ST. PAUL, Minn. — When Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher executed three trades in the days leading to the NHL trade deadline, including dealing popular longtime defenseman Nick Schultz, each move was made with a focus on improving in the present with an eye to the future.
Fletcher didn’t believe the labeling that goes with being a buyer or seller at the deadline defined Minnesota. For Fletcher, the trades were simply another step in the progression of a building team.
Ever since Fletcher was appointed the Wild’s general manager in May 2009, he has tried to strengthen a sagging talent base. When he took over, Minnesota had missed the playoffs for the first time in three seasons and had a farm system depleted of top-end talent.
Fletcher wasn’t afraid to wheel and deal, and his rebuilding job took on a different look last summer when he made two separate trades for scoring forwards Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.
“For us to get better, we felt a few things had to happen,” Fletcher said Monday after making a pair of deals at the trade deadline. “It seems like we’ve been stuck. At least last summer we felt we were stuck in terms of not being able to get over the hump in the present and maybe not having enough assets going forward.”
That all changed when he acquired Setoguchi, prospect Charlie Coyle and a first-round pick he turned into Zack Phillips on draft night. Soon after, he added Heatley. Having added several key draft picks, the young talent in the system is on the rise. Fletcher believes the Wild are ready for the next phase of building the franchise: complementing impressive young players with established NHL stars.
“We’ve had people working very hard at developing the talent base of our organization with young players and we’re very excited about that,” Fletcher said. “Yet I think we’re also very cognizant of the fact that over time here we need to add some more NHL talent, too. Part of our push as we get better will come from young players; part of it will be from adding NHL players. In order to do that, you either need cap space or you need assets to trade.
“The good thing is we feel like we have both now. So, whether it’s this summer or this winter or whatever the case may be, we think we’re in the best position that we’ve ever been in terms of being able to go out and get better quickly.”
This summer could be a transformative one for the franchise. Minnesota is a projected to be $20.5 million under the possible $64.3 million 2012-13 salary cap, and only 13 of the players on the current roster are signed through next season. If the Wild are looking to land a “big fish” in free agency, this might be the summer to do so.
There are many strong players in the unrestricted free-agent market, led by Minnesota native Zach Parise, a high-scoring forward for the New Jersey Devils. Rumors have linked Parise and the Wild for the past couple of years. Minnesota also could take a look at solid two-way defenseman Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators, another unrestricted free agent. Interestingly, defenseman Tom Gilbert, who was acquired Monday by the Wild, played youth hockey with Parise and was a college teammate of Suter’s.
On Monday, Fletcher likened his situation to what Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman was going through a few years ago. Chicago had several young players coming up in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Dustin Byfuglien. But the outlook for the Blackhawks changed when they signed free-agent defenseman Brian Campbell.
A year later, star wing Marian Hossa agreed to join the team and was the final piece as Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2009-10.
“Their big fish was Brian Campbell,” Fletcher said. “They had all these players. And they went out and got a player to come play for them and they took off. Again, whether that’s a trade and we have assets now. We have some good young players. We have some extra picks now. Whether it’s free agency, whether it’s a trade next year during the season, at some point we want to go out and try to add some top-end guys.”
The team’s recent trades were more of a progression of transforming the offense, which is last in the league in goals scored. Acquiring the more offensive-minded Gilbert for a stay-at-home defender like Schultz was a matter of a fit for the team. Both 29-year-old defensemen were signed through the 2013-14 season.
“We thought going forward that we need to transition to a little bit more of a in terms of our defense, add a little bit more puck-moving ability to our back end over the next couple of seasons,” Fletcher said. “We hope to add more and more talented young forwards. I don’t think it’s a secret that we’ve struggled offensively this season, and I think this is a natural evolution for our team.”
One example of the Wild not being true “sellers” is goaltender Josh Harding, who stayed in Minnesota despite being an unrestricted free agent this summer. Fletcher didn’t rule out possibly re-signing Harding, though starter Niklas Backstrom is signed through next season and minor leaguer Matt Hackett appears ready to contribute at the NHL level.
The evolution of the Wild has begun and Fletcher isn’t finished yet.
“I think we’ve made some strides, but clearly when you look at our team this year, we have a good core of players,” Fletcher said. “We have some good hockey players on our team, but we just need a few more. And that’s our challenge. And how quickly we get there I can’t say. We’ll certainly try and do the best we can. That’s the next step for us as a franchise.”