Last year’s playoff loss to the St. Louis Blues still stings badly for Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher.
After a 106-point regular season that earned his team the second-best record in the Western Conference, the Wild went out in five games in the first round and left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone associated with the franchise.
NHL training camps are set to open in a matter of weeks, and Fletcher was asked during a Wednesday appearance on KFAN Sports Radio FM 100.3 what makes what makes him think this version of the Minnesota Wild is more poised to advance in the playoffs than the 2016-17 edition.
“Because we got humbled badly,” replied Fletcher bluntly. “We got our – we lost in five and that’s embarrassing and I think that teaches more than anything. We have a very good hockey team and we have good players. They’re all right in their wheelhouse. We have good depth.
“But we lost in five last year and that was pretty humbling, pretty embarrassing, to put it mildly. I don’t think anybody had a real peaceful summer in that sense, and I think everybody is out to show that we’re a lot better than that. I think sometimes you have to get kicked in the head, I guess, before you can push forward.
“I’m excited about this year’s team. I think some people may be expecting not as much from us as what we are, and I think that’s a really good place to be too.”
It wasn’t necessarily a typical five-game playoff ouster, in that the Blues showed much better than the record would indicate.
Among other factors, the Wild outshot the Blues drastically in the series and Jake Allen turned them away time and time again.
Four months has passed, and Fletcher was asked what still makes him mad about the way the series ended.
“Well, it was a winnable series,” reflected Fletcher. “Game 1, shot attempts were 90-30 for us and we had the puck the whole game and they won. When we had to tie it up late even to get to overtime, they beat us in overtime.
“And give St. Louis credit. Allen was great. But they made big plays. Tarasenko, Schwartz, a couple of their defensemen – Edmundson – stepped up and got big goals for them. They made big plays at the right time and we were not able to. Whether we didn’t execute or their goalie made great saves, or a combination of both.
“But what frustrated me is we had the chances and we didn’t find a way to execute. Maybe part of that was at times we couldn’t get into the inside enough. Hopefully a player like Foligno in particular and the continued maturation of Coyle and Niederreiter will allow us to continue to get into the heavy ice. Joel Eriksson Ek is a guy we’re excited about too. He’s put on another 10 pounds this summer and he’s going to be a beast down the road – a big, strong guy.
“So we have I think a pretty good mix of the skill that can make plays on the perimeter, the big guys that can get into the middle, and hopefully that’s one adjustment we’ve made.
“Again, just being humbled, being embarrassed like that, will make us better.”
One element in the Wild’s favor headed into 2017-18 is that players on the team are entering camp having familiarity with the systems and structure of head coach Bruce Boudreau.
“Definitely. I can just see it the way we’re planning for training camp,” noted Fletcher. “Last year, the first week every day was incredibly structured. We’re going to do defensive zone one day, neutral zone, offensive zone. He was implementing a completely new system than what we had before under Mike Yeo.
“So for the players and for Bruce, it was almost like the first week of school. You didn’t know what to expect from the teacher, the teacher didn’t know what to expect from the students. This year, everybody is coming in knowing the system. They know what to expect. It’ll be more like a refresher in training camp, and hopefully that’ll allow us maybe to get more continuity in lines, get more chemistry and start the season ahead of some other teams because we’re all on the same page quicker.”
The Wild is set to open the regular season on October 5 against the Red Wings in Detroit, and Fletcher feels the makeup of his roster as good as it’s been since he’s been with the team.
“Absolutely,” said the general manager. “The one question mark – we traded Marco Scandella. Marco is a heck of a hockey player. He and Suter probably our Top 2 D (in the playoffs). We had a Big 5, as I used to call them, and now we have a Big 4.
“The one thing I think with Scandella going is Brodin is going to play more, he’s going to have a little bit more of an important role. I think he’s going to step up and have a bigger year. Guys like Olofsson, Reilly, and Quincey are going to have to fill it in. So that’s the one area where we’re maybe a touch thinner, but it’s also time for Olofsson and Reilly to play. So at some point these kids have to step up. You need some guys playing at 700 to make the salary cap work and that’s what we’re doing this year.
“But otherwise I think up front, in goal – I think you have guys like Eriksson Ek, possibly Kunin, on the young end of the scale. You bring Cullen back. I think it’s a great mix.
“This team is hungry. Again, it was a tough pill to swallow. Give St. Louis credit. They earned it. They beat us. But we’re better than that and we’re out to show it this year.”