Camp Tour: Wild search for new identity
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It's the most important question asked in the greatest hockey movie of all time: "Who owwnnnsssss da Chiefs?"
We were reminded of that plaintive query offered by Charlestown Chiefs goalie Denis Lemieux of "Slap Shot" fame as we watched the Minnesota Wild during the second day of training camp.
Who are the Wild?
A roaring success off the ice since entering the NHL in 2000-01, the Wild have wandered aimlessly in the NHL wilderness for much of that time. The team enjoyed one successful spring, making a surprise appearance in the 2003 Western Conference finals.
The Wild have not won a playoff round since and since the lockout have managed to miss the playoffs four out of six seasons including the last three in a row.
As incongruous as it may seem, in a place proudly known as the State of Hockey, the Wild have curiously become a kind of faceless entity.
From season to season, the Wild have seemed uncertain of what team they want to be, and fans have voiced their displeasure, vocally and with their wallets. While attendance remains strong, the assured sellouts that marked the Wild's earlier seasons are gone; the team saw an incredible 409-game sellout streak end early in the 2010-11 season.
Whether that is about to change, whether fans here will be able to answer that nagging question, "Who are the Wild?", cannot be answered in words, only deeds. But certainly that is the expectation of GM Chuck Fletcher and rookie coach Mike Yeo, the men whose reputations are on the line in trying to salvage this team's place in Minnesota.
"There's no question, since I've been here, I think we've struggled to find our identity and we've struggled to play our game on a consistent basis," Fletcher told ESPN.com on Sunday after the team's second day of on-ice workouts.
Credit to Fletcher -- son of Hall of Famer Cliff Fletcher who took the Wild job in May 2009 after helping build the Pittsburgh Penguins into a powerhouse as assistant GM -- for boldly following his vision of how to fix this team.
Fletcher hired Todd Richards away from the San Jose Sharks in his first month on the job, an experiment that lasted two seasons. When Fletcher fired Richards after the 2010-11 campaign, he was expected to hire an experienced NHL coach to right the ship. Instead, Fletcher went after former Pittsburgh assistant Mike Yeo, who had led the Wild's AHL team in Houston to a surprising Calder Cup finals berth last season in his first season as a head coach at the pro level.
Fletcher said when he took the job, longtime Buffalo GM Darcy Regier offered this advice on hiring a coach: Find one you can communicate with, who shares your vision of what kind of team you want to have and someone with whom you can grow.
Fletcher believes he has found that person in Yeo.
"I trust him. He's very knowledgeable about the game," Fletcher said.
He also believes Yeo's passion for the game and belief in his own systems will be infectious and the players will buy in.
"So far, it's been better than I could have imagined," Yeo told ESPN.com on Sunday.
As for building the Wild's identity, Yeo acknowledged it's going to take time.
"I wouldn't say it's my biggest challenge, but I would say it's my biggest focus," he said.
Intelligent and impassioned, Yeo said he has been around quality players enough to know what the standard for excellence is and what it takes to be successful.
Wild players certainly seem anxious to find someone with whom they can grow and learn. They, perhaps better than any, understand the disappointments of recent years in this market.
Captain Mikko Koivu acknowledged it is important to make the playoffs, but it's more important to build something lasting in Minnesota.
"Obviously, it's important, and I think every season it is," Koivu told ESPN.com. "But before we can talk about playoffs, we have to get to know each other and start to work from day one and be patient with our game and start to build a team, an organization where we can be a top team for a lot of years, not just one year.
"I think that's even more important," he added. "I think when the fans see that, where each and every night we can give all we have and work hard for each other, I believe that the wins will be there. We want to be a good team, a good organization for a lot of years, not just one year."
If Fletcher was bold in his decision to hire outside the box, he was likewise bold in dramatically changing the makeup of his roster, trading for Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, who both were part of San Jose Sharks teams that went to two straight Western Conference finals. It cost the Wild All-Star defenseman Brent Burns and big winger Martin Havlat, but Fletcher also added a premium prospect in center Charlie Coyle and another first-round draft pick.
Taking over a team bereft of any depth to speak of in its minor league system, Fletcher has added four first-round picks (or players who were first-round picks) and four second-round picks in the past two drafts. The changes to the roster have a dual purpose: building for the immediate future and, in theory, ensuring that new identity moving forward.
"There's a lot of new faces, a new coach who's going to bring a different system, so it's going to be a different team, that's for sure," said winger Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who missed 104 games with a concussion, but is poised to restart his promising career. "With Dany and Devin, they're two great players that can bring some offense and score some goals, so it's going to be a big plus.
"That's what we missed the last few years. As an identity, it's a fresh start we need to create one, and it starts in training camp, trying to play the system the right way."
There remains much skepticism outside the Wild locker room that this is a team that can compete for a playoff spot or is even close to being on the right track.
Fletcher knows that. It doesn't seem to bother him, though.
"I think that this team will be better than what many pundits around hockey feel we'll be, and there's nothing wrong with coming in a little under the radar," Fletcher said.