MINNEAPOLIS – For 10 years, Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire helped make the Minnesota Wild the model for stability in an unstable league.
That has all changed in less than a week. Owner Craig Leipold fired Risebrough as general manager Thursday, five days after Lemaire resigned as coach. Now the Wild’s two architects since its inception are gone and the franchise is starting over from scratch.
“It just speaks to the importance of this decision,” Leipold said in a teleconference. “I can’t overemphasize enough that this is not a knee-jerk decision on my part.
“It’s very well thought-out about what I understand what I think it will take to get to the next level.”
After winning their first Northwest Division title last season, the Wild missed the playoffs this year thanks in large part to injuries to Marian Gaborik, Brent Burns and Pierre-Marc Bouchard.
Leipold said the search for a GM will begin immediately. Assistant general manager Tom Lynn will take over until a replacement is hired.
In a note from Leipold posted on the team’s Web site, the new owner told fans that it was a “very difficult decision not to renew Doug Risebrough’s contract beyond the 2008-2009 season.
I have agonized over this decision for some time now, but ultimately, I reached the conclusion that change was in order.”
Risebrough didn’t immediately return a phone message from The Associated Press.
The news had to come as a surprise to Risebrough.
It was just on Monday, at Lemaire’s farewell press conference, that he said he was looking forward to going through the process of hiring a coach. He set a timeline for eight to 12 weeks and called it “a new beginning. It is a new step.”
Make that two new steps.
Curiously, Leipold said he wasn’t at Lemaire’s press conference because he was not notified until Sunday night. The owner said he made up his mind about a month ago, and only a deep run in the playoffs could have changed Risebrough’s fate.
“I waited a month because we were in the heat of a Stanley Cup playoff run. I fully anticipated fully expected to be in the playoffs. I didn’t want to disrupt anything that would have gotten in the way of that objective,” Leipold said.
The new general manager will be hired first so that person can hire his own coach to start the next chapter in the franchise’s history.
Former owner Bob Naegele hired Risebrough in 1999 to build the expansion franchise from the bottom up.
Risebrough hired Lemaire, his former Canadiens teammate, to coach the team, and together the pair helped the Wild quickly assert themselves as a competitive organization.
It took just three seasons for the Wild to make the playoffs, which included a stunning run to the Western Conference finals in 2003.
“I cannot begin to thank Doug enough for all that he has done for this organization over the past nine years,” Leipold wrote on the team’s Web site.
“When he arrived he brought instant credibility, expertise and extraordinary work ethic to an expansion franchise in desperate need of those things.
He then worked tirelessly to build the Minnesota Wild into one of the premier franchises in the NHL.
“So much of our success – on and off the ice – is directly attributable to Doug’s leadership and his legacy will remain evident for years to come in the aura of success and winning tradition that defines this place.”
But the success had waned in recent seasons, with two straight first-round exits preceding this year’s failure to make the postseason.
Risebrough drew some heat for letting players like Brian Rolston, Pavol Demitra and, possibly, Gaborik leave in free agency, rather than get anything in return through a trade.
The Wild have also been mediocre in the draft, trading picks and failing to cash in on others in a pattern that has weakened the team’s base of young players.
When asked about the lack of development of some draft picks, Leipold said: “I would probably say there’s been a little disappointment there.”
The owner refused to cite specific reasons for the decision, but said not re-signing Gaborik wasn’t one of them. The star winger missed 65 games with hip problems this season, but returned with a flourish after surgery.
He had 10 goals and eight assists in the 11 games he played after surgery, giving the Wild the kind of scoring punch it lacked all season.
The Slovakian was the Wild’s first draft choice and has spent his entire career in Minnesota, sometimes clashing with Lemaire and Risebrough.
Now he’s a free agent and has said he wants to test the waters, though that opinion may change with the news that both the defensive-minded Lemaire and Risebrough are gone.
Gaborik’s agent, Ron Salcer, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
“Gosh I’d sure like to have him on the team,” Leipold said of Gaborik. “I want his points and I want his goals and his speed and all that. I would love to have Gaborik on the team. I think any owner that wouldn’t want Gaborik on the team would be crazy.
“I would imagine that any new general manager we get would feel the same way about having a star like Gabby on the team.”