A lot can change in one month. The last time Wild.com sat down with Minnesota Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher, it was November 4 and his team was coming off a 5-9-0 start to the season.
One month later, the Wild has climbed to an above .500 record thanks to a 5-3-3 November, and a 3-1-0 start to December. A team that couldn’t seem to pull itself out of the doldrums is now rolling with its offense clicking and defense banding together despite several long-term injuries to key players.
Fletcher has brought in three new players since the season started, with trades for Chuck Kobasew and Guillaume Latendresse
, and a waiver wire pickup in Andrew Ebbett. All three have had an enormous impact, and have revived the team with offensive contributions and hustle.
Things have changed, but one thing that hasn’t is the demeanor of Fletcher. While his moves have been lauded, he knows there is a lot of work to do on his part as he continues to try and improve his club.
With that in mind, the theme of this month's Q & A with Fletcher centers on player movement here and around the National Hockey League. Wild.Com: Are you at all surprised at the impact that the three players that you have brought in have made in a short time?Chuck Fletcher
: Well, what we’re hoping that there is a long-term impact. Oftentimes you’ll see new players go to a new team and play very well and make an immediate short-term impact. We’re hoping that these are players that can help us over the long term.
We went about acquiring these players on the basis that we had needs on the team. Kobasew has brought a lot of grit, energy, speed and the ability to score some goals. Andrew Ebbett is a player who was on waivers. It’s very difficult to find centers so we thought it’d be smart to grab him. We weren’t sure where he would fit or how it would work out once we got here. But we just know it’s difficult to get centers, particularly centers with skill. And Latendresse, we gave up a really good young player in Benoit Pouliot. We just wanted to add a little bit more size to our forward group. He can play down low, win battles along the wall, finish checks and go to the net. We just thought Latendresse’s skill set was a better fit for our group. WC: When talking about Kobasew and Latendresse since they’ve arrived, you’ve mentioned grit a lot. Did you think the previous roster lacked that?CF
: I thought coming out of training camp, we had some gritty players, certainly. I don’t think you can ever have enough of it. When you look at Kobasew and you look at Latendresse, we’re talking about two players that are comfortable playing in traffic, are strong on the wall, are willing to take a hit to make a play. They’re also capable of throwing a body check as well. They both have talent. They both can score goals. But when they’re not scoring goals, they’re contributing by winning battles and going in those high traffic areas. We thought we had players that did that on our team, but again, you can never have enough players like that on the team. WC: Obviously the intention is to make the team better, but is there also the added element of giving players in that locker room a jolt by showing that you will do what it takes to make the team better?CF
: I think any time you make a move or a trade; you’re trying to do it with a longer-term goal in mind. If that’s a short-term benefit, that’s great. But I don’t know if I’m the person to speak to that. The players would have to answer the question of “Did it provide a spark?”
Certainly the new players have contributed since they’ve been here, and again, I’m hoping all three of them will be contributing for a couple years down the road. That’ll be the true test: how the player fares over time. I’m confident all three of these players can be part of the group and help us win games. That really was the intention. WC: When you see an Ebbett, or any player you like on the waiver wire, how does that process work with you and your staff?CF
: Teams have until noon Eastern Time every day to put a player on waivers. Generally speaking, if a player has played more than three years, once you get to your fourth year of professional hockey, you need to go through waivers before you can be sent to the minors. Usually, with an entry-level contract, you can send a player to the minors. But once he gets out of that first contract, typically he has to go through waivers before he can be sent to the minors.
So, most days there seems to be one or two players on waivers as teams make moves and send players down and call players up. So you watch that process every day at noon. If there’s a player that you have interest in, you have until the following day to put in a claim. The priority of selection goes to the team with the lowest winning percentage to the team with the highest. Every team will have a crack, but the team with the lowest winning percentage will get that player. WC: So if you do claim a player, your priority doesn’t change based on most recent move. If you have the lowest win percentage, you’d still have top priority the next day?CF
: Correct. In theory, if you’re the lowest team in the League, you can claim a player every day if there’s a player you want. Obviously, there’s a 23-man roster limitation and there’s salary cap restrictions in place that prevent you from hoarding players. And, if you do claim a player, you have to put him on your NHL team. If you try and send him to the minors, he has to clear waivers again. The team that originally lost him would have some rights to retain them. WC: So in that span of 24 hours, what happens among you and your staff?CF
: I speak with Brent (Flahr) and Todd Richards, and any of our staff that know the player. Maybe they have a history with the player at another organization. You go back and you read all of your scouting reports, and you take a look at the cap situation and see if there’s a fit.
Ultimately, the manager has to make a decision, but you put some time in and go through all the different steps to make sure it will work. WC: As far as trades go, there really hasn’t been a lot of activity. You’ve made two of the six or so deals that have involved NHL players. Is this lack of activity just the way it is now in the NHL?CF
: It is. The majority of the teams in the League are at the cap or very near the cap. At this point in the year, we still have two-thirds of the season left, who whenever you acquire a player, you’re picking up two-thirds of the salary. So, in many cases, when you’re seeing a transaction, it’s pretty even in terms of salary exchanged.
As the year goes on, and you get past that halfway mark of the season, teams are obviously acquiring a lot less salary so it’s easier to trade a prospect for a bigger-name player, because maybe you’re only picking up 40% of the salary. It’s a much smaller cap hit.
I still believe you’ll see a lot of trades this year. There are so many teams that are competitive. There’s so much parity in the League. A lot of teams do want to make changes, and do want to get better in certain areas. A lot of them have to get to a point where they can afford to take them under a cap system. WC: At this point, it looks like 29 teams, maybe even all 30; still have a chance in the playoffs. With every team seemingly picking up points, even in losses, things could be tight for a long time. Does that mean there may be fewer sellers at the deadline?CF
: Exactly. Every team still has a chance to make the playoffs. Once you get to 20 or 30 games left in the schedule, some teams realistically are not going to be in a good position. So they’ll have the ability to move some players for extra prospects and try to find a way to build for the future.
At this point in the season, nobody is willing to make that concession because you want to compete and you want to win games. WC: Even though you are still a long way from the deadline, do you still use this time to explore future trades, and have conversations about “If A and B happens, then we’ll be willing to trade player X?”CF
: Absolutely. I’m still probably on at least one call, maybe two per day. A lot of times it’s just checking in. “Are you doing anything? Are you looking for anything? Are you trying to trade anybody?”
A lot of managers make calls just to gather information, and they file that information away. At some point, it may become valuable insight into any team. Needs change based on injuries and performance. Maybe there’s a team looking to acquire a defenseman and trade a forward, and maybe a month from now that makes sense to me. It’s just important to know what teams are trying to do, and most teams will tell you candidly what they’re trying to accomplish, where they want to upgrade, where they feel they have depth, what types of things they’d be willing to move.
Let’s be honest, there are several teams in the League you talk to and you hear what they’re needs are, and what they’re willing to move. Sometimes it’s just not a fit. Other times it’s not a fit with the salary cap. So that’s while you’re always making calls, because the majority of calls that are made don’t lead to anything. But you have to put your time in and do your spadework and stay on top of the situation.