Only a few days after the Minnesota Wild was ousted by the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher is formulating his summer “honey do” list.
One thing that is on the minds of many, including Fletcher, is Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo’s status. The third-year bench boss led the team beyond the first round for the first time in more than a decade, and last season earned the organization’s first playoff berth in five years. Yeo’s contract is up in June.
“Mike and I will sit down in the next few days and meet,” Fletcher said. “He’s a very good coach, I think, has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years. He’s somebody I’ve worked with for a very long time and we have a very good working relationship with, and look forward to continue that relationship going forward.”
During the next few days, Fletcher, Yeo and the coaching staff are holding individual player exit meetings. In early June, the Wild will move onto organizational meetings with the coaching staff, scouts and front office to determine the club’s needs.
“That’s what the next few weeks are going to be all about,” Fletcher said. “Right now we’re breaking down the stats, getting the analytics part of it done, we’ll go through the debriefing, sit down with our front office people, look at everything we did well and the things we didn’t do as well, areas we can improve and our cap going forward.”
Like the rest of the club, Fletcher needs a few days to rest after the Wild’s playoff exit. The GM said that he liked the way the club battled Chicago evenly in the series, but in the end the Blackhawks found a way to win.
With the club’s goal to hoist the Stanley Cup, when it comes to evaluating the offseason scenarios, the GM has shown he’s willing to make bold moves. However, Fletcher knows an organization’s building blocks are developed from within and, while instant gratification when improving a team is nice, setting things up for the team’s future is the benchmark.
“You certainly have to look at what you can do to improve your team for next season, but you better have an eye on three to five years down the road,” Fletcher said. “Cap space is not malleable, once you use it its gone. We need to make sure we preserve enough of it to keep the kids we want to keep, and that will have a major impact on what we do this summer.”
Many of the Wild’s “kids” earned a larger role as the season went on and were major contributors in the postseason. Their improvement has Fletcher excited about the future of the team, and believes the team and its youngsters are heading in the right direction. They’ll need to continue to progress if Minnesota is to climb another rung in the NHL’s hierarchy of contenders.
“Typically 20, 21, 22-year-old kids continue to get better and continue to get better certainly up until the time they turn 24-25. They’re in that statistical upswing of their career,” Fletcher said. “A lot of the young guys still have relatively little experience in the NHL. They’ve been able to take a step forward, but I hope this is not their ceiling and there is a whole other level they can get to and they’ll need to get to for us to get to where we want to get eventually.”
The balance of youth and veteran leadership is a delicate balance in the NHL. The Wild has a solid core of vets locked up for years to come. Fletcher believes that there is a trickle down effect, with the vets leading the way, throughout the lineup.
Fletcher said that captain Mikko Koivu and alternates Zach Parise and Ryan Suter played a role in resetting the team when it was trailing 2-0 in the First Round against the Colorado Avalanche. Of course, the club came back to win in a thrilling seven-game series.
“I think we have a group of players that play hard, and our best players have a top end work ethic,” Fletcher said. “They want to win and they are not selfish. That sets a tone for our group. We believe our young kids are hard working, character kids, and if they weren’t the veteran players would make sure they were.”
With a solid core of youth and experience in place, this offseason might be much different than the previous two summers, where the Wild made big moves through free agency and trade. Fletcher did say that “everything is on the table” heading into the offseason, but believes the team is much more complete than it was in years past.
“Compared to last offseason, this offseason we have a lot more holes filled; we have a lot more players we know will be coming back,” Fletcher said. “We’re not looking to fill nearly as many positions as we did last summer.”
One position the team will need to address: goaltending. Ilya Bryzgalov will be an unrestricted free agent, while Darcy Kuemper will be a RFA. Niklas Backstrom was shut down for the season after undergoing successful core muscle surgery on March 25. Out of all the team’s netminders, Josh Harding appeared in the most games this season (29), but didn’t play after Dec. 31 due to illness related to multiple sclerosis. While this is arguably the Wild’s biggest need, Fletcher and his staff will take time to decide the best route.
“I wish I could sit here and tell you we had the answer right now. It will be part of the process in June in our organizational meetings,” Fletcher said. “Certainly the doctors will play a part in this, salary cap will play a part in this and we’ll sit down and try to make the best decisions we can. There’s a realistic chance that we’ll need to have three goaltenders next year, but that is something we’ll look at and see how things play out this summer.”
When asked which trio of goaltenders the Wild would consider going with, Fletcher slyly responded: “Stay tuned.”
Although the team’s playoff run ended in Game 6 of the Second Round, the Wild looks like a team on the rise. The club is getting set for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, where the Wild holds the 19th overall pick, and free agency on July 1. The season might be over for Minnesota, but with Fletcher at the helm there’s never a dull moment in the State of Hockey, and fans will have to stay tuned to see which direction the Wild will go, and all signs are pointing north.