It was January 2013. The Minnesota Wild emerged from the lockout with one of the brightest and optimistic outlooks in the league. After a bottom-10 finish the year prior, the Wild were poised to jump back into respectability. Under General Manager Chuck Fletcher, Minnesota boasted arguably the strongest pool of prospects in the league, with players like Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker, and Charlie Coyle all extremely close to being NHL-ready. And not only did they have those prospects, they supplemented them with one of the biggest free agent splashes in NHL history, signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. It seemed to be only a matter of time before that young talent would coalesce around the veteran core to create a contender.
It's now April 2016. The Wild are perhaps seeing the last gasp of their competitive window. Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, and Suter are left to carry this team after injuries to Thomas Vanek and Parise. That deep group of prospects turned out to be solid, but didn't yield a superstar. The veterans have declined, the youth hasn't made it's claim to be the central focus of the team, and rumors swirl of discord between the Wild's two cores.
It's now April 2016, and the Wild are on the brink of being eliminated by the Dallas Stars, who are the team that Minnesota was supposed to have been.
Why didn't it work out in Minnesota? There won't be a shortage of theories as to why. Some will point to Fletcher bogging himself down with long-term, difficult-to-move contracts to Pominville, Vanek, Koivu, and Niklas Backstrom. Some will believe that as good as Parise and Suter were (and are), they fell just short of the caliber of player you build an entire team around. Some will blame timing. Were those prospects just a year or two further along when the Wild made those huge signings, they could've hit that sweet spot where the youth was able to take over just as the veterans were leaving their primes.
I think all of those explanations have merit.
Another commonly-cited reason for this team's unfulfilled potential is that they never made a concerted effort to tank in the way a team like Edmonton and Buffalo has done in recent years. Unable (or unwilling) to bottom out and get into drafting from the elite tier of prospects in the draft, Fletcher watched while other teams scooped up the John Tavares', Matt Duchenes, and Taylor Halls of the world. This left the Wild to pick from the leftovers- the Nick Leddys, the Granlunds, the Brodins. Good players? Absolutely. Franchise-changers? No way.
This does not have merit. How do we know this? Because the Wild are about to lose to a Dallas team that overcame their perpetual mediocrity to provide the NHL a blueprint to become an elite team without tanking.
Let's take another trip to 2013, this time, April. Jim Nill left Detroit's front office to take over as Dallas' GM. The Stars were in a special circle of NHL purgatory- .500 or above for 5 straight seasons without making the playoffs once. That's hard to do, but they accomplished this by being juuuuuuuust good enough to barely miss the playoffs on a yearly basis thanks to veterans like Loui Eriksson, Alex Goligoski, Jaromir Jagr, and Ray Whitney keeping the Stars above the lottery team fray.
And- like the Wild- there was some intriguing young talent there. Jamie Benn, Antoine Roussel, Reilly Smith, Alex Chiasson, Colton Sceviour, and Jamie Oleksiak all looked like they'd be pieces that would factor into the next good Stars team.
So how did Nill get this team to the next level? By getting bold. Nill took advantage of Boston falling out of favor with über-prospect Tyler Seguin, betting on the young center's upside by trading Eriksson and Smith to acquire him. Seguin immediately flourished in Dallas, notching 30 goals in each of his 3 seasons in Dallas.
The next offseason, Dallas made another move to load up on scoring: trading Chiasson and prospect Alex Guptil to Ottawa to gain Jason Spezza's services. Spezza immediately signed an extension in Dallas, and has worked out well for the Stars, scoring 125 points in 157 games, including last night's game-winner.
The Stars would miss the playoffs due to defense and goaltending woes, so again, they had to be aggressive in shoring up their weaknesses. Fortunately, the Stars were one of the few teams with cap room in a year where the salary cap was stagnant. This allowed them to fleece one of the best front offices in the league, bringing Patrick Sharp aboard for a song, while signing Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi to shore up their back end. This turned Dallas into what it is today: A team with an elite strength (their offense) that is more than enough to make up for their flaws.
What's sad and almost ironic about comparing Minnesota and Dallas is that many of these moves have parallels to the Fletcher-era Wild. Like Nill, Fletcher also tried to get a Top-3 pick that had fallen out of favor in their organization. That was the infamous Cam Barker trade.
Like Nill, Fletcher also took a big swing to land a long-term veteran scorer to supplement his youth. That was Jason Pominville, whose decline has been one of the biggest reasons in Minnesota's disappointing season.
While Nill's attempt to bring in a veteran scorer to get his team over the hump (Sharp) proved to be successful, Fletcher's acquisition of a veteran scorer (Vanek) proved to be largely a flop, as Vanek clashed too much with Minnesota's organizational philosophy.
This last offseason Nill had the cap space to re-tool his team, while Fletcher was too hamstrung by the contracts he had given out to make any significant moves to shake up his.
Sure, there's always some luck involved with these things. After all, it's hard to bet on two fifth-round picks becoming a perennial Art Ross contender (Benn) and the best pure-offensive defenseman in the Western Conference (John Klingberg), and Dallas was fortunate enough to have every one of their gambles pay off. Likewise, many believed Granlund to be a superstar, and no one thought Pominville would muster just 11 goals in a full season on just the second year of his extension.
Still, there's a clear reason why the Stars are up 3-1 on the Wild: Nill was able to make the right moves to bring in star talent and supplement the pieces they already had. Despite Fletcher's numerous attempts to try doing that in Minnesota (either by bringing in Martin Havlat, Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, Parise, Pominville, Niederreiter, Vanek or trying to trade for Ryan Johansen or Jonathan Drouin), he fell short.
As much as Fletcher has the trust of owner Craig Leipold, Fletcher may well fall victim to the extremely disappointing team he was the architect of. That his team will be eliminated by Dallas makes it even harder to convince Leipold he's still right for the job. After all, Nill's Stars face a lot of the same challenges Fletcher's Wild did- mediocre draft positioning, goaltending issues, and being in an extremely tough division. So if Nill could overcome those to build an elite team, why couldn't Fletcher?
Fletcher's ability to answer that adequately may well determine whether there's a change in Minnesota's front office this summer.