Monday, February 15, 2010

On Johnsson/Leddy/Barker.....

On Friday, the Wild addressed a few needs in their trade for defenseman Cam Barker from the Chicago Blackhawks. Barker is 23 years-old and is a quick, puck-moving defenseman the Wild covet as they continue their evolution under GM Chuck Fletcher and head coach Todd Richards into a more vertical, speed-conscious team. Yes, Barker will be expensive ($6.25M over the next two seasons, which is why he was sent out of Chicago), but he is a young and experienced defenseman who should thrive in Richards's system.

The Wild sent away defenseman Kim Johnsson and the rights to Gopher defenseman Nick Leddy. Johnsson is similar in many ways to Barker, but he is expensive ($5.3M this year on the final year of his four-year contract) and 10 years older. Getting him out of the picture also frees the Wild to make efforts to sign defense Marek Zidlicky. Leddy was the Wild's first round draft pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, and trading his is a bit of a surprise, but not totally unexpected, given the Wild's organizational depth of young defenseman and the fact that the Hawks were certain to ask for another talented player when they sent Barker packing. It was a good move for the Wild - hockey-wise and cap-wise.

The trade is the easy part; the aftermath of the trade deserves further exploration.

Before I start the rest of my post, I need to make some disclosures. First off, I cannot stand the Wild - haven't from day one - even if the team is far more watchable under Fletcher and Richards than they ever were under former GM Doug Risebrough and ex-coach Jacques Lemaire. I rarely miss an opportunity to take a shot at a franchise which has enjoyed a puzzling tenure of good graces from a public which turns on its other franchises - pro or college - on a whim. Despite years of mediocrity, the Wild has received a pass from the public, and it bothers me. Secondly, I am a fan of the New York Islanders, for reasons which are far too complicated to explain here. This will become relevant later in the post.

In the aftermath of the Friday trade, the StarTribune's Roman Augustoviz posted items in his blog quoting Wild Assistant GM Tom Thompson as taking a few swipes at the Gopher program under coach Don Lucia. Here is what Augustoviz said about his conversation with Thompson:

Wild assistant general manager Tom Thompson was in St. Cloud for the Gophers' 4-3 loss to St. Cloud State on Jan. 22. He said he was disappointed the way coach Lucia's team played. Without passion, he said.

Thompson was asked about his impressions about Leddy. He said the freshman from Eden Prairie was one of the best Gophers, if not the best that night. Thompson said he did not trade Leddy out of concern for his development at Minnesota.
In Michael Russo and Brian Stensaas's article in Saturday's StarTribune, here is a comment attributed to Thompson:
"It's just the general situation there," Thompson said of the struggling Gophers. "They've had a poor year with their team, and the whole team. Every guy on that team just looks, there doesn't look like there's a passion to them.

"It's nothing particular against Nick. He was one of their best guys, maybe their best guy the night I saw him in St. Cloud. But it seems collectively, it was a disappointment to watch them."
Since we're in the business of ripping the Gopher program, here's a bit about Thompson:
  • Wild Assistant GM since 2002
  • Head scout since team's inception
  • Oversees all operations of amateur scouting
Clearly, Thompson has some credibility when it comes to scouting. However, his analysis of the Gophers' plan on the game he witnessed is sheer fantasy. I attended the January 22 game in St. Cloud and can concur that Leddy was one of the team's better players that night. To say the Gophers played with no emotion suggests Thompson was watching another game. Minnesota dominated play for most of the game and lost a one-goal game after a spirited comeback. They fired 42 shots on the St. Cloud net, but ultimately could not overcome a 3-0 hole they dug themselves in the opening stanza, mostly because St. Cloud cashed in 100% of Minnesota's miscues that game. Effort was clearly not a problem that night. Effort has been an issue at times during this very disappointing season, but it wasn't on January 22.

By Thompson specifically stating that the Wild did not trade Leddy because of his lack of development, to me, seems like code for saying that they did. This is not the first time criticism of Lucia and player development has been lobbed his way. New York Islanders' GM Garth Snow uttered those same concerns when the team pulled Kyle Okposo out of the Gopher program mid-season in December 2007. At the time, Snow was in his second season as Isles' GM, after taking over for the fired Neil Smith in the summer of 2006. Smith oversaw the draft which saw the Islanders take Okposo, but was fired less than a month later and replaced by Snow. The Islanders took incoming Gopher freshman defenseman Aaron Ness in the 2008 Draft, and seems fine with Ness's development at the 'U.'

And, it's not as if Leddy isn't developing as scheduled. On many nights, he is the team's best all-around defenseman as a true freshman. He skates in the top pairing and gets a ton of ice time. He missed seven games after breaking his jaw in late October, but has adjusted to the college game quite well. In 19 games, Leddy has recorded 1-4-5.

Back to Thompson, it's not like he has the track record of a Lou Lamoriello when it comes to drafting players. Let's examine his first round draftees since 2004:
  • 2004 - A.J. Thelen (complete bust)
  • 2005 - Benoit Pouliot (bust; traded to Montreal)
  • 2006 - James Sheppard (bust)
  • 2007 - Colton Gillies (headed toward bust status; currently in Houston)
  • 2008 - Tyler Cuma (injured last season; developing)
  • 2009 - Leddy (traded)
So, it's not like Thompson has much of a track record to complain about the "passion" of the local team and then make suggestions that the team was concerned about Leddy's development. The question is, why trade him if you were concerned? Why not just pluck him out of the program like the Islanders did with Okposo? Sure there may have been a numbers game in the organization with young, puck-moving defensemen, but why Leddy? It's never a bad thing to have too many good defensemen in the organization as one never knows how they will develop. It's likely Chicago coveted Leddy and the Wild had to acquiesce. If that's the case, then fine. However, Thompson needn't make comments about the Gophers' lack of passion when he has plenty of issues of which to worry with his own club.

I did not intend this post to be a defense of Don Lucia's handling of the Gopher program. There will be plenty of time for criticism as the season progresses and the Gophers are seemingly locked for a second-division WCHA finish despite a roster full of top NHL draftees. As soon as the post-mortem is written on this season, there will be plenty of criticism of Lucia in this blog, and there certainly was some this week. However, Tom Thompson and the Wild are in no position to criticize the effort of the Gopher program. Thompson's childish comments are representative of the old guard of a historically-sophomoric organization crying sour grapes.

1 comment:

  1. Thompson is a joke. Trying to deflect blame for his incompetence. I was hoping when Fletcher came here the first thing he would do is get rid of Thompson. He has done nothing for the Wild. This might turn out to be a good trade but the cupboard is bare in the minors thanks to Thompson.

    He shut shut up and concentrate on his own problems not the Gophers.