Impatience Paying Off for Minnesota Wild and Their Fans
In years past, it was customary to see the Minnesota Wild with hot starts.
In the last few years of the Doug Risebrough/Jacques Lemaire/Marian Gaborik regime, the team would often start out at 6-0-1 or 7-0-1 clips, only to choke as the season went along.
To no one's surprise, last season's trading deadline ended with the Wild doing their typical passive nothing, only to see divisional rivals like the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames add much needed firepower and depth for a legitimate playoff run.
The end result was the latter two teams missing the playoffs and the Wild missing out by a convenient three points.
Making matters worse, Calgary succeeded in acquiring one of the players the Wild had supposedly coveted but for whom they did not want to sacrifice their "prize" prospect, James Sheppard.
Minnesota was reluctant to swap Sheppard for Olli Jokinen, who went on to fill Calgary's top line perfectly when Wild fans knew they needed both a center and a playmaker—preferably someone who could win face-offs.
Jokinen does all that.
Disgusted with his team's lack of activity at the deadline, mixed with the boorish defensive-offensive system that stresses—as the name implies—defense over offensive production, the Wild fired their GM, Risebrough, and coach, Lemaire.
Had Fletcher been GM at the time, I have no doubt he would have swung the necessary deals to be made, including picking up Jokinen.
When Fletcher, the son of a former GM himself, was hired to lead the new era, many NHL execs lauded the move.
So when the Wild stumbled out of the gate with a lack of scoring and playoff wins to the tune of a 2-7-0 start and 3-9-0, I told all my friends to be patient.
A former season ticket holder said, "Well, I'd rather have them do this at the beginning of the season than choke like they always do at the end."
Now, 11-5-3 wins later, finally out of the Western Conference cellar, and, thus, Northwest division cellar, it looks like our impatience has paid off.
Impatience you ask? What do I mean?
Impatience Makes Perfect
Under the old regime, the Wild would have been content to call this a "rebuilding year."
They'd stress that good work takes time, and they need time to adjust to the loss of franchise leader in everything, Marian Gaborik, who left for the bright lights of the big city in New York, the win that may have turned the Wild's season around.
Sure, the Wild's former Mr. Everything didn't play that night, Oct. 30, in Minnesota, but the Wild were able to beat what was then a very good and competitive second-place New York Rangers team.
Since then, the teams have gone in opposite directions.
The Wild's record is listed above, and the Rangers' just a few games out of the Atlantic cellar, where they sat earlier this week.
Sure, Marian Gaborik may be leading the league with 21 goals and second with 38 points, but the end result is his team is still losing.
They have not gone 6-9-0 in their last 15 games.
Further, any Wild fan can tell you that he not only disappears in the playoffs —if you make it that far—but also missing about a month cumulative is standard.
If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen sometime during the five-year $37 million-tenure when New York can least afford it.
My personal bet is on mid- to late-February, when he goes down with the all-too-familiar "lower body injury" (aka, groin). Wait for it. Call it addition by subtraction.
Martin Havlat: All he's done is steal $5 million from the Wild to start the season as part of his own six-year deal.
So why exactly are the Wild now winning when the media predicted doom and gloom?
Two words —Chuck Fletcher
As mentioned previously, the Wild couldn't score goals, starting out with a terrible slump this season.
So, on Oct. 18, the GM traded last year's fourth-round pick, Alexander Fallstrom, little-used Craig Weller, and a second-round pick to Boston for Chuck Kobasew, who has scored 20 goals in three of the last four years.
While Kobasew missed his first three weeks with his new team due to an injury of his own—causing more fan frustration for people like me—it didn't take him long to make his presence felt once he returned.
His Nov. 27 hat trick—the franchise's first of the season—against the upstart and then-first-place Colorado Avalanche was enough to remind people why we gave up so much for him.
All three goals were needed in the 5-3 victory in St. Paul as the first part of a home and home with the Avs.
While Kobasew hasn't scored since, for that one night it got things going in the right direction as the team was able to begin their current five-game winning streak.
But the Wild were not done.
Not bad for a fourth-liner vying for more playing time that he'll most assuredly get.
Also, not bad from a guy whom the whole league could have had and who's already playing for his third team this year.
Meet Guillaume Latendresse, My New Second-Favorite Wild
Finally, in perhaps the most arrogant, but obvious move of the young season, the Wild traded for Guillaume Latendresse—a disgruntled but talented scorer from his hometown Montreal Canadiens.
All he's done is score two goals and notch one assist in four games with his new club.
The arrogant young playmaker also brought much needed size (6' 2", 230 lbs.), which the Wild traded for the speed of never-gonna-happen Benoit Pouliot—the 2005 bust who the team selected fourth overall in the Sidney Crosby draft.
You know, the year before they drafted 2006 mistake James Sheppard, who should be put on notice, along with little-used $4 million waste Pierre Marc-Bouchard, that if their production doesn't improve, the new sheriff will soon ship them out of town?
Who would have thought adding scorers and size would have been the answer? (Read: sarcasm.)
Apparently, not everyone as the passive Risebrough would have sat on his hands reluctant to give up mistake Pouliot.
Fletcher, having no ties to Pouliot, correctly shipped him out of town for "Laty," who will soon be a fan favorite and perennial 15-goal scorer.
Like I monitor Jonny Flynn of the Timberwolves, I see myself following the box score each night to see how Laty did. He's that type of player.
Not only that, but his presence has been infectious, as even Havlat has started to score (and earn that paycheck), with three points in his last three games since coming back from his injury on Dec. 2.
If he gets it going, rivals should look out.
But that remains a big "if."
There have only been two trades in the NHL so far this year, and the impatient Wild have done them both. It's paying off.
Expect more in February with PMB (Bouchard) being the next to go, as he's only played in one game despite his heavy salary.
Latendresse, whose name has been as fun to learn as his game, similarly wore out his welcome in Montreal when his playing time was reduced to six minutes a night.
He knew it was a matter of time.
So goes for Bouchard, who was only playing 10 minutes before suffering an injury that will keep him out until after Jan. 1.
He and James Sheppard shouldn't take out too long of a lease.
It's fun right now, especially when you consider the Wild have gotten next to nothing out of the injured (sense a theme?) Brent Burns, Nick Shultz, and $1.6 million waste Petr Skyora. And a big draft day deal for Kyle Brodziak is only now starting to come around.
Similarly, Annti Miettinen has been on fire (6 goals, 2 A) his past six games, along with an improving Greg Zanon, Marek Zdlicky, and the ever-consistent and my favorite player, Andrew Brunette, who is pictured.
All it took was a few trades to spark the team and a little time for the new coach, Todd Richards, and the players to adjust to the system.
We are still 13th in the West and five points out of a playoff spot, but, with Fletcher, there's hope.
If he doesn't like what he sees, he'll do something, and that's something we can all get used to as fans.
Wild fans, be patient.
Well, not too patient....
Statistics and information from ESPN.com, The Minnesota Wild website, www.wild.com, and The Star Tribune, namely Michael Russo, directly contributed to this article.
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