ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - When Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold entered the team’s new practice facility a couple of weeks ago, the organizational motto was staring him in the face.
So was the advice he should make a change in the front office, despite his fondness of general manager Chuck Fletcher.
“It’s the first thing you see when you walk in the door: ‘Good is not good enough,’” Leipold said. “I felt that was a signal for me.”
The Wild split with Fletcher after nine seasons and only two playoff series wins, a decision - “very agonizing,” Leipold said - that the 25-year veteran of NHL management would not have his contract renewed was delivered in a Monday morning meeting.
“I wanted a new set of eyes on this team,” Leipold said.
The Wild have six straight postseason appearances, matching the longest current streak in the Western Conference with the Anaheim Ducks, but they have not reached the second round since 2015. They were only 15-29 in playoff games during Fletcher’s tenure, enough evidence that the roster wasn’t built well enough for all the success the team has enjoyed in the regular season.
“Right now I just don’t see us with this team getting to the championship series. I just don’t see it,” Leipold said. “I think we’re a good team. I really do, and I just talked to our players about this. They’re a good team, but they’re not good enough right now.”
Since Fletcher stunned the NHL by signing left wing Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, the market’s most-coveted free agents in 2012, the Wild have been a runaway success on the business side with sellouts at Xcel Energy Center as routine as the aroma of mini donuts and the swish of the skates on the ice. The fans have been frustrated by the postseason plateau, though, and Leipold bluntly acknowledged he dismissed Fletcher in part to appease the customers.
“The fans deserve to win one here,” Leipold said. “This is the state of hockey, and I’m really confident that we’re going to have candidates that are interested in coming here because of our fans, because of our market, because of our team. I’m energized by the opportunity to talk to some of these people.”
Leipold, who purchased the Wild the year before hiring Fletcher, said the move was unrelated to the Wild’s early exit this year. They lost in five games in the first round to the Winnipeg Jets, after being ousted in five games in 2017 by the St. Louis Blues. Last year, Leipold declined to extend Fletcher’s deal.
“My antenna’s been up,” Leipold said. “Chuck and I have had numerous conversations all year. I wanted to wait until the end of the year to assess everything, to understand how I feel about where we’re going. Are we still in the window to win the Stanley Cup? I believe we are. He believed we are. But my personal feeling was that I wanted someone new to come in and kind of shake it up.”
Leipold said he won’t order a significant rebuild, nor does he believe that’s necessary for postseason progress. He added he would not hire a general manager who recommended a long-haul approach to hoisting the Stanley Cup.
“We were sixth overall two years ago. We were eighth overall this year,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We’ve got an awful lot of good, moving parts there. We’ll tweak it a little bit, and we’ll be better.”
The Wild haven’t struggled enough to get a game-changer in the draft, with Matt Dumba in 2012 (seventh) and Mikael Granlund in 2010 (ninth) the only top-10 picks that Fletcher and his staff had. The rival Jets, for example, picked up Patrik Laine with the second overall selection in 2016 and watched him finish second in the NHL with 44 goals in 2017-18 while the team posted the second-best record in the league.
In one way, the Parise-Suter signings for 13 years and $98 million each have worked against the Wild considering they account for 20 percent of their salary cap space and are on the books for seven more seasons. But Suter had a career-high 45 assists, before breaking his right ankle with four games left in the regular season, and Parise was one of the team’s best forwards down the stretch with 12 goals in the last 19 games. He scored in all three playoff games before breaking his sternum.
Trades that didn’t pan out under Fletcher have hurt the Wild more than any free-agent signing or first-round draft pick. Charlie Coyle is all that’s left from the deal that sent defenseman Brent Burns to San Jose in 2011, and Coyle didn’t notch a goal or an assist in the series against the Jets. The trade last summer that sent Jason Pominville and Marco Scandella to Buffalo for Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis didn’t wind up helping.
So Fletcher’s successor will eventually go to work on a roster that produced a goal-less streak of 141:27 to end the series with Winnipeg.
“If you look at the teams moving on, the teams that are winning, they’re scoring and playing at a pretty fast pace,” Parise said. “We’ve got to get to that level.”
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