Today, Fletcher is one month into the regular season. As he looks at the Western Conference standings, he sees his team in 15th place in the Western Conference. It’s a team with just one road win, and finding goals as scarce as Zubaz at a black-tie wedding.
Yet, it’s also a team that just won back-to-back games against Eastern Conference playoff teams from a year ago – including the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. It also seems to have found it’s way defensively, and several players have had big starts, including goaltender Niklas Backstrom
Fletcher sat down with Wild.com on Thursday, and plans to meet with us once a month during the season. He admitted to being disappointed by an 0-5 road trip early in the season, but he also expects this team to continue to get better.Wild.Com: We’re one month into the regular season. I assume you weren’t expecting to be in 15th place after one month, but I’m also guessing you knew the opening schedule would be tough. Where is this team in relation to your expectations to start the season?
Chuck Fletcher: I think we all knew that the first month would be challenging in the sense of having a new coaching staff trying to introduce a lot of new systems and ideas to a group of players that had played much differently in the past. You combine that with a tough schedule and the fact that we came out of training camp a little banged up, I think we all expected the first month to be challenging.
Having said that, I think you always expect to be competitive night in and night out, and certainly when we came back from that first long road trip 0-5, it was a big disappointment. WC: You’ve mentioned that last year, when you were with the Penguins, there was a very rough stretch that the team went through. Has that helped you stay positive in the face of the tough start this season?
CF: Absolutely. Every team goes through tough times in the season. Even the best players lose their confidence at times. As a group in the past month, we collectively lost our confidence on the ice. The results we were getting were largely due to the fact that we weren’t executing well. We knew it, and we lost our confidence as a result. It’s a hard enough League as it is without beating yourself up.
The thing I’ve liked the last week or so is we’re starting to have some fun. We’re starting to get some results. We’re starting to execute better. Our collective confidence is really improving.
What last year taught me is that even good teams go through bad times. You have to stick with it. You have to stay with your beliefs. You have to continue to trust yourself, and eventually you will get some breaks and you’ll work your way out of it. That’s a great lesson to learn. The Pittsburgh team that did win the Cup had a stretch of four or five weeks in the middle of the season when we couldn’t win a game. Obviously, we found a way to rebound and bounce back, and then we went through a stretch when we really didn’t lose many games for a long time.
Things change quickly, but confidence is such a critical part of the game of hockey and life.WC: Do you like what you’ve seen as far as the style of play is concerned and the team picking up on new systems?
CF: Well, we’re a work in progress. I think we’ve played much better defensively the last seven games. We’ve cut down on the chances against. Backstrom has continued to play outstanding in goal.
Our challenge remains finding ways to score more goals. Some nights we create chances and we move the puck pretty well, and there are other times we don’t. So I would say our offensive game is still a work in progress, but we’ve played much better defensively. And, again, we have a rock in net who gives us a chance to win every night.WC: A lot of teams can say, “We’re not scoring enough.” When you see a problem like that, do you feel a need to do something to address it right away, or wait it out?
We added Petr Sykora as a free agent late in the summer and we traded for Chuck Kobasew, so we’ve added a couple veteran NHL wingers who have scored goals in the past.
But right now, the key thing is patience. We really need to allow some chemistry to develop in our forward lines. We need our power play to continue to come together and create more chances. We need to allow the players that are here to reach their potential offensively before we make too many decisions.
We’re not creating as much as we should, but if history is any indication of future performance, then many of our players should pick up the pace production-wise in the near future. WC: The theory is out there that in order for a team to become great, it has to be bad for at least a couple years and land those top draft picks as Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington have done recently. Is it accurate that in today’s salary-capped NHL, you have to be bad to eventually win based on young, cheap talent?
CF: If that were the case then Detroit or San Jose would never be good. Obviously, if you finish last in the League five or six years in a row, and you have the number one pick year after year, you’re eventually going to become a pretty good team. But that’s a very difficult thing to do and I think every team in the League wants to compete and play as well as they can in the short term.
Our goal here is simple. We feel like we can be a competitive team this year and we can win games with the players we have. But, obviously going forward we need to continue to look for young, talented players to ensure our success into the future. I feel we need to add more young, offensive talent into our organization and we need to improve our offensive depth throughout the organization.
We have areas we need to improve upon, but there’s no reason we can’t be competitive in the short term. WC: How big is your role in finding that young talent?
CF: (Assistant General Manager) Brent Flahr has been charged with finding more talent for our organization. Brent will work with (Director of Professional Scouting) Blair (Mackasey) and (Assistant General Manager) Tommy (Thompson) to try and find as much talent as we can find. My role is to put the people in place to be successful, and to imbue the staff with an organizational philosophy that they need to adhere to.
Right now, we want to find skill and speed and offensive talent.
We have a lot of good scouts and I’m pretty confident that over time, we’ll restock our cupboards with a lot of good offensive talent. But it does take time, and it takes patience to develop young hockey players. In the meantime, we’ll look at every avenue and opportunity to improve our team, whether that’s signing unrestricted college free agents or European free agents, or making trades.
The draft is still the most reliable and consistent way to get better in the long run, but we need to make sure we channel all of our energies into finding players wherever they may be. WC: You were quoted as telling the University of Minnesota that (defensive prospect) Nick Leddy would not be there for just one year, but he also wouldn’t be there for four years. Is that typically the approach you’ll take with your top draft picks, whether they go the college or major junior route to the NHL?
CF: Everybody has different theories, but I’m a big believer that the NHL is not the right place to develop young talent. I think we have a terrific coaching staff and developmental environment in Houston.
College hockey and the major juniors have historically developed a lot of hockey players for the NHL. I just really believe it takes time for young players to develop, and you want to put them in a place where they can succeed and gain confidence. When they’re ready to play, we’ll look to bring them into Minnesota, but there’s no sense in rushing players before they’re ready. WC: Are you pleased with what you’ve seen thus far from Todd Richards and how he’s gone about implementing a new system and a new philosophy?
I think Todd and Mike (Ramsey) and Dave (Barr) have done a terrific job. There’s been a lot of teaching, a lot of time spent poring over video and working with the team in practice and working with the players one-on-one in development sessions.
It takes a lot of time to transition from one style of play to another. Compound that reality with the fact that we’ve played 14 games in 28 days in October, which didn’t allow for a lot of teaching time. I think under the circumstances, Todd and his staff have done a terrific job in getting the team to this point.
As the year goes on, we’re going to become more cohesive. Our chemistry will improve on and off the ice, and the players will become more comfortable with the coaching staff and the message that the staff is trying to deliver.WC: Richards has said, especially when the team was losing, that he’s tried many different approaches to get the players to respond, whether that be positive reinforcement or bringing the hammer down. Do you think he’s done a good job of adjusting as he tries to get his message across to the players?
CF: Yeah, I think he’s been consistent in his messaging, but he’s delivered it in different ways. He’s spent most of his time teaching. In recent weeks, he’s used tougher tactics at times, and in the last week he’s sort of taken his foot off the gas pedal a bit and tried a softer approach.
I will add that when he’s used a softer approach, it was coming off a stretch of seven games in 11 days where you can’t always go to the whip. The schedule is so demanding at times, and with the travel in particular, there’s times you have to loosen up and have some fun and allow the players some breathing space.
But again, I think his messaging has been consistent and he’s worked hard in practice and video sessions to impart his game plan to the players. His buy-in has been good and the execution is getting better.WC: This is your first full-time General Manager position. What has been your biggest challenge so far?
I don’t know. I don’t think anything has completely surprised me, but when you start the year with a tough schedule and you don’t have success right away, it’s mentally and physically draining.
As a group, we’ve spent a lot of time looking for solutions and talking about potential answers to problems. It’s a consuming job, but the big thing for me is trying to stay positive and trying to stay accessible, and be around our staff and players. I try to give out a sense of confidence during this time.
It’s a great job. It’s been a lot of fun. I said to somebody the other day, ‘even the worst day in hockey is better than most people’s good day.’ We’re all fortunate to be working in this industry. We have a challenge in front of us, but we also have good resources, a good group of players. It’s a great way to spend your life.