Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Joe Hanstad on 07/26/11 at 03:09 PM ET
Ask any Minnesota Wild fan what has been the most impressive highlight of Chuck Fletcher’s reign as GM, and the answer you get back will most likely revolve around the influx of new talent in our farm system. Mikael Granlund, Johan Larsson, and Jonas Brodin highlight a recent draft haul that now includes newly acquired (via trade) Charlie Coyle - all of whom give hope and optimism for the near future of our team.
With good reason too. When Fletcher arrived in our state in 2009, the cupboard was essentially bare. Former general manager Doug Risebrough had attempted to placate a demanding fan base by going into “win now” mode, even though history proves that very few NHL expansion franchises have immediate success. Sure, the unexpected run to the 2003 Western Conference Finals had St. Paul buzzing - but poor roster structure and a short-term vision would cause the Wild to be stuck in the mud for several years.
In all fairness to Risebrough, he laid the groundwork for a competitive team during those first few years. His coaching hire proved to be the best decision of his tenure - sure, Jacques Lemaire installed the exhilarating defensive-oriented trap system that we all know and love (excuse me while I have another drink for old times sake), but he understood that for a punchless offense to stay competitive, the Wild had to keep the puck out of the net.
But our front office never wised up to the fact that a true Stanley Cup competitor drafted wisely and drafted often. Detroit, Chicago, Carolina, Pittsburgh - all recent champions whose groundwork is fortified with homegrown, elite talent. Sometimes you get lucky (*cough*CROSBY*cough*), but the great teams are ready to make the most of out of every pick they can get.
This is where the majority of criticism lies with Risebrough. His first four years went amazingly well - Marian Gaborik, Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Brent Burns were home-run first round selections that rewarded the fans with solid, exciting cornerstones to our new franchise. But future first round selections were either complete busts (A.J. Thelen), mishandled from the start (James Sheppard), or still trying to prove themselves (Colton Gillies). These issues were compounded by poor late-round drafting, as well as trading of picks for active players that never fit on our team.
Band-aid solutions could not keep the team afloat and in playoff contention, and it ultimately cost Doug Risebrough his job. When Fletcher was brought in, his missive was simple - build from within, and give the fans hope for the future. To be fair, he probably won’t look fondly on his zero playoff appearances or his firing of Todd Richards. But the culture of our young squad has changed considerably, especially with our minor-league affiliate Houston Aeros. Smart drafting has brought an influx of talent not seen since the formative years of the franchise, trades have shifted the team mentality to a “shoot first, ask questions later” system, and finally - FINALLY! - the team has dipped into the college free-agent pool.
When I first heard Fletcher was trying to sign Casey Wellman in 2009, my first thought was that I couldn’t recall Risebrough even attempting something like that before, because college free-agents just were never of importance to our front office. When the Wild lost out on Stephane Da Costa to the Ottawa Senators this past season, I wasn’t discouraged at all - it just strengthened my belief that we hired the right GM to lead this franchise into the next ten years. Coupled with a young, promising coach that has a few new toys to play with (welcome to Minnesota, Dany and Devin!), its safe to say Minnesota has a hockey team set up for now AND in the future.
Optimism sure feels nice. I could get used to this.
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