Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Defining Offseason

Chuck Fletcher had his work cut out for him this offseason. The Wild were coming off a season that saw them finish 12th in the Western Conference and sitting outside looking in on the playoffs for the third straight season. His team lacked speed, and quality scorers. There wasn’t a great free agent class out there to help him with that. And then his team lacked a head coach when he axed Todd Richards after two forgettable seasons behind the Wild bench.

So how did he go about fixing these issues? First order was his head coach. Many speculated that former Oilers bench boss Craig MacTavish was going to be the next head coach. But Fletcher made a bold move and hired 38 year old Mike Yeo, who had just finished his first season of coaching the Houston Aeros (The Wild’s minor league affiliate). The Aeros had finished their season with a 46-28-6 record, and made it all the way to the Calder Cup finals (Stanley Cup finals equivalent) before losing to the Binghamton Senators in 6 games. Yeo also spent 5 seasons as an assistant (2005-10) on the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009 Stanley Cup champs) before being hired as the Aeros coach last summer.

With the hiring of a new coach out of the way, the time came to focus on the on ice product. The first emphasis Fletcher wanted to put on that was through his minor league team. The team held the 10th overall pick in the NHL draft, which was held in St. Paul. Then come draft night, the Wild selected Jonas Brodin (the 3rd overall rated European skater), a 6’1” 172 lb defenseman from the Swedish Elite League with that 10th pick. Brodin projects to be a solid two way defenseman for the future, so they made a very solid choice there. Then as most Wild fans had hit the exits after the team’s pick, Fletcher pulled off a big draft day trade sending all star defenseman Brent Burns to San Jose for forwards Devin Setoguchi and Charlie Coyle (SJ’s 1st rd pick in ’10), and the 28th overall pick in 2011. The Wild would go on to select Center Zack Phillips from the St. John Sea Dogs with that 28th pick from San Jose. The Burns trade was met with great applause from Wild fans, including yours truly. The move gets the Wild a young scorer in Setoguchi (Who had just signed a 3 year extension a day before the draft), and some quality young forwards for their farm system.

But Fletcher did not stop there. He also acquired forward Darroll Powe from Philadelphia for a 3rd round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. The Wild went on to sign Powe, a very quick skater and outstanding penalty killer, to a three year deal worth $3.2 million. Again, a great move for Minnesota. Philly was a team that had a already reached the salary cap ceiling, and needed to make some moves, so Powe became one of many popular players to get shipped away.

Then on July 1st, free agents became eligible to sign with other teams. That meant that players such as Andrew Brunette, Antti Miettinen, John Madden, and Chuck Kobasew would all be leaving. In fact, the only free agent the Wild signed this offseason was defenseman Mike Lundin (A Burnsville Native), who was signed to a one year deal worth $1 million. So it would appear that Fletcher will leave his defenseman core to Nick Schultz, Marek Zidlicky, Greg Zanon, and Clayton Stoner; and then let youngsters Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, and Nate Prosser battle it out for the final roster spot next to Lundin.

Forward wise, the Wild were pretty set for the upcoming season. But then came perhaps the most surprising and most incredible move of them all. The Wild sent all star forward Martin Havlat to San Jose in exchange for forward and once 50 goal scorer, Dany Heatley. Again, the move was met with great enthusiasm from fans. This move gives the Wild the premier goal scorer they had been lacking since the departure of Marian Gaborik. The Wild have Heatley for three seasons and he will have a $7.5 million cap hit in each of those seasons. And not to long after, the Wild and San Jose met up again in a trade, as the Wild sent F James Sheppard to SJ for a 3rd pick in the 2013 NHL draft (They got back the pick they gave up for Powe, essentially).

It wasn’t the easiest offseason for Chuck Fletcher. But you have to believe that he passed with flying colors (Even with these great moves, the team is still $10 million under the cap). And perhaps in 10 years, we can look back here and say this was his defining offseason. He has shaped this team into the best one he has had in his three years, and is now closer than ever to having that that quick dynamic team he has been seeking when he took this job. He still has some work to do, but this is a much better team than we thought it would be. And will this team finally be the one, that puts his team into the postseason? I think it will.

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