For the first time in 9 years, and just the second time in Minnesota Wild history, there will be a new face sitting at the general manager’s desk.
Chuck Fletcher was hired in 2009, with the Wild beginning a years-long down period. He had few prospects at his disposal, a poor salary cap situation, and his franchise’s only superstar (Marian Gaborik) was just 5 weeks from leaving the State of Hockey forever.
That’s quite a hole to be dug into.
But throughout those nine seasons, Fletcher rebuilt the Wild from almost the ground up. He amassed prospects, he made shrewd trades, and on July 4th, 2012, he changed the course of the Wild by signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in free agency.
From that date, the Wild became a perennial playoff team, making the postseason 6 years in a row. At times, the Wild had a team with speed and depth, one that could give the best teams a run for their money.
Unfortunately, there were disappointments, too.
Minnesota may have made the playoffs every year, but never made a deep playoff run. In those 6 years, the team won just two playoff series, never advancing past the second round. In the Wild’s- and Fletcher’s- quest to win a Stanley Cup, they never got close.
In their best chance to advance to a deep playoff run, the 2016-17 Wild collapsed down the stretch and found themselves losing to the St. Louis Blues in 5 first-round games.
This year went much worse, despite Bruce Boudreau dragging the team to 101 points. An older, more injured, slower team got dismantled by the young, fast, big Winnipeg Jets in 5 games, including a humiliating showing in the 5-0 Game 5 loss that eliminated Minnesota.
It had to feel obvious to the entire State of Hockey: Regardless of the good Fletcher had done in aggregate over his nine-season tenure, it wasn’t enough. The results had to be better.
Owner Craig Leipold must have also thought it was obvious, and despite enjoying a close relationship with Fletcher over the years, he made the decision to not renew Fletcher’s contract.
So why did the Chuck Fletcher Era ultimately fail in Minnesota? We’ve pin-pointed 5 reasons the Wild ultimately fell short in that time.
The Expansion Draft
Vegas entering the league put quite a bit of an amount of squeeze on the Wild. The Wild had more forwards and defensemen than they could protect, and there were tough choices to be made. Choices that I’d still mostly defend, in fact.
But still, even though Fletcher’s expansion maneuverings allowed them to keep both 42-goal scorer Eric Staal and 51-point scorer Matt Dumba in the fold, it can’t feel good for Leipold to see the Expansion Golden Knights in the playoffs. Especially with Erik Haula (29 goals) and Alex Tuch (15 goals as a rookie) contributing to that roster.
And when you look at the Wild, what were their biggest weaknesses? Other than one we’ll get to later, I’d say 1) speed, which took a big hit when Haula left, and 2) wing depth, which took a hit when Tuch, Minnesota’s most-NHL-ready prospect was traded.
The Rental Market
Once Minnesota started making the postseason, Fletcher would often try to give his squad a boost at the trade deadline. The first such move was moving Jason Pominville for Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett, and a first and second-round pick.
It was a big package, but it mostly worked out. Neither Larsson nor Hackett became impact players, and Pominville gave the Wild a good amount of production in the year-plus of term they acquired in the deal, scoring 34 goals in 92 games.
But then Fletcher started looking towards shorter-term fixes, which provided less success.
He acquired Matt Moulson for two second-round picks in 2014. Moulson didn’t make an impact. He acquired Chris Stewart for a second-round pick in 2015, which didn’t improve the team substantially. He acquired Martin Hanzal in 2017 for a first, second, who did make the team better, but ultimately didn’t matter once Jake Allen and the Blues eliminated Minnesota.
Those spent picks added up, what did they get for them? 60 or so games, and no meaningful playoff success. The rental market was fool’s gold, and it hamstrung the Wild’s scouting department. They’ve had just 8 picks in the first three rounds in the last 5 drafts. If you want to know why the Wild haven’t had many good call-up options in recent years, look no further.
Unlike Fletcher’s predecessor, Doug Risebrough, Fletcher’s scouting staff never went through a string where the Wild drafted draft bust after draft bust. But like we said earlier, Fletcher’s rentals made it so the Wild had to hit completely on the few picks they did have, which I’m sad to say hasn’t happened. Since 2011, the only Wild draft picks who have scored more than 20 points for the team are Jonas Brodin (2011), Dumba (2012), and Joel Eriksson Ek (2015).
Their overall strategy during that time seemed to be to target bigger two-way prospects who didn’t appear to have much offensive upside. Players like Raphael Bussieres, John Draeger, Kurtis Gabriel were drafted with 2nd-3rd round picks during that time.
And that extends further than just the later picks. The first round picks had this tendency, too. In 2014, the Wild drafted for need in taking 6’4” Alex Tuch for an organization that lacked size. They passed on a smaller player in superstar David Pastrnak. Tuch would play 6 games in Minnesota before being deemed expendable enough to trade to Vegas.
In 2015, the Wild again drafted for need by drafting Eriksson Ek, a two-way center to eventually replace Mikko Koivu. Despite your feelings on Eriksson Ek, it’s hard to say he’s making the kind of impact that, say, Brock Boeser or Travis Konecny are making for their repsective teams.
There’s a lot of luck at play in the NHL Draft, but too often, Minnesota passed on bringing the most skilled players possible into their organization. And the best teams in the league today are running on cheap, young, fast skill.
And those things are doubly important to a team that always finds itself in Salary Cap Hell.
We have to be careful about what to and what not to criticize when talking about this. Right off the bat, we’ll have to eliminate any criticism of the signings of Parise and Suter. There was no way a floundering franchise wasn’t going to take that opportunity if presented, and the remaining 7 years on their deals (at a 7.4 million cap hit) were just the cost of doing business at the time.
But while you can’t criticize those deals, you can point out that having $15 million of your salary cap tied up in two now-aging players leaves you little room for error in constructing a team. And too many Fletcher contracts hurt the team in big ways.
After the 2012-13 season, Fletcher signed 35-year-old Niklas Backstrom to a 3-year-deal with a no-move clause. Backstrom immediately became one of the worst goaltenders in the league, and that contract was an anchor around Minnesota’s neck for years. Once Josh Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Minnesota was unable to get a back-up plan due to Backstrom’s contract. Miraculously, Fletcher acquired a dirt-cheap Devan Dubnyk to save his team in 2015, but Backstrom’s deal hamstrung the Wild during those years.
Thomas Vanek took just a 3-year-deal after signing with Minnesota in 2014. But when Vanek didn’t mesh with Mike Yeo’s Wild squad, that $6.5 million cap hit looked like an albatross that could’ve been better spent elsewhere. The result was a buyout that affected the Wild as recently as this season, to the tune of a $2.5 million cap hit.
Speaking of aging former Sabres gone wrong, there’s the Pominville contract. In the offseason after acquiring Pominville, Fletcher re-signed him to a 5-year deal that carried a $5.6 million cap hit. Once the new deal took affect, Pominville’s goal-scoring started declining, dropping from 30 to 18, then 11 in the first 2 years of the deal. To give a tiny bit of relief against the cap this season, Fletcher traded Pominville and Marco Scandella to Buffalo for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno.
Speaking of Foligno, Fletcher immediately set up future cap issues by signing Foligno to a 4-year deal carrying almost a $3 million cap hit. It was a reversion back to an old, bad habit of signing grinders like Eric Nystrom, Darroll Powe, Torrey Mitchell, and Keith Ballard to multi-year deals. When it came to contracts both big and small, Fletcher rarely made it easier for him to juggle Minnesota’s cap situation.
Lack of an Impact Player
And we finally get to this. This is the single-biggest issue that has thwarted the Wild from making a deep playoff run during Fletcher’s tenure. The Wild just did not acquire a player who could make a superstar-level impact on a nightly basis.
This wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Chuck Fletcher era was littered with players who were acquired in hopes of being that kind of superstar. Martin Havlat, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Dany Heatley, Devon Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips, Parise, Suter, Pominville, Nino Niederreiter, Vanek, Eric Staal. There are varying levels of success among them, but all fall short of true superstar status.
Some will say that it’s hard to acquire such a player. That the only path to getting one is to tank and get a draft pick that allows you to draft a Connor McDavid, a Nathan MacKinnon, or a Patrik Laine.
It’s true that it’s hard to acquire those stars. But it’s not impossible.
Look at some of the best players in the league, and you’ll see that many of them weren’t acquired with those picks.
Just in the Wild’s division, we see players like Tyler Seguin, who was traded from Boston to Dallas for two-way winger Loui Eriksson and prospects. Also in Dallas, there’s John Klingberg, drafted in the 5th-round in 2010 when Minnesota was helping themselves to Johan Larsson and Brett Bulmer. In St. Louis, there’s Vladimir Tarasenko, also drafted in 2010 behind Mikael Granlund. In Nashville, there’s Filip Forsberg, acquired for Martin Erat, of all things. P.K. Subban, traded for Suter’s former defensive partner Shea Weber. Ryan Johansen, whom the Wild tried, but failed, to acquire via trade.
And around the league? Native Minnesotan Phil Kessel was traded to Pittsburgh for a song. Taylor Hall was traded from Edmonton for a middle-pair defenseman.
And of course, the one superstar-level player Minnesota did draft, Kirill Kaprizov, isn’t in North America. A bit unlucky, perhaps, but Fletcher’s camp didn’t seem to do a good enough job communicating interest in him. And the Wild sure needed a player at his level in the playoffs this season.
With all the star players flying around in the draft and the trade market, there was plenty of opportunity for Fletcher to snag one. He was either unwilling or unable to do what it took to land such a player. This will define his legacy in Minnesota, no matter what good he did for the franchise overall.
With similar salary cap woes, a limited prospect pool, and another expansion draft slated for 2020, keeping the Wild afloat will be tricky for the Wild’s next general manager to accomplish.
But it’s become clear that Fletcher isn’t the person who is best suited to navigate the waters in the State of Hockey. It’s time to give a new voice a chance to craft the Wild in their image.