"He said, Son I've made a life, out of readin' people's faces, and knowin' what the cards are by the way they held their eyes, so if you don't mind me saying, I can see you're out of aces, for a taste of your whiskey, I'll give you some advice. So I handed him my bottle, and he drank down my last swallow, bummed a cigarette and asked me for a light, and the night got deathly quiet, his face lost all expression and he began to speak. He said if you're going to play the game boy, you've got to learn to play it right. You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. You never count your money, when you're sittin' at the table they'll be time enough for countin', when the dealin's done," are the lyrics to famous country ballad the Gambler by Kenny Rogers. I loved that song as a kid and I still like it. I think you can apply it to two key figures of the Minnesota Wild; Head Coach Mike Yeo and General Manager Chuck Fletcher whose fate is most likely intertwined as the team tries to pick up the pieces of what was a confounding 2013 NHL season. I think a lot of Wild fans could tell by the expression on Mike Yeo's face and the deep breaths he would consistently take after a loss that the coach was running out of aces. By his own admission, Yeo said he had used every trick in his book to try to will his team out of the slumps it seemed to regularly endure yet fortunately for him the team still managed to qualify for the playoffs by the narrowest of margins.
The outlook isn't much better for Chuck Fletcher. A general manager who still must be credited for his willingness to swing significant deals but we haven't seen too many royal flushes from him either. He's scored on a few hands here and there but some of his gambles haven't yielded much at all while others bombed altogether. So will the organization stay the course with Yeo and Fletcher this summer or will the axe fall on one or both of them? If you believe Fletcher, in what he told CBS Sports here; Mike Yeo is still 'his' coach. That silence you heard was the reaction of Wild fans across the State of Hockey. Many of whom who feel Mike Yeo gets outcoached frequently and feel his unwillingness to break up the top line against Chicago to try to get some production out of its top scoring forwards Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu doomed any slim chance they had at beating the Blackhawks. So what does this off season hold for the Wild? What should be done (but probably won't be)?
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I think the leash on Coach Yeo will be very short next season and if his club stumbles out of the gate he's gone. The truth is, despite ownership spending a mint of cash and bringing in some tremendous talent and still was only able to qualify for 8th. This prompts the question of whether Yeo's inexperience is holding them back. Whether Fletcher gives Yeo a vote of confidence to me means nothing. How many times have we seen where the team's owner or GM endorses their coach and in a matter of days or weeks the axe still falls anyways. For Fletcher, his job has to feel a bit more strained as well. While he finally had a team make the playoffs, this is 2nd coach and there are still questions whether he is the right guy. You only get one coaching mulligan (Todd Richards) and then you better figure it out or you're gone. By the way Chuck, how does that Nick Leddy trade look now? Both men are, deservedly, on the hot seat.
Mikko Koivu, the Wild's current team captain was a major disappointment in this year's short playoff run. Koivu failed to register a single point in the 5-game series, and was a -5. Koivu had his fair share of chances to score, which was typified on him choking on a golden chance in Game 5 that could've given the Wild a lead and perhaps a chance to keep his team in the post-season just a little longer. The Turku, Finland-native was pilloried by fans and even members of the media for his near invisble like play during the post-season. In fact, the heat has been steadily turning up each season since he was given the captain's "C" back in 2009. More and more fans and members of the media have begun to question his leadership as well as his performances, especially when you consider his cap hit $6.75 million per season until 2017-18. Koivu has never taken criticism well and is prone to making excuses when the team struggles and for a guy who is the team's leader rarely says much to the media. Not nearly as much as current linemate and former New Jersey Devils' captain Zach Parise. In case anyone's curious, Koivu has a no trade / no movement clause in his contract meaning if the team would want to move him somewhere Mikko would have all the power to stop the Wild or limit where he goes to.
What does that $6.75 million cap hit give to the Wild? When you consider that he makes about the same as players like Anze Kopitar, Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane you have to feel a bit cheated. Koivu gives the team a player who is good for about 17-23 goals and about 70 points. He no longer can say he has substandard linemates holding him back yet do you expect him to take his game to another offensive level? I know I don't. His lack of speed forced Zach Parise to have to play a cycling game in the offensive zone which at times was effective and at others (i.e. the playoffs) non-existent. Parise often had to do most of the work by himself to get pucks and create his own scoring chances as Koivu was often too slow to really chase down the dump ins to the offensive zone. Koivu at times could go into 'beast mode' and make a big play but those moments were few and far between. Unlike Parise who was a bottle of energy most of the time; until the latter half of the season where he seemed to be tired from trying to carry the top line all by himself, Koivu would be quiet for a few games and then play with some fire for one game and then disappear again.
My suggestion for the Koivu situation may sound a bit extreme. I would utilize one of the amnesty buyouts on him. Let's face it, with his no trade / no movement clause means he can veto any trade the Wild are able to put together. Yet, as long as he's with the Wild he will mandate the team has a slow top line; especially as the club seems hesitant to ever move him off the 1st line. His $6.75 million cap hit is an albatross and the Wild would be wise to free themselves from that burden. Yes, for Craig Leipold it will hurt buying out such a deal with so many years and so much money still left to be paid to the Finnish-born captain. If the club really wants to embrace an aggressive, up and down attack ridding themselves of a slower player like Koivu would really be a comitment to that culture shift. In my opinion, the Wild has shown a want to be an up tempo, skilled team but with Koivu has to have a line that can't play at that pace and that leads to inconsistency. Also, its painful to see a line that has a star winger like Parise who has the speed to play that game be forced to cycle because his center just doesn't have the wheels to attack all that often off the rush. I know the more popular thought is to buyout winger Dany Heatley, but Heatley has just one more year left on his contract. Why not rid the team of a true albatross deal? Most people agree that despite what Koivu believes of himself he's not a true 1st line NHL center. He may be defensively responsible, but he isn't nearly a good enough finisher to justify his salary. Unfortunately I think the team will simply buyout Heatley and again stay with Koivu as its 1st line center. If you want another amnesty buyout candidate, I'd toss out Tom Gilbert too. In my opinion Marco Scandella's reasonable playoff performance makes Gilbert expendible.
How do they compare? A tale of the tape
2011-12 Season 2013 Season
Winning Pct. .494 (24th) Winning Pct. .573 (15th)
2.02 Goals For (30th) 2.46 Goals For (22nd)
2.65 Goals Against (13th) 2.60 Goals Against (16th)
15.1% Power Play (27th) 17.9% Power Play (16th)
82.1% Penalty Kill (15th) 80.7% Penalty Kill (18th)
What about scoring?
It is extremely unlikely that the Wild will make any splash in free agency like they did last summer with Parise and Ryan Suter. As much as it was hoped the additions of Parise and later Jason Pominville would solve the team's scoring woes the last portions of the regular season and playoffs demonstrated the Wild still have a lot of work to do in that area. The team did make some progress, going from 30th in the league in scoring in 2011-12, to 22nd in 2013. How could the Wild solve this? The team has to get a more consistent season from Devin Setoguchi who at times was invisible and at others he was a force of nature. Jason Zucker also looks to have plenty of potential to add points in addition to giving the club some much-needed speed. The other possibility to fix this problem is via free agency.
Without buying out Heatley the Wild have $9.1 million in cap space to use. With veterans like Niklas Backstrom, Matt Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Brett Clark set to become unrestricted free agents as well as Cal Clutterbuck, Justin Falk and Jared Spurgeon going to be restricted free agents. I think the team will likely look to give a raise for Spurgeon ($2 million-range), but I think the team may pass on signing fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck who had a disappointing season in favor of promoting a youngster from its prospect pool (Brett Bulmer comes to mind). Matt Cullen is the only veteran skater I think they'll try to re-sign. Niklas Backstrom would have to take a significant pay cut to remain with the Wild. Josh Harding's health would be a major concern if he was given the role of starter and its tough to say Darcy Kuemper is ready to be the backup since he hasn't even been the #1 goalie for the team's AHL club yet. I think the team has some good options in free agency that could both add speed and scoring and I believe would be fairly affordable. My top 3 UFA's for the Wild to target this summer.
1. Viktor Stalberg – the 27-year old left winger would give the Wild size, speed, skill and is a decent finisher who I think could thrive if given the opportunity. He made just $875,000 last season and I think he could be had in a fairly affordable $2-2.5 million per year deal.
2. Andrew Ference – the 34-year old veteran stay at home defenseman still moves well and isn't afraid to use the body. With the defense of the Wild so young it could use another veteran presence to go along with Suter.
3. Mason Raymond – the super fast 27-year old left winger could really use a change of scenery. After coming up short of the high expectations in Vancouver the Wild just might be the perfect fit. Raymond isn't big but his wheels would help boost the team speed and he still has the potential to be a decent finisher when given the opportunity.
The state of the prospect pool
The Wild has taken every opportunity to boast the Hockey News' Future Watch rating the team as the best stable of prospects. These accolades are a credit to Assistant GM Brent Flahr who has done a great job of finding qualty talent to fill out a once kiddie pool deep system into one where talent abounds. While I will give him credit for this turn around one must admit that Flahr didn't have to do alot in order to look great compared to his predecessor Tommy Thompson. However, before we tire ourselves out patting Flahr on the back the way I see it, only one of the first round selections he's had (out of 4) looks like a homerun in Jonas Brodin. Still, that's not too shabby and many believe there is lots to like about Mathew Dumba and even underwhelming rookie Mikael Granlund who looked overwhelmed during his half-season long NHL audition. To his credit, Granlund displayed a wonderful and professional attitude about pointing out he must be better in order to stick in the NHL and not blaming his play on anyone other than himself. I think the Wild, and just as importantly Granlund would be best served by having him start the season in Des Moines. I'd suggest the same for Dumba. Let him prove he can thrive in the AHL and then give him his NHL chance. It was a mistake to give Granlund a free pass last year and even though it may be rempting to give Dumba a chance right away I think its important for him to cut his pro hockey teeth in the AHL first.
Flahr's forgotten 1st round pick, Zack Phillips had a major adjustment from his junior days where he was a over a point-per-game player with the St. John Sea Dogs. Phillips had 8 goals and 27 points in 71 games. He was more productive towards the 2nd half of the season as his ice time increased after players like Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker were called up. Justin Fontaine had another strong season, leading the team in points (23 goals, 56 points) and many wonder if the former UMD-star may be able to earn a spot in training camp. The team does have some other very promising forward prospects in Erik Haula and 6'4" offensively gifted center Tyler Graovac. Haula led the Golden Gophers in scoring for the last two seasons and Graovac exploded in his overage season to the tune of 38 goals and 74 points splitting time between Ottawa and Belleville. Both players performed reasonably well in their clubs respective playoff runs too and I'd expect them to be offensive workhorses in Iowa. Brett Bulmer had a rough season, struggling through injuries as well as limited ice time. Raphael Bussieres had a strong season for Baie-Comeau, putting up career highs in goals (29) and points (68) and his strong play led the Drakkar to the QMJHL Finals where they were ousted by a powerful Halifax squad. I would expect him to return to Baie-Comeau for his overage season. Mario Lucia had to wait half a season with a wrist injury before having a decent 2nd half of his freshman season with Notre Dame by scoring 12 goals and 23 points in 32 games. Rounding out the team's stable of prospect forwards, Boston College recruit Adam Gilmour had a decent season in the USHL for Muskegon where he led the team in points with 19 goals, 47 points and University of Minnesota recruit Louie Nanne had 19 goals and 41 points for Penticton of the BCHL. The team's depth with its forward prospects is definitely its biggest advantage.
On defense, the prospect pool is much thinner. Beyond Dumba, who still looks like a blue chip prospect there isn't a whole lot to get worked up about. Apple Valley-native Kyle Medvec had a good season for the Aeros, using his 6'5" frame well and he got good reviews for the improvements to his game but he's still a long-term project. John Draeger got plenty of ice-time in his freshman year on a terrible Michigan State team, being partnered with Jake Chelios most of the season. Nick Seeler had a hard time staying in the lineup with Nebraska-Omaha. 6'4" Swede Daniel Gunnarsson had a good season with Lulea and hopefully will make the trip over to North America next season. Tyler Cuma did not do nearly enough to make the Wild want to offer him another contract officially making him a complete bust after the team had traded up to select him 23rd Overall in 2008. This is the area where the Wild's prospect pool is at its weakest and I expect them to try to address this at this year's entry draft.
Between the pipes the Wild have two standout goaltending prospects in Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson who had another fantastic season in the Swedish Eliteserien. For the 2nd season in a row, Gustafsson had a sub-2.00 goals against average and again led his team deep into the post-season. He will battle it out with Kuemper, who had supplanted Matt Hackett for the #1 goalie spot with the Aeros this season to be the team's backup. The only other goaltender in the prospect pool is Stephen Michalek who left Harvard after being indicted in the Harvard cheating scandal. He will be re-instated to play this next season, but it certainly makes one question his character.
This year's Entry Draft marks the first time since the team came into the league since 2000 that the team has not had a 1st round pick after they traded it to Buffalo as part of the Jason Pominville deal. Brett Flahr still has some places to shore up (particularly on defense) in the team's prospect pool but luckily for him this draft is deep on defenseman. I still think adding quality finishers as well as placing an emphasis on speed up front should also be a priority. Expect to see more discussion about the draft in the coming weeks.
What should Wild fans expect this summer?
I would expect a quiet summer. The team being so close to the salary cap means the team will likely stand pat for the most part. Being that close also means the team will hope to look from within its organization for roster upgrades and unless it can land a free agent with the right fit and at the right price will it make a move. This summer will likely be defined more by who is leaving than who is arriving to the organization. Whether that will mean the team will live up to its potential will be answered next season.