Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Another Big Summer For Fletcher

by NiNY

Last summer was huge for Chuck Fletcher, vis-a-vis the Minnesota Wild. He was faced with an untenable head coach, flagging interest from a once-passionate fan base, a dreary product on the ice, and infamously bare cupboards.

So what did he do? He went out and fired his head coach, relaced him with a rookie, improved the on-ice product with two significant trades and continued re-stocking those cupboards with more enticing picks. The result of all that was a re-enthused fan base.

So re-enthused, in fact, that it lay like kindling needing only a hot first half of the season to ignite into a full-on fire.

Which injuries and poor play quickly pissed all over, but who's counting?

The question now for Fletcher is: can he do it again? And does he need to?

I think the fanbase is in a different place than last year. I think it's more ready and willing to accept a growing year if for no other reason than it's time to get a look at some of the kids. I think the organization has done a good job of priming the pump for us with respect to the kids, the most recent example of which was the Granlund #64 sweaters already in the team stores when uber prospect Mikael Granlund signed last week. My boss, the sage old advertising guy, says marketing is "creating the environment for the sale." Well maybe the Wild has finally learned that lesson, hard on the back of the LaPanta fiasco, though it may be. If nothing else, judging by the dull roar that got kicked up over the LaPanta gong show, Wild fans' passion is still there.

This summer's to-do list for Fletcher is simpler than last summer. With the fanbase's expectations already better-managed for mediocrity this year, whether or not they realize it ("the kids are coming! That's exciting! Nevermind that youth-laden teams don't do that well most of the time....this Granlund kid is the bomb dot com!"), his sell job isn't starting from zero like last year. He doesn't have a coach to fire and a new coach to sell. The on-ice product - even without upgrades - has a reasonable chance of being better simply because the odds of such an amazing streak of injuries happening two seasons in a row have to be relatively small. And, when you add in the known quantities (Granlund) that have already been added to the roster, well we know the offense is looking up.

The big tasks this summer seem to be getting in the bread line for Parise and Suter and drafting well. But, unlike last summer, this draft feels like it has less urgency to it. In the first place there are a lot of defensemen around where we project to be picking. Defensemen tend to take more time to develop than forwards. So, should we take a blueliner, you know it will be some time before we see them in St. Paul. In the second place, there are all those kids to deal with. Our appetite, so to speak, for youth about whom to become excited, has been satisfied to an extent. Our frustration at what used to be the gaping hole in our prospect development ranks having been mollified.

I'm really looking forward to the prospect camp and Traverse City.

So, having stripped out the rest of the jobs on the list, Fletcher's big issue this summer is navigating UFA season. I think - while admitting I'm totally ignorant as to the actual goings on - that the Wild will be a tough sell to a Parise. There are certainly teams out there with cap space that can offer a chance to get back to the finals sooner than the Wild can. You have to assume that every offer he seriously considers will be materially similar from a dollars/term perspective. So what's the big differentiator that the Wild brings to the table? That he has a house in Minny? That's pretty thin. This is not to say that I don't hope he signs with the Wild - I do.

I'm curious about Suter, though. My colleague Mike just opined that we need a 25-minute-type defenseman, and I agree with him - even more than I think we need a big forward at this moment. We've had a couple experiences with paying UFA money for offensive defensemen, and they haven't really worked out, unless you're talking about working out in the sense that it brought the fanbase a couple whipping boys to, uh, whip.

We would give him a #1 defenseman role, minutes anywhere he could want them, and Fletcher might be able to sell that the Wild is fairly close to where the Predators are right now - and obviously closer yet with Suter in Iron Range Red instead of baby shit yellow and navy.

So, it's Chuck's season again (would be nice if there were a buffer between the regular season and Chuck's season; I think that's called "the playoffs" in other markets, but...) and while he doesn't have as monumental a job to do this summer as he did last summer, it's still a big one for him and for this team.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Wants and Needs

There's a lot that Wild fans might want for next season. A lot that Craig Leipold might want as well. And I think that many of those wants align with each other. But what about what the Wild really need? That's another thing all together.

Want #1: More scoring.
Duh. Of course we want more scoring. More scoring means more wins. More wins means playoffs. Playoffs means a chance. Look at LA right now: riding a hot goalie into the Stanley Cup Finals. The fans want more scoring, and Craig Leipold sure as hell wants more scoring, because that means a more exciting product on the ice, and therefore derrieres in seats. But do we really need more scoring? I don't think so. More on that later.

Want #2: A defensive stalwart.
Nick Schultz was the Wild's Stay-at-Home mensch and de-facto shutdown defenseman. But in the grand scheme of things, he certainly wasn't a top pair D-man, just the best we had. Brent Burns was (and still is) a top pair defenseman, and made Schultz look a lot better than he really is. The reason Schultz/Burns worked so well for the Wild is that Schultz was the safe player and Burns was the risk-taker. Schultz knew he could pass to Burns to move the puck out, and Burns knew that Schultz had his back. But now, no Burns, and Schultz was dealt for Tom Gilbert.

Gilbert is the puck-moving defenseman that Zidlicky was supposed to be, and a minute muncher that only Marty Skoula could dream of when he played for Jacques Lemaire. So a defenseman that can be steady and shutdown the opposition is something that Wild fans are thinking of when they dream of Ryan Suter in Iron Range Red. Marco Scandella is getting there, but he's young, and had a stint in Houston to recharge the  confidence in his game. An older mentor to teach him that part of the game. Stoner is more of a physical defenseman rather than a prototypical shutdown man. And Jonas Brodin might crack the lineup, but from everything I've read, he's not a physical shutdown guy. Yet. So do we really need a defensive D-man? I think so.

Want #3: The kids.
The things I've seen Wild fans obsess more about are those two things, but seeing the kids next year is another big thing that we pine for. Youth and excitement are tied up in the so-called Magnificent Seven (Brodin, Brett Bulmer, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Johan Larsson, Zach Phillips, & Jason Zucker) Do we really need them? Hell yes. New blood is one thing this team is desperately in need of. That's why I'm such a fan of Chuck Fletcher's no-player-is-untouchable mantra this past season. Good on him.

Need #1: Defenseman.
As I said above, an older defenseman who's not afraid to go against opposing top-line forwards would be a huge boon to the Wild. The younger pieces are there in Stoner and Scandella. And who knows where Tyler Cuma is in the mix. Until I see him regularly in St Paul, I'm not inclined to pin any hopes on him. A veteran who's been there and done that and can teach the kids how to shut down the opposition is sorely needed.

Need #2: The Kids.
To repeat, the Wild badly need an infusion of new blood. Coyle and Phillips just made a run for the Memorial Cup, bringing with them playoff experience that not many Wild players have. Their youthful exuberance should also help the Wild veterans feel young again and inspired to not only teach what they can, but also push themselves to keep up at times. Could we see a rejuvenated Matt Cullen? We can hope.

Need #3: Coaching.
No, I'm not calling for Mike Yeo's head here. I love Mike Yeo, if for no other reason than his birthday is three days before mine, so I can still cling to the dream that I'm younger than an NHL head coach. Yeo had a masterful command of this team until the wheels fell off and he lost three top-six forwards, and was forced to press guys like Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck onto the top two lines. Shutting down the Wild then became a turkey shoot. Shut down Heatley and Setoguchi and you contained the Wild.

The Wild had the fourth worst power play in the League, and took the fewest shots of any team in the NHL. Both of these are inexcusable. Acquiring Heatley and Setoguchi was supposed to address this, and generally speaking, both held up their end of the bargain - neither had career highs nor career lows in shots - in an effort to get the Wild to have a "shooter's mentality." That said, the responsibility for the next step is on the coaching staff.

Just as Chuck Fletcher brought in Rick Wilson to help Todd Richards, I think that the Wild really ought to consider a coach whose job it is to work with the players on shooting and other offensive skills. Yes, another forward who can score would be a nice luxury, but Chuck has done what he can with the roster. The responsibility also lies at the feet of the coaching staff. And as much as I love Darby "Horseface" Hendrickson, is he really the best guy to be coaching about offensive skills and shooting? What's Mike Modano doing these days? (Oh yes I did.)

There's a difference between what we as fans want and what the Wild as a team needs. The key needs are a defenseman's defenseman, the kids to arrive ready and willing to play their asses off, and more emphasis on the coaching side to increase shooting and scoring.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lapanta Not Acceptable As PBP


I live in NY. I am dependent on the NHL Center Ice package for 98% of my exposure to the Wild's games. That means that I've suffered through a string of inferior play-by-play guys on the Wild's home broadcast for years. I'm sure Dan Terhaar's a nice guy, but he was a terrible PBP guy. Way too Wild-centric, prone to lobby for/whine about penalties instead of calling the game, actual play-by-play that was behind the play (read: was bad at his job) and would often either call the wrong name or didn't know the numbers/names of players. Not good.

Now Russo's saying the Wild has eschewed strong national interest (read: outside the FSNorth "talent pool") and is zeroing in on Anthony Lapanta as the new PBP guy.

If anything, that's a step backwards from Terhaar.

I've heard Lapanta call Gopher games. Here's how I'd run down Lapanta and Terhaar side-by-side:

Wild-centric (homer)
Terhaar 7 out of 10
Lapanta 9 out of 10

Lobbying for penalties against opposition team/whine about penalties against home team
Terhaar 8 out of 10
Lapanta 8 out of 10

Actual play-by-play behind the play
Terhaar 8 out of 10
Lapanta 9 out of 10

Misidentification of players
Terhaar 6 out of 10
Lapanta 6 out of 10

It absolutely astounds me that the Wild thinks Lapanta is good enough. It smacks of an unwillingness to take a chance, to reach for the golden ring. And that's ridiculous.

This is a franchise that blows a high amount of sunshine up fans' butts. State of hockey and all that. Well treat us like grown ups and endeavor to deliver a first class product, then.

What's really galling is the "strong national interest" part. If that wasn't the case (read: no one else wanted the job) then fine. What are you going to do? But, since there is, I simply find it impossible to believe there wasn't a single candidate who is better than Lapanta - if for no other reason than Lapanta is terrible.

The Wild doesn't have the worst TV team in the league. Terhaar isn't even the worst PBP guy (John Kelly, Ken Daniels, any of the schleps who usually call Canucks games not named Hughson come immediately to mind). But Wild fans deserve better than the tallest midget.