On Saturday, I sat down with a disappointed but very optimistic Wild owner.
Craig Leipold bought the franchise just before the Wild won its first and only division title in 2008. In the four full seasons he has owned the team, it has not made the playoffs.
With the NHL postseason about to begin tonight in markets outside the Twin Cities, here is a partial transcript of my sitdown last weekend with Leipold.
Leipold talks about his disappointment, the future, the Dany Heatley trade, his assessment of the job done by GM Chuck Fletcher, Fletcher’s future, the need for the Wild to land a big fish, the fact the Wild squandered a top-5 pick with its late 4-0-1 stretch and six wins in 10 games and the fact that the collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Sept. 15:
Well, first of all, how disappointed are you? “Disappointed. This is the last practice. What a bummer. It’s no fun. We started off the year, we thought we had a pretty good team. See what’ll happen. Never thought we would get off to the kind of start we did, so our expectation level probably went higher and everything just cratered for us right after the road trip that was so successful [in December]. And it’s just a disappointing year. Thank goodness we’ve got so many things to look forward to. Without that, I think I would be in a deep depression, but there’s just something about these new kids that you think we really have something that we can build on.”
I sat down with you in September, and you told me when Chuck Fletcher first told you about the Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat trade, you said, ‘Wow, wow, wow,’ and were amazed there were no other pieces given up in the trade. Do you still feel that way? “ I’m not disappointed at all in the Dany Heatley trade. He has been one hell of a leader. Part of why we think we have a good locker room is Dany Heatley. He’s just incredible in the locker room. Yes, we would have expected more on the ice, but that would be true of almost everybody. We had too many lines that we were trying to move around with the injuries. I think next year will be a great year for Dany. The hope is that we can keep Mikko [Koivu] healthy and Mikko will be feeding him assists next year.”
It’s clear Havlat did not fit in well here. Do you regret signing him and do you think you guys succumbed to the pressure of replacing Marian Gaborik immediately when he left in 2009? “Yeah, there was definitely not just a hockey need, but there was a PR need. We had to make a splash. We just lost Gaborik, and we had the money. We needed to go out and do something. Havlat can make a difference, and probably didn’t fit in here. I think he’ll fit in well in San Jose, but yeah, there was pressure on us.”
Are you disappointed that Chuck hasn’t found a way yet to make this team an annual Koivu injury away from collapse? “I would say it this way: We’ve learned Mikko is as important to this team as we always thought he was. Chuck had to build this team for this year knowing who he’s got coming in for future years. In isolation, if he only had to build one year’s worth of team, he probably would have done it differently and maybe we would have gotten a higher end centerman, but we’ve got a lot of centers coming the next two years. So who you going to get on a one-year contract?”
Russo note: (This is a great point that I’ve mentioned a few times in the past. Last summer, this is why the Wild was silent on the free-agent front, and this is why this season when the Wild got hampered by injuries, Fletcher wasn’t willing to go out and add somebody will more than one year left on his deal (i.e. Erik Christensen). This is a cap system. You always have to plan for the future. You can only have 23 players. You add a guy on a three- or four- or whatever-year deal, that can adversely affect your ability to put a prospect on the team or even go out and sign a big free agent this summer to a long-term deal. So, in a lot of ways, what’s coming in the next few years hamstrung Fletcher’s ability to react to the injuries this year).
So you’re saying this season was a bridge to the future no matter what this season? “Exactly. When Chuck made the Setoguchi and Heatley trades last year, we were excited and thought this team will be a better team than we thought it would be, but it was always looking at the next couple years and making sure we were going to build the team with our future prospects. Because of the great start, all of a sudden expectations changed.”
Still, you cannot be happy you’ve missed the playoffs four years in a row? “No. I don’t like it. It’s tough. I really think the injury Gods have been working against us for all [four] of those years, but it is what it is. Everybody’s got injuries and we’ve got to deal with it. We’ve got to get deeper and we think that’ll happen. But yes, you’re always disappointed when you miss it one year. If you miss it [four] years, you’re triply disappointed.”
Can you assess Chuck as a GM? “I think he’s done a great job. Yeah, we’re all disappointed that we didn’t get in this year. but Chuck’s importance to this team, the contributions that he will make to the legacy of the Minnesota Wild is coming in the next couple years. That’s when we’re going to see what Chuck Fletcher has done to move the Minnesota Wild to a different level. You’re going to begin to see that next year. Let’s not overblow this that we think we’re going to be a Stanley Cup winning team next season. But we’re going to be a whole lot better – faster, quicker, younger -- because of these guys coming in. Our expectation level is high. We hope we’re not disappointed. We don’t think we’re going to be. At every level, the [Charlie] Coyle, and the [Mikael] Granlund and the [Zack] Phillips and the [Jason] Zucker, [Jonas] Brodin, these kids are all continuing to play at high levels on the teams that they’re on.”
Russo note: I reported last week that Fletcher will likely receive a one-year extension to give him two years left on his deal.
How about Mike Yeo? “He’s a great coach. He’s passionate. He hates losing. I read in your story today and I know his feeling. I hate losing more than I like winning. I love to win. But I freaking hate to lose. I hate to lose. Even now, we’ve been on this little winning streak in the last five games, you read the blogs, ‘Will you guys stop winning? You’re going to ruin the draft.’ You do kind of go into the game thinking, ‘It’s OK if we lose this, we’ll have a better pick.’ Then I’m at the game and I’m watching it and I only want to win the game. I’m just like every one of those players. It has nothing to do with our draft pick. It’s all about winning and it doesn’t matter where you are. Now it just makes [assistant GM] Brent Flahr’s job a little tougher . He’s back on the road again. (laughing)”
I know you can’t name names, but how essential is it for you guys to finally land a big fish or two? “Yes. Where a star player wants to come here, wants to play here. It’s important to our franchise that we become one of those markets where players want to come to, they want to play for the fans here, they want to play because the culture’s the way it is, because the coaches are the way they are, because management treats their players a certain way. We want to get to that point. I mean, this is such a great market. I have to believe that players would want to play in this city. It’s our job to create that kind of atmosphere and culture, and winning is important. It’s a big part of that. They’ll come here if they think they can win the Cup.”
How would you sell a free agent on this franchise and market? “Now if I’m an unrestricted free agent and I’m looking at this team and I’m looking at the future of this team and the committment that we have to winning and the coaches, this is a good market. We think we have a lot to sell. We don’t plan to be shy. We don’t know who’s going to be a UFA come July 1, but we’re going to be looking. We need to make our team better. We need to get more goals. And we need to get better defense.”
And what if you strike out on the big fish? “Then you have to do something else. You’ve got to try to get somebody else. You look at trades. And we may start off the year with a certain team, but after 10-15 games, you get phone calls. There’s always a Plan B.”
I know you’re not permitted to say a lot on this issue, but the white elephant in the room is the fact that the collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15. In 2004-05, we lost an entire season. Will this season start on time? “What I can say is that we are preparing to start next year on time. I have no reason to believe that we’re not going to start on time. The relationship is good with the players union. We’re planning to start on time.”
Are the issues more or less complicated this go-around? “I probably shouldn’t talk about it. I can only get my hand slapped.”
Are you making money? “We’re not making money, and that’s one reason we need to fix our system. We need to fix how much we’re spending right now. [The Wild's] revenues are fine. We’re down a little bit in attendance, but we’re up in sponsorships, we’re up in TV revenue. And so the revenue that we’re generating is not the issue as much as our expenses. And [the Wild's] biggest expense by far is player salaries.”
What are you hearing from fans? How frustrated are they? “Stay the course. Every month, I have lunch with about 20 fans and we go around the room and we talk about things. Everybody gets it. This is a hockey market. We’re fortunate that they understand who our players are. Frankly the media does a good job communicating what all our prospects are doing. I think most of our fans know that our future is the next five years and injuries impacted us significantly this year.”
Are you still committed to being owner of this franchise for the long haul? “Absolutely. No question, no question. I’m not going anywhere. I’m here. As long as this continues to be a good hockey market and we’ve got the commitment from this market, I’m all in. I love doing it. I love coming here. I love this business. I love the players and the team and the fans. I’m all in.”