Caution: Wild are starting to come together
March, 21, 2013
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com
It was the first week of February, and the Minnesota Wild had lost three straight games to fall to 4-5-1.
It wasn’t what the passionate fans in the State of Hockey were expecting after a hype-filled offseason last summer fueled by the high-priced signings of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.
More troublesome was that they had seen this movie before: the team not scoring goals.
People wondered whether GM Chuck Fletcher’s plan was flawed, whether head coach Mike Yeo was still the right choice.
You know, all the silly knee-jerk stuff you get when things aren’t going well.
Fletcher resisted any panic moves. He didn’t trade slumping Devin Setoguchi, as many Wild fans had viewed as a needed shakeup at the time. The GM didn’t do anything rash. He simply thought his team needed more time to come together after turning over half his roster in half a year and having only a short training camp before the lockout-shortened season.
Patience was key early on.
"I think that’s true any year, but certainly this year when you look at a six-day training camp, the first 2-3 weeks of the season are like a training camp, only the games are real," Fletcher told ESPN.com Thursday. "We knew it would take some time to come together as a group, and we still have areas we want to work on and find more consistency. But early on, we just needed time to gel. We have a lot of character in our room and a very good coaching staff. When you have those components, typically they’ll find a way to work."
Lo and behold, a 13-5-2 run since that three-game losing streak to open February has quieted critics, a stretch that was highlighted this week by tough wins in Vancouver and Detroit.
"Mike and the coaches deserve a lot of credit," Fletcher said. "There was a lot of scrutiny early. They stuck to their guns. They stayed on their plan. The players are buying in and executing now. I think what you’re seeing now is confidence among the players that if we play the way we want to play, we have a chance to be successful every night. It’s an amazing thing when you see belief in what you’re doing and you see the growing confidence among all the players."
The Wild appear to be for real.
"They’re a good team, not in the top five in the league, but in that next group," a Western Conference scout from another club said. "Good goaltending, the defense has improved with Suter and [Jonas] Brodin. And they have the capability to score on the power play."
Suter has been insanely good. He could win the Norris Trophy. The rookie Brodin is going to be a stud in this league and at 19 is already looking comfortable on the top pairing with Suter.
Still, Fletcher isn’t breathing easy. Only six points separate third from 10th in the Western Conference as of Thursday morning, and while Minny has a two-point lead over the Canucks for the Northwest Division lead, the Wild GM sees nothing but a dog fight ahead over the stretch run.
"With the exception of Chicago and Anaheim, who have run away with it amazingly on our side, for the rest of us it’s up and down, and it’s 13 teams competing for six spots. It’s tough," Fletcher said.
Right now, he sees this a total team effort. Of course the star free agents, Suter and Parise, have been terrific, but everyone is contributing. The goaltending has been strong, the blue line rock solid and the offense -- yes, the offense ! -- has been clicking.
The key has been the arrival of a second line, mainly featuring Setoguchi and Matt Cullen. While Setoguchi has been on fire, with six goals in his past five games, old man Cullen has been a great story, with 11 points (1-10) in his past 11 games.
"He had a lot of rotating linemates for the first part of the year," Fletcher said of Cullen, 36. "He’s really found a comfort level with Devin Setoguchi. Matt is working hard at both ends of the ice, he’s got a really strong two-way game right now. He’s all over the ice, winning battles, playing penalty kill/power play, and he’s just an overall quality hockey player."
Cullen is among four pending UFAs on the club, and at this point, you wonder why not try to re-sign him for another year or two. But for now, Fletcher said he wants to wait until the offseason to figure that out.
"With all our UFAs, we’re just going to wait until the end of the year and let things play out," Fletcher said. "I don’t think there’s any sense in complicating things right now. We have a good focus. We’ll have plenty of time at the end of the year to sit down with our UFAs and get their thoughts and give them our thoughts. I don’t see any urgency right now to do anything there."
As for the April 3 trade deadline, despite the ascension up the standings and the likelihood of a playoff appearance, don’t expect the Wild to get into the rental market. Fletcher points to the fact there are only 12 regular-season games after the trade deadline, less than a normal season, which minimizes the impact of a rental player. If the Wild make a trade, it will be for a player who will be around past this season; in other words, a traditional deal.
"If it’s just a pending UFA coming in on a rental basis, it’s extremely difficult to justify paying a high price for just 12 games in the regular season and whatever happens after," Fletcher said. "Having said that, we’re like every team, we’ve been talking to teams all year to see what’s available, we’re certainly open to a hockey trade if it makes us better."
A top-four blueliner and/or a top-six forward with size would be the wish list for the Wild. Neither is easy to get, so it might be more of an offseason development, but Minnesota will keep looking in case between now and April 3.