If you can say one thing about the Chuck Fletcher era of the Minnesota Wild, it's been exciting. Out with the safe draft picks and guys past their prime. In with the blue chip prospects and super star free agents. Even with no salary cap space (Dany Heatley's injury prevented his buyout), the Wild general manager has managed to raise some eyebrows and ruffle some feathers.
I spent the weekend digesting the Wild's recent roster moves, and after going through the five stages of grief to process the Matt Cooke signing, I think there's some insight to the team's philosophy heading into next year.
This past season, the Wild had a lot of talent and good health, but not great results on the ice. Sure, they snuck into the playoffs, but the offense just went dead down the stretch and the team was prone to giving up easy goals at bad times.
In hindsight, the forward lines lacked chemistry and identity. There were three lines of offensive forwards and defensive grinders mashed together. Mikko Koivu's line was used to match up against the top forwards of the other team, which may have contributed to the lack of offense down the stretch and into the playoffs. In the end, a lot of players had down years.
But listening to the recent KFAN interview with Chuck Fletcher and Star Tribune reporter Mike Russo, I think there's going to be a big change in the forward line philosophy.
Fletcher said that the "third" line actually will see the second-most ice time behind the Koivu line at even strength. To me, this means he wants to use a dedicated checking line instead of matching up top lines. And this also explains why he moved away from Cal Clutterbuck to Matt Cooke.
Wild fans have a long history of hating Cooke, but the last couple years, he has changed how he plays the game. Rather than agitating the opposition with dirty hits, he has focused on killing penalties, playing strong defense, and timely scoring on a third line.
In fact, I think he's a better offensive player than Clutterbuck. Clutter has a great shot and north-south speed but rarely had any synergy with his linemates. Cooke can work the cycle better and has not only created more offense than Clutter, but has done so with almost no power play time.
One interesting thing that Fletcher said is that the signing of Cooke can allow him to focus on playing at even strength and killing penalties, freeing up power play time for the kids. That's quite a bit different than last year, where they had a number of rookies in the lineup but gave a lot more power play time to veterans.
And that helps to explain why they walked away from players like Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Matt Cullen while trading Devin Setoguchi. All three saw quite a bit of power play time last year, but the young players need to get that experience. Players like Granlund, Zucker, Coyle, and Nino will get chances to shine with the man advantage and could produce even more points as a result.
Fletcher wants to try Granlund or Coyle at second line center, which of course means they will face easier matchups. Koivu and Brodziak will be doing more of the heavy lifting defensively. This gives the kids a better chance at success, especially now that they've seen the speed of the NHL.
I also think that Fletcher still would have preferred to buy out Dany Heatley and keep Devin Setoguchi to save cap space. Better to pay $3 million for a 20-goal scorer than $7.5 million.
Lastly, Fletcher mentioned that the Wild only needs "two" of the Wild's prospects to step up this year. This means that some guys who might deserve a shot will have to wait in the AHL. That's not a bad thing. Having several hungry young prospects pushing for only a couple roster spots is in fact a good thing.
I believe the forward lineup will look something like this:
Parise - Koivu - Pominville
Nino/Zucker - Granlund - Heatley
Cooke - Brodziak - Coyle
Rupp - Konopka/Dowell - Mitchell
The top line is fairly well stacked with the three best offensive players. Brodziak's line will actually see more ice time at even strength matching up against the top lines and he should have more offensive success playing with Cooke and Coyle. The "second" line will see favorable matchups whenever possible to diminish Heatley's reduced speed and give the young players confidence. Finally, the fourth line will probably be used less at even strength but Mitchell and Dowell will likely see a good amount of penalty killing time.
This gives the Wild more of an identity than they had last year. A top scoring line. A dedicated checking line that can still play with the puck. A secondary scoring line with talented youth fighting for spots. And it also shows that the young GM and head coach are learning from their past mistakes and can make necessary changes.