Zulgad: Wild GM has seen problems, now he seeks solutions
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - As the Minnesota Wild gets set to open training camp on Saturday, it is new coach Mike Yeo who will be in the spotlight.
But make no mistake general manager Chuck Fletcher is the one feeling the heat. Fletcher is entering his third season on the job and has yet to get owner Craig Leipold's team into the playoffs.
Fletcher's first coach, Todd Richards, was dismissed last spring after finishing 11 points out of a playoff spot in his second season. For the first time in its 10-year history, the Wild weren't able to announce every game at Xcel Energy Center as a sellout.
Fletcher and Yeo conducted numerous interviews separately on Friday afternoon at Xcel Energy Center and it was interesting that each took a different approach in how they discussed matters.
Yeo, who led the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate in Houston to the Calder Cup Finals last spring, had little interest in discussing what transpired in Minnesota before his arrival in June.
"I don't know that I really want to talk about that a whole lot from last year," Yeo said when asked how the system he would run might differ from what Richards did. "I just would rather continue to talk about what it is that we want to do."
That's probably the right approach for a guy who undoubtedly is well versed in what went wrong with the Wild but has little to gain by discussing it.
Fletcher, however, can't help but acknowledge some of the problems he has witnessed and make it clear that he now will be part of solving those issues.
Fletcher, 44, went out of his way Friday not to put blame on Richards, but his words served as an indictment of the recent history of a franchise that has made the playoffs only three times (2003, 2007, 2008) and advanced out of the first round once (2003).
Fletcher spoke of the team falling apart near the end of the last two seasons because the Wild wasn't strong enough as a team. He mentioned the need for guys to be good teammates, the importance of buying in, coming to practice ready to compete, working hard in practice and putting in time in the gym afterward.
These are things one would expect would come naturally to NHL players, but clearly Fletcher did not feel that was the case.
"It sounds simple but we've made a lot of poor choices as individuals and as a team the last two seasons that have not allowed us to be successful in the end," Fletcher said. "We have some talent here, but can we become a good team? We failed that test the last two years in my opinion. I'm not saying it was the coach's fault at all. It wasn't the coaches. We need a lot more accountability from our players."
Give Fletcher credit for honesty because the fact the Wild came up short in these areas reflect on everyone in the organization including him.
Fletcher expressed optimism - of course, if you don't express optimism on the eve of training camp something is wrong - that the preliminary fitness results for the Wild's players were all positive.
Among those showing up in satisfactory condition was left winger Guillaume Latendresse, whose poor conditioning in 2010-11 played a role in him missing 58 games because of various injuries.
Fletcher said Latendresse is "poised to have a big season."
Yeo is hoping Latendresse isn't the only one who will thrive in a system that will put plenty of physical demands on players and thus means they will need to be in top physical condition.
The Wild made two big offseason trades with the San Jose Sharks to get right wingers Dany Heatley (325 career goals) and Devin Setoguchi (84 goals). Those two should add scoring punch to a team that needed it, but the Wild also gave up puck-moving defenseman Brent Burns.
Yeo called the Burns trade "a heck of a deal" for the Wild - the club also got San Jose's 2010 first-round pick, Charlie Coyle, and the Sharks' 2011 first-round selection, center Zack Phillips - but otherwise kept the focus on what he wants from his current players and not who was on the roster previously.
"We want to play a real structured but a very aggressive game," Yeo said of how he will operate. "If we're doing our job, whatever zone we're in, we should be putting them under pressure and hopefully arriving there with a bad temper and putting them through the glass, if you want to put it that way."
Yeo, 38, lacks no confidence and doesn't seem as if he will be afraid to get in a guy's face if that's what is needed. He understands the Wild can't afford another slow start or poor finish. Last season, the Wild went 2-10-1 from March 10 to April 7 before winning its final two games.
"Everyone wants to talk about the end of the season and results and where we're going to be and what we have to do," Fletcher said when asked about the playoffs. "If we lose sight of the process, we're done. ... You can talk about anything. Where we want to be at the end of this year, where we want be in four years. We'd like to win the next 10 Stanley Cups.
"But the reality is until we become a good team, until we do the things that are necessary to be a more consistently competitive team night in and night out and avoid the inconsistencies we had over the last two seasons everything is just words. So I'm looking for actions, I'm looking for results and training camp is huge. We have a lot of work ahead of us. We certainly have the talent to be a successful team. Can we be a good team? We'll find out. That's the goal."