Minnesota was a team originally made up of castoffs from other NHL teams and had really only one player that could be considered a genuine super star, Marian Gaborik, the team’s very first entry draft pick and the highest drafted player (3rd overall in 2000) in Wild history. Yet just a few years later, this team of castoffs and misfits managed to upset the mighty Colorado Avalanche (putting legendary netminder Patrick Roy into retirement in the process), the Vancouver Canucks and secure its first and only Western Conference Final playoff berth to date. Even though the Wild was then swept by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Minnesota became a team that other NHL teams, players and coaches came to respect thereafter.
In the years since that miraculous run in 2002-03, the Wild have made the playoffs exactly twice, falling in the first round both times. Minnesota hasn’t seen the postseason for the past four years and, during that time, the team has seen the departure of one general manager (He Who Shall Not Be Named), two head coaches (Jaques Lemaire and Todd Richards) and the biggest star the team has had to date—Gaborik.
Since the new GM—Chuck Fletcher—took over, the franchise has taken on a different look. Yes, the team’s performance has been fairly mediocre the past few seasons, but Fletcher has made some very smart trades, signings and draft picks and our top prospect has gone from Colton Gillies (16th overall in ‘07) to Mikael Granlund (9th overall in ‘10), who is considered by many to be one of the best hockey players in the entire world to have yet to play in the NHL. In fact, GM Fletcher has drafted and developed arguably the best prospect pool in the National Hockey League.
After the previous regime swung and missed on four straight 1st round picks, Fletcher has added top-end blue chip talent in drafting Granlund, Jonas Brodin (10th overall in ’11), Zack Phillips (28th overall in ’11) and Mathew Dumba (7th overall in ’12) and trading for Charlie Coyle (28th overall in ’10 by San Jose). As great as his 1st round picks have been, Fletcher has hit towering homeruns in the 2nd round with picks like Brett Bulmer (#39 in ’10), Johan Larsson (#56 in ’10), Jason Zucker (#59 in ’10), Mario Lucia (#60 in ’11) and Raphael Bussieres (#46 in ’12).
The Wild GM also has a knack for adding quality goaltenders in nearly each draft. In 2009, it was Matthew Hackett and big Darcy Kuemper; Kuemper would go on to be the WHL’s top goaltender in ’10-’11 and Hackett would backstop the Aeros to within two wins of the AHL Championship that same season. In 2010, it was Johan Gustafsson, the goaltender who would go on to lead Sweden to a 1-0 win in the 2012 WJC gold medal game. In 2011, it was Stephen Michalek who would go on to be the starter for Harvard in his freshman campaign. With such talent in the pipeline, it’s easy to see why Fletcher chose not to draft a goalie in the 2012 draft.
Minnesota has the talented prospects needed to be quite dangerous in the league for years to come—but what about right now? Last season, Minnesota was on a roll and dominated the league with their defensive style and dominant goaltending. In fact, the Wild were playing so well, they were at the very top of the NHL standings for nearly a month before they were bit by the injury bug. Then Minnesota’s season fell apart. Captain Mikko Koivu, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse all were out of the lineup for a good portion of the rest of the season. And, when you have four of your top six forwards out with injuries and half your team is made up of rookies and AHL call-ups, your production is bound to suffer.
The fact of the matter is that Minnesota did not have the depth they needed to succeed last year. The top prospects were playing in other leagues in other countries and weren’t in the farm system where they could be called up as needed. As such, the players that were called up were more of the role-player/grinder mold. Thus, you would see very experimental line combinations of Dany Heatley-Kyle Brodziak-Nick Johnson for your top line and a third or fourth line made up entirely of career AHLers like Jed Ortmeyer, Jon DiSalvatore and Warren Peters.
Also, many writers and sports analysts critiqued the defensive corps as being too young and experienced. While partially true, this wasn’t the main problem last year because the young Wild defense was one of the very best in the league for half the year until the injury bug hit. When four of your top six forwards are out of the lineup and half your team is made up of rookies and AHLers, the puck is in the defensive end a lot more than it should be. When that happens, the other team is able to take more shots and the more shots on net the more likely the puck is going to go in at some point.
Yes, the Wild became the first team in NHL history to miss the playoffs after leading the NHL into December; however, I do believe Chuck Fletcher made the moves needed to ensure his team doesn’t do the same next season. The offseason has seen drastic changes for the Wild. Christiansen, Johnson, Latendresse, Lundin and Foster are out and Parise, Suter, Mitchell and Konopka are in with call-up depth also added in the signings of Dowell and Connelly. Best of all, the top prospects are ready! Granlund, Coyle, Phillips, Brodin, Bulmer, Larsson and Zucker are playing down in Houston and Tyler Cuma (#23 in ’08) is also ready to make an impact with the big club. Top goaltending prospect, Hackett, saw some good time in the NHL last season with Backstrom and Harding injured and proved he is more than ready to play in the big leagues.
Parise will complete a very dangerous top line with Koivu and Heatley and Granlund is a lock for the second line center position. He’ll most likely play with Devin Setoguchi and either Bouchard or Matt Cullen. That is a very dangerous top six, but wait…there are two more lines, right? You bet, in fact, the bottom six is where the success of this team may very well lie. I suspect Coach Yeo is very excited about the gritty bottom six he can put together. I would expect to see a very tough third line of Mitchell-Brodziak-Clutterbuck and a fourth line comprised of Powe, Konopka and either Veilleux, Kassian or Dowell. That is a very, very tough bottom six that is more than capable to protect the Wild’s stars.
The defense also looks quite strong with a very solid core of Suter, Gilbert, Spurgeon, Scandella, Stoner, Prosser and Falk. You’ll also have guys like Brodin, Kampfer, Cuma and Genoway looking to steal a permanent roster spot. However, the top pairing of the future for this franchise is sure to be made up of Brodin and 2012 1st round blue-chipper, Matt Dumba.
Let’s take a quick look back at Fletcher’s drafting. Yes, he’s drafted elite offensive stars like Granlund and Phillips and has acquired a stud in Coyle, but the true test of his drafting prowess is in his second round picks. Every single one of them is a guy that can really be inserted at any spot in the roster and excel, though Lucia may be considered more of a sniper. Fletcher has also added great depth in the later rounds. John Draeger, Daniel Gunnarsson, Adam Gilmour and Nick Seeler could prove to be a couple of real steals by the Wild GM and 7th rounders, Erik Haula (2009) and Tyler Graovac (2011), are leading the way at the University of Minnesota and in the OHL, respectively. It’s that part of Fletcher’s drafting that builds depth in an organization and that is exactly what this team has never had outside of the term “depth players”.
Minnesota is a team that many people have written off—and still do—but no longer. This team is bursting to the brim with elite offensive talent and great organizational depth. Chuck Fletcher has set this team up for long-term success and may have very well created a perennial powerhouse that could eventually rival the feats of such dynasties as the ‘80s Islanders and Oilers and maybe even the Detroit Redwings of today.
So, the logical answer to the title question of this article has become clear: the Wild need the lockout to end so the domination can begin. In the meantime, I would suggest to keep perusing such sites as THW, Hockey Wilderness and First Round Bust to help satisfy your Minnesota Wild hockey fix.