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.