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Wild fans speak about the 2011-12 season, the players and the team’s future: Part 1 of 2

Minnesota Wild Fans

For Wild fans, all they have to do is to tune into the NBC Sports Network each evening to be reminded this season was yet another failure to make the post-season.  4 seasons have past since the Wild last made the Stanley Cup playoffs.  In that time there has been 3 different coaches; with the last year of Jacques Lemaire‘s tenure and two more under Todd Richards and now one year under the belt of Mike Yeo there has been 4 years of mediocrity where at times the Wild flirted with the idea of playoffs only to come up short.  Needless to say, in the State of Hockey and with attendance at the Xcel Energy Center no longer a guaranteed sellout as it used to be, the pressure is on.  Perhaps no person is feeling the ‘heat’ more than Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher.  Even though he may have recently been given a 1-year contract extension (giving him two years left on his current deal) I think its safe to say he realizes he needs to start having his club showing some more tangible results.  While there is the ever popular notion the Wild prospect pool is brimming with talent at virtually all positions it still could be years before those young players are all contributing to this team.  The experts have chimed in, Wild owner Craig Leipold shared his thoughts to the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s Michael Russo here.  But what do Minnesota Wild fans think?  Are they buying what the organization is selling?  Are they under the belief this franchise is on the verge of turning it around or do they feel they’re following a club that is circling the drain? 

Homer Simpson  Do Wild fans believe their team is in serious trouble?

So I asked four Wild fans a series of questions about their assessment of the 2011-12 season as well as the current direction of the franchise.  Brian Mills, a classmate and Minnesota hockey fanatic like myself.  One of these fans are wild.com message board regular KISSArmyMan who you may remember chimed in with his two cents about the Wild’s performance at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft last summer.  Our other two respondents are regulars of the Wild portion of the Hockey’s Future message boards.  Jarick, a former wild.com regular who along with a few other fans has their own blog called FirstRoundBust.com, and Se7en a California-based Wild fan.  I too am chiming in on these questions.  I asked each of these fans 8 questions on a variety of Wild related subjects.  So would these fans see things the way Homer Simpson does as they predict the end is near?  What sort of end is it?  The end of hope or the end of mediocrity? 

Columbus Blue Jackets fans  Do Wild fans see team management as bad as Columbus’ fans see theirs?

Management is a big part of success.  The Hockey News even noted this in a recent issue where they continue to gush about Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland and Assistant GM Jim Nill.  So what do Wild fans think of this club’s upper management?  This is the first portion of a two-part article where the fans give their thoughts about the Wild and its prospects for the future.  But let’s take it a step farther.  What do YOU think?  Share your responses in the comment section below.  Do you agree with these Wild fans? 

Click on “Read More” for the rest of the article…

1. What one cause do you think really derailed the 2011-12 season?

Jarick:  The easy answer is injuries. When guys like Mikko Koivu, Devin Setoguchi, Guillaume Latendresse, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard go down almost simultaneously, you won’t last long in this league.

However, this roster was paper thin from Day One, and that has to reflect on Chuck Fletcher. I don’t think the fans or the media have recognized that enough. No, he can’t prevent injuries, but he should have realized before the start of the season his top six was full of injury-prone players and he had no backup plan.

At the end of the day, this was a team that probably overachieved early, probably underachieved late, and finished about where they should have. So I wouldn’t ask for anyone’s head.

KISSArmyMan:  I hate to say it, because all teams deal with them, but it was the injuries. Before Koivu, Bouchard, Setoguchi, Wellman and others went down, the team was the #1 team in the entire NHL. Not just the Northwest Division or the Western Conference, but the entire NHL. That’s saying something for a team that most picked as a Playoff bubble team for 2011-2012.

I don’t know if there is any team in the NHL that could suffer as many injuries to their top players and NOT spiral out of control as the Wild did. Maybe if they had an established farm system that had prospects who were ready to step in for the top players if they were injured. That’s probably the second cause of this season’s derailment. The Wild’s farm system is in a shambles. There was no ready talent to take over when the injuries occurred. Guys like Warren Peters and Jed Ortmeyer are in the AHL for a reason, and they proved it once they got significant NHL playing time. Hopefully next season (provided there is no Lockout) when Koivu gets his yearly injury the Wild will have someone with talent to call up and replace him instead of an endless parade of career AHLer’s.

Se7en:  As much as I hate to say it I’m going to give Yeo the benefit of the doubt and just say compiled injuries.  I hate to use that as an excuse but really that was a nail in our coffin. Its plain to see that we just lacked the depth to continue to plug & play with that many injuries to our top 6.  If the injuries were more one at a time I wouldn’t allow this excuse but to lose so many key players all at once was brutal, especially on a rookie coach who’s teams best prospects weren’t even in the stable yet. So on this past season I will give a pass almost solely because, I like many others, was starting to believe in what Yeo could do with his system until that string of injuries doomed us.  We may not have been the most talented team and we probably could not have maintained that much success but I thought it was a decent indicator of what could have been & the optimist in me thinks that with all our new prospects coming up & another off season to fine tune the team that we could finally be righting the ship.

Brian:  Well Koivu being hurt i think derailed that first line from ever really getting gelled together.  They were hot there at the start and then just cooled right off, after that they just couldn’t seem to find that chemistry together again. 

Derek Felska:  While I believe injuries played a major role in sending the season in a tailspin, I think the Wild were playing far beyond their abilities early on that made them appear better than they really were.  Early on when the team had Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi all healthy the team was winning games not because these players were piling up the points.  In fact, many of them; most notably Mikko Koivu were fairly quiet offensively.  The real contributors in the Wild’s fast start were Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Cullen and Kyle Brodziak.  These players may have been able to thrive more with the other offensive weapons that opposing teams were forced to account for but these are the players that carried the Wild to the top of the league standings.  Once these guys were gone the team’s lack of depth was exposed and Brodziak, Heatley, Cullen couldn’t carry the team by themselves. 

Casey Wellman wasn’t able take advantage of his final opportunity to show he could be an offensive contributor for this organization and with that any real hope of true offensive help from the farm was gone.  We tried just about every single forward that was showing any sort of offensive flash in Houston but nothing worked.  I would argue the team as a whole still lacks the speed necessary to play the aggressive forechecking system Coach Yeo wants.  Early on the duo of Brodziak and Johnson were pretty effective in this capacity but after Nick Johnson’s trip to the All Star game he wasn’t going into the corners like he used to and the Wild’s forecheck all but vanished.  I think injuries are the simple reason, but the true reason for the derailment of the 2011-12 season was a lack of offensive depth many of us felt existed prior to the start of the season.  More or less everything had to go right just for the Wild to slip into the playoffs.  It didn’t happen; injuries played a part but the margin of error the team had was pretty thin.

2. What do you think of the job Mike Yeo has done? Was he really any improvement over Todd Richards yes or no?

Jarick:  Yes, I believe Mike Yeo is an improvement over Todd Richards. His team was great in the AHL through the playoffs and the first half of the NHL season. He worked the match ups on ice much more than Richards. And he didn’t disappear and take days off when the team was losing like Richards did.

There are some red flags though. There were a number of veterans who were unhappy as reported by Mike Russo and others in the media. The collapse halfway through the season also makes me cautious about his impact on the team as a whole going forward.

KISSArmyMan:  I think Yeo has done a passable job. Am I ready to crown him the next Scotty Bowman? No. Probably shouldn’t even use Yeo’s name in the same sentence as Bowman’s. My bad. When the team was healthy, he had them winning and not only that, there were comments from the players that they believed they could win. That means he had the room and that they were buying into his system.

However once the injuries took over, he seemed to lose the ability to motivate the players. I know a lot of people took issue with his calling the players out in the press, but sometimes that is what some players need. Jacques Lemaire wasn’t above that technique. Can it backfire? Certainly. And it might have this season. He seemed to use it quite a bit once the losing started. But all good coaches are part psychologist as well. They must know what makes each player tick in order to motivate them. I’m not sure Yeo has all his players figured out yet. I wonder if he has his captain figured out yet.

Yeo was definitely an improvement over Todd Richards. Yeo does not seem afraid to call a spade a spade. Richards on the other hand never seemed sure of anything and always looked lost behind the bench. And then there was the constant mantra of “I’ll have to look at the tape”. If the beat reporters are spotting things amiss during games and questioning it (and for the most part the knowledgeable fans were too) and your only response is that “I’ll have to look at the tape” you look like an incompetent fool. I wonder if he’s still using that in Columbus.

Se7en:  I would say yes, definitely an improvement. I guess I kind of got into that above but I believe that Yeo got dealt about the worst hand you could get dealt in your rookie year. Again, I believe that he had an impressive start & just from his composure & style before the season started I already had more faith in Yeo than I had previously had in Richards. I don’t believe Richards would have fared any better in Yeo’s situation & I believe even the most experienced coaches would have had trouble keeping the team a float.

We just lacked the depth too much.  I can & did gripe that it did feel like Yeo had lost the room there around January/ February and beyond & no longer had his team giving their all but the players are only human and really without having 2 identical seasons playing out at once, one with Yeo at the helm and one with a coach like Dave Tippet or Ken Hitchcock to compare & contrast the differences I don’t think its fair to say “______ (insert veteran coaches name) would have still gotten us into the playoffs”. Just too many variables. I just hope for every one’s sake that we don’t have another season with so many injuries for a long time.

Brian:  It’s hard to judge a coach on a one year basis, but i feel Mike Yeo is a great coach who can mold a young team, and that is what we’re going to be if they bring in more prospects. 

Derek Felska:  I think Mike Yeo has been a very significant upgrade over Todd Richards.  In terms of accountability alone Yeo was a refreshing dose of honesty.  The interesting thing is that throughout the Wild’s winning ways I felt Yeo realized that the team was playing a little beyond itself as he was always fairly guarded in his praise.  I have heard some of the rumors about some of the vets being annoyed with him; but I don’t really care.  If we’re talking about a veteran defenseman like Kurtis Foster who did not really bring much to the table why should I really care if he’s unhappy.  What did he do on the ice that means the team should be giving him lots of playing time? 

Although I think like Richards, at times Yeo really was stuggling over what he should do to try to jolt the team out of its tailspin but I am not sure there was much anything anyone could do when you had a lineup that was more akin to what you’d expect in a pre-season exhibition game than in the home stretch for the playoffs.  Was the overall result of the season a big improvement over last year?  No it wasn’t, but maybe its just me but Yeo’s candid responses and even his demonstrations of anger made me see he cares and that he has high standards, not the apathy Richards all too often showed.  I think part of Richards’ style is to just stay as even as possible, to the point of just avoiding really saying anything of substance for fear of bothering egos on the team.  Yeo didn’t call guys out the way Jacques Lemaire is, but if there was one thing that was consistent was that he shared the blame; even foisting quite a bit of it on himself. 

Yeo is an intense and focused individual, and he matched lines far better than Richards did in two seasons.  I think what really ruined Richards here was that fans kind of lost the belief he was the guy to make this team a winner; I don’t think Yeo has lost that yet.  However, just like any coach he’s not going to be given an unlimited amount of time to put it all together either.

3. Does Mikko Koivu deserve to wear the ‘C’ for the Wild or should someone else be given the mantle of team captain? If not Koivu, who else would you select?

Jarick:  I’d say a qualified “yes.” He seems to have the full support of the management, coaching staff, and players. When he’s healthy and in the lineup, he’s a difference maker. But he hasn’t been able to stay healthy enough to lead the team consistently. You need to be able to play in order to lead.

Beyond that, I’m not sold on Mikko as a captain from a fan’s perspective. The team hasn’t made the playoffs under his tenure. His play has been inconsistent the past few seasons. His surliness and demeanor don’t come across as positive to me as a fan.

I do think Kyle Brodziak should join Dany Heatley and Matt Cullen as an alternate (or assistant) captain.

KISSArmyMan:  As much as I hate to admit it, Koivu should probably be the captain. He’s been around the franchise the longest. However, is he an effective captain? I don’t know. I guess it depends on your definition of “effective”.

Michael Russo is constantly writing how no one hates to lose more than Koivu. He’s also written the players love him as captain. Even way back Brian Rolston referred to him as “The Franchise”. However, Koivu seems to be possessed by the ghost of Manny Fernandez when it comes to talking with the press. And some of his past comments have rubbed fans the wrong way (There was the infamous “Fans don’t know how hard it is to play in the NHL” comment when asked about a poor season, and this season after a terribly played game where Mike Yeo spat out “We stunk!”, Koivu comes out with a differing opinion: “We didn’t play that badly”.) After Head Coach Todd Richards removed an ineffective Antti Miettinen from the #1 line, it was reported that he and Richards had heated words and Richards soon re-inserted a still ineffective Miettinen back into that #1 line slot. Also, with his injuries this season there were reports of him staying away from the team while he was injured. I would think a real leader would want to be around the team encouraging them rather than checking out the latest pastries at the Finnish Bistro or whatever he does in his off time.

I’ve always pictured the ideal captain as Mark Messier.  Someone who will kick ass and take names when it needs to happen. I haven’t heard of Koivu doing that. But apparently Koivu’s got a heck of a stare. Especially if you’re a member of the press. Maybe that inspires the players. But when all’s said and done apparently he is an effective captain in the player’s eyes, and that’s all that really matters.

If I had to pick another player as captain, I might look in either Brodziak or Cullen’s direction. Are they the most prolific scorers on the team? No. But out of all the Wild players lately they seem to be the ones who give 100% every night.

Se7en:  Like anyone I do question if he should be captain from time to time but I don’t believe there’s anyone more capable of the honor on our squad.  I will say this, when Heatley came onto the team I had my doubts and even tho he had another poor year stats wise I was 100% thoroughly impressed with him as a player & a teammate.  I don’t believe that he should now get to wear the “C” patch instead of Koivu but I would say he did make a solid case, and he for one did change my opinion of him greatly.

With that said, I really do feel this is Mikko’s team & you can 100% see the difference when he’s on the ice.  I just wish he could engage that “beast mode” a little more often. But I do think he should 100% be our captain. I think he provides a solid role model & work ethic that sets a tone for the rest of the team and until someone makes an extremely convincing case to strip him of the C, he will have my support has our captain.

Brian:  Koivu is the team captain. He is the leader in both the locker room and on the ice. His mentality and passion is the standard you want to see the young players aspire to. So yes he should be the captain as long as he wants the honor.

Derek Felska:  I do not think Mikko Koivu deserves to be the Minnesota Wild’s team captain.  I think can be a dominant player at times but I think he lacks a lot of basic traits you want in a good leader.  Personal accountability being the most notable; how many times did we hear Koivu say he felt the team played ‘ok’ when it clearly had a poor effort.  With Koivu its sort of like a case of the Emperor has no clothes.  He believes himself to be more or less infallible and that to me erodes respectability and while it avoids setting up personal disputes between himself and other players I think it sounds ignorant and patronizing.  Wild beat writer Michael Russo says Mikko hates to lose, but does he really?  How many times do we see Mikko take a stupid penalty late in the game or give a half-hearted effort?  We’ve seen that quite a bit since he signed his big money contract. 

I am sure in his mind he thinks, what do I care?  I’m the 2nd highest paid player on the team and I’m under contract for at least the next 5 years.  Why should he have to be one of the top performers for this team, the paycheck is going to arrive either way.  So that leaves the $64 question, who should be this team’s captain?  At this point, I’d give it to Matt Cullen.  Cullen to me has emerged as a leader and he certainly played like a player who doesn’t take things for granted, and when asked he’s been honest about the team’s performance.  Just leaving it with Koivu is foolish.  I might still give him an ‘A’ but certainly not the ‘C’, because a captain should be held to a higher standard.  Especially one being paid as much as he is.  Kyle Brodziak is another possible future captain, and even after he got his extension he didn’t just rest on his laurels and kept battling until the bitter end.  That’s the kind of character you want in a captain. 

Maybe it seems crass of me, but hearing that Koivu didn’t even bother to show up for games after his injury late this season really was telling.  How can you be the team’s leader but not show up for games.  Your hurt, showing up to be in the locker room rooting on your teammates is what a wounded leader would do.  Not stay home and watch from afar.  I don’t care if it was tough to sit while his teammates are battling, what’s more important?  Your ego or being their for your teammates who have been the battle with you?  THEY ARE, and a REAL captain would recognize that.

4. What young Wild prospect (any player who has played 100 games or less) must emerge as a star to raise this club out of mediocrity?

Jarick:  Mikael Granlund, without question. The team needs a dazzling star player up front, and he certainly has the promise. He’s got to become a big time threat to give the Wild some offensive punch.

What worries me is the amount of hype and pressure on the kid. He gets drafted 9th overall, goes on to tear up the Finnish league and win a championship, then lead Finland to a World Championship. He turns down the Wild to play another year, is off to a roaring start, then hits a wall in the World Juniors, visibly let down by that missed shootout goal in the medal round. Since then, reports are he’s looked exhausted, missed a month with illness, and was ineffective in his team’s quick first round exit.

It’s the perfect time for a change of pace for Granlund. He could rejuvenate the fan base like Ricky Rubio did with the Wolves. The Wild need that kind of energy.

KISSArmyMan:  This may sound like a broken record, but Mikael Granlund better be all that and a bag of chips. He can’t be an “ok” player or even a “good” player. The Wild have a plethora of “ok” and “good” players. They need a “great” player desperately. And that “great” player better be a shooter. They have enough players who like to play “hot potato” with the puck.

Se7en:  This scares me, I really dont know. I really like the prospects we’ve added but I still feel like we’re missing that game-breaker talent. I feel we have added really solid complimentary pieces and that puts us in a place to be a real contender in the coming years but I fear that no one in our system is that aw inducing player (Like a Stamkos, Crosby, etc) If we’re lucky enough to get Parise in FA, he may be a solid enough addition and because he’s a hometown boy he will be a big enough name to keep fans happy, but unless we make some blockbuster trade for a young phenom I have a feeling that we will be more of a scoring by committee, work ethic team.. Which as long as we’re winning is fine by me and I think the Minnesota fans are ok with that as well, winning is more important than one big name. Its like ya, Stamkos scored 60 goals & that’s great but it didn’t get them into the playoffs..

I had to pick one player in our pool I would say it will have to be Mikael Granlund or perhaps Charlie Coyle. Only because these are the 2 players that fans have been drooling over & they are players directly related to Fletcher’s work as GM so far. I think that if these players come in & play up to the potential we’ve been led to believe they have it will go a long way with fans & the league to show that Fletcher was the right man for the job & that things are well on their way to being a lot better.. I dont think either player is the answer alone but as long as they get close to living up to their potential I think the fans will start having alot more faith in our future.

Brian:  Well I think the first person that comes to mind is Jason Zucker.  Everyone has high expectations after what he has done in the WCHA, but I think he will emerge to be that 2nd liner we need to make that line great. 

Derek Felska:  Well, the popular answer is by far Mikael Granlund.  The Wild really haven’t had such a hyped player join its lineup since perhaps Marian Gaborik.  Granlund is supposed to be an elite level talent and is said to be one of the best players not in the NHL.  Yet thriving for 3 seasons in Finland and the World Championships which is a far cry from more a-list event of the Olympics is still not really the same as the NHL.  Those tournaments are played on international ice, where a smaller player with good vision and creativity can thrive but its a bit different on a smaller North American rink.  He will likely be given every opportunity to figure it out with the Wild next season.  However, he had a bad finish to the year as he clearly was a bit overworked down the stretch.  The scary thing about that is the grind in the NHL is far more intense than what they have in Finland where travel is small fraction of what it is here let alone the fact they play only about half of the games.  However, I think he’s going to be seen as the guy by most fans, management as having to deliver the goods.  To any fan that really believes Granlund is going to bring the offense, his best skills are as a playmaker and while the hyped lacrosse goal gives you an idea of his talents and creativity I am not convinced he has the speed to really elude a determined shadowing forward / defenseman at the NHL level.  If I could give Granlund any advice is to shoot, shoot and shoot because the more he shoots the more valuable he is; but as a playmaking forward that he is I fear we will see a lot of great passes that yield little because the lack of other finishers on this team.  Yet I think there are some others that must deliver otherwise this team could find itself in trouble. 

Matt Hackett must really emerge to be the heir apparent to Niklas Backstrom as the team’s franchise goalie.  Hackett looked decent in his time with the Wild this season and I think he has little to nothing to prove in the American Hockey League after two good years in Houston.  I think Hackett’s ready for that challenge because its next likely that in the next year or two he will be carrying the majority of hte load in the Wild’s crease and that’s no small responsibility.  The other major talent that must deliver is Jonas Brodin.  The team passed up on a chance to sign a very talented forward in Sven Baertschi to take Brodin.  Brodin is a terrific skater who plays with a very smart stick that will remind a lot of people of Nicklas Lidstrom.  He makes everything look easy, but he still needs to add more bulk to his frame and I hope he’s adept as Lidstrom was at evading big hits. 

Granlund is rated as the #2 young player by The Hockey News‘ Future Watch issue.  I hope Granlund likes pressure, because he’s going to have plenty of it next year both on the ice and off of it.

That’s it for now, part two will be out in about 4 days.  Please share your thoughts, I’d love to hear what you think! 

Jack Jablonski & Jenna Privette