The Minnesota Wild had the unfortunate luck of winning a lot of games early in the the 2011-12 season. All that winning was unfortunate because the Wild were not actually that good, bringing the advanced statistics nerds out of the woodwork to point this out and raise the ire of devoted Wild fans. To their chagrin, the Wild did in fact collapse after their strong start, finishing 14 points out of a playoff position with the second worst goal-differential in the Western Conference.
It wasn’t just the advanced statistics that made me shake my head when I looked at the Wild. The decisions their management team made baffled me, from the lateral move of trading Martin Havlat for Dany Heatley, to the bizarre decision to trade away their best puck possession defenceman in Brent Burns.
But ever since this year’s trade deadline, I have loved the work that Chuck Fletcher is doing in Minnesota. And I’m not just talking about signing Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.
First there was Marek Zidlicky, who had become persona non grata with the Wild for reasons I’m not going to get into. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t working out, frequently ending up as a healthy scratch and discussing his dissatisfaction publicly with the media. He had to be traded, which makes the return Fletcher particularly impressive. With little bargaining power, he brought back two draft picks, including a second rounder, as well as three players: Kurtis Foster, Stephane Veilleux, and Nick Palmieri.
Palmieri is the interesting player here, a burgeoning power forward with goalscoring potential, while Veilleux adds value as a veteran depth winger, but the fact that Fletcher was able to bring back anything of value for a player who publicly wanted out was impressive.
Fletcher also got a good return for pending UFA Greg Zanon at the deadline, bringing back defenceman prospect Steven Kampfer from the Boston Bruins. Kampfer is young, fast, and may be ready to be a full-time top-six defenceman in the NHL. Getting a promising prospect for a depth defenceman who’s heading to free agency? A good move in my book.
But the best trade the Wild made was one that wasn’t immediately popular with the Minnesota fanbase. Fletcher traded fan-favourite Nick Schultz to the Edmonton Oilers for Tom Gilbert, Edmonton’s best defenceman. I loved the trade for Minnesota at the time (and hated it for Edmonton) and my opinion on it hasn’t changed. Schultz is a good defenceman, but Gilbert is a better one, with significantly more ability at transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone.
That’s the key, really. What the Wild struggled with above all was transitioning the puck from defence to offence: acquiring Gilbert was a step to fixing that, with Kampfer’s main calling cards being his skating and passing, making his acquisition another move in the right direction.
Gilbert would be even better if he wasn’t relied on as a number one defenceman, as he simply isn’t at that level. Lo and behold, Ryan Suter. Easily the best defenceman on the market, Suter was expected to go to Detroit, but ended up choosing Minnesota in order to play with Zach Parise. Also worth noting, Suter and Gilbert played together for one year at the University of Wisconsin in 2003-04, which likely plays a much smaller role than Suter and Parise being BFFs.
During free agency, it’s a big deal if a team lands one of the biggest names. For the Wild to land both the best forward and the best defenceman on the market is huge. One of the main problems for the Wild last season was depth, as injuries to a few of their best players left them destitute: adding two great players like Parise and Suter will help not only at the top end, but also in terms of depth, pushing players down the lineup who played much bigger roles last season.
While this may seem like blasphemy coming from a Canucks fan, I’m pulling for the Wild next season. I firmly believe that the moves Fletcher has made over the last 5 months are the right moves and I like to see good hockey decisions rewarded. Gilbert and Suter should be a great top pairing or the two of them could anchor separate pairings in the top-four. Parise immediately makes the Wild’s offence more potent and the expected graduation of Mikael Granlund to the NHL should also pay dividends.
The Wild were terrible last season; that won’y be the case next season, and it won’t just be because of Parise and Suter.