John Shipley: Change looks good on the Wild
Minnesota leads the Western Conference after dominating performance against lowly Arizona.
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Wild are an almost entirely different team than the one that has been disappointing its fans for the better part of 20 years. For Wild fans, it must feel good.
Forget for a minute how good the Wild have been this season and simply enjoy not hearing about “the young core” or Ryan Suter’s steady veteran leadership.
Chuck Fletcher’s core? Hardly anyone left. Suter and Zach Parise? Gone for fewer than 25 games and already forgotten. The Wild entered Tuesday night’s game as one of the best teams in the NHL and looked every bit the part in a wide-open, 5-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes at Xcel Energy Center.
The Coyotes, to be polite, are not very good. But the Wild handled them the way a good team handles a not very good one. It wasn’t always perfect, but it was fun to watch.
Sometimes making a change, any change, is the answer.
Paul Fenton didn’t last a full year as the Wild’s general manager, but he was here long enough to ask a question that absolutely had to be answered: Why are we still married to Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter?
There was no good answer, so he got rid of them, sometimes for, well, not much. But it was a start and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Current GM Bill Guerin was just finishing his second season as Fenton’s replacement when he tackled the other major piece of old business: Are Parise and Suter still helping us?
Guerin determined the answer was no, bought out the rest of their $98 million contracts at a financial penalty, and it’s hard to argue with the decision. After Tuesday’s win, the Wild are 15-6-1 and tied with Calgary atop the Western Conference standings with 31 points.
“I think that fits right where we should be, where we expect to be,” said winger Jordan Greenway, who scored his first goal of the season on Tuesday and added assists on goals by Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno.
“We’ve been playing well enough to be at the top of leaderboard. So, yeah, I think that’s where we should be, and that’s where we should stay for a while.”
A second-round draft pick out of Boston University, Greenway played his first full season in 2018-19, the tail end of Fletcher’s 10-year reign in Minnesota. Fletcher drafted a lot of players still helping the Wild, most notably blue liners Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgoen and Jonas Brodin and forward Kirill Kaprizov, a fifth-round (!) pick in 2015. The guy knew what he was doing.
But Fletcher had grown so close to his plan that he failed to alter course after it became clear it wasn’t going to work. The forwards he had drafted for his “young core” — Coyle, Niederreiter, Granlund and Jason Zucker — all had an upside but didn’t work as a unit. Parise and Suter had missed their window and became more trouble than they were worth. Still, Fletcher was loath to change it.
Enter Fenton, who was something of a bull in a china shop but did the team a service by taking the important first steps of the dirty work. Guerin has shown a knack for adding congruent parts — Cam Talbot, Ryan Hartman — and made the difficult decision to jettison Parise and Suter, shocking at the time but only because of the money the team is still paying them.
Whatever those two brought, on the ice or in the dressing room, it hasn’t been missed. This is a confident, dialed-in team that is fun to watch. They lead the NHL in scoring with 83 goals, one better than the Washington Capitals and 19 more than they have allowed.
“We’re not teaching, we’re not coaching any differently,” coach Dean Evason said. “I just think that we’ve got some depth scoring that everybody’s producing. They’re all for the most part playing the right way and the same way, and if we do that we feel that we’ll be able to score goals.”
Sports are a fickle business, and hockey more fickle than most. Maybe this won’t last. Maybe the Wild get bounced in the first round of the playoffs again. Who knows? But one thing is certain: If it goes belly up, or is just plain disappointing in the end, it won’t be for the same reasons as the past 10 years. It won’t be because the team was afraid to do something different.
Doesn’t that feel good?