Wild GM not looking for quick fix in draft

Tell Chuck Fletcher the Wild weren't very good last season, and he bristles. There are holes he needs to fill going into the team's second season under him and coach Todd Richards, Fletcher admitted last week, and certainly the Wild "limped home"...

Tell Chuck Fletcher the Wild weren't very good last season, and he bristles.

There are holes he needs to fill going into the team's second season under him and coach Todd Richards, Fletcher admitted last week, and certainly the Wild "limped home" by winning only four of their final 13 games to finish 13th in the NHL's Western Conference.

Nevertheless, the second-year general manager remains upbeat and optimistic going into the NHL draft this week.

"The reality is, we had a tough finish," Fletcher said. "I'm not going to get overly emotional and react to that and think we're not a very good team, because we are a better team than that."

His plan to make the Wild a Stanley Cup contender focuses on a steady influx of young talent that will arrive via the draft, amateur free agency or trades.


Signing a proven NHL player for big dollars through free agency does not appear to be on Fletcher's agenda.

"You can't buy your way out of the basement," he explained. "You have to have young players coming every year, and the draft is one obvious opportunity to add talent."

Going into the first day of the draft Friday in Los Angeles, Minnesota has eight picks, including the ninth overall and four among the top 69.

It's no secret that the draft has not been kind to the Wild since 2003, when Brent Burns (on the heels of Marian Gaborik, Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard) became the fourth consecutive first-round pick to emerge as an impact player. Top picks since then have sputtered.

Fletcher hopes that with him and assistant GM Brent Flahr calling the shots for the first time this week, the results will bear fruit, although he refused to criticize the Wild's former regime.

"I don't think it's fair for me to talk about what happened before I was here," he said. "I just know that every year, if you're not adding two to three good young players into your system, you're falling behind."


The Wild have no illusions that they'll unearth an 18-year-old prospect Friday or Saturday who will blossom next season in the NHL.


"We're really drafting for the future," Richards said. "We don't want to fast-track these guys."

That might have been a problem with former first-round draft picks Benoit Pouliot, James Sheppard and Colton Gillies. The previous Wild leadership under general manager Doug Risebrough kept top picks with the big club for their first pro season, leading many to speculate that it proved detrimental to their development.

Sheppard, who scored just two goals in his third NHL campaign last season, has heard those arguments but said: "There's no use in pointing fingers. It all depends on the player. Some players just take longer to develop."

If there's no quick fix from the draft, Fletcher was asked, what will the Wild need to reach the playoffs this season after falling short the past two?

"We obviously need to find some solutions at center and probably need to add a little more depth up front," he responded. "Having said that, we have a lot of good hockey players. We like our defense; we like our goaltending."

Fletcher is resolved to avoid players "on the downside" of their careers just to make a playoff run, preferring to follow examples of teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers, this year's Stanley Cup finalists, whose youngsters paved the way.

"Long term, we have to continue to add more offensive talent," he said. "That's what the draft's all about."



Paul Holmgren of St. Paul, the GM who built the Flyers, believes Fletcher has the right idea.

"Chuck's a good hockey guy," Holmgren said. "I'm sure he'll do the right things for the Minnesota Wild to get them back in the playoff picture, and once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen.

"Every year of salary-cap era, from top to bottom, the league has been tighter and tighter. The game has changed now; you've got to do a good job drafting and you've got to pick the right free agents at the right time that are a good fit for your team."

Holmgren said he liked what he saw of the Wild when they played the Flyers during the exhibition season last September, but the new system under Richards slowed Minnesota's progress, and "key injuries with Bouchard missing all of the year and Brent Burns missing a fair amount of games, those are two big players they need on a daily basis."

Former Wild center Eric Belanger, sent to the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline for a second-round draft pick, believes that until he was traded his former team had the goods to make the playoffs, even though it sputtered out of the gate.

"We had a tough first month," he recalled. "It's tough when you have a new system and players coming in. It took quite an adjustment, but I felt we were competitive and played some good hockey, but it was too little, too late."

Fletcher says that over 82 games, the Wild endured "three different seasons last year." In addition to their ugly final stretch, they started out 3-9 and never recovered.

"There was a 40- to 50-game stretch when we were a pretty good hockey team," Fletcher pointed out. "We beat Chicago, we beat Philadelphia, we beat Montreal; we beat a lot of pretty good hockey teams. We showed a lot of good signs. Our problem was we lacked the consistency. We gave up way too many goals early in the season and we fell apart a bit the last 10, 15 games, which was disappointing.


"There's no question we have to make some changes to get better, but we have a lot of good hockey players. I think the reality was we limped home the last 10 games, and that's how people remember us. If you had just watched our homestand in January when we beat Chicago, beat Pittsburgh and beat Calgary, I'm sure the sentiment surrounding our team would be a lot different."

Factor in the possible return of Bouchard, who missed all but one game with a concussion, and "we're adding a 50- to 70-point forward to our team," Fletcher said.

Fletcher has shown no reluctance to make trades, and although Burns and backup goalie Josh Harding's names have been most often mentioned this spring, Fletcher insists he is not peddling specific players.

"Our goal is to make our team better," he said. "If that's through the trade route, we'll look at that. If we're unsuccessful prior to July 1, we'll try to fill some holes through free agency. We will be patient. We won't make moves for the sake of moves.

"It's not the point of doing something. It's the point of accomplishing something."

What To Read Next
Get Local