First things first – I want to apologize for the lack of content yesterday. Most of the Fansided Network was down all day, including Gone Puck Wild. Never fear, my great article I’m sure you all were dying to read yesterday is here for your reading pleasure and be sure to tune into GPW Radio’s second installment tonight at 5pm as we recap Minnesota’s postseason.
Soon after dropping their first playoff series in five years, it became clear that Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and Head Coach Mike Yeo were safe—even if for just one more season. The uneducated portion of Minnesota Wild “fans” may be outraged by this, but the faithful know just how crucial these two men are to the future of the franchise.
In the four years since taking over the Wild, Chuck Fletcher has filled the prospect cupboard to the brim at all positions. So much so, in fact, that he was willing to part with two top-end prospects and a pair of high draft picks to acquire a top-6 impact player in former Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville at this year’s trade deadline.
Even with the departures of forward Johan Larsson and goaltender Matt Hackett, such prominent prospects as Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Brett Bulmer, Zack Phillips, Mathew Dumba, Mario Lucia, Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson remain. And, of course, there’s the beyond brilliant pick of Swedish defenseman Jonas Brodin at 10th overall in 2011. Many don’t even consider him a prospect anymore; playing 45 games shutting down the best players in the Western Conference on a top defensive pairing with Norris candidate Ryan Suter will do that for you.
When you look at the quality of prospects he’s drafted and developed, then see that Marco Scandella is the best prospect remaining in the system from the Doug Risebrough era, it’s easy to see why he’s certainly more than worthy of staying at Minnesota’s helm for at least one more season. His brilliance doesn’t end there, however.
On July 4th, 2012, the second GM in franchise history shocked the entire National Hockey League with the identical signings of top free agent forward Zach Parise and top free agent defenseman Suter to 13-year $98 million deals. It instantly changed the fortunes of the franchise. What was even more brilliant is that Fletcher has been eyeing these two for the past few seasons. In attracting them, he acquired defenseman Tom Gilbert and forward Jake Dowell, two guys that were friends with Suter and played with him at the University of Wisconsin. It could also possibly be argued that acquiring fellow U of W alum Dany Heatley in the offseason previous was another step in enticing Suter and, in turn, Parise, who wanted to play on the same team with Suter.
While the Kim Johnsson and Nick Leddy for Cam Barker trade will always be a sore spot in the minds of Wild fans, it’s one of the very few mistakes made by Fletcher thus far, and he’s built a franchise that is one or two pieces away from being a serious playoff threat year after year. In fact, this year’s playoff run, while short, is likely the first of many in the Fletcher, Parise, Suter and prospects era. Minnesota’s GM is finally seeing the first-fruits of his labor; he should at least be given the chance to enjoy it.
Mike Yeo wrapped up his second season as Wild Head Coach, and fans want his head after a first round exit. Considering this team went from drafting 7th overall last season to a playoff berth, those fans need to cool their jets. It’s simple—you can’t expect a team that has missed the playoffs for five straight seasons to beat the best team in the league in the first round of the playoffs. You hear Yeo talk about “the process”, well, this is it. He’s right, it is a process and the Wild are proceeding in the right direction.
The fact of the matter is that what caused Minnesota to lose Round One to the Blackhawks was out of Fletcher or Yeo’s control. Aside from Games Two and Five, it all came down to missed opportunities out on the ice. Bad bounces, freak injuries to goalies and not capitalizing on 17 power play opportunities—going into Game Five, it could just as easily have been Minnesota up 3-1 in the series. Had Jason Zucker’s shot off the crossbar in overtime of Game One been just 1/8-1/4” lower, the series could have very easily been 1-1 going into Game Three at home.
The early exit did shed some light on what Minnesota needs to acquire before next season. We’ll go into that more in-depth later this offseason, but there are definitely questions that need to be answered.
A major problem that needs to be addressed before next season is goaltending. Niklas Backstrom, who did not see a minute of postseason action, is going to have to have surgery for a sports hernia. Even though he is the best goalie the franchise has yet seen, with his injury history, is Backstrom worth re-signing and will he take a dip in pay? What should the team do about Josh Harding? He was stellar in net this postseason, but the MS always lingers in the back of your mind. Darcy Kuemper is good—great even—but is nowhere near ready to take over as franchise No. 1. Do you sign a guy like Mike Smith who is going to demand a lot of money and—in this writer’s personal opinion—has an attitude problem? Do you see about maybe Ryan Miller or even make a trade for Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles Kings?
Minnesota needs a solid top-4 defenseman. Do they make a trade, sign anyone in free agency or look to a guy like Marco Scandella or 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba to fill that role? After playing just six regular season games with the Wild this season before being sent down to Houston, Scandella elevated his game in the postseason, leading Minnesota’s defensemen in scoring with a goal and an assist for two points, a negative-1 rating, six shots on goal and an average ice time of 18:01 while playing a key shutdown role against guys like Patrick Kane. Marco was also one of Minnesota’s leaders in blocked shots.
At 6’3” 210-pounds, Minnesota’s 2nd round pick in 2008 has a big body and plays a smart defensive game. It was especially enjoyable watching him shutdown and pester Patrick Kane all series long. Scandella already has good chemistry with top-4 defenseman Jared Spurgeon and may have just played his way onto Minnesota’s second pairing next season.
Then there’s the need for a pure goal scorer, something the team has lacked since the departure of Marian Gaborik. Cue a Mr. Jason Zucker. No other Wild player electrifies the crowd like Zucker does whenever he hops the boards. He plays a style very similar to Parise in that he is a Tasmanian devil every time he chases after the puck. However, his goal scoring touch is also reminiscent of Gaborik. His work ethic, goal scoring touch and speed gives this kid the potential to break out and score a beauty every time he’s on the ice.
But Zucker isn’t alone. There’s also 2010 28th overall pick Charlie Coyle. To put it simply, Coyle is a monster of a prospect. At 6’2” 205-pounds, Coyle is already growing into his man-body and uses it to his advantage with his physical style of play. “Sir Charles” is great along the boards, uses his stick well and is just a bull moose—I mean—you simply cannot knock this kid off the puck. He plays like Jonathan Toews and has the goal scoring touch of a younger Dany Heatley. He’s a kid that can score pretty goals, dish beautiful assists to his line-mates and also isn’t afraid to score gritty, greasy goals.
The Minnesota Wild saw a lot of progress this season, and it’s only going to continue with Chuck Fletcher and Mike Yeo at the helm. Sure, a first round loss to the Blackhawks was tough to swallow, but there’s no shame in losing to the best team in the league, and it was a series that was definitely a lot closer than the box score could ever indicate. The future looks great, the pieces are in place and most of the key prospects gained a lot of playoff experience that will only make them hungry for more. Next season looks pretty exciting, folks!