The Wild is a team the Flames have already met three times this season and is also one of the rare clubs they have a winning record against so far (2-1). Minny is battling with the Flames and Oliers to stay out of the Western Conference basement and their predicament is a solid reminder that even sweeping regime changes can leave an organization spinning it’s wheels.
GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Todd Richards were installed in their positions in the org back in 2009, deposing Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire. The latter two gents had guided to the Wild to some modest success earlier in the franchises history, including a couple of playoff appearances, but were unable to propel the team past mediocrity. Lemaire often spun gold from straw as the club’s long-time coach, using his unique abilities to lower goals against and cobble together league best special teams from seemingly random NHLers. Risebrough struck me as an overly cautious manager during his tenure in Minnesota, however, so the club was often excluded from pursuing meaningful improvement via the trade and free agent markets. For a long time, Risebrough operated the franchise as if it was still a financially uncertain expansion club, even though they enjoyed full buildings on a nightly basis.
Fletcher and Richards are young men relative to many of their contemporaries (43 and 44 respectively) and the feeling was they would bring a fresh new perspective to the club and dispel it’s former reputation as a boring team scraping out wins to battle for 8th place every year. Unfortunately, the team has gone the opposite way in the one and half seasons since they were installed, placing 13th in the WC last year and likely to land in the exact same spot again this season. The fields were somewhat fallow when Fletcher arrived, with set to bolt to free agency and little else in the franchise cupboards aside form Mikko Koivu, the perpetually injured PM Bouchard and, if you squint, Brent Burns and Cal Clutterbuck.
He aggressively pursued Martin Havlat in 2009 and while that signing hasn’t quite worked out thus far, it was a defensible move given the manner in which Havlat played in Chicago. After a rotten debut last season, Havlat has started to come around this year, albeit not enough to move the club forward. Richards has also taken a number of minor gambles and galf measures to try to firm up the Wild’s forward depth since he took the big chair, including adding Chuck Kobasew and Guillaume Latendresse off the scrap heap. He also snagged Cam Barker from the Blackhawks after Tallon failed to get Barker his RFA offer sheet and was forced to pay him at a UFA rate. The kid has fallen off a cliff since leaving the Blackhawks and is barely a third pairing defender for Minny at this point. The club also recently signed former Oiler Patrick O’Sullivan after he was bought out this summer, a move of pure desperation given POS’ objectively terrible results over the last few seasons.
While I can take or leave those various gambles, Fletcher has also made some obvious mistakes so far. This summer, he signed John Madden and Eric Nystrom to a combined $2.625M in cap space. Both are being fed to the wolves by Richards this year in terms of zone starts (south of 41%) and are getting eaten alive as a result. While Madden has had that kind of assignment in the past with some success, Nystrom isn’t the kind of player that can swim upstream against the current without drowning.
Fletcher also recently re-signed PP specialist Marek Zidlicky for $4M/season for three seasons which is entirely too much money to spend on 40 point guy who has to be sheltered. In addition, he re-upped Mikko Kovu for $6.75M/season for the next seven seasons. That contract kicks in next year when Koivu will be 28 years old. I have a lot of time for Koivu as a player, but that deal is entirely too much money for too long: the club might get two-four years of near peak production from Koivu going forward and it’s arguable whether he was ever a player worth $7M even at his best. Perhaps Fletcher felt the club had to overpay to keep it’s best forward in the fold, but that contract strikes me as a bad bet.
Todd Richards had some successful seasons in the AHL coaching the Milwaukee Admirals and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He spent a season as the Sharks assistant coach before being hired by Minnesota. Improved offensive output and a more exciting game was supposed to follow Richards to Minny, but all that’s really happened is the goals against have ballooned. Some of that isn’t quite his fault – the team went through about two months of just rotten percentages to start the season last year – but the hope that the team would be more fun and uptempo hasn’t appeared either. Close games and quagmires in the neutral zone remain.
Richards has taken to playing Koivu in a more offense-friendly role at ES (rather burying him against the big guns), but all that’s really done is improve Koivu’s fortunes. The problems have been spread around without Koivu doing the heavy lifting and the other sections of the roster aren’t quite as capable at towing that load. Curiously, Richards refuses to play Havlat and Koivu together in a power-vs-power role (Koivu has seen just 5% of his ES ice time with Havlat this year), even though both have excelled in such a role in the past. Perhaps Richards doesn’t want to put all his eggs in one basket, or maybe the pair had a rough go of it last year when Havlat was curiously terrible during his first two months on the club, but I’m not sure what he has to lose at this point: the club isn’t winning anything with the current strategy.
Even more baffling, Richards doesn’t even play Havlat and Koivu together on the PP. Even if you’re a coach that wants to spread things out at ES, there’s absolutely no reason not to load up on the first unit of the man advantage. It hasn’t hurt the Wild much so far given their NHL 7th best PP success rate so far, but I maintain splitting up a team’s two best forwards at both ES and the PP doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Minnesota was a franchise that grew weary of the monotony of scratching for a playoff spot eveery year without ever really being a contender. The compulsion for change hasn’t served them well, though, with the early returns of the Fletcher/Richards duo undermining rather than improving the clubs fortunes. I’ve been an advocate for usurping Darryl Sutter since last April, but Minnesota’s current predicament shows that change in not necessarily a panacea.