Chuck Fletcher will barely have time to get the GM’s seat warm with the Minnesota Wild before he must make a decision that will undoubtedly have an enormous impact on the long-term fortunes of the organization.
Fletcher has exactly 39 days to decide what to do with part-time superstar Marian Gaborik. We say part-time because when Gaborik is in the lineup, he’s one of the most dynamic and talented difference-makers in the NHL today. The only problem is persistent hip and groin problems have limited him to only about 60 percent of the Wild’s games since the lockout.
If you take Gaborik’s numbers over this season – 13 goals and 23 points in just 17 games – and project them over an 82-game season, he would have scored 63 goals and 111 points.
And if my colleagues at The Hockey News and I had only won the recent Lotto 6/49 draw worth $49 million, we’d all be millionaires.
Fletcher will have to go with his gut on this one because there’s probably no way of determining whether or not Gaborik will play anything close to a full season in the future. Given Gaborik’s history, Fletcher can certainly assume Gaborik will have to deal with injury issues through the rest of his career.
Armed with that, Fletcher can either decide to offer Gaborik a long-term, big-money contract that Gaborik will undoubtedly be seeking as an unrestricted free agent or decide to take the money and cap room he would have spent on the 27-year-old Slovak and use it on one or more other players.
But it might not be that easy. The Wild allowed its coach to walk and fired its GM this summer because it realized one-dimensional defensive hockey not only bores the living daylights out of people, it doesn’t create a winning formula in today’s NHL. The best teams are the ones that find a delicate balance between knowing how to play without the puck and being able to do something with it when they have it on their sticks.
So does Fletcher allow an offensive producer such as Gaborik to walk when a healthy Gaborik is what he needs in his lineup more than anything else?
Perhaps the decision will be made for him if Gaborik has already decided he wants to explore free agency July 1. That’s where he seems to be leaning, but there’s little doubt Fletcher could mount a campaign in the hope of convincing him to stay by promising he’ll surround him with some offensive help and by hiring a coach who will allow the Wild players to express themselves more freely offensively.
And that’s where Fletcher’s next big decision comes in. If he wants a coach that will allow his players offensive freedom, Pat Quinn might be the choice. The only problem is Quinn has been out of the game for a couple of years and would have to surround himself with assistant coaches who can help guide him, not cronies such as Rick Ley.
Which is why Peter Laviolette might represent a better choice. He has won a Stanley Cup, has dealt with talented offensive players and has a good grasp of the importance of playing at both ends of the ice, not just one. And not only does he have an appreciation for it, he has the ability to instill it into his players.
All indications show Fletcher is up to the task. He has spent the better part of a decade building contending teams and working under some very good GMs. His background is very heavy on scouting, but he has experience in all aspects of running a hockey department. He’s decisive, well-spoken, has a good command of the collective bargaining agreement and knows player personnel at all levels of hockey from the pro ranks to junior, college and Europe.
Fletcher not only has to hire a coach and decide the future of his superstar – he’ll also have to decide which people in the Wild’s hockey department fit his vision of where the team is going and which ones don’t. Almost every new GM at some point builds the hockey department in his vision using people with whom he is comfortable and in whom he has faith.
Let the rebuilding of the Wild begin.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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