Myers: In Stanley Cup champs, Chuck Fletcher sees what Wild could be
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher gathered with a handful of reporters on a rainy Thursday at a St. Paul bar, a few blocks from Xcel Energy Center, there was soccer and baseball playing on the multitude of flat screen TVs overhead.
Perhaps it was just chance, or perhaps someone had the good sense to turn off the NHL Network coverage before Fletcher got there, so they didn't have to see the scenes from sun-splashed downtown Los Angeles, where at that moment, thousands of fans gathered outside Staples Center to celebrate the Kings' first-ever Stanley Cup parade.
Until roughly 10 days before the regular season's end, the Wild and Kings were battling for one of the last Western Conference playoff spots. While a multitude of injuries and inconsistencies finally dropped the Wild from atop the NHL standings to being one of 14 teams watching the playoffs from home, the Kings famously made the 16-team postseason field at the last minute.
Then, seeded eighth in the West, Los Angeles went on a historic run, losing just one road game in the four rounds, and dispatching the New Jersey Devils last Monday, thus claiming the Cup for the first time since the expansion Kings set up shop in the City of Angels in 1967.
Fletcher of course made note of the Kings run to the finals, where a No. 8 seed from the west beat a #6 seed from the east, and also acknowledged the recent spate of "one-and-done" Cup champions in Tampa Bay, Carolina, Anaheim, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston. To him, that's a sign that if you simply get into the playoff field, anyone can go on a run. And perhaps it's also a sign that his team is not so far away, not only from the playoffs, but from hoisting a banner.
"That speaks to how close we all are," Fletcher said. "All of us can get better quickly."
And when injuries mount, it can go badly, quickly, as well. On Dec. 10, when the Wild were riding a lengthy winning streak and possessors of the best record in the league, one statistical analysis gave them a better than 97% chance of making the playoffs. For the fourth year in a row, they failed. But Fletcher says they were simply too good, for a time, to be considered a fluke.
"We had a good core of NHL talent and when we were healthy we were a good team," he said. "When we had some injuries and adversity we didn't have the depth to sustain the success we had. So we have to get a little deeper and get a little more offensive talent."
That means that the picks the Wild have ready to roll this weekend in Pittsburgh, starting with the No. 7 overall selection on Friday night, will be used most likely in a continuing effort to restock the cupboards that were so starkly bare at the end of Doug Reisborough's lengthy, and ultimately unsuccessful, run as the franchise's first general manager.
But Fletcher and top assistant Brent Flahr admit that in a best-case scenario, the 2012 draft might produce one player who will contend for a roster spot a year from now. More realistically, the players who first don a Wild cap this weekend will be on the Xcel Energy Center's home bench in two or three years.
So, if it's depth they want in the drive for a 2013 playoff run, expect Fletcher to wade in the trade waters once again. His phone has already been ringing plenty with trade offers, but he knows that roughly 95 percent of those feelers go nowhere.
Fletcher made a splash and headlines on draft night, in St. Paul, last summer, sending defenseman Brent Burns to San Jose for Devin Setoguchi and a handful of prospects. But while moves like that one appear on page one, Fletcher says it's just as notable to make a seemingly quiet move like the 2009 draft night trade with the Oilers that produced Kyle Brodziak. In that early-season surge to the top of the NHL standings last season, Brodziak's career-best offensive numbers were a big part of the picture.
Much has been made of the late-season addition of Jason Zucker, and the late May signing of high-scoring Finn Mikael Granlund. To Fletcher, those were just the first steps in what he hopes will be the final building blocks in a playoff team for next season and beyond.
"We're not far away," Fletcher said. "You can't have the stretch we did and call it a fluke. Our weaknesses were exposed, but we'll get better, and I think we already have."