The Minnesota Wild
, a team that has missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, begins December at the top of the overall NHL standings after the best start in franchise history. GM Chuck Fletcher discussed his team's early success Thursday on "The NHL Hour with Commissioner Gary Bettman."
Despite their early success, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher believes his team's best days are ahead of them. (Photo: Andy Devlin/NHLI)
Fletcher, son of Hall of Fame executive Cliff Fletcher, fired coach Todd Richards
after last season's disappointing finish and replaced him with Mike Yeo
, who had coached the Wild's AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, to the Calder Cup Finals last spring. He also made a pair of major trades with San Jose, sending defenseman Brent Burns
to the Sharks for young forward Devin Setoguchi
, a top prospect taken with the eighth pick in 2005, then swapping Martin Havlat
for Dany Heatley
in a 1-for-1 exchange of forwards.
"We wanted a trade that would make us better now and add prospects for the future," he said of the Burns deal. "I believe it's a trade that will help both teams."
The remodeled Wild have been at their best in close games -- they've won 10 of 16 contests decided by one goal. Fletcher said that's a reflection of the way the team is structured, from the coach on down.
"We have a real hard-working team, and we've played really well to start the season. We have a coaching staff led by Mike Yeo
that has done a great job preparing our team every day. We have a hard-working group of players led by Mikko Koivu
, who is one of the more underrated players in the NHL -- a terrific captain and a top offensive player. We play a very structured defensive game, and when we do have breakdowns, we have been getting terrific goaltending."
Fletcher hired Yeo even though he had never been a coach at the NHL level. The two knew each other from their days in Pittsburgh, where Yeo was an assistant to Dan Bylsma
and Fletcher was an assistant GM with the 2009 Cup-winning team.
He said the decision to change coaches was necessary -- but not easy.
"The last two years were difficult years, and I certainly take the lion's share of the responsibility as the general manager," he said. "The way the season ended last year, we had to make a change. Todd Richards
is a good coach and will be a good coach again, but we had an 0-7-1 stretch in March and we fell unexpectedly out of the playoffs very quickly. I felt we had to make a change and go in a new direction.
"It's always a difficult decision to fire a coach because it's like you're saying it's the coach's fault. It was a collective failure, but we did feel we needed a new direction.
Once you do that, you have to identify what you're looking for in a coach. We went into it with an open mind and interviewed a lot of coaches. There were a couple of real good candidates -- but in the end, I had a personal relationship with Mike from working together for a few years in Pittsburgh, and Mike also was the head coach in Houston. Those two things, to me, were two of the most influential pieces that pushed me to make Mike the head coach.
"I felt Mike was the best combination of technical ability and the ability to communicate and motivate. I thought he had all the skills to be successful."
The Wild's 33 points are the most the franchise has ever had through 25 games and put them atop the NHL standings eight weeks into the season. While Fletcher is understandably thrilled about the fast start, he's nowhere near ready to celebrate.
"The last two seasons we had more difficult starts," Fletcher said. "We found ourselves chasing all year, always trying to make up ground on the teams ahead of us. At least this year we have some points in the bank early. We've been able to gain a little momentum, a little confidence. It's a much more preferable way to start a season.
"We've been able to win some games, but there's a long way to go. We think our best days are coming ahead of us.”