NHL.com's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.
The latest edition features Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher:
Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher is heading into the final days before the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline on March 2 at 3 p.m. ET with an eye on adding to the depth of the hottest team in the League.
"If we can add a piece, whether it's up front or on the blue line, we'll do that," Fletcher told NHL.com.
The Wild are 13-2-2 in 17 games since Fletcher acquired goalie Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona Coyotes for a third-round draft pick; they were 18-19-5 through 42 games.
Dubnyk has won each of those 13 games in 16 starts with a 1.64 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage and five shutouts. The Wild have climbed into the second wild-card position in the Western Conference after being eight points out and last in the Central Division after a 7-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 13. Their 6-1 win against the Dallas Stars on Sunday put them inside the top-eight for the first time since Nov. 24.
The Wild's hot stretch has changed Fletcher's mindset. If the deadline was a month ago Minnesota would have been a seller; now it hopes to be a buyer.
Fletcher talked about what to expect from the Wild and the rest of the NHL in the days leading up to the deadline as well as about this remarkable about-face his team has made this season in the following Q&A, which even features a bonus question.
Here are Five (actually six) Questions with … Chuck Fletcher:
OK, let's get to the meat of it: You're a GM, the trade deadline is a week away, your team is playing extremely well in the past month after it wasn't at all for quite a while, so how has this run changed your mindset going into the deadline on March 2?
"Obviously if we had gone the other way and we were well out of a playoff spot, then you'd be looking to sell assets instead of looking to potentially acquire them. But we've been fortunate because we've had a lot of injuries and illnesses [and] our depth has been tested, and we've seen a few young players emerge and start to play a lot better. We've had other players like a Justin Fontaine be able to move up in the lineup and take on a bigger role. Nino Niederreiter has been able to step up and take on a bigger role. Same with Jason Zucker before he got injured. Now we're seeing some young defensemen like Matt Dumba and Christian Folin take on bigger roles. Fortunately our depth has held strong for us, but regardless of this run, you're always looking as a manager and if you can upgrade your team you do. The biggest thing you want to guard against is injuries. We've had a few and we've been able to work our way through them, but once you get past the trade deadline you can't go out and find any external solutions. So we may want to look at improving our depth here, but we've been thinking that way for a couple months.
"It hasn't been easy to find the right fit, but if we can find the right fit in the next week, whether it's a forward or a defenseman or both we'll certainly do that. We like our team, but you need a lot of bodies to survive this marathon of an NHL season. We lost Zucker, [Ryan] Carter and [Matt] Cooke and those are three players who are strong forecheckers, who bring a lot of energy and a physical dimension. All three of them are penalty killers too. We've had to look to other players to step up and you look out our penalty kill now, Niederreiter is killing now, [Mikael] Granlund is back on the PK, Justin Fontaine is starting to kill penalties for us. They've all done a very nice job. We've been able to find some replacements internally, but what you always want to guard against is what if two more guys go down? I think our mindset now is how do we improve our depth and make sure we have enough quality players here to get through the rest of the season? We have a tough schedule and it's obviously extremely difficult to make the playoffs."
I'd say there are at least 22 teams still in this race heading into the deadline, which leaves only a handful of sellers. From making your calls around have you found the run-up to this year's deadline to be any different from years past because of the parity, the depth in this League, and how tight it is among the contenders?
"We've found that the last couple of years, and this year seems fairly similar to last year in terms of the conversations leading up to the deadline. It'll be interesting, but I still think you'll see quite a few rental-type trades. The main thing that is out there that is kind of lingering on the horizon is where the salary cap will be next year, and I think that's impacting hockey trades a little bit. There are some teams that are close to the cap this year that, let's be honest, if the cap doesn't go up much next year it's not going to leave those teams a lot of room even this summer. So, making hockey trades is harder this year.
"I really commend Buffalo and Winnipeg for being able to pull off a trade of that magnitude. That's a very difficult trade to put together with all the pieces but also with all the contracts and the dollars going back and forth. I would be surprised if you saw a lot of hockey trades between now and the deadline. It's difficult most years, but with the uncertainty of the salary cap next year with the Canadian dollar falling, I think it's a different wrinkle that maybe will impact this year's trade deadline. But again I think the players with expiring contracts, trades for prospects and picks, I think you'll see a lot of those trades again. If it's a sellers' market you might see some teams that are still in it want to get in it and sell a piece or two if they can get the right price."
Well, 13-2-2 in the past 17 games, in a playoff spot right now, your goalie has played remarkably. Did you think any of those things would be possible this season?
"I don't know that a month ago we were thinking along these lines, that's for sure. Our initial thought a month ago, particularly after we got beat pretty handily in Pittsburgh, was just to stabilize our situation, to find a way to win one game to try to regain our confidence and regain our ability to play the game of hockey the right way. We had fallen pretty far and we were in a really tough stretch, so initially our thought was how do we stabilize, how do we get back to playing the right way? It has just sort of rolled from there.
"It's certainly been a nice run, but you look at it, the reality is all we've done is put ourselves back in the playoff race. It shows you how far we've fallen and how tough our conference and the League is when you go 13-2-2 in 17 games and we're clinging to the final wild-card spot. It's been a great run, but we started off with a pretty humble goal of just stabilizing and trying to find a way to win a game. I think the players and coaches have done a very good job of staying in the present and focusing on the next day, the next game, the next practice and not getting ahead of ourselves or too high. There is a long way to go. Certainly we have a tough schedule, like everybody does. It'll be a pretty entertaining final stretch to the season here. But if we can keep our focus the way we have it now than we should be a competitive team."
I think your team is the perfect example of how goaltending can stabilize just about everything, that when a team is confident that the goalie will stop the puck it changes everything for them. What did you see, or better yet, what did Wild goalie coach Bob Mason see in Devan Dubnyk that certainly wasn't there last year and might have only started to show up this season when he was working under Sean Burke in Arizona?
"Bob has always liked him. Bob brought his name up to us last year when he was in Edmonton and struggling and we had some injury issues here with our goaltenders. Edmonton was in that Northwest Division with us for several years so we watched him play for a long time and certainly he was a well-known commodity to Bob and our staff. But let's be honest, when you're looking for a goalie in the middle of the season there is typically not many available. We called around and tried to find how many goaltenders were available, and the situation with Arizona, they were looking to get Mike Smith a bigger role and they were willing to consider a draft pick. I think it was a good fit for both teams, but timing is everything. I don't know that anybody would have envisioned how well Devan's played and how well we've played since the trade."
Do you think one goes hand in hand with the other, that your play as a team is a result of stable goaltending?
"Yeah, absolutely. The first game he played it was in Buffalo, we won 7-0, and he made a couple big saves in the first period. I think our players were excited about Devan coming in and he played very well right from the get-go, and it was amazing how quickly we regained our confidence defensively and how much better we played collectively with the goaltending he provided. I also think a lot of credit has to be given to our veteran players too, because right after the Pittsburgh game, before we made the trade for Devan, they had a closed-door meeting and (Mikko) Koivu, (Zach) Parise, (Ryan) Suter and (Jason) Pominville stepped up and basically said enough is enough. They challenged the group and they led. If you look at our run here over the last 17 games, you'll see that those four have had massive contributions to our success. Obviously Devan has a lot to do with it, but clearly the leadership of the team really stepped up, so I think it's a nice combination. I also don't think our coaches get enough credit. They stuck with it. They never panicked. They stayed with it. They believed in our players. I think the stability behind the bench has been a big part of it too. There's a few factors there."
Perfect segue, because I wanted to ask you about the patience that it required from you at that point in the season, when there was outside pressure and people wondering if you were going to fire Mike Yeo. Why and how did you have that type of patience at that point in the season when things really looked like they were going off the rails, and is it rewarding to you now that that patience is paying off?
"First of all, Mike's job was never on the line. Regardless of the media speculation, internally we were always solidly behind Mike. He's a good coach and we have a good coaching staff. Mike and his staff work hard. If you look at our team and you look at the statistics, which we do here all the time, we've been one of the top defensive clubs all season. We don't give up a lot of shots, we don't give up a lot of quality shots. We're a well-coached, highly-structured team. We never felt we had a coaching issue. We had a confidence issue, an execution issue. We needed to get a few more saves and we needed to defend better. But it's a long season and you have rough patches; certainly ours went too long. There's no question it's inexcusable how long our rough stretch lingered on for, but it happens. Every team goes through a tough patch and the answer isn't always to fire the coach and start over. Sometimes you have to allow your group to find its way through, battle its way through. Again, we have a long way to go, but I don't know we'd be in this place if we didn't have to deal with some adversity. Right now I think everybody knows how they have to play individually and how we have to play collectively to be successful. We learned some hard lessons and over a season it's important that you go through those tough stretches."