NHL.com will periodically be doing a series called "Five Questions With …," a Q&A with some of the key figures in the game today aimed at gaining insight into their lives and careers.
This edition features Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher:
Chuck Fletcher is in his fourth season of trying to build a winning franchise in the State of Hockey, and it appears he's on the right path.
Fletcher, the general manager of the Minnesota Wild, has built a team that is in the mix in the Western Conference race and searching for its first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2008 entering the NBC Sports Network Wednesday Night Rivalry game against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.
Minnesota's two expensive offseason additions, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, are working out well so far, and young players like Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund have all found their way onto the fabric of the team at various points this season. Other veterans are stepping up, and the goaltending has been solid enough to give the Wild a chance on most nights.
Fletcher spoke to NHL.com on Monday about his plan to build a winner in Minnesota, the inspiring play of Brodin, the usefulness of some of the other rookies, high expectations and modeling his team after the Red Wings.
Here are Five Questions with … Chuck Fletcher:
Do you see the plan in motion as you expected to see it at this point, especially when you consider both the present and the future with some of the younger players you have infused into the lineup this season?
"Coming into this year with the shortened season and the short training camp, I don't think we really knew exactly what to expect and it was hard to have set expectations for your team. In this type of environment, obviously it's going to be a different type of season when you're talking about those scenarios, the shortened season and the shortened training camp. What we hoped to see was a team that would show signs of improving, a team that would get better as the year progressed in terms of guys getting used to each other and establishing some familiarity, and also our young players getting some experience and starting to get a level of comfort playing in the NHL. I think that's what we have seen.
"After the first 10 games we were 4-5-1 and we were playing as our record indicated, up and down and not playing well enough as a team. We were struggling to get 60-minute efforts and struggling to get the right line combinations. It was a lot of trial and error as our coaches worked to find the right line combinations and our players battled to get chemistry and familiarity with how the coaches wanted to play. Since that point we have steadily gotten better. On most nights now we're getting contributions from everybody. It's a really tough League, but certainly in the last 15 games or so we're starting to come together as a team. We're certainly showing signs of progress.
Has Jonas Brodin surprised you in the fact that he has been this effective this year, at just 19 years old and playing 22 minutes a game, playing power play, playing penalty kill?
"I think we're all surprised at how quickly he has grown into the role he is now playing in. I don't think you ever expect a 19-year-old, especially a defenseman, to step in and play the role he's playing in terms of minutes and playing against top players on the other team and playing both specialty teams. It's been amazing how quickly he's adapting to the League.
"Again, it's a tough League and there is still a long time to go and with young players there is going to be ups and downs, but he's got a lot of poise. If he has a bad shift, he has that uncanny ability to get back on track the next shift and settle down. That's been the impressive thing. Sometimes with young players you can see them lose their confidence, and a bad shift can become a bad period, which becomes a bad game. So far he has shown that ability to minimize the damage, get back on track and play solid hockey for us. He certainly doesn't look like a 19-year-old when he's on the ice."
There are other young players we have seen glimpses of in Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund. Did you identify before the season, or at least early in the season, the importance of getting these younger players in and getting them as part of the team early because of the shortened season and the compressed schedule?
"You know what, we wanted them to earn it. We wanted to make sure when they were put in the lineup they had earned the right to be there. It's an important year for our franchise, and we didn't want to be handing out ice time to young players based on promise. We wanted them to earn the right to be there.
"We figured with a compressed schedule, whether there were injuries or fatigue, we'd certainly need a lot of these young players to play meaningful minutes for us this season -- we just didn't know when. The way things worked out, Brodin and Granlund earned it right out of camp; Jason and Charlie came after and were able to find roles with us.
"There is still some ebb and flow with young players, but as long as they're getting meaningful minutes and playing on a regular basis we'll keep them. If their minutes drop we wouldn't hesitate to get them back to Houston [American Hockey League]. But there's no question we felt at some point a lot of these players would have to step up and play some meaningful minutes for us."
You did mention how it is an important year for the franchise, and that's obvious with what you did this summer in signing both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. How do you think the team has managed the expectations that were immediately heaped on it in early July?
"It's been difficult at times. On any given night we have eight or nine players in the lineup that essentially didn't play for us last year. So you're talking about 40-45 percent turnover from last year on any given night. I think the expectations are high, and that's understandable, but the reality is that the focus in the early part of the year was coming together as a team and establishing continuity, getting the new players to understand the system and having the coaches get to know the players as well. We felt there would be a transition period where it would take time for the group to come together, and that's been the case.
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"But we hoped we would be able to hang in there early and as chemistry built we'd get better. I think now everybody has settled in. There's a long road to go here, but it looks like we're trending in the right direction."
A lot of general managers will say they look at the Detroit Red Wings as the model for consistency as a franchise. As a younger GM with experience working in the League for several teams, does that play with you as well and do you want to model your team after the Red Wings?
"I think so, but it's a pretty tough path to duplicate their success. Their success has been phenomenal going back over two decades of just winning. But when you think of Detroit, you think of how well they draft and how well they develop. A lot of teams draft well, but not every team develops the players well after they draft them. The way Detroit develops players is tremendous. They don't rush their players. They make them take all the necessary steps to get to the NHL. You look every year, they have good young talent. It's just phenomenal.
"I don't think we're anywhere near what the Red Wings have done, but certainly that's what we're trying to do. In today's day and age you have to develop your own talent. It's just too hard to find top talent. I mean, we were fortunate to sign Parise and Suter, but you can't expect to go into the market and get the top players every summer; it just doesn't work that way -- so you really have to draft well and you have to develop your own talent. In a salary-cap system you have to make sure you have good young players that can contribute playing every year. It's just a necessity in the salary cap world."