Reading Between The Lines: Craig Leipold Interviews

As part of their year-end coverage, both the Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press released interviews with Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold last Wednesday. They're great reads that tap into the mindset of the team's owner and Leipold, who bought the team midway through the 2007-2008 season but has missed the playoffs four years in a row, is not afraid to step in front of the limelight.

Although there's a lot of posturing and double-speak, the best part of these interviews might be that with a fanbase that continues to ask questions, the franchise's owner is always good for a quote. If you dig deep enough through those quotes, however, it paints a picture of the owner's mindset and future of the organization.

So that's what I'm going to try to do. After the jump are 7 thoughts that come out of reading between the lines.
Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold
1. There's two sides to Leipold that constantly fight - the guy who wants to win now versus the guy who stays the course.

The biggest thing to take away from both the Strib and Pioneer Press interviews seems to be the constant promotion of the youth movement along with the need to field a playoff team now. It makes sense because selling a casual fanbase on the fact tomorrow (or 2-3 years) will be better when things aren't going well is not always easy and missing the playoffs three straight seasons compounds that. Look at the crowds at Xcel Energy Center by the end of the season where the fans were apathetic and there were plenty of empty seats as a talented pipeline played games in places like Saint John and Helsinki. That plays on Leipold's bottom line at the end of the day and one reason why despite having the team promote the youngsters with series like "Becoming Wild," he keeps going back to the tired-and-true method of blaming injuries. From the Pioneer Press:
"This was probably the most frustrating year," Leipold said in an interview with the Pioneer Press. "I think that this team is a playoff team and plays really well when we're all playing together. I think we proved that. But without (Pierre-Marc) Bouchard and (Guillaume) Latendresse and (Mikko) Koivu for so much of the year, it's like we're two different teams. I feel bad for our fans. I feel bad for our players."
However, he just as much admits in the Star Tribune that not overpaying this past off-season in free agency and giving up much needed depth was in part to the future coming up.
“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?” 
Regardless, the bottom line affects selling the present and future and while Minnesota has done it well at times (look at the Zucker coverage at the season as one of the team's few bright spots), it's a constant battle that Leipold and the team haven't perfected. It's not realistic for this team to have both a talented NHL team and pipeline.

2. This year ended up being neither...like we all knew in September

Despite all the hoopla over getting a scorer like Dany Heatley and being aggressive, it was seen as a bridge deal (see point #3) at the time. The owner pretty much admitted that with Russo.
“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.”
It's true that expectations changed for the better early on but at the same time Minnesota wasn't above sticking to their plan of this being a bridge year when things turned south (due to a lack of depth and skill throughout the lineup injuries), as shown in the Pioneer Press.
"The planning process, from the trade deadline on, was, 'OK. Let's prepare ourselves for next year, and let's make sure we have the powder dry so we can go out and get those players,' " he said.
Whether that plan is go big in free agency or make a trade to bring in scoring/more D (both of which need to be addressed - it's never acceptable to score 166 goals), it looks like this summer will be another attempt to "reload."

3. Be wary of the PR move to get noticed

Whether it's signing Marty Havlat in 2009, overpaying for Moorhead native Matt Cullen in 2010 or the Setoguchi and Heatley trades in 2011, every summer seems to have that move to sell the State of Hockey on this being the year the team turns the corner. Credit to Leipold, he admitted as much to the Star Tribune with Havlat (bold emphasis is Michael Russo's question).
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.”
I'll be honest that this point scares me more than anything. Minnesota once again has the money to sign a free agent and the team has aggressively stated to its fanbase that they will do everything to bring in unrestricted free agents  Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter into the organization (just listen to this separate interview Leipold did today on KFAN). It's admirable to have an owner step up and say that they will offer more than any other team but they have one heck of a sell job (and no Parise "being from Minnesota" doesn't count). If they fail here - and there's a good chance - Plan B is play the prospects in a sink-or-swim sort of way or worse, repeat 2010 and overpay to get a 2nd/3rd liner to appease the fans.

It sounds the latter will happen if they have their way. From the Pioneer Press:
"Our strategy is to go out into the market and bring some players in that are going to be good for us for two or three years," Leipold said. "Most of (our prospects) will develop in Houston next year, which is always the preferred route, and then we'll bring them up at the end of the year or the following year. It is not our strategy or our plan to bring these young guys up - maybe one or two - but most of them will be in Houston next year."
Despite the fact that the future is not being sold to the fans (the Pioneer Press article mentions an aggressive offseason winning the Wild back some buzz as does the KFAN interview), however, that is Minnesota's pitch for future free agents. From the Strib in Leipold's own words:
“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.
 Once again, it's an odd battle over trying to win now versus trying to win long-term.


4. Craig's positioning himself and owners for the upcoming CBA fight
The owner said the team lost money for the second consecutive year, as attendance dipped to its lowest per-game average in team history. The Wild ended the season with about 12,000 full-season ticket equivalents, Leipold said, but their season-ticket renewal rates are outpacing last year's marks (Pioneer Press)
Sprinkled throughout both interviews are quick little tidbits on Minnesota's financial situation and next season's CBA fight with the players. He doesn't go in depth with what will happen - Leipold took the high road in wanting to start the season on time - but it looks like something that will be a sticking point (besides realignment, which was brought up in the Pioneer Press article as being something he sees happening for 2013-2014) on the ownership side are rising player salaries
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.” (Star Tribune)
Whether Minnesota is losing money is hard to know because the Wild are a privately-owned team and there are ways to mess with numbers. If, however, "healthy" teams like Minnesota are losing money despite revenues being fine it doesn't speak well on the ownership side.

Mike Yeo (photo from Wild.com)
5. Leipold is giving a mulligan to Mike Yeo this season

While the Wild owner always wants to win - he emphasized it a half-dozen times - he's not giving a quick hook to Minnesota's third coach. In fact, it sounds more like this season is wiped off the books due to all the injuries.
"It had to be very frustrating for Mike - to have to redo his lines every single game," Leipold said. "We had fourth-line players who were playing on the power play, and it was happening way too many times. That's not what Mike thought he would be dealing with. I think Mike did a good job. I think every one of the players probably respects Mike more now than they did at the beginning of the year." (Pioneer Press)

6. Same goes for Chuck Fletcher...to a certain extent

Craig stated to Goessling that he's working on a new deal for GM Chuck Fletcher and Russo added that it would be a one-year extension to his current deal (which was a four-year contract signed in 2009 and would expire at the end of next season). That makes sense because there's a plan that needs to be seen through one way or another; however it better happen.
Yeah, we’re all disappointed that we didn’t get in (the playoffs) 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. (Star Tribune)
7. He's a fan at heart, which is good for us fans.

Although Leipold is trying to sell us, he bleeds Iron Range Red.
"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.” (Star Tribune)
 Honestly that sounds more like someone on a message board than a professional sports owner/billionaire.  It's also good to hear that he has lunch once a month and is aware that there are frustrations mounting with the team because in the end, people want to support a winner.

4 comments:

  1. It's hard to make the case that overpaying Cullen has had any actual negative impact on the ice. I mean, prove it.

    We're overpaying Heatley quite a bit too, even more so than Cullen, but I'd argue that also hasn't had an impact, nor will it in the life of his remaining contract. Paying PMB what he makes for not playing most of the last two seasons is a far bigger impact. . .and even *that* is unlikely to make an impact next year.

    Tho I have to put an asterisk next to that, because we don't know yet what the salary cap will do under the new CBA. Personally, I think it more likely that the league and NHLPA will agree to keep the cap steady for some years while revenues increase rather than take an axe to it. Certainly it would be far easier to reach a deal like that than whacking a few million off immediately.

    Leipold is Fan #1. He had, like most of us, to get excited by those early results when we were healthy, even tho the evidence is at the beginning of the season he was mentally prepared to miss the playoffs again this year and bank on the future prospects.

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  2. The big problem with signing Cullen (as well as the Heatley and Setoguchi deals) was how they were sold to the fanbase like they were deals that would put the team over the top. Paying $3.5 million a season for a 2nd-3rd line center who has never scored more than 50 points in the NHL as a big offensive upgrade is not exactly the "home run" deal Leipold was stating.

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  3. The wild sign Zack Parise and Ryan Suter in a blockbuster deal! This is great for Wild fans!

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  4. Minnesota Wild Tickets are selling fast now with the announcement of the two new stars of the Wild, Zack Parise and Ryan Suter. The Wild reported that they sold hundreds of new season tickets on the day of they announced the players had signed with the Wild. Another great fact for the Wild is that both players signed contracts for 13 years so they will be the backbone that the team builds around.

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