Much to the dismay of its fan base, the Minnesota Wild have consistently experienced a mid-season slump for the past few years. The 2015-16 season was no exception to this trend, as the Wild started off with the best start in franchise history, giving their fan base the hope that they could be Stanley Cup contenders. However, like the preceding years in Minnesota, the Wild ended up to be a team characterized by glimpses of brilliance followed by mediocre play.
The Jekyll and Hyde pattern of play had to fall on someone’s shoulders, and despite that the Wild’s players deserved to shoulder at least some of the blame, Mike Yeo had to be the one to take the fall. The consistency of the slump points to the conclusion that there is (or was) a malfunctioning piece within the management of the Wild. At this point, whether it came from ex-coach Mike Yeo, or farther upstairs in the Xcel Energy Center is hard to say.
After losing Yeo, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher regretfully stated, “We let a very good person go and as I told the group, that’s an indictment on all of us.” After the firing of Yeo, the pressure was placed on Fletcher to make smart moves during the off-season. Before we can discern whether or not he succeeded, let’s take a look at the moves that have been made so far.
Hiring of Bruce Boudreau
Okay, so Chuck Fletcher got more than a little lucky on this one. The Anaheim Ducks, frustrated with their lack of postseason success in the Boudreau-era, fired their coach in efforts to re-stoke the Stanley Cup flames. Rather than placing their confidence in Boudreau, the Ducks opted to re-hire Randy Carlyle, who brought the Stanley Cup to Anaheim in 2007. This stroke of luck may well have saved Fletcher’s job. Boudreau boasts one of the best regular season records of active coaches and has a history of molding his teams into dominant puck-possessors. His penchant for regular season success and consistency appears to be the answer to the Wild’s mid-season woes.
Buyout of Thomas Vanek
Vanek’s buyout cleared five million dollars in cap space for the Wild and represented a failure for the Wild’s management team. While some fans criticized his defensive efforts, he was a top-winger that did produce significant numbers on the offensive side. Unfortunately, it was between him or Pominville, and buying out Pominville’s contract would have been more of an embarrassment for Fletcher as his contract lasted longer and he was brought on to play a more significant role on the team.
Signing of Eric Staal and Chris Stewart
Fletcher had a few minefields to carefully step through this summer. The GM has been under fire in the past for signing veteran players to long and expensive contracts. Some of which have not turned out great for the Wild. As a result of this, Fletcher had to make smart deals this summer, where he would not place his job in jeopardy by paying too much or giving up too much skill for not enough in return.
In the signings of Eric Staal and Chris Stewart, Fletcher avoided signing big name veterans to expensive, long-term contracts. Instead, he made some smart deals that addressed the team’s need for a center and top-six forward, as well as bringing back Chris Stewart who was a solid player before the Wild had to let him go.
They also signed some young talent as well as adding goalie depth in the signing of Alex Stalock. In the beginning days of free agency, Fletcher stated, “Free agency is the biggest misnomer in sports; there’s certainly nothing free about it. I think a day like today is a pretty good opportunity to overpay players. And I like to think we avoided that”.
(Other notable signings include Victor Bartley, Pat Connone, Alex Tuch)
Re-signing Matt Dumba, Darcy Kuemper, Jason Zucker
Resigning Kuemper and Zucker occurred without much ado. Despite Zucker’s play not meeting the expectations of fans and management in 2015-16, he has shown enough promise to be resigned. The Kuemper resigning is a bit more exciting than it may seem on the surface. Boudreau has tended in the past to favor balancing the play between his goaltenders. So while last year, we saw Dubnyk in the net for most of the season, he will likely get a little more rest this season as Darcy Kuemper and new signing Alex Stalock compete for the backup position.
The resigning of Matt Dumba took a bit longer than expected, as the team was rumored to pursue trade possibilities involving the young defenseman. Wild fans will likely be pleased that he remains a part of the Wild’s strong defensive core.
There are some who still say the Wild could do more to trade for a play-maker or goal-scorer, even though the trade would likely include one of the Wild’s talented young defensemen. However, given their problems and concerns coming out of the 2016 playoffs as well as the constraints presented by the salary cap, it would be hard to argue that Fletcher did not do all he could to address the concerns around his team.
He signed a center with a great track record in Eric Staal and brought back Chris Stewart for a reasonable price. And above all, he hired the best available coach in the league to address under-performing players or mid-season slumps. Even though a great player was lost in Vanek, the rising young players in Minnesota will be able to pick up the slack. As a result of these changes, the Wild are my pick to be one of the top sleepers of the 2016-17 season, and will likely out-perform expectations.