“Anything short of winning the Stanley Cup right now would be a disappointment.”
This is what Wild owner Craig Leipold told a group of reporters last September while conducting an interview between periods of a preseason game in his Xcel Energy Center suite.
Seven months later, one had to wonder how Leipold felt as he watched his team get shutout for a second consecutive game Friday in a 5-0 loss at Winnipeg that gave the Jets a 4-1 win in their first-round playoff series against Minnesota. It marked the third consecutive season in which the Wild have lost in the opening round.
Could the disappointment (or anger) Leipold felt result in some significant changes? It couldn’t have helped matters that the Wild put forth a pathetic performance in their Game 5, while the Philadelphia Flyers and Colorado Avalanche both were able to avoid elimination by beating Pittsburgh and Nashville, respectively.
Leipold could attempt to blame this playoff exit on the fact that $98 million defenseman Ryan Suter was lost to a broken ankle late in the regular season and $98 million winger Zach Parise suffered a fractured sternum in the Wild’s victory in Game 3 of this series. That, however, would be ignoring the fact that while the Wild have made the playoffs each season since Parise and Suter signed 13-year contracts, they have yet to get past the second round in those six playoff appearances.
The first thing Leipold must do is decide if he wants to retain general manager Chuck Fletcher, who has been in the position since May 2009 and worked this season in the final year of his contract. The Wild have appeared in eight playoff series with Fletcher in charge, winning only two and losing 29 of 44 games.
While Fletcher likely will try to sell Leipold on the fact that things would have been different this season if Parise and Suter were healthy in the playoffs, the owner has to know that time has run out for those two to be capable of carrying the Wild to a Stanley Cup. That was the plan when they signed on July 4, 2012 and it has fallen far short.
Where Fletcher must accept blame, and what could cost him his job, is that the supporting cast he was supposed to build around Parise and Suter simply hasn’t been good enough.
When the Wild upset the Colorado Avalanche in seven games in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, the expectation was that youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker (who was hurt at the time) would soon develop into the type of players who could help Parise and Suter hoist a Stanley Cup.
That didn’t happen.
Haula was lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft last offseason – he finished second on the team with 29 goals and fifth with 55 points in 76 games this season – and scored a key overtime goal in Vegas’ four-game sweep of the Kings in the opening round. Meanwhile, Granlund had a goal and two assists against the Jets, while Coyle, Niederreiter and Zucker combined for no points in the series.
In fairness, Fletcher made the deal for Vegas to select Haula, and also sent winger Alex Tuch (15 goals, 22 assists in 78 games) to the Golden Knights, because he wanted to keep players such as Matt Dumba. Dumba can drive fans crazy with his play in the defensive zone, but he also possesses a big shot and offensive abilities that are difficult to find on the blue line.
But Fletcher also blundered by sending defenseman Marco Scandella, along with winger Jason Pominville, to Buffalo for forwards Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno in a move made for salary-cap purposes. The problem was that the return Fletcher got was terrible.
Ennis had only eight goals and 14 assists in 73 games and was a healthy scratch in all but one playoff game. Foligno was fine when he used his size (6-foot-3, 232 pounds) to play a physical game, but he did not do that nearly enough and finished with eight goals and 15 assists in 77 regular-season games.
Ennis is due to make $4.6 million in the final season of his contract in 2018-19 and it will be surprising if he’s back in Minnesota. Foligno, meanwhile, signed a four-year, $11.5 million deal in September and it remains to be seen how many more years he will spend in a Wild jersey.
Then there was Fletcher’s head-scratching decision to sign captain Mikko Koivu to a two-year, $11 million extension that will begin with the 2018-19 season. Considering the Wild’s salary-cap issues, the smart play would have been to let Koivu play out his contract and then bring him back on a one-year deal, on the team’s terms, or simply let him walk.
Koivu, who had 14 goals and 31 assists in the regular season, has been with the Wild since 2005-06. If the Wild extended his contract out of a sense of loyalty it was a mistake. The fact Fletcher put a “no-move” clause in the deal makes it that much worse.
Should Fletcher now be trusted to make the necessary moves to improve the Wild this summer? If the Wild want to build a playoff roster, there are going to have to be some significant changes made because this current roster has proven it can’t cut it in the spring.
Zucker and Dumba are going to be restricted free agents and it might be wise to shop Zucker after his career-high 33 goal season. Why would you trade him? Because Zucker has four goals in 31 playoff games and one in his past 16. Fletcher, or a new GM, also would be wise to see what they could get in return for Granlund, Coyle, Niederreiter and Eric Staal, who had a great season (42 goals) but will turn 34 years old in October. Staal can be traded to a selected number of teams under a modified no-trade clause in his contract.
Fletcher, of course, will try to sell Leipold on the fact that there are some quality young players on the roster, including forwards Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek. Fletcher also will argue that with Boudreau entering the third season of his four-year contract in Minnesota it makes sense to give this duo another chance at pursuing a Stanley Cup.
Boudreau has earned the right to remain behind the bench. He led the Wild to a franchise-best 106 points last season and 101 points this season. He did it while attempting to push all the right buttons with a roster full of players who can drive you crazy with their inconsistency.
That roster was put together by Fletcher. Has he earned the right to receive a new contract and return for a 10th season?
That’s a decision Leipold is going to have to make in the coming days and, if he holds true to how he felt last September about this team, it isn’t going to be an easy one.