By Michael Russo
There will be a Q&A in Saturday’s newspaper with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, but for some reason, the newspaper couldn’t fit 100 inches of type.
So I trimmed it to about 40, but here’s a little longer version.
I will be honest with you though: This isn’t the complete version either. Because I couldn’t fit everything into the newspaper, what I decided to do was omit from here some other good topics that I want to use in stories early in training camp anyway.
So, while it might appear the Q&A is incomplete or you’re thinking, “Boy, Russo must be vacationed out because he didn’t ask some obvious things,” (PG version of what you’re actually thinking) trust me, I did and they will appear in the paper in the coming days.
Aren’t you excited now to read this?????? Where else can you get such explanations from a beat writer, eh?
OK, so here it is. By the way, you might have seen on Twitter if you follow me there (twitter.com/russostrib), but Fletcher was at the White House on Thursday being honored with the rest of the Penguins for winning the Stanley Cup. He left Pitt as asst. GM a few weeks before the Pens won it all. Fletcher also spent the day with the Cup last month and gets a ring in late October when the Wild comes visiting Steel City.
Q: How hard will it be to snap your fingers and transition this team from the defensive-oriented team it was to the up-tempo team you want it to be? Do you anticipate growing pains?
A: There’s going to be a transition, but Todd and his staff have a gameplan on how they’ll start to introduce different components of the new system right from the first day of camp by everyday working on a different area on the ice through drills and off the ice through video. It’s a challenge, but lots of teams go through these changes. But there’s no question, it’ll take time. We have seven preseason games and three weeks of camp to start the process, but I’m sure we’ll be more in synch the second half of the year than we are in the first half. That’ll be the challenge of Todd and the players to get on the same page as quickly as possible, and I’m confident it’ll happen.
Q: The Wild had the fifth-fewest goals in the West last season. You lose Gaborik, add Havlat. You let Marc-Andre Bergeron and Kurtis Foster’s offense go on defense. Do you have enough scoring?
A: I believe we have room for internal growth. I don’t know that any of our returning forwards had a career season last year, so I think there’s room for improvement from a lot of our players, particularly our young players. And if a few of our players can improve the way we feel they can improve, then I think we’ll be in a better position. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll probably be no different than many teams in the league. If the players we have don’t step up, we’ll have to address that.
Q: Who are you talking about specifically?
A: Almost all of them. I still think Mikko Koivu’s best days are ahead of him. I think Brent Burns’ best days are ahead of him. Obviously young players like James Sheppard, Cal Clutterbuck and Benoit Pouliot are still at the beginning of their careers and are going to improve and mature as they get more confidence. Kyle Brodziak, there’s no reason he can’t still improve. We have some key players – a player like Pierre-Marc Bouchard, whose output fell off last season, there’s room for improvement from a lot of players.
Q: You mentioned Pouliot, who’s had his fair share of trouble capitalizing on chances. How big of a camp is this for him?
A: I spoke with Benoit and I know Todd’s spoken with Benoit and our message has been very clear. He has a clean slate. He has a new opportunity to make a positive impression on people who are hoping he’ll do well. He has size and skill and speed and a lot of elements that make you want him to be successful. But we’ve had those conversations and there have been a lot of conversations with Benoit over the last few years from [Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire]. Hopefully he’ll have a good camp and with his play demand a good roster situation. It’s up to him. I’m excited to see what he’ll do in camp. It’s a big year for him. It’s the first year he needs waivers. If he doesn’t make our club, then we have to put him on waivers and 29 other teams get a shot at him. So there’s some responsibility on our side to be thorough in the evaluation process.
Q: Similarly, Colton Gillies couldn’t be sent to the minors last season. Now he’s 20 and can without waivers. Does that hurt his chances?
A: It’s way too early to tell. It’s his second year in the NHL. He’s a young player we’re expecting to continue to get better and better. Ultimately he’ll come to camp and we’ll let his performance and the performances of other players dictate what role he plays on the team. I think in general that’s the exciting thing about this camp. We’re open minded on everybody. Every player has a clean slate. Whatever you did well or didn’t do well in the past is irrelevant. But as for Gillies, I don’t think somebody’s contract status or age or anything is going to matter as one’s performance or role and how they fit in. The best thing we can do is have a real competitive camp and let the players sort it out for us.
Q: In the past, the Wild’s put teenage, first-rounders right on the team. You have seven defensemen on one-way contracts. Does this immediately hurt Tyler Cuma’s chances?
A: My philosophy on young players is no different than veteran players. If a player’s good enough to make our team and play a meaningful role, then they should be allowed to do that. If a player is not able to play a meaningful role and you have options with that player, then you have to look at it. With any young player, if they earn something, we will reward them accordingly.
Q: It’s no secret you spent the early part of the summer shopping backup Josh Harding. It appears he’ll at least start the season with you guys?
A: I don’t expect anything to happen right now with Josh. From our standpoint, he’s a quality goaltender and he’ll be given an opportunity to play some more games this season. He can help us win games. We’re as deep at goaltending as any team in the league, especially when you throw in Wade Dubielewicz as the third goalie.
Q: When you say Josh will play more games, is that to showcase him?
A: Todd and I have had conversations about the goaltending situation and in particular how best to utilize Josh for his career and for the betterment of our team. Everything in hockey comes down to performance, so to a large degree, Josh will determine how much he plays by how well he plays. But if you look at the schedule this season, we have a lot of back-to-backs — the schedule’s a little more condensed due to the Olympics — so every team needs to make sure to give their goaltender proper rest, particularly Niklas Backstrom, who not only will be a key performer for us, but also hopefully compete for a spot on the Finnish team. We have a very busy October and Todd and I want to find ways of getting Josh involved right away. How many games that’ll mean depends on how he’s playing. But the schedule’s congestion should get Josh quite a few more starts last year.
Q: But the fact that Backstrom’s got four more years and a no-trade clause also means that Harding’s a potential bargaining chip still?
A: We feel Josh has the talent and capability to be a No. 1 goalie, and I think it’s our responsibility to maximize his talents – for our benefit and his benefit.
Q: Safe to say you consciously sacrificed offense for grit on the blue line because you felt there was a weakness there but also expect a reinvigorated Brent Burns?
A: Well, that’s what we tried to do, but the key to the blue line is Brent Burns. Todd and I are anticipating he’s going to have a big year. He’s healthy and seems excited and can play for Team Canada in the Olympics, so there seems to be a lot of factors moving in a positive direction for Brent. I think he’ll be a beneficiary of the way we play. He’s going to be a big part of that defense. But we like our defense. Zanon gives us a defensive presence and that competitiveness on the back end. Hnidy is a tough player. With Kim Johnsson and Nick Schultz and Marek Zidlicky and John Scott, we think we have a nice combination of players who can move the puck and bring a little grit back there.
Q: Have you thought about whether Havlat will play with Koivu or maybe Bouchard? Also, Havlat’s biggest problem might be his willingness to go into the gritty areas. Is there a way to help keep him healthy by putting him with a digging winger like Clutterbuck or Owen Nolan?
A: We’ve talked about lots of different scenarios if the roster looked like this and that, but it’ll be important to see who he finds chemistry with right off the bat. But you’ve hit the nail on the head. Havlat’s a competitive player. He’s a player who plays hard every game and because of his skill level, he attracts the attention of other team’s best defenders. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do. It’s no different than Gaborik or Crosby or Malkin or Ovechkin. These high-skilled guys compete hard every night and get into situations that lead to injury.
Q: The plan is still try Bouchard at center?
A: It’s an idea we’ve kicked around a lot this summer and Todd will experiment with it. But obviously we have Mikko and Sheppard and Eric Belanger and Brodziak. And we do have other players capable of playing center, like Pouliot. There will be trial and error in camp. The focus of this camp will be to install the new system and try to get everybody on the same page on how we play, but there will be a lot of experimenting with line combinations and positions and trying to come up with the right mix. We do have some flexibility with a few players in terms of different roles and positions.
Q: Do you still feel you might be able to have players fall into your lap from teams in cap trouble by the end of the month or early part of the season?
A: That’s what I believe only based on an educated guess. Certain teams have to move some contracts and we’re in a position where we can entertain those type of scenarios. I’ve tried to be very charitable to a lot of teams this summer (laughs). But judging from some recent conversations with other managers, once you get to this late in the summer, most teams wait and see. They want to get into camp, get through the first few weeks and find out what they have. Players always get injured and there are always good and bad surprises at every camp. So teams want to get into a better position so they can make a better decision.
Q: Lastly, is the team the way it’s currently built good enough to return to the playoffs?
A: I definitely believe we’re good enough to make the playoffs. There’s a lot of returning players from last year’s club and last year the Wild missed the playoffs by three points even though there were a lot of injuries. I really believe we have enough talent and character and leadership in the room to make the playoffs.”