ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild are one of the 14 teams that missed the NHL playoffs. Again.
But owner Craig Leipold is adamantly optimistic that he won’t be watching the post-season on television again next year.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday at team headquarters, Leipold said he’s working on a contract extension for general manager Chuck Fletcher, who has one more year left on his original deal, which began when he was hired before the 2009-10 season.
“Chuck’s team is coming in next year. The guys who his people have scouted, who his people have drafted, who he has developed are these great, young prospects,” Leipold said, “and I think the next couple of years are going to be really proud years.”
Leipold bought the team midway through the 2007-08 season. That was the last time the Wild made the playoffs. But there is a heralded group of forwards turning pro this year, recent high draft picks like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips, Jason Zucker, Brett Bulmer and Johan Larsson who should significantly upgrade the talent pool in the system. They won’t all join the Wild at the same time, but they’re all expected to be in training camp fighting for roster spots, strengthening the competition and exciting the fan base.
“We’re selling the excitement of these young guys and hopefully this summer we’ll make some moves and we’ll sell the moves that we make this summer,” Leipold said.
The Wild’s season-ticket base is down to the equivalent of around 12,000 seats, but Leipold said he’s confident that number will be moving back toward an ideal 16,000.
“We aren’t going to sit still this summer. We’ll do something, whether it’s playing in the free agency market or talking to some other teams about doing some trades. Chuck has certainly shown that he’s not afraid to pull the trigger,” Leipold said.
The expiring collective bargaining agreement is a concern around the sport, particularly given the still-fresh memory of the 2004-05 season. But Leipold sounded as positive toward a new deal as he did about the direction of his team.
“I think that all the heavy lifting was done seven years ago, when the system was put into place. And now the issues that are out there we think are less controversial and less emotional. Certainly the players have some issues that they want us to address. We have some issues that we want them to address. But I don’t see any of them as the kinds of issues that would cause us to get into the disruption that we had seven years ago,” Leipold said.
Another lockout would be most unwelcome for the Wild, considering their craving to return to the post-season and all of their up-and-comers on the verge of contributing.
“I know it’ll happen. The question: Is next year the year? We think it is. We thought this year was going to be the year and had some things gone a different direction it would’ve been,” Leipold said, reflecting on the rash of injuries that contributed to the Wild’s demise from league leaders in mid-December with a 20-7-3 record to looking forward to the seventh overall pick in this summer’s draft.
“It’s hard to get in. Once you get in, you start to develop this confidence and this culture of winning and that’s what we have to get back in this organization,” Leipold said.
That aura Detroit has had for years was noticeable with the Wild earlier this season, Leipold said, but it didn’t last.
“This team was having fun. They were confident, not cocky because they weren’t beating anybody by more than one goal, but they were finding ways to win a game. Never were they out of a game,” Leipold said.
Then came the injuries, most notably concussions for second-line wingers Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard and a separated shoulder for captain Mikko Koivu.
“All of a sudden you’ve got players who were playing on the fourth line who are now playing on the power play. We just couldn’t ever get that swagger back,” Leipold said.
Concussions have been a big problem around the league, and Leipold has felt it as much as any owner.
“It’s millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars that it has cost us this year by not having players who we are playing. Almost 7 million dollars for two guys who couldn’t play. We then have to pay other players to replace them. We’re talking about an awful lot of money. And we’re talking about the lives of players and not making the playoffs because of it,” Leipold said. “So I’m a guy sitting here: Somebody tell me what we can do, and I’m ready.”
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