Chuck Fletcher’s Blue Print for Wild Coming into Focus as Young Core Thrives
The Minnesota Wild came away from last year’s NHL trade deadline with winger Jason Pominville, in doing so they were required to provide a hefty package of prospects and draft picks to the Buffalo Sabres for their captain. The reaction at the time of the trade by media and the fan base was that general manager Chuck Fletcher had over paid for Pominville despite his being a very talented player.
Fletcher has shown a great ability since his arrival in Minnesota in 2009, to maneuver with a long sighted approach in trades and player acquisitions. Since replacing Doug Risbrough as the second general manager in Wild history, Fletcher has amassed an impressive group of prospects and young players. The subtle brilliance though has been in individual player acquisitions that have been geared towards a future vision and strategy. I detailed how the current roster was built here https://thehockeywriters.com/the-2013-14-minnesota-wild-roster/ as part of our The Hockey Writers series.
When Fletcher traded defenseman Nick Schultz to the Edmonton Oilers for Tom Gilbert, it was clear both players were due for a fresh start and swapping players to their hometown clubs was a nice angle. Another intended purpose though that was not completely clear at that time was that it added another former Badger to the roster just ahead on free agency when Fletcher planned to make a hard push at Ryan Suter. I believe that Zach Parise was by far the more committed of those two major fee agents to returning to play NHL hockey in Minnesota, so the courtship of Suter required infrastructure.
Fletcher shocked the hockey world getting both Parise and Suter to sign on. It now appears he has been building the foundation for superstar former Gopher winger Thomas Vanek to return here via free agency as well. Beyond the financials aspects of free agency in the NHL, players place value on their fit with a team and the potential for prolonged success. Beyond just added Parise and Suter because they are talented players and were available, it was a dynamic brand building watershed moment for the franchise. If Vanek does put ink to contract this summer to wear a Wild jersey, it will be a coup for Fletcher and further reinforce his vision for the franchise.
Trader Chuck Needs to Clear Roster Keeping Key Young Players in Minnesota
The 2014 NHL trade deadline for the Minnesota Wild should be themed addition by subtraction as Fletcher and his front office staff will look to make moves based upon the need to free up space and opportunity for their young core. When the Wild lost Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jared Spurgeon, and Josh Harding to extended absences, it appeared the season was in peril. The Wild’s young core has kept the season alive while those key 4 players were on the mend. The challenge now for Fletcher and Head Coach Mike Yeo is to clear out the way for the Wild keep their young core in the lineup. The adversity will be finding teams willing to take on the veterans the Wild will need to clear off the bottom of their roster and salary cap.
The time for the Wild to have veterans Niklas Backstrom, Dany Heatley, Mike Rupp, and Keith Ballard in the lineup has come and gone. Each of those veterans should be available in trade at the NHL trade deadline this year with possibly Kyle Brodziak and Torrey Mitchell as well. Fletcher must find a way to improve his maneuverability as his young players have earned their increased ice time and important roles. I realize it takes another NHL franchise to have interest and be a willing party to swing a deal but nothing could be more damaging right now for the Wild should these young player lose their spot on the roster to veteran under achievers blocking them.
I do not expect the Wild to be major players in the 2014 NHL trade deadline for several reasons. The most important reason being the Western Conference standings and playoff seeding are nearly concrete at this point with Wild’s most reasonable chance at making the playoffs this year coming as a 6th through 8th seed. The Wild has very good chance to make the playoffs this year but it doesn’t have a very good shot to improve their seed because they are 11 points behind the 5th place San Jose Sharks with 25 regulars season games left.
To move Backstrom would require Harding to prove fit enough to return and functional enough to be the Wild’s #1 netminder again. Harding has been struggling with illness associated with the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis. During the first 2 months of the NHL season though Harding carried this club on his back. Hopefully the Olympic Break provides Harding the opportunity to get back into his routine and return ready for the final push. If Harding proves ready, Fletcher should push hard to move Backstrom because of the emergence of Darcy Kuemper.
It goes without saying but if ANY team is willing to take on Heatley without requiring the Wild to take back money on a player beyond this season then it is a no brainer to ship the under achieving winger. When the Wild are back to full strength hopefully after the Olympic freeze it will mean a return to the 4th line for Heatley. It is no mystery that Heatley is only still with the Wild because he was ineligible for a compliance buyout and his effort on the ice this season has been disappointing. Heatley arguably should have ended up in the press box at different points this year but it has yet to happen. Hopefully another team rolls the dice on adding Heatley ahead of the playoffs.
Heatley is currently enjoying his most consistent 5 game stretch of games production and performance wise scoring the game winner versus Tampa Bay February 4th and contributing a uncharacteristically patient and unselfish helper on Zach Parise’s power play goal last night. Heatley has been prominently featured in the absence of Parise and Koivu so I do not find it out of the question that he has provided enough positive play to generate interest.
Best Case Scenario For Minnesota Wild at 2014 NHL Trade Deadline
I believe that if the Wild emerges from the olympics freeze completely healthy meaning Koivu and Harding back in the lineup, the best case scenario would be for Fletcher to work deals to ship out Backstrom, Heatley, Rupp, and Ballard for future assets. Being able to clear those 3 veterans from the roster would create the space and opportunity for young players that have risen to the challenge keeping the Wild’s season alive. Currently Darcy Kuemper, Jason Zucker, and Erik Haula all find themselves in roster limbo due to the crowded bottom of the roster. Adding a big skilled defender to the blue line would be huge for the Wild but I think addition by subtraction is the most realistic scenario.
The reality for the Wild is that they will not finish higher than 6th in the Western Conference playoff seeding unless something remarkable occurs between now and the end of the regular season. This current roster features several empowered young players that have earned their ice time and prominent roles with their play in the last month and a half. The Wild card is obviously Harding who previous to his current battle with illness had been the best goalie in the NHL for the 1st two months of the season. Kuemper has thrived with the Wild starting the last 10 games and being a clear difference maker with his confident play. If Harding feels well enough to return and compete the most competitive duo in net for the Wild would find Backstrom on the outside looking in.
The sexy move would be to add Thomas Vanek now but maybe the more important move need wise would be to add a big body skilled defender to pair with the Wild’s more finesse defenders. The top 4 pairings look to be set with Suter/Brodin and Spurgeon/Scandella but adding a stay at home defender with top 4 pairing skill could be a catalyst for providing Brodin the freedom to pair with Stoner or Prosser which would empower him to activate far more often than playing with Suter.
The pressure is definitely on Fletcher to improve this team ahead of the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference but he will not sacrifice the flexibility he has leveraged towards next season he has worked so hard to create. Wild fans should be paying close attention to the looming 3pm Friday February 7th olympic freeze deadline. There can be no player movement for 16 days with the freeze lifted February 23rd. The Wild will have only 3 games between when the freeze is lifted and the March 5th NHL trade deadline so a flurry of activity will surely occur in the two weeks following the olympics.
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