Longtime Wild executive Tom Lynn recounts how agonizingly close Minnesota came to landing a future Hall of Famer and potentially changing their fortunes forever
By Tom Lynn
Despite the atmosphere in private, the regular season was going very well for the Wild in 2007-08, even more so than the prior season. Similar to 2006-07, the Wild came out of the gate in ’07 with five straight wins, and seven in their first eight games. But although the Wild were on a pace to garner fewer overall points than the record 104 of 2006-07, the team moved into first place in the Northwest division Jan. 11 and never really looked back, falling no lower than second-place for the rest of the season (then only for a few days). Adding to the first-place status were Marian Gaborik’s franchise-record 42 goals and Brian Rolston having a third straight 30-goal season. The team was repeating the prior year and building on it.
The trade deadline that season fell on Feb. 26, 2008. It had been moved to earlier in the season under the new CBA in an effort to preserve some competitive integrity to the regular season (so that better and wealthier teams could not simply reload and reconfigure themselves into different entities with three weeks left in the season). This was pushed in a large part by Nashville GM David Poile, who smartly realized that the old, late deadline that had helped him command higher prices when we was a “seller” during the Preds’ early years now hurt him as a “buyer” as the Preds had matured into a playoff contender. It was easier for the big-market teams to dole out money or take on salary late in the season, so moving the trade deadline earlier in the season, when there was more uncertainty about playoff positioning and hence fewer deals to be made, put small-market teams on a more even footing.
The Wild were not going to have extra money to spend at the trade deadline, anyway. Joe Kennedy somewhat jokingly told JFK’s campaign manager (also Joe’s son) in 1960, “I’m not buying a goddamned landslide.” Similarly, Wild ownership had a team that was succeeding, cruising toward a division championship and a second straight playoff berth, so the efficacy of putting more money into that effort and taking it away from paying down team debt was not apparent to the powers that were. In truth, though, GM Doug Riseborough’s unwillingness to upset applecarts and the poor track record of many big-name trade deadline acquisitions would probably have kept him from doing too much more.
This is not to say that Doug was comfortable at the time. The team was solidly on the same track as the prior season, but in the tradition of Sam Pollock and Scotty Bowman, this made him even more worried. His sole goal was for the team to advance in the playoffs. Doug had studied in depth the ascents of the Islanders and Oilers and to the same extent the Cup champ Flames in 1989 for which he had coached. He could recite to me the player acquisitions and coaching moves those organizations had made in the run-up to their Cup success, and he had actually been able to first-person interrogate the GM’s behind the moves (who were also his personal friends).
He would mention to me often tidbits about what GMs Bill Torrey, Glen Sather or Cliff Fletcher had said about team-building or how to deal with certain situations or what Doug had observed in their histories. Doug was still obsessed with team-building and putting the final parts in place in his franchise building was as important to him eight years in as it was at the start. If he were building an arena, Doug would have been as concerned with attention to detail of the countertops in the Club Level bar as he was with the purity of the concrete in the foundation.
So as the 2008 trade deadline approached, Doug worked us all with vigor – the pro scouts, Chris Snow, Tom Thompson and me. He was determined we would not only win the division, but advance in the playoffs. Just making it was not enough. Although we did all of our work dutifully, there were a few roadblocks that we knew would prevent any serious trade deadline moves.
The first was the aforementioned budget. Ownership had eased up enough for the Wild to go from a bottom-feeder to just below the midpoint, but we did not have the freedom to make a game-changing move, financially. Halfway through the season, Craig Leipold had signed a contract to buy the Wild, but that deal would not close for months, and neither the prior owner nor future owner wanted a paradigm shift, financially, in the midst of due diligence. The second was the Wild’s approach, which was in “Phase 2” of developing a consistent winner. This meant it was not time to break the bank in terms of trading away important draft picks or prospects for short-term gain. The last was that the roster was fairly intact – it was a first-place team that was scoring goals, and preventing them, and winning in a variety of situations. In other words, given the first two parameters, there was no chance of displacing anyone in the top four lines or top five defensemen without giving up valuable consideration or taking on a good amount of salary.
PETER FORSBERG COURTSHIP
Sometime around mid-season Doug and I started talking about signing Peter Forsberg, who had returned to his native Sweden after finishing the prior season with Nashville. Forsberg had signed in Philadelphia before the 2006-07 season, but had to be traded out of a deteriorating situation. Peter had not even tried to sign with anyone prior to the season, seemingly considering retirement at the age of 35 and with a nagging foot problem.
I can’t remember where the Forsberg notion came from – Doug, Tommy or Don Baizley, but I know it was not me. I did speak to ‘Baiz’ (Forsberg’s longtime agent) many times on the phone through December, drawing him out about Peter’s foot problem and what it would take for him to play. Don was straight with me – it was not about the money (he had already set a price if he were going to play, it would not be a negotiation). Peter wanted to go to a good organization and wanted to win. He was stung by his experiences with Philadelphia and Nashville – the former because he saw money did not make a good organization and the latter experiencing how quickly things can turn – the Preds had finished with a franchise-record 110 points, tied for second in the Western Conference, and still won only one game in a first-round playoff defeat. So Peter was picking carefully for what may have been his final season.
Another issue was Forsberg’s foot. I had divined after many, many conversations with the reticent Baizley that Peter’s foot issue was as much mental as it was physical – that it had to “feel right” for him to play and not just be cleared by a doctor. He had already had a few surgical procedures done on the foot and had special skates made and constantly modified in an attempt to join his hometown Swedish club, MoDo, but did not want to play again in the NHL unless everything felt right and he was comfortable. And Peter was very sensitive about the situation, so Don hemmed and hawed around it a lot.
I told Don we had dealt with players dealing with elements of OCD and hypochondria in the past and that it would be no problem if he wanted constant treatment and focus on making his foot feel right. The possibility of Forsberg playing for us went back and forth over a few weeks, from December into January, and Tom Thompson even had dinner with Forsberg in Sweden when Tommy was in Europe for a scouting trip. As the weeks went by, Don told me Peter had narrowed possibilities to five teams, then three, then just the Wild and the Avalanche. And Don took pains to make clear Peter could show up and not play (if the foot did not feel right) or be in-and-out of the line-up or play well for the rest of the season.
We really wanted the extra punch of Forsberg after the playoff disappointment the prior April, so I told Don “that’s alright, we’re all day-to-day in this world.” I told him to call me when Peter made a decision and in the meantime let me know if there was anything I could do to make the Minnesota situation more amenable to him. December turned into January and January into February, me checking in with Baiz every week or so. Don finally called me in mid-February to tell me Forsberg was going to return to the Avalanche. I could tell by his voice Don really felt bad (Baiz, Tommy and I were all friends and we spent a lot of time together), but he emphasized that Peter’s foot was the deciding issue and Forsberg felt more comfortable going back to a medical staff he knew (and knew his quirks) than starting anew with the Wild’s staff, whom he did not know.
It could have been a difference-maker that year, but there was nothing else we could do, nothing we could offer to match a “comfort level” based on his prior experience with the medical staff of another team. Forsberg ended up netting five points in the playoff series against the Wild that spring, and although he was not the deciding factor, it was a factor.
This is an excerpt from “How To Bake An NHL Franchise From Scratch,” from Starry Night Publishing. Buy it on Amazon.