Chuck Fletcher in a Tough Spot

You really have to admire what Chuck Fletcher has done with his team. In two and a half years, he’s done what many GMs struggle to do: Rebuilding without bottoming out. Think of some of the best teams in the league: Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago. All built with single digit draft picks. The young, up-and-comers in this league: Florida, Edmonton. Those teams built/are building by bottoming out.

Last offseason, Fletcher supplemented his 2010 draft effort (Granlund, Bulmer, Larsson, Zucker. Three WJC Captains. No big deal.) by gaining three high-end prospects in Brodin, Phillips, and Coyle. In addition, he traded for Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, upgrading over Antti Miettinen and Andrew Brunette. Solid plan, right?

And for two months, it worked very well, as the Wild started off strongly, leading the League in points through around 30 games. And after the hot start for the Minnesota Wild, it was looking like the Wild would be looking to make a trade in order to stay on top of the Conference. There were some problems. About this time last month, the Wild suffered some injuries, and the offense wasn’t as good as the addition of Dany Heatley would lead one to believe.

This led Fletcher to a conundrum: What should he do? Should he trade some of the glut of prospects he acquired over the last two years in order to get a guy who could guarantee the Wild a ticket to the postseason? Should a playoff run be his main concern, or does he need to stick to his plan?

Sadly, it’s been tougher since last month. The Wild have dropped from first overall to ninth in the conference. That’s out of the playoffs, ladies and gentlemen. To say they’ve stumbled is a gross understatement. Setoguchi, Bouchard, Latendresse, Koivu and Wellman have all sustained injuries in that time, crippling an underwhelming offense, and turning them into the worst in the league (tied with the Islanders). And with Koivu, Latendresse, and Bouchard not only missing currently, but all being expected to miss significantly more time, there doesn’t seem to be much hope.

This is Fletcher’s third season on the job, and he’s looking at having missed the playoffs in all three years. For a franchise looking at their fourth year of being out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Fletcher has gotta be feeling some pressure to make it in, despite the fact that I don’t think his job is at stake.

He basically says as much in today’s awesome Russo article:

I think I’m doing a disservice to our players if I’m not trying to give them the ammunition to make the playoffs,” Fletcher said. “But the way we’re going now, one player is not going to all of a sudden turn everything around, too…. The scary thing is you can make big mistakes when you feel pressure to do something…. So you’ve got to be really smart.

But the thing is, there doesn’t seem to be that much available right now. Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf are the big ticket names floating around, but Fletcher has stated that the main prospects are, for the most part, off the table. Other than that, there aren’t any game-changing options, especially ones available for B-prospects and Harding/Zanon-types.

But as nothing’s happening on the trade front, the Wild seem to be drifting towards non-contention, which leads to the toughest question of all.

Is it wiser to sell?

Of course, the Wild aren’t going to have to make this decision until at least three weeks from now. But, as we’ve seen in recent history, nothing destroys the Wild quite like a Koivu injury. Mikko Koivu is basically Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Kyle Brodziak combined. There’s absolutely no replacement for that, not one that you’ll find on the trade market, anyway. With Koivu out for 4-6 weeks (doing the math, that’s 10-17 games), the Wild’s recent history without Koivu suggests a team that will be out of the playoff race by the time he returns. The Wild may better be able to use some of their players to gain some assets rather than try to revive the Wild.

But even then, it’s tough, even if you take out the pressure to get to the playoffs. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse are effectively useless as trade-bait, both being sidelined with concussions. Marek Zidlicky and Greg Zanon are also not performing to a level that would justify a high pick or decent prospect being sent back to them.

Really, the only tradeable assets that I can see on the big club are Harding and Brodziak. I’d have no problem trading Harding, I suggested that they should do it when they were winning, and he was a big part of that success. However Brodziak is a tricky case. He’s a guy who should easily fetch a second round pick, but the reason that he can do that is because of his skill-set. A great checking-line forward who can play 20 minutes a night and chip in on scoring at a reasonable rate. So yes, he’d get a good return, but it’s precisely because he’s the kind of guy that any team would want in a playoff run/series. He could be a valuable member of the upcoming Wild resurgence.

So, really, this early season start, and injury-induced collapse has put Fletcher in a situation where it seems impossible to look good. If he buys, he does so at the risk of giving up the Wild’s future returns, either by giving up prospects, tying up cap space, or both. If he sells or stays put, he risks angering the team and alienating the fan base.

Personally, I think he stays the course of rebuilding. When he talked about making “big mistakes when you feel pressure”, I’m sure that the Havlat signing, Kobasew trade, and Barker trade were fresh in his mind. Those were three moves Fletcher made partially to get a better team in the current moment, rather than to build the best team for the long-term. Those moves have been big failures, as opposed to his moves looking at the long-term, removing the pressure of winning now, which have been largely successful. I have little doubt that Fletcher will make the right decisions for the team moving forward.

But man, this is a tough, tough position to be in as a GM.

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