I take full ownership. I’ve hired the coaches. I’ve brought the players in. Until January 9, we were achieving. We were a good hockey team, and we have the ability to be a good hockey team again.
— Fletcher on Mike Yeo’s firing, 2/14/16
As soon as former Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo was fired, attention was immediately turned towards general manager Chuck Fletcher. Opinion leaders called for his firing, citing the team’s roster construction which consists of a lot of expensive veterans with no-trade clauses and the fact that the team essentially gave up on Yeo.
It’s a common reaction to a nuclear meltdown, the team’s third in three years, and one that resulted in 13 losses in 14 games from Jan. 10 to Feb. 13. But it also may be a bit knee-jerk. Fletcher has, by and large, been even-keeled throughout the team’s annual swoons as Yeo was smashing sticks and giving his team the silent treatment, trying to calm the seas both by reassuring everyone that his head coach’s job was safe and making savvy moves like the Devan Dubnyk acquisition that led to Minnesota’s playoff run last year.
Fletcher is not without faults of his own, however, since taking over for Doug Risebrough in 2009. There was the Nick Leddy-for-Cam Barker trade and the Matt Moulson acquisition. He signed Nik Backstrom to a three-year, $10 million contract, which ran from his age 35 season through age 37, essentially putting the team in salary cap hell with a player who watches the games from the press box. There are also some reservations among fans about the Brent Burns trade, even with Charlie Coyle doing well, because Devin Setoguchi regressed after coming to St. Paul and Zack Phillips is no longer in the Wild system.
Fletcher’s biggest fault, however, may be less with player personnel than with his handling of the head coaching position. He hired Todd Richards, a rookie head coach, after being named GM and then fired him after two seasons. He then promoted Yeo from the team’s AHL affiliate in Houston, another first-time head coach who was only 38, instead of going with a veteran bench boss.
The move made sense at the time — the Wild was a young team with low expectations — but backfired as soon as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were signed and expectations were raised to epic proportions. Fletcher gave Yeo a long leash, firing him only when things hit rock bottom, but if Fletcher is unemployed at the end of the year, his biggest regret may be who he put behind the bench.
Consider this: If he had kept Richards around for one more year, his final season with the Wild would have been 2011-12. Parise and Suter would be signed in the offseason, and Fletcher would have been able to hire a coach specifically catered to that situation — namely, an older, experienced coach who could better handle championship-or-bust expectations.
Hindsight is 20/20 with all of this, of course, but what we know now is that the Wild basically have a quarter of a season under John Torchetti, a third-time interim coach who has never held a full-time gig in the NHL. It is the first experienced coach the team has had under Fletcher, and at age 51, Torchetti is older than both Richards (49) and Yeo (42). He’s this year’s Dubnyk, essentially, and this team has to get to the playoffs in a smaller window.
We likely will never know why Fletcher stuck with Yeo so long. Maybe it was because he felt that Yeo was a special talent — he may have been one of the smartest coaches in the league, and certainly was a progressive thinker. Maybe it was because they knew each other from their Pittsburgh Penguins days and he trusted him to a fault. Maybe it was because he knew that as soon as Yeo was fired, the attention was turned to him, and rarely does a GM get to pick a third coach.
Whatever it is, Fletcher should get one more year with a veteran coach. It’s unknown right now who is going to be available in the offseason, but the Wild certainly will have a better chance of getting a high-end coach now than they did in 2009 or 2011. Maybe Torchetti is the answer. Maybe the St. Louis Blues will fire Ken Hitchcock. Maybe there’s a sleeper out there. Whatever it is, this team has performed to its capabilities after Yeo’s firing, and it probably doesn’t hurt that Torch is in his third go-round as an interim coach.
Some things that appeared to be Fletcher’s fault when Yeo was fired appear to be fallacies now that Minnesota won three games in Western Canada and blew out the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stadium Series 6-1 over the weekend. Jason Pominville, 33 and under contract until 2018-19, has found his scoring touch again. So has Thomas Vanek — and just about everyone else on the team. The four-game win streak is a season-high, and the team is averaging over five goals a game.
Time will tell if this keeps up. It’s still a steep hill to climb in order to make the playoffs. The Yeo firing should have come sooner, of course, but Fletcher is not off the hook just because the team won four games. His no-trade clauses don’t look as bad, however, even if Pominville will be 35 at the end of his deal, and certainly fans must be excited that Marco Scandella and Charlie Coyle are locked into team-friendly contracts.
The clock is ticking on Fletcher. But if this team makes the playoffs this year, even if they lose to Chicago once again, he deserves one more year with a veteran coach. Perhaps they could avoid the swoon, get home-ice advantage — making the Blackhawks play the first two games in St. Paul — and overcome their nemesis under an experienced coach.
Fletcher has been a stabilizing force in the Wild’s yearly crucible, the cool head that prevails. He has been loyal to his players, giving them long-term contracts with no-trade clauses, and was exceedingly patient with Yeo. At the very least, he deserves the same treatment he gave to others.
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