Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Game: The Raging Impotence Of A Jilted Sports Fan

By Nick

I don't have a good reason why I think Chuck Fletcher should be invited to not continue as the General Manager of the Minnesota Wild.  But yet I do.

I've been in several good debates about this on Twitter since the Wild's season abruptly ended.  The team has a good core.  That's on Chuck.  The team got arguably the biggest steal in UFA last summer in Eric Staal.  That's on Chuck.  The team made a big deadline day deal to address a perceived hole.  That's on Chuck.

The team has solid younger players.  That's on Chuck.  The team has a very good coach.  That's on Chuck.  The team has an above-average starting goalie.  That's on Chuck.

The team has some intriguing prospects.  That's on Chuck.  The team just completed a record-setting regular season and has made the playoffs for five-straight seasons - all during Chuck's reign.  You read all that, and why the hell are we even having this discussion?

Well, the team's core is aging, and has not produced despite chances to do so, when it counts.  It's also largely unmovable for one reason or another.  That's on Chuck.  That UFA splash didn't produce in the playoffs, and looked tired.  Those deadline day rentals were a mixed bag.  I'm not as down on Hanzal as some others, but White was not additive, and it's possible - though not provable - that the trade itself disrupted the room.  (This is a minor gripe.  I distinctly remember how lame it felt when Riser did nothing (a.k.a. Chris Simon) on deadline day.)

The team has solid younger players who, while showing some regular season promise, were hit or miss in the playoffs.  Additionally, several of them are signed to relatively expensive contracts that would indicate a low value relative to overall performance.  That's on Chuck.  The team's coach is the team's coach because Chuck scape-goated his three prior hires.  The team has an above-average goalie who they have needed to drive into the ground the past few seasons because the alternatives were unsavory.  That's on Chuck (I'm not talking about the Kuemper contract deal so much as not addressing the issue sooner, and now we've wasted two more opportunities in part because Duby wasn't at his best which may have been at least partly because he was tired).

The team has some intriguing prospects, but none of whom were in a position to help this season, and Chuck decided to reverse his own decision and burn a year of Eriksson-Ek's deal in desperation as the ugly March wore on.  The kids are also weighted to the forward side, and less to the defensive side.  That's on Chuck.  The team just completed a record-setting regular season that would have been even more record-setting if their collective character flaw, that doesn't allow them to pull out of ugly slides sooner, hadn't reared its head again.  That's on Chuck, since it has been a trend and he hasn't rooted out the problem and addressed it.  The team has made the playoffs for five-straight seasons, but only advanced out of the first round twice, and never farther than the second round.  How much of that is on Chuck?  That's where Wild fans choose up sides.

Before we choose up sides in this post, let me stop and say: my internal accounting of all of the preceding sums to at worst a push, as far as Chuck goes.  Yes, the roster is inflexible.  But isn't roster/salary cap inflexibility a reasonable price to pay for that litany of merits in a team?  The team is certainly better now than it was when Chuck took over.  He has traded away a lot of assets, yes.  But it was always for some gain, and usually a defensible one at the time.  Some haven't worked out.  But, if he hadn't made those trades, I think I'd feel worse.  Sins of commission versus omission, and all that.

So then, why?

  • 2012-2013 lost in round 1
  • 2013-2014 lost in round 2
  • 2014-2015 lost in round 2
  • 2015-2016 lost in round 1
  • 2016-2017 lost in round 1

In the first place, making the playoffs for five straight years is not as remarkable as it sounds, given 54% of teams in the league, and 57% of teams in the Western Conference, make it every season.  It's a low bar, in other words.  Making the playoffs should constitute a base-level given for every team, every season.

But it's also the final outcome.  Compare our record the last five seasons to the Blues, for example.

  • 2012-2013 lost in round 1
  • 2013-2014 lost in round 1
  • 2014-2015 lost in round 1
  • 2015-2016 lost in 3rd round
  • 2016-2017 TBD, but no worse than losing in round 2

The Wild isn't improving.  And, you could argue based on final outcomes that it's moving the wrong way.  The problem with that argument is that it is difficult to quantify, and therefore difficult to address.  Those first three coaching hires speak to attempts - and failures - to address it via the bench boss.  I'm not prepared to get down on Boudreau at this point, but it's safe to say the issue isn't coaching.  Which means it's the players.  Maybe not individually.  There are better-defined roles for players now than maybe ever before.  At least in relation to the individual player's strengths and optimal usage.  So, is it that the collective organism of this group - with minimal significant changes over the past five seasons - is either missing some element in the elusive chemistry department, or has some characteristic that is self-inhibiting?  We'll never know that.

Those who cannot tolerate dwelling in areas where we can't know things look to the empirical analytical and take comfort and shelter from the output there.  It's great that the Wild is so good at Corsi.  And it might represent bad luck when you out-Corsi opponents without payoff for a while.  But all of March and most of April starts to stretch credibility as a run of bad luck and reaches the point of being that acceptable sample size that the stats-heads are so concerned about (when the stats don't show what they want them to) as to indicate that, maybe these guys just can't finish when it counts.

I was therefore disappointed to hear Chuck talk about being a good Corsi team in March, in his end-of-season presser.  The last time I checked you don't get to hang a banner for being the best Corsi team.

Ultimately this comes down to expectations.  Conveniently, Chuck also espouses the idea that there is no such thing as a window in which teams can compete.  Competitive cycles, if you will.  That is the narrative of the perpetually mediocre - again 57% of teams make the playoffs from the West.  It basically amounts to "We'll get 'em next year!"

If this was year one or two of the above run, that might work.  Heck, he probably said that in 2013 and 2014 after they lost in the first round.  But it's been five years now, and they're regressing.  Also, and I realize this isn't Chuck's baggage to carry, I'm 42.  Minnesota has had 3 or 4 major men's professional sports teams my entire life.  I've seen two championships - from the same team.

I have no tolerance for "We'll get 'em next year!" anymore from any of my teams' GMs, players, or owners.  I refuse to accept mediocrity anymore.  I realize I don't have any impact on the outcome.  But that doesn't mean I have to like it.  Every single person associated with professional sports says it's about the ring.  The banner.  The championship.  Every single person.  Why should we hold them to a lower standard?  Obviously life goes on if they lose - and they're more likely to lose than not.  But you can still harbor high expectations and be a good fan.  I expect championships.  I'm prepared to be disappointed.  But that's where I choose to set my expectations.  Regular season Corsi success is an absolute joke, and it was embarrassing to hear Chuck talk about it as though we should all take solace from it.  And, if that made you feel better about this season, then I say shame on you.  You're selling yourself short.

I don't believe that I'm owed a Cup.  Or a Lombardi.  Or the upside down popcorn bucket that they get when they win the NBA championship.  Or...whatever the hell the MLB trophy is.  But, by the same token, every year that goes by where the only banner in the X is the retired #1 for the fans, that banner takes on more of a mocking, jeering quality - especially when the building sits empty as April turns into May.

So, back to the top.  Chuck has had ample opportunities to build a team that takes the next step.  He has failed.  It's a performance results-oriented business.  His performance, when it counts, has been unacceptable.  It's like saying, I love everything about my car, but the brakes don't work.  Or, we built you your dream house, but the roof collapsed in on you your first night in it.  This is about winning championships.  The moment it becomes about something other than winning championships, I'm out of here.  Chuck has demonstrated he can't find the right combination of elements to keep the team moving forward toward that championship.  Worse, he has shown a propensity to get tracked into one strategy at the risk of falling victim to another set of circumstances - as building to beat Chicago only to not play them, and losing to St. Louis anyway would indicate.  Thank you, Chuck, for what you've done to bring us to this point.  Now, like the players on your team, it's time to find someone who can finish when it counts.