The change from the crippling system of Jacque Lemaire to the aggressive, open style of Todd Richards was not going to happen overnight. The Minnesota Wild are 1-6 and off to their worst start in franchise history, including their inaugural season just nine years ago.
The source of the trouble is not the players' reliance on, and inability to escape, the confines of Lemaire's system. The problem lies in the players themselves. It's not that they're not capable of learning Richards' system, it's not that they're not working hard, it's that the team is too reliant on too little talent.
Just as the change from Lemaire's system to Richards' system won't happen overnight, one offseason under new General Manager Chuck Fltecher won't clean up the messes former GM Doug Risebrough has made in his eight seasons in charge of the Wild.
Pre-lockout, the Wild were fully committed to the draft. Post-lockout, Risebrough traded picks for players who never quite worked out. With regularity. Risebrough managed to assemble a collection of fringe players, grinders and goons. Perhaps the epitome of this philosophy was at the trade deadline in 2008, when the Wild were in desperate need of a centerman and Risebrough gave up a sixth-round draft pick for notorious goon Chris Simon. The Wild had respected enforcers Derek Boogaard and Todd Fedoruk on their roster already.
When Fletcher was hired to replace Risebrough in May of this year, he acquired Risebrough's collection of said fringe players and grinders. He spent his summer evaluating the team's needs and showed the door to Wild mainstays Stephane Veilleux and Martin Skoula.
Risebrough had a turbulent relationship with Marian Gaborik. The tension peaked in the 2008-09 season when Gaborik's agent was banned from Wild premises in the fall and again in January when Risebrough questioned the necessity of Gaborik's midseason surgery. Fletcher attempted to persuade Gaborik to re-sign with the Wild but the damage had been done. Gaborik signed with the New York Rangers and the Wild lost the only superstar they ever knew.
Fletcher signed Martin Havlat to a six-year contract when free agency opened in July. Although there is no question of Havlat's talent, his injury history is disturbingly similar to Gaborik's. The Wild lost one injury-prone superstar and signed another.
The team has lost 15 man-games to injury from their top nine forwards. Stepping back, the regime change, new style of play, player turnover of this magnitude and injuries could well explain the start to the season the Wild have had.
But it appears that Fletcher may be more worried than he's led on from the beginning. Fletcher sent Craig Weller, prospect Alexander Fallstrom of Harvard and a their second-round pick in the 2011 draft to Boston for Chuck Kobasew on Sunday. Kobasew is known for his physical play in the offensive zone and being able to score goals, amassing 20 or more three times in his five year NHL career.
Reluctance to right a sinking ship was one of the major downfalls of Fletcher's predecessor and he seems determined to not let this season get too out of control. Kobasew can add some offense and aggression to a team that's lacking in scorers and players confident forechecking aggressively.
Fletcher, and the fans of this organization, need to be cautious, though. Although this deal appears to help this team at the moment, giving away draft picks is what got the Wild into trouble in the first place. Fletcher intends to get a second-round pick back in another deal, but the loss of a pick in 2011 remains.
The Kobasew trade, or any deal Fletcher makes this season is not going to turn this team into a playoff contender. Changing coaches or systems will not make it any easier. The fan base has been led to believe that the players on this roster are good enough to challenge for the playoffs because in the past, Lemaire has been able to do it with similar players. Lemaire's system covered up a lot of holes this team has.
If fans really want this team to get better, they have to be willing to wait. Fletcher must be given the time to amass draft picks and allow for prospects to develop without being thrown into the deep end like Lemaire and Risebrough did with James Sheppard and Colton Gillies. The results will suffer, but they have to if the team is to ever be anything more than mediocre.
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