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A brief history of Chuck Fletcher’s time in Minnesota

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Currently working as a senior advisor with New Jersey, Fletcher is considered the frontrunner to replace Ron Hextall.

2012 NHL Entry Draft - Rounds 2-7

One of the first names linked to the Flyers following Ron Hextall’s departure was former Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher, and with an official interview reportedly taking place on Thursday, it’s worth taking a closer look at what Fletcher had accomplished in years past.

Named general manager of the Wild in 2009, Fletcher inherited a bit of a mess. The team had just missed the playoffs for the third time in five seasons, with two first round exits in the middle; star forward Marian Gaborik was on his way to free agency, and the cupboard was bare. Still, just four years later, Fletcher had the Wild back in the postseason and his team would go on to make the playoffs every year for the rest of tenure.

However, one of the knocks on Fletcher’s Wild team was that they were unable to take that “next step” and have a deep playoff run, with four first-round exits and two second-round exits over the last six seasons. So, what went wrong?

His downfall

The Minnesota Wild SB Nation blog, Hockey Wilderness, put together a storystream regarding Fletcher’s departure last off-season, and in it they go into detail about what went wrong (and right!) and how many of the problems actually fell on Fletcher himself.

An article titled “Chuck Fletcher’s rollercoaster ride as GM of the Minnesota Wild comes to an end,” takes a look at his shortcomings, two of which being something that we are eerily familiar with here in Philadelphia.

Fletcher could never quite figure out how to fill the glaring holes on his talented roster. Whether it was trade deadline deals that flopped, resulting in a diminished prospect pipeline and lost draft assets, or handing out bloated contracts to undeserving players that crippled the Wild’s cap flexibility, Fletcher could never put all of the pieces together. He was in a perpetual game of two steps forward and one step back when other competing organizations were sprinting past him.

While Hextall didn’t make trade deadline deals that flopped or sign players to contracts that hurt the Flyers long term — outside of Dale Weise’s four year contract that, while not ideal, still has a manageable cap hit — the overall feeling that the team would keep taking two steps forward and one step backward is recognizable to the Philly faithful. Despite obvious issues with the roster composition, specifically in net, Hextall stood pat and entered the season with the same oft-injured tandem.

The article continues:

Nowhere was this more evident than in his head coaching choices. For his first decision as the GM of the Wild, he handed the reins to Todd Richards who lasted just two seasons in Minnesota before being replaced by Mike Yeo. While Yeo managed to bring the Wild franchise back to the playoffs, his tenure likely lasted a year too long as Fletcher was unwilling to part with a coach that had brought him success but clearly plateaued with the roster.

Oh boy. Unwillingness to part with a coach that has clearly plateaued with the roster is another familiar problem, and it goes further than just head coach Dave Hakstol. Hextall’s refusal to replace Ian Laperriere as the team’s penalty kill coach despite the team showing no improvement and actually performing worse year to year under him was one of the biggest red flags of Hextall’s time. What we don’t need is another general manager who is loyal to a fault with his coaches.

It should be noted that he did eventually fire Yeo, and in turn hired a coach in Bruce Boudreau who many general managers might have strayed away from due to his lack of postseason success despite strong regular seasons. Boudreau’s teams have almost always been successful, just falling short in the small sample size when it matters the most. That, to me, is a hire that shows that Fletcher isn’t going to get caught up in narratives that are based on 80 playoff games stretching across ten years.

His trade history

One thing that Flyers president Paul Holmgren specifically mentioned wanting from the team’s next hire was activity at this years trade deadline, something that Fletcher has shown willingness to do in the past.

In his first major deadline deal, Fletcher traded goaltender Matt Hackett, forward Johan Larsson, a 2013 first-round draft pick, and a 2014 second-round draft pick to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for winger Jason Pominville and a 2014 fourth-round draft pick. Pominville was coming off a 30-goal, 73-point campaign with the Buffalo the previous year and had a history of strong production, certainly making him well worth the price they paid. After signing him to five year contract worth $28 million dollars in the immediate off-season, Fletcher would trade him back to the Sabres prior to the 2017-18 season along with Marco Scandella for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. While it didn’t work out in the end, Pominville did give the Wild one 30-goal season, and he put up 23 points in 36 playoff games.

While that trade can be considered a success — Pominville was viewed as a rental at the time, so eventual contract issues should be discounted here — his next few trades at the deadline were questionable at best. One season after the first Pominville trade, he acquired forward Matt Moulson in exchange for two second-round draft picks. Didn’t work. Next season? It was time for Chris Stewart to join the growing list of former Sabres to join the Wild, and he proved not to be a major upgrade.

Then came the Martin Hanzal trade that saw Fletcher move Grayson Downing, a first-round pick, a second-round pick, and a fourth-round pick and receive Hanzal, Ryan White, and a fourth-round pick in return. Opinions vary on Hanzal, and in Fletcher’s defense he was considered one of the biggest, if not the biggest name on the market at the time, but a first round pick and then some for a rental who is probably a high-end third line center at best doesn’t sound like a well-calculated decision to make.

Outside of deadline deals, it was his early trades that may have been his worst, shipping out the likes of Nick Leddy and Brent Burns; however, you also to have to credit him with the good like trading Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round pick in exchange for Nino Niederreiter, now one of the league’s most underrated forwards. The biggest difference here between Fletcher and Hextall is that Fletcher was open to adjusting his team, and his plan, on the fly while the former was unyielding in his process.

The signings

Let’s start off with a bang; the Ryan Suter and Zach Parise contracts. Fault Fletcher for giving out identical 13-year contracts all you want, but the Wild needed a franchise-altering player and they viewed both as just that. Is 13 years ridiculous? Sure, especially now that eight is the absolute max term enforced by the league, but maybe they sign elsewhere if not for the term they were given, and now your team is still without the first-pair defenseman and first-line winger that they desperately need. It’s not as if their contracts were solely a Fletcher idea either, as team owner Craig Leipold pushed hard for the team to sign at least one of them before their entire management came together and decided on both. You can have a lot more detrimental problems than overpaying good, even great, players, and that’s where a few of his other signings come into play.

Despite declining play the previous year, Fletcher signed then-35 year old goaltender Niklas Backstrom to a three year contract prior to the 2013-14 season with an average annual value just above $3.4 million dollars. Backstrom would appear in just 40 games for the Wild before being traded to the Calgary Flames in February of 2016. The Thomas Vanek ($6.5M cap hit for three years) and previously-mentioned Pominville contracts missed their mark as well, with the former getting bought out two years into the deal.

He was also unable to sign any extensions that qualify as “steals” outside of Jonas Brodin’s six-year contract worth $25 million ($4,166,667 AAV) that he signed at the beginning of the 2014-15 season. Mikael Granlund could be included here as well, but he was not signed long term. That’s not to say his extensions have been bad, rather that they were more fair than anything else, and fair deals just aren’t something we’re used to under Hextall. Of the three most important contracts he negotiated, two of them — Shayne Gostisbehere with a $4.5M AAV and Sean Couturier with a $4.33M AAV, both for six years — have to be considered extremely team-friendly for the value the players bring, with his third, Jakub Voracek’s eight year contract with an $8.25M cap hit, being more Fletcher-like in the sense that it’s right around market value.

Fletcher’s real gem here is the Eric Staal signing just two seasons ago. Far and away the best value signing of the off-season, Staal was signed to a three year contract with a $3.5M cap hit and would go on to score 70 goals across his first two seasons in Minnesota. Finding a first-line center hiding from most in plain sight allowed Granlund to thrive on the wing and Mikko Koivu to slide into a more defensive second-line role at even strength.

At the end of the day every single general manager in the history of the league has good deals and bad deals, that’s just how it is, and Fletcher managed to build a team that has been strong for six, going on seven straight seasons now. At the very least he attempts to fix his teams’ problem areas, and that’s something that we can’t really say Hextall had done.

The Flyers could do a lot worse than Fletcher, just keep him away from former Sabres.