ST. PAUL – Monday will mark the one-year anniversary of one of Chuck Fletcher’s most miserable days as general manager of the Minnesota Wild and yet one of the most important.
On Feb. 13 of last season the Wild gave a pathetic effort in a 4-2 matinee loss to the Boston Bruins at Xcel Energy Center. That continued what had become the Wild’s annual mid-season free-fall under coach Mike Yeo – the loss was their eighth in a row – and left Fletcher seething in the GM’s booth as fans booed his team off the ice.
Fletcher and owner Craig Leipold had seen enough. In his postgame press conference, Yeo talked like a coach who was about to be fired and later that evening Fletcher made it official, replacing him on an interim basis with John Torchetti.
Yeo’s dismissal meant that Fletcher’s seat became the hottest one at the X with very little margin for error remaining. After being named GM in May 2009, Fletcher decided to hire San Jose Sharks assistant Todd Richards as his first coach.
Richards went 77-71-16 with no playoff appearances in two seasons before being dismissed. The assumption was that Fletcher would go with a veteran coach the second time around. He didn’t.
Instead, Yeo was promoted after having served as the coach of the Wild’s minor league affiliate in Houston. He led the Wild to three playoff appearances and two series wins in four-plus seasons, but the team became best known for its untimely and lengthy meltdowns each winter.
Following the Wild’s first-round playoff loss last spring, Fletcher informed Torchetti he would not be retained as coach and began looking for a veteran bench boss. When Bruce Boudreau was fired as Anaheim’s coach after losing a seven-game series to Nashville in the first round, Fletcher began a pursuit that ended with Boudreau agreeing to a contract that reportedly was for four years and more than $11 million.
That deal looks like a bargain.
The Wild’s 6-3 victory over Detroit on Sunday at the X helped them improve to 37-12-6 with a Western Conference-leading 80 points. The Wild, who are one win and seven points from equaling last season’s 82-game totals, trail only Washington (84) for most points in the NHL, and their goal differential of plus-58 is also second only to the Capitals.
The Wild have not lost back-to-back games since the end of November. They have gone from being a fractured group under Yeo to a cohesive unit that gets consistent goaltending from Devan Dubnyk, and also has the ability to score goals like never before. Boudreau’s team leads the Western Conference in goals scored (187) and goals against (129).
For comparisons sake, the Wild were 23-22-10 and in 11th place when Yeo was fired last season, having gone 3-12-4 in their past 19 games. In the past 19 games this season, the Wild are 14-3-2.
The Wild got two goals from Zach Parise on Sunday and one apiece from Charlie Coyle, Christian Folin, Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund. Minnesota has 10 players with 10 or more goals and every line change Boudreau makes seems to work.
On Sunday, Boudreau wasn’t happy with how Coyle was playing on the right wing on the No. 1 line with Eric Staal at center and Niederreiter on his other wing. The decision was made to move Coyle to center on the third line with Parise and Jason Pominville.
Coyle, who broke out of a slump playing center last Tuesday in Winnipeg when he assisted on three goals, scored his 14th goal with a few nifty moves on a breakaway in the second period and then assisted on Folin’s goal in the third.
Fletcher watched all of this from the same seat he had looked so miserable in a year ago. This time the GM looked relaxed, or as relaxed as general manager can be during a game. The pressure he almost certainly felt before hiring Boudreau is a thing of the past.
These days there is no talk of anyone’s job being in jeopardy. The only speculation now at the X surrounds who might be taking home postseason awards. Yes, there will be time to worry about Boudreau’s 1-7 record in Game 7s but that time is not here yet.
Right now, a four-year investment worth approximately $11 million has never looked so wise.