ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild entered this lockout-shortened, 48-game season with sky-high expectations following the summer shopping spree that netted the top two free agents on the market, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Parise and Suter, signed to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts, were just part of an offseason overhaul that included adding forwards Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell along with several top prospects who turned pro, including Finnish phenom Mikael Granlund.
But just over a quarter of the way into the season, Minnesota (6-6-1) is still trying to see how its new pieces fit together. The Wild are one point out of a playoff spot and are tied for second in the Northwest Division as they return to the Xcel Energy Center for a two-game homestand beginning Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche.
Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher took some time to speak with FOX Sports North this week to discuss the transition the team has made and the growth he expects this season.
FSN: A quarter of the way through the season, how do you assess what’s happened so far?
FLETCHER: It’s a hard question for me. It’s so early. We’re certainly a work in progress like most of the teams in the league. We’ve played well in stretches. We haven’t played as well in stretches, and I think we’re still trying to get our game going, to be honest with you. It’s one of the issues with the shortened season and without having a training camp, and a lot of the work you would normally do in a training and you’d normally have some time to build some consistency and figure out your line combinations and work on your game-conditioning. And we’re doing all that during the season. I think if you look around the league, you see a lot of ups and downs for a lot of teams, and certainly we’re one of them.
FSN: With so many new faces, was it natural to maybe expect an adjustment period?
FLETCHER: Of course, we expected there would be one. It takes time. It takes time for players to get to know their teammates and get to learn the coaching staff, and the system and to acclimate to the new surroundings. There’s always an adjustment period for any player whenever he goes into a new situation. I think that’s part of the process. We expected it. And we’re really happy with the new players, but obviously over time they’ll get more comfortable and I’m sure things will get easier for them the further along we go.
FSN: When you first started out making this transition, did you even expect to go through quite this much overhaul?
FLETCHER: I did because last year was just a tough year. We clearly didn’t have enough talent, and we didn’t have enough depth to sustain the injuries that we had. We certainly knew that we had a lot of young players turning pro this year, and we knew that they would certainly, at a minimum, improve our depth. Even if they didn’t make the team, we would have more guys, more talented players available for recall during the year, and so we were excited about that. And then we went out and added a lot of NHL players, particularly forwards, with Parise, and Mitchell, and Konopka and Jake Dowell. We re-signed Stephane Veilleux. We brought a lot of veteran forwards back into the fold or into the fold as the case may be. It was clearly something we wanted to address after last season. Not only did we want to get better, but we just wanted to have a lot more depth. You never can predict when injuries hit, so the best way to work around it is to make sure that you have available talent ready to step in when needed. We like the moves we made and certainly we’re a deeper, more talented team this year.
FSN: Expectations because of the signing of Parise and Suter were sky-high as we’re finding out during the past week, but what were the expectations internally this season?
FLETCHER: Just to get better. We want to be competitive every night and get better. We signed Zach and Ryan to 13-year contracts, not 13-game contracts. Sometimes it gets a little silly when you see some of the angst and even some of the media reaction, but it is what it is. It would be nice if you could just snap your fingers and wave a magic wand and have 40 percent roster turnover, which we did, and just hit the ground running with a six-day training camp. But in the real world, those things don’t happen. It takes time, and we’re getting better — and we’ll continue to get better, particularly as some of our young players mature and gain experience. Certainly Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin and Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Johan Larsson, all these players are going to be better players when they’re 22 or 23 than they are now. That’s what we’ve tried to tell people: Our best days are ahead of us.
FSN: In talking with Ryan Suter, he wishes the adjustment would go as quick as possible, but he said you mentioned to him to give it to that 20-game mark and see how he feels. Is that kind of the range you look at, give it 20 games or so?
FLETCHER: He’s played really well for us. I think it’s been remarkable how quickly he’s made the transition. Nashville plays different than we do, and he’s had probably a bigger adjustment to make than Zach has in terms of systems and how he played in Nashville versus how we play here. I give him a ton of credit. He’s logged a lot of minutes and played extremely well for us. I think it’s good and he feels there’s a whole other level he can get to, which is great. It takes time. Whatever the game number is, it’s hard to know for sure. Certainly a month or two from now he’s going to understand the system. He would have played more games in the system (without the lockout). He would have played more games with his new teammates and clearly, like anybody, the more familiar you get with your surroundings and your environment, the more comfortable you are. It’s no different than anybody starting with a new company or starting a new job or starting a new school, once you’ve been there for a few months, it’s a lot easier than you’re first couple days and you’re just trying to figure out how you fit in. There’s a human side to this and change for these players, moving and all that. But again, I’ve been impressed with how quickly the guys have adjusted and how quickly the young players are starting to get used to the NHL level. There’s another level we can get to, and that’s the exciting thing.
FSN: Has Zach been everything you expected when you signed him, the work ethic and all-out play when he’s on the ice?
FLETCHER: He’s played well. He has such a relentless work ethic. He has obviously the talent level of a first-line player combined with the mentality of a fourth-line player. He just goes out every shift and works. He’s so persistent and relentless on the ice and then you combine that with the skill level, he’s a heck of a player. We’re fortunate to have him.
FSN: How much of your team’s
start is a function of how tough it is to play in the Western Conference, where
there is so much talent and some of the teams aren’t making as many changes as
FLETCHER: It’s a tough league. There’s just not a big difference between most teams, and it’s going to be a fun year because in 48 games, anything can happen. Clearly there can be surprises in a shortened season, so it will be interesting to see how things play out. There’s just really very little difference between everybody. There’s so many one-goal games and overtime games or shootout games. Even the best teams, you see them go in and play a team at the bottom of the standings and it’s a 3-2 game. There’s just very little separating most of us. That’s the challenge, but that’s also what makes our league such a great league right now, such an entertaining league to watch.
FSN: When you look at Mikael Granlund, who’s used to playing at the top level in every league he’s been in, what do you think his transition has been like and what he might be struggling with right now?
FLETCHER: He’s played really well the last few games, and that’s hopefully a sign of things to come. I think the biggest challenge for him is just, it’s the best league in the world and getting to know the competition and getting to know the players in the league. The biggest adjustment he’s had to make, I think, is just moving his feet. You have to play at a little quicker pace over here than you probably have to in some of the other levels he’s played at. The pace of his play, he’s got the talent and he’s certainly has the competitiveness. He works very hard. As he learns to play at a higher pace, I think things will start to happen a little more for him offensively. But it’s a tough league for 20-year-old players. He’s only going to get better. We know that. He’s contributing every night. He plays every night and he’s delivering scoring chances every night. Sooner or later, he’ll get rewarded because he’s working at it and he’s creating.
FSN: Brodin has come in and played a calm, confident game. Is that what you expected from him, a guy who maybe plays above his years a little bit?
FLETCHER: What he’s done is really remarkable at this point. I don’t think anybody could have expected that for a 19-year-old to step into the league and play close to 24, 25 minutes a lot of nights and play against the best players in the world night in and night out. What he’s doing is remarkable for a 25- or 26-year-old, never mind a 19-year-old. I think he’s obviously exceeded expectations. The poise in his game is amazing to see. We’ll see. He’s played eight games. It’s a tough league, and he’ll continue to be tested as teams find out about him, but we believe he’s up to the challenge.
FSN: It’s been kind of the same thing with Charlie Coyle; he’s been active and has been a spark as a big power forward. He’s brought size; is that maybe one of the things you guys were missing?
FLETCHER: Again, young guy and there’s always ups and downs with young guys, but he’s come in and played really well. He’s a big body, but he’s another player that has a lot of poise and he’s able to make plays in traffic. He’s very calm on the ice and really seems to be aware of what’s happening around him, and he’s generally making the right play. Again, for a 20-year-old kid to come in and have that maturity, that poise in his game, is really impressive. It’s hard to find players with his size and his talent level. Again, he’s got a ways to go. He’s going to continue to develop here over the next couple years. But I think when you watch him, you can see why he’s going to be a good player in this league and how quickly he gets there, we’ll find out. We certainly will do our best to help, but he’s off to a good start.
FSN: It’s hard to predict with some of those young guys, but is their development now best done in the NHL? Can you see sending them back down at all?
FLETCHER: That’s hard to say. We’re just going to do what’s best for our team. As long as the coaches are playing them, we’ll keep them here. But we’ll do what’s best for our team and for the long-term development. Again, as long as they’re playing and contributing and the coaches are putting them in the lineup, then there’s no reason why they can’t stay.
FSN: How do you feel (coach Mike Yeo) has handled the roster and expectations this year?
FLETCHER: I think he’s doing a great job. Again, you’re talking about 40 percent turnover on the team with no training camp. It’s hard. The biggest thing has been trying to find the right line combinations. We’ve been mixing and matching a lot early on here as Mike and the coaches try to find out which line combinations work the best and which players fit well together. That’s a challenge. There’s a little bit of guesswork involved at times. You watch players, you try to project how they would look on a certain line. I think there’s probably been a lot of that going on, necessarily, as we work to get some chemistry. They’re working hard. It’s a challenging year for every coaching staff because there’s so many games in such a short period of time that you’re constantly having to make decisions on how hard you practice, when do you rest, what do you cover in practice, and how much conditioning work do you do. There’s different types of decisions that need to be made in this type of schedule than you would normally have to make in a normal season. There’s some trial and error. There’s some experimentation. Again, I think it’s a real challenge for every coaching staff. I think they’ve handled it well. We’ll just keep pushing. They’re working hard to get a little bit more consistency in our play and get the execution at a higher level, and that will come.