Is Chuck Fletcher Holding Minnesota Back?
Not for the first time, a professional sports team has seen an upturn in fortunes following a coaching change.
Minnesota are 4-1-0 under new Head Coach John Torchetti, the eight straight losses that led to Mike Yeo’s firing almost a distant memory and hopes of a playoff berth have been renewed.
But it’s the second time in successive seasons the Wild’s campaign has needed rescuing, and at some point the teams direction may have to come under question if this trend of boom and bust continues.
Chuck Fletcher has served as Minnesota’s General Manager since May 2009, helping making the club at the very least competitive during that time.
The Wild missed the playoffs during Fletcher’s first three seasons at the helm, but have qualified in each of the past three years, making it through to the Conference semifinals in back-to-back seasons.
In a lot of ways this does represent a successful tenure – but every one has a shelf life, and despite assembling a solid roster there seems to have been consistent question marks surrounding the organisation over the past two years.
Despite playing relatively well overall, the Wild were saved (no pun intended) by Devan Dubnyk last year .
The organisation needed someone, anyone, to give them a chance in net. In the end, they got something exceptional from the Regina native. Dubnyk’s performances not only made him a Vezina candidate, but probably saved some jobs – both behind the Minnesota bench, and in the front office.
But Fletcher later admitted acquiring Dubnyk was an ‘act of desperation’. The former Edmonton and Arizona puck stopper plugging a hole Minnesota had not adequately addressed previously. It just happened to turn out really, really well for all parties. A gamble that paid off.
This term it is looking like a change behind the bench will salvage the Wild’s season; though outgoing coach Mike Yeo has again raised some red flags regarding the state of the club in an excellent interview with Michael Russo of The Star Tribune.
Yeo’s comments can perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt – an outgoing coach playing some form of damage control after being fired. But when the 42-year old is talking about a ‘disconnect’ between the clubs younger players and its veterans, there is cause for concern.
While every team has its ‘groups’, Minnesota’s notable veterans all have no movement clauses and term left on their deals – they are, in a sense, untouchable.
Yeo must undoubtedly share part of the blame for any dressing room friction, but much like countless others report to their ‘line manager’, Yeo ultimately reported to Fletcher and handcuffing the franchise to Thomas Vanek, Mikko Koivu et al was the General Manager’s decision.
Equally, Yeo’s comments that ‘there was a feeling for almost waiting for change or playing for change or just waiting around for something to happen’ comes back to Fletcher – destabilising a locker room because you can’t quash rumours or man manage a situation does nothing for morale.
Likewise, the spectre of Adam Oates seems to have been questionably handled. Hired as a personal coach by several players (including Zach Parise and Ryan Suter) prior to the new season getting under way, Oates presence came back to haunt Yeo and the organisation when the team hit a skid on the ice.
It’s worth reiterating that Yeo is the outbound coach, things are still likely to be raw and in any break up there are always two sides. But his comments are concerning for a team married to a number of ageing players, who haven’t performed at their best over past couple of months, in some cases longer.
With the Wild’s season in danger of crumbling, Fletcher had to make some kind of change – not only to save the season, but perhaps to save his job.
The holy trinity of the failing franchise normally goes 1. make a trade, 2. sack the coach and finally 3. sack the GM. Fletcher tried the first, couldn’t make it work, and thus Yeo was out the door.
Standing pat was not an option if he himself was to avoid option three. Which, ultimately, is probably what this is all about. Self preservation.
But when changes, which basically translate as gambles, start to be required ‘year-in, year-out’, questions should be asked. Why can’t they make that killer trade? Why did they sign that player to that deal with that no movement clause? What are they doing to improve as a club?
All teams endure ups and downs, but lurching from a Cup dark horse to complete free fall on an annual basis is no way to operate.
And the buck stops with Fletcher. As General Manager he controls roster construction, contract negotiations and personnel changes, all three of which could be questioned in recent times, as Minnesota continues to threaten to be good but always hit a bump in the road.
If the Wild are to capitalise on the remaining ‘good years’ left in players like Koivu, Parise and Suter, perhaps a bigger change is needed within the organisation. A more significant shift in ethos.
Though history suggests it’s unlikely. Unless the club falls catastrophically short of a post season place, Craig Leipold is unlikely to pull that trigger – even if it means Minnesota remains a perennial bubble team. Because self preservation matters, and a regular round (or two) of playoff hockey is worth more than being bold, shifting gears and absorbing a few steps back in order to take a giant leap forward down the road.