ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild have never been a fast-paced team.
Chuck Fletcher plans to change that, and owner Craig Leipold is already using it as a recruiting pitch to prospective free agents. Introduced Friday as the Wild’s new general manager, Fletcher promised to bring the aggressive, physical style Pittsburgh has used to come within two wins of the Stanley Cup finals.
“Why back up and cede the ice to your opponent when you can force the issue up the ice? … We want to dictate the pace of the play against our opponent,” said Fletcher, who spent three seasons as assistant general manager with the Penguins.
Jacques Lemaire’s defence-driven, discipline-demanding system helped the Wild outplay a lot of teams with superior talent, particularly during their 2003 run to the Western Conference finals.
However, following Lemaire’s resignation and the firing of general manager Doug Risebrough, who shared his conservative philosophy, Leipold was eager to change the franchise’s course at a time when restless fans and a slumped economy could challenge the Wild’s eight-season sellout streak.
“I do believe that his type of game and the type of coaches that he’s talking about bringing in is one that’s going to really make fans happy,” Leipold said.
The Twin Cities area is a hockey-savvy market with a rich tradition in the sport, but the Wild haven’t been able to add any high-profile, buzz-creating players.
“Yes, I have been disappointed,” Leipold said. “In the past I’ve been frustrated not knowing why those unrestricted free agents wouldn’t choose this as their home.
“We have everything to offer here. I think the system might have been something that held them back. I believe Chuck feels that way. Other people that came through felt that way, so I think this is like the missing piece.
“They’ll look at us in a different light now, and they’ll want to come play here.”
Maybe star forward Marian Gaborik can be persuaded to stay. He’ll be on the market July 1 unless Fletcher can work some magic.
“It’s not talk. This is the new style. I think it’s probably what the Gaboriks of the world who are out there would be looking for, this kind of system that we put in here,” Leipold said.
Fletcher cautioned that he won’t commission a Euro-style, run-and-gun offence. Defence is still important, as is toughness on the puck and in the corners.
However, a fresh voice ought to help the Wild’s chance of retaining their all-time leading scorer and original first-round draft pick. Risebrough acknowledged after his dismissal he had a rocky relationship with Gaborik’s agent, Ron Salcer.
Fletcher’s first task is bigger than Gaborik: hiring a head coach. The 42-year-old said he’ll start interviewing candidates next week, hoping to decide before the draft on June 26.
It’s clear Fletcher’s choice will come from a different mold than Lemaire, who was widely respected but had trouble connecting with certain players and often expressed frustration with the way his teaching didn’t consistently carry over to the ice.
The Penguins fired Michael Therrien in February and brought up Dan Bylsma from the minors to be their coach, a sign that Fletcher might prefer a younger, more innovative mind on the bench.
The son of a Hall of Fame general manager, Fletcher said this is the job he’s wanted since age 8 – when he realized his skating skills weren’t going to take him anywhere.
The Harvard grad has worked in the NHL for 16 years, including three teams, and learned all facets of front office work under a handful of renowned names in the game.
Leipold called Fletcher, the only one of 12 finalists and 32 candidates he brought to town for a second interview, “the total package.”
The owner added: “I’m incredibly excited. I think he’s going to be able to take this team to another level that maybe we didn’t think we could get to.”