After the Wild were eliminated from the playoffs in five games by the Winnipeg Jets, making for a sixth consecutive post-season appearance without a single trip past the second round, chances were the hammer was going to fall somewhere in Minnesota. And on Monday, it came down swiftly on GM Chuck Fletcher, who, following nine years with the Wild, was let walk by the organization.
Make no mistake, either, that Monday’s decision has less to do with one playoff failure than it does a history of falling short, because though Fletcher came in and turned Minnesota into a perennial contender, the reality is that the Wild have been good enough to make it to the dance but have had a tendency to trip over their feet once they got out on the floor, so to speak. Wild owner Craig Leipold said as much when speaking about the decision to move on from Fletcher, noting that Minnesota’s newfound GM vacancy didn’t come about because the Wild lost to the Jets, but rather because these post-season struggles have become an unwelcome yearly tradition.
"My feeling is that the last couple years, we just have not been good enough," Leipold said, according to the Wild. "The decision had nothing at all do to with the Winnipeg playoffs. Nothing. When you're without two of your best players, it's pretty hard to be successful. That was really not a factor. It was a tough decision, but I'm very comfortable with it.”
What’s unfortunate for Fletcher in all of this is that it’s not as if he’s headed to the unemployment line having built a team that was upset year after year in the post-season. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite.
This one or two rounds-and-out stretch started for Minnesota in 2012-13 with a loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. It continued the next season with another loss to the Blackhawks, who then went on to Game 7 of the Western Conference final. And the next season, again, it was Chicago sending Minnesota packing before winning another Stanley Cup. After that came a six-game first-round defeat at the hands of the West-best Dallas Stars in 2015-16, a series stolen by Jake Allen and the St. Louis Blues in 2016-17 and then this season’s defeat at the hands of the Jets, who are considered by some to be Stanley Cup favorites. Save 2015-16, there’s not a single series in there in which the Wild would have been considered the favorite.
True as that may be, though, it doesn’t alter reality, which is that in a results-driven league, Fletcher hasn’t headed up a group that has gotten the ultimate result. But now the Wild have to decide what comes next. That begins with a new GM to replace Fletcher and take the reins from acting GM Brent Flahr, the Wild’s senior vice president of hockey operations. And the one thing we know Leipold has no interest in is starting over, saying he didn’t have any interest in rebuilding. "Are we still in the window to win the Stanley Cup? I believe we are. [Fletcher] believed we are,” Leipold said, according to the Wild. “But my personal feeling was that I wanted someone new to come in and kind of shake it up.”
The difficulty for a new GM, however, will be finding that way to make what’s old new again. And there’s a lot of old in Minnesota, to be sure. Per Hockey-Reference, the Wild’s average age of 29.3 this past season made them the second-oldest team in the entire NHL. (Only the Detroit Red Wings, average age 30, were older.) By comparison, Minnesota lost in the first round to a Winnipeg team with an average age of 26.6, and even if they would have made it past the Jets, the Wild were headed for a date with the 28.2-year-old Nashville Predators. It’s the advanced age of the core that’s responsible for the overall veteran status in Minnesota, too.
If Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild’s two highest-paid players, are the main fixtures of the core alongside captain Mikko Koivu, top-scorer Eric Staal, secondary scorers Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker and No. 2 defenseman Jared Spurgeon, the average age of the core will be 31-plus by next season. That alone is reason for worry, and it’s not as though there’s a readymade solution for freshening things up.
Rather, reviving this roster is made all the more complicated by the fact the most sought after players won’t be the veteran core members but prime-aged talents such as Zucker, Granlund and Charlie Coyle. Those won’t be the type of players with which the rebuild-averse Wild will want to part ways. Nor will whoever takes over Fletcher’s old office want to strip the team of what youth it does possess. That includes Luke Kunin and Jordan Greenway, two of the three-best prospects in the Wild system per Future Watch 2018’s scouting panel. Joel Eriksson Ek, the 21-year-old who just completed his first full campaign in Minnesota, also fits the bill.
Who goes then? Restricted free agent-to-be Matt Dumba seems a potential moving piece, and he’s no stranger to being mentioned in the rumor mill. Defenseman Jonas Brodin could also be on the move given three of the organization’s 10-best prospects are rearguards, including Carson Soucy and Nick Seeler, both of whom saw action in the playoffs. No doubt, the Wild would also love to part ways with winger Tyler Ennis and his $4.6 million cap hit. Admittedly, though, the options are limited beyond that when it comes to obvious moving parts — that is unless Minnesota’s next GM can find some way to win a deal that sees one of the current integral pieces leave town.
One thing that is for sure, though, is that the Wild should almost certainly avoid throwing money and picks at their problems. Adding through free agency or by way of a big-ticket picks-for-player trade isn’t going to make this team any younger, even if it does add a bit of skill here or there.
Doing just that — speeding along the process by way of free agency or trades — was arguably Fletcher’s biggest error, too, and that the Wild have only selected four players higher than 46th-overall in the past six drafts is what will make this quite the revitalization project for Minnesota’s next GM. But that’s where the Kunins and Greenways and Eriksson Eks come in. That’s why Kirill Kaprizov, who can come aboard to help out in Minnesota once his KHL contract expires in 2019-20, is a major part of the Wild’s future. And that’s why Minnesota will need to refocus if rebuilding isn’t in the cards, because putting time and money into drafting and developing can pay dividends as it has in Winnipeg and Nashville and Tampa Bay and several other cities throughout the NHL.
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