Ryan Suter

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Wild owner confirms Fletcher safe as GM

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After a disappointing first-round playoff exit, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold has given GM Chuck Fletcher a vote of confidence.

Per the Star-Tribune, Leipold confirmed on Sunday that Fletcher’s job was safe, potentially to quiet speculation about the longtime GM’s job security in the wake of a disappointing finish.

But Leipold’s vote of confidence also provides an interesting backdrop for when Fletcher meets with the media this week.

There’s no denying that, after a 49-win and 106-point campaign, crashing out in five games to St. Louis — and to former head coach Mike Yeo — is unacceptable. But how Fletcher positions this will be telling. There’s a chance he could pin the Wild’s lack of success on the tremendous goaltending of Jake Allen, much like head coach Bruce Boudreau did. He could also argue Minnesota was, by nearly every metric, the better of the two teams over the course of the series, and chalk up the loss to a lack of puck luck.

But that won’t be easy.

This marks Minnesota’s second consecutive first-round exit, having been bounced in six games by Dallas last year. And it comes after Fletcher went big at the trade deadline, acquiring Martin Hanzal and Ryan White from Arizona in exchange for a bevy of draft picks.

“We’re just putting our chips in the middle of the table for this year,” Fletcher said at the time, per NHL.com. “We like our group and we think our players deserve the best chance possible to compete [and want to] see what we can do. Again, nothing’s promised and we know it will be tough, but I think our thought is we may as well take a swing and see how far we can go.”

More: Fletcher went all-in at the deadline, and now… this

At this stage, the GM has some serious questions to ask of his team. How much longer can things revolve around the aging core of captain Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter? All have been quality players during their time with the Wild, but two facts cannot be ignored: 1) Koivu just turned 34, while Parise and Suter turn 33 later this year, and 2) the trio has never made it past the second playoff round.

Interestingly, Leipold has suggested the current group might not be championship caliber. “I don’t know, they could surprise me,” he said in January. “But I don’t think we’ve got that type of team. We haven’t built it yet.”

And to be fair, the Wild do have building blocks in place for the future.

Four of Fletcher’s draftees starred on the international stage at the 2017 World Juniors — Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson-Ek, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin — and it has to be exciting that a pair of young skaters, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, took significant leaps forward this season.

Granlund, 25, led the team in scoring with 69 points and emerged as one of the club’s most important players. Niederreiter, 24, posted career highs in points (57) and goals (25), suggesting he’s also ready to embrace a bigger role with more responsibility.

And to that end, Fletcher has huge decisions to make on both players, who are pending RFAs. The Wild don’t have a ton of financial flexibility, and it’s fair to suggest Granlund (who made $3M last season) and Niederreiter ($2.66M) will both need significant raises.

There’s a lot of work for Fletcher to do this summer.

But at least he’ll get a chance to do it.

Fletcher went all-in at the deadline, and now… this

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The focus is naturally on Bruce Boudreau, the hard-luck head coach in the midst of another first-round nightmare.

But spare a few thoughts, too, for general manager Chuck Fletcher. He went all-in at the trade deadline, and now his Minnesota Wild are in danger of being swept by the St. Louis Blues.

The Wild, you’ll recall, sent a first-round draft pick and more to get forwards Martin Hanzal and Ryan White, both pending unrestricted free agents, from Arizona in February.

Watch Blues vs. Wild: Game 4 at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBC Sports app

“We’re just putting our chips in the middle of the table for this year,” Fletcher said at the time, per NHL.com. “We like our group and we think our players deserve the best chance possible to compete [and want to] see what we can do. Again, nothing’s promised and we know it will be tough, but I think our thought is we may as well take a swing and see how far we can go.”

The Wild were 39-14-6 when the deal went down, so it’s hard to blame Fletcher for his thought process. But barring a miraculous comeback, Minnesota will fall to 2-5 in playoff series under his watch. He’s been on the job since 2009, and despite a healthy payroll that includes $196 million worth of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild have yet to get past the second round.

The good news for Fletcher is that owner Craig Leipold did not expect to win a Stanley Cup this year.

“I don’t know, they could surprise me,” Leipold said in January. “But I don’t think we’ve got that type of team. We haven’t built it yet.”

Fletcher also saw four of his draft picks show well at the World Juniors — a nice feather in the GM’s cap.

But there’s no denying that his team is on the verge of a massive letdown. Hiring Boudreau was supposed to get the Wild over the hump.

Instead, it’s looking like another early playoff exit for both men.

Related: Chuck Fletcher is under pressure

Yeo focused on more than ‘revenge’ against Wild

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) This was not quite the plan the St. Louis Blues had for Mike Yeo.

He was supposed to take over as head coach next season, after Ken Hitchcock’s retirement, not in the middle of this one. The plan certainly didn’t include a first-round matchup for Yeo and the Blues against the Minnesota Wild, who fired him just last year.

Well, here they are, Yeo and his new team pitted against his previous charges in one of the most intriguing pairings of the NHL postseason that opens on Wednesday night.

“My goal is not to beat the Minnesota Wild for me,” Yeo said. “My goal is for us as a group to keep getting better and keep seeing what we’re capable of.”

Stream Blues vs. Wild on NBC Sports

Hardly a plan in this league is fail proof, as those teams who’ve changed coaches before playoff runs and even Stanley Cup wins can attest. Perhaps the Blues, who dismissed Hitchcock on Feb. 1 to trigger Yeo’s early promotion, will be the latest group to ride the momentum spurred by a winter shakeup deep into the spring.

The Blues, who were two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup finals last year with Hitchcock on the bench, went 22-8-2 after the coaching change. Over that 32-game stretch, they were the best team in the NHL in several statistical categories after enduring the sluggish start.

The same went for the Wild over a three-month stretch from December through February. They led the Western Conference from mid-January through mid-March, until their skid got the best of their perch and the Chicago Blackhawks surged ahead. The Wild recovered in time to reach a franchise-record 106 points in Bruce Boudreau’s first season behind their bench.

So after Yeo guided the Wild to a six-game victory over the Blues in the first round two years ago, he’ll be on the opposite side when the series starts in Minnesota. Instead of scheming to slow Vladimir Tarasenko, Yeo will be sending his 25-year-old star out on the right wing to try wear down stalwart defensemen Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, guys he used to call “Suts” and “Spurge” when he coached the Wild.

“We know their identity, the way they play. They know us,” Wild captain Mikko Koivu said. “We’re familiar with each other, so it’s not about who’s behind the bench and all that. It’s about the team right now, and we’ve got to make sure that we worry about ourselves.”

How, then, can this matchup not become a little bit personal for Yeo, who described the experience of being fired “gut-wrenching” when he was replaced on Feb. 13, 2016, following a 1-11-2 stretch by the Wild?

“There’s something much more at stake, something that’s way bigger in my eyes than a little revenge here,” Yeo said.

TARGETING TARASENKO

Tied for fourth in the league with 39 goals, Tarasenko has the greatest ability to take over a game in this matchup He had six goals in the 2015 series against the Wild and 15 points in 20 games during the 2016 postseason run by the Blues.

Tarasenko went without a goal or an assist in the first five games of the Western Conference finals against San Jose. With forward lines as well-balanced as the Blues, the Wild have the type of team with the ability to shut Tarasenko out like the Sharks did.

“This is going to be a real tough challenge for Vladi. Let’s be honest,” Yeo said. “They’re going to really key on him. He’s going to have tough matchups, and it’s going to be hard to get away from them because they’re such a deep team.”

DUBNYK’S PERFORMANCE

Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk was a making a strong case to be the Vezina Trophy winner until he began to struggle in the net during the March nosedive. With a 6-10 career playoffs record and 20 goals allowed in a six-game loss to the Dallas Stars in the first round last year, Dubnyk has yet to prove his postseason credentials. But the 6-foot-6 Dubnyk has the confidence to match his exceptional height.

“Just like every parent worries about his kid when he plays in any important situation, yeah, we always worry about the goalie,” Boudreau said, “but I’ve got all the confidence in the world in Dubie, and that’s where the worry stops. I think he’s going to be great.”

AT THE OTHER END

Blues goalie Jake Allen, with the job to himself now after largely sharing it with Brian Elliott the previous three years, was a completely different player after the coaching change. He went 11-2-2 in his last 15 starts with just 26 goals allowed.

“Through all that I think we maintained our confidence in him knowing what he’s done in the past and the way he’s capable of playing,” defenseman Jay Boumeester said. “It just kind of all came together. I’m sure after you get a couple of wins and a couple big saves, that sort of thing, everything becomes a little easier.”

 

Bulletin-board material: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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This is the fifth edition of this column, and if you look back (2013, 20142015, 2016), we’ve rarely been wrong. Cry all you want in the comments section, but there’s no way your team is winning it all.

Ottawa Senators: The worst team to make the playoffs. Which makes it even funnier that their owner chose this year to “bet” on the Sens to win the Cup. Good ol’ Eugene Melnyk, the master of unreasonable expectations. Fact: the Sens were the only team to make the playoffs with a negative goal differential. They play a gimmicky system that severely limits their offense, and they play it because they’re not good enough to take on legitimately good teams straight up.

St. Louis Blues: According to the odds makers, the longest shots of the bunch. Bovada has the Blues at 33/1, and frankly, that might be generous. Even GM Doug Armstrong doesn’t think his players can win. Why else would he have traded Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington at the deadline? That’s not a move contenders make. Sure, the Blues won a few games down the stretch, but only because Jake Allen went on an unsustainable run. The Blues had their chance last year. Their window has closed.

Toronto Maple Leafs: A.k.a. last year’s Dallas Stars. The Leafs may have a dynamic offense, but they’re still terrible defensively. Only two teams, Buffalo and Arizona, surrendered more shots this season, and that’s no formula for success in the postseason. Don’t worry, Leafs fans, you’ll still have fun just being there in the playoffs. But until management finds a way to add another top-4 defenseman – preferably one that can help protect a freakin’ lead — there’s no hope of winning it all.

Nashville Predators: The definition of mediocre. The Preds are 11th in goals for, 15th in goals against, 16th on the power play, and 15th on the PK. Despite all the preseason hype, this team just never got rolling. It would play well for a week, then awful for a week, then well, then awful, and you get the point. Oh, and by the way, is it fair to question whether Ryan Johansen is truly a No.1 center, the kind the Preds thought they were getting when they traded Seth Jones to Columbus? After just 14 goals in 82 games, we think it’s more than fair. Bottom line: Johansen better start showing a little heart. Otherwise, those “soft” and “lazy” labels won’t be going anywhere.

New York Rangers: Granted, they had a better-than-expected regular season. But the Blueshirts still have the same Achilles’ heel: there’s just no way they can make a deep run with that defense. Other than Ryan McDonagh and maybe Brady Skjei, who is trustworthy back there? Who can make a positive contribution on a consistent basis? Who doesn’t need to be sheltered? Who still has gas left in the tank? You’re struggling to answer, and for good reason. The Rangers finished the season in an 8-9-4 tailspin. Even if Henrik Lundqvist is good, they’re gonna find it tough to make a run. And Lundqvist has not been good.

San Jose Sharks: Pete DeBoer would have you believe that this year’s Sharks are even better than last year’s group that went to the Stanley Cup Final. Of course, he said that at the All-Star break, before the Sharks’ season-ending slide that cost them first place in the Pacific Division. Add injuries to Joe Thornton and Logan Couture to the equation and the Sharks look like a team that peaked too early this season, one with an aging roster that’s going to have trouble matching the pace and intensity of the playoffs. In other words, what they looked like against the Penguins.

Edmonton Oilers: All it took was four first overall picks and the Oilers are back, baby! Way to go, guys. We thought you’d never make it. It’s funny to hear all the great things Peter Chiarelli’s done as GM in Edmonton, when in reality winning the draft lottery and getting Connor McDavid is the sole reason the playoff drought is over. (OK fine, maybe a bit of Cam Talbot too.) The problem is, a team needs strength everywhere to win the Cup, and the Oilers still have a blue line with no hint of a true No. 1 defenseman. Imagine a team winning it all with a top four of Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera, and Kris Russell. You can’t imagine it, because it’s too ridiculous to even try.

Calgary Flames: The other team from Alberta that won’t be winning the Cup. To be fair, the Flames do have a good collection of skaters, both up front and on the back end. They’re probably a better overall team than the Oilers. Except they’ve got one, big problem: Brian Elliott cannot be trusted, and everyone knows it. One day he’s unbeatable, full of swagger and confidence, the next he’s in the depths of a horrendous slump, questioning everything. It’s way beyond the typical highs and lows that come with being a goalie. When Elliott loses his rhythm, he really loses his rhythm. And that’s not the kind of goalie who’s going to win you 16 stressful games.

Boston Bruins: The big problem with the B’s is their depth. Their third and fourth lines don’t produce enough – or anything, really — and whoever ends up on the bottom pairing, you know they’re going to be a liability. On top of all that, Zdeno Chara is 40 damn years old, and he’s still being tasked with No. 1 d-man responsibilities. That’s too much to ask of the NHL’s oldest defenseman, especially in a league that’s never been faster. The Atlantic Division is terrible, so the Bruins can probably win a round or two. But they won’t get any further than that.

Montreal Canadiens: You don’t win the Stanley Cup without a great center. Sidney Crosby. Jonathan Toews. Anze Kopitar. Patrice Bergeron. That’s the bar you have to reach. And the Habs aren’t even close. Their centers are Phillip Danault, Tomas Plekanec, Andrew Shaw, and Steve Ott. They also have Alex Galchenyuk, though he’s not trustworthy enough to play the middle, apparently. Even with Carey Price in goal, it won’t be enough to overcome Montreal’s lack of talent at center. The playoffs are all about matchups, and the Habs can’t match up.

Minnesota Wild: One of the best teams to start the season, but one of the worst to end it. And there’s a simple explanation for that – the Wild’s luck was bound to run out, and that’s exactly what happened. Devan Dubnyk was never going to maintain the .936 save percentage he took into the All-Star break, and his teammates were never going to maintain whatever ridiculous shooting percentage they had. At the end of the day, the Wild are a good but not great team. The same thing they’ve been since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed on. Haven’t been past the second round yet.

Anaheim Ducks: Cam Fowler is out at least two weeks, and it could be six. For a Ducks team that was starting to roll at just the right time, make no mistake, this is a devastating injury. Fowler led the Ducks in ice time (24:51), and with 39 points, he was their highest-scoring d-man. Now it’s up to the young guys to step up. Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Montour are only 23, and Shea Theodore is just 21. Also, watch for opponents to pick on the Sami VatanenKevin Bieksa pairing. If Randy Carlyle decides to put those two together, that’s a defensive disaster waiting to happen.

Columbus Blue Jackets: A nice story early on, when the power play was unstoppable and Torts looked like a motivational genius. But after a 27-5-4 start, the Jackets went 23-19-4 in their final 46 games, and their power play absolutely stunk (11.4%). If not for Sergei Bobrovsky, their record would’ve been even worse in the second half. Columbus still has a bright future, but a team doesn’t go from terrible to Stanley Cup champion in one year. These playoffs will be a good experience, but nothing more.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens had a legitimate shot to become the first repeat champs of the salary-cap era. We say “had,” because Kris Letang’s injury is too much to overcome, even by a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. To say otherwise would be to discount how well Letang played in last year’s playoffs. It was bar none the best hockey of his career. He was as important to the Pens as Duncan Keith to the Blackhawks and Drew Doughty to the Kings when those teams won it all. The defending champs will still be a tough out, but they’ll be an out all the same.

Chicago Blackhawks: The ‘Hawks may have gotten the band back together on defense, but that doesn’t mean it was a good idea. Brian Campbell is 37 years old. Johnny Oduya is 35. These guys are not in their primes anymore. As the playoffs wear on, assuming the ‘Hawks can win a series or two, this roster is going to show its age.  And that includes 38-year-old forward Marian Hossa, who’s always been such an underrated part of Chicago’s dynasty. Hossa is still pretty good, but he’s not the player he once was. In the end, age catches up to everyone, and all those Blackhawks rookies that have been forced into the lineup aren’t good enough to make up for it.

Washington Capitals: All the stars have aligned for the first championship in franchise history. A cinch of a first-round opponent in the Leafs. The Penguins without their best defenseman. Whoever comes out of the Atlantic bracket should be no threat whatsoever, and let’s face it, the Western Conference isn’t so daunting anymore. It must be equal parts exciting and terrifying for the Caps and their fans, because it all looks so darn easy. The team has stayed remarkably healthy all season. It added Shattenkirk at the deadline. So… you know why the Caps won’t win? Because it’s never, ever easy. There’s always a Black Swan lurking, and doesn’t this tortured franchise know it. Blow it this year, Caps, and there will be no coming back from the devastation.

Wild d-man Spurgeon injured in win over Hurricanes

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There has been plenty of discussion about the Minnesota Wild and that team’s fall from first place in the Central Division.

The chances of winning the division have already gone out the window, but the Wild have clinched home ice in the first round of the playoffs, thanks to a 5-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.

After giving up three goals on six shots in the first period, Devan Dubnyk regrouped, stopping all 24 shots he faced after that.

But the win may have come at a price.

Jared Spurgeon, who is tied with Ryan Suter for the team lead in points among defensemen, left the game early in the second period and didn’t return because of a lower-body injury.

That said, it appears this situation isn’t as bad as it may have seemed initially.

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters afterward that he doesn’t believe the injury is serious and Spurgeon will travel with the team tomorrow. Minnesota finishes out its schedule on the road, facing the Avalanche on Thursday and the Coyotes on Saturday.