down in Houston, are the right guys to develop those players, and that things come together in those non-tangible ways that are needed to create a true winning franchise.