We talk about results all the time, we have to get back to playing the right way and the process.
— Wild GM Chuck Fletcher before a 4-1 loss to St. Louis, the team’s 10th in 11 games
Before jumping all over the Minnesota Wild, a team in the middle of its annual swoon, let’s take a step back and appreciate something for a minute. In a knee-jerk, what have you done for me lately? culture that permeates through all sports, the Wild are almost patient to a fault.
General manager Chuck Fletcher and team ownership has stuck with head coach Mike Yeo through four straight years of adversity, continued to lock players into long term contracts and has never publicly singled out any underachievers despite the significant sum of money he has spent on veterans that have performed better in other places.
During the lockout year in 2012-13 Fletcher sat alone among empty rows of seats in the Pepsi Center hours before the Wild faced the Colorado Avalanche in a game that could have eliminated them from the playoffs in the season after Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed $98 million free agent contracts. They were dispatched by the Chicago Blackhawks in five games, but had made the playoffs for the first time since winning the Northwest Division in 2008.
A year later he stuck with Yeo after he stopped speaking to his players during a six-game losing streak. A win over the lowly Buffalo Sabres ended the compounded losing and catapulted the team into the playoffs, where they beat the Avalanche in a decisive Game 7 before being eliminated by the Blackhawks in six games.
The next year brought a coaching meltdown that included lots of swearing and a hockey stick smashed against the boards. The acquisition of Devan Dubnyk snapped the team out of its annual swoon that year and lead them to the playoffs … where Chicago swept them in Round 2.
“Everyone talks about the past,” said Fletcher, addressing the two beat writers, wild.com and the team broadcasters on Feb. 6. “I think every year teams go through this stuff. What’s disappointing to me is I think everybody’s been focused on the power play and scoring goals, and what we’re not doing now is playing the right way.”
The issue is not as much the losing, however, but how it is handled. While there always seems to be a sense of calm and stability at the top of the organization — the ownership spends and is present, and the front office locks down good young players and is willing to wheel-and-deal to make the team better — on the ice level things get out of hand every year. The annual swoon wouldn’t be a thing if it was handled better.
Right now the team is out of answers. “We’ve been searching for answers for [why this keeps happening] for quite some time,” Yeo said on Feb. 5. “We’ve tried some different, whether it’s talks or meetings or whatever, we’re trying a lot right now. What it boils down to, the actors got [to] act.”
They are also stuck with themselves right now, which really shouldn’t be a problem as this appears to be a well-built roster. There are plenty of current or former captains: Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville. They have two strong goalies in Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper. Their young talent has promise: Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter had 20 goals last year, Charlie Coyle is having a breakout season and Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba are all 25 or younger.
There are some holes, notably the lack of a true No. 1 center, but Fletcher has done his job, by and large. No GM is going to get every move right, and while he has traded away assets for underperforming players like Matt Moulson, the team is in win-now mode and should be expected to move draft picks and prospects for NHL-ready players. “We have picks, we have prospects, we have assets that other teams like, I can tell you that much from the conversations I’ve had,” he said when asked if the cupboard was getting bare. “The question is: Are you going to make a good trade? That’s the whole point right now. I’m not interested in moving young assets for rental players at this point.”
One of the biggest beefs that fans have with him appear to be the contracts he doled out to Thomas Vanek and Pominville, two former Sabres who are on the wrong side of 30. Vanek is a former 40-goal scorer and Pominville scored 30 goals in 2013-14. Pominville has only six goals through 52 games this season, but he joins a slew of other forwards that are stuck in a rut right now: Niederreiter, Granlund, Zucker, Vanek and even Parise. When it’s one or two guys, it’s on them. When it’s nearly everyone, it might be the system.
Fletcher said that the losing will not affect his decision making at the deadline, and insists that the system works and will work itself out and that Yeo’s job is safe. “I don’t feel pressure, because that’s when you make mistakes,” he said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I’m approaching this the same as if we had won five or six in a row. If there’s an opportunity to make our team better, I’ll do it.”
At the same time, he was aware of Yeo’s decision to scratch Vanek and Zucker for the game against St. Louis on Feb. 6. “I think there will be some changes tonight that you guys will see, but I think the coaches have been incredibly patient,” he said. “I think they’ve been incredibly patient with certain individuals, and frankly I think at this point actions will speak louder than words and we’ll have a chance to make some adjustments and get some people in different places.”
The Wild lost that game 4-1. None of Minnesota’s forwards scored in the contest. Vanek and Zucker said the right things, but they have to know that they are not the only underachievers in the locker room. It might be the system, in which case the Wild just benched a former 40-goal scorer and a 24-year-old who scored 20 goals last season in a game where they could have used more goalscoring.
It’s a move, quite simply, that could begin to fracture what has to be an already tense locker room. And right now, the way things look, whoever is in there isn’t going anywhere soon.
Cold Omaha is the sports section on 92KQRS.com, 93X.com and 105TheVibe.com. Follow us @ColdOmahaMN.