Bob Naegele Jr. is Rollerblading off into the sunset — or, at least, into a lesser ownership position with the Minnesota Wild — at the perfect time in franchise history. Naegele’s role as driving force, head cheerleader and minder of Minnesota hockey tradition made the Wild one of the NHL’s model franchises.
But the Stanley Cup has never resided in the State of Hockey, and it was never going to happen on his watch.
Why? Because as much as the former Minnetonka High goalie loved his team, loved hockey and loved all the trappings of the Xcel Energy Center, his Pohladian resistance to signing star free agents probably doomed the Wild to a middle-of-the-pack existence.
Even State of Hockey will tire of middling finishes
Minnesota sports fans have shown repeatedly that the shiny-new, cool factor eventually wears off. When that happens, the team better start contending for championships or fans are done with them. Just ask the Timberwolves, or the old North Stars.
The Wild, well into their seventh NHL season (we don’t count the lockout year), are close to the point where making the playoffs and playing in a fabulous arena won’t be enough for their patient and devoted fan base. There were rumblings of this two years ago, which Naegele and general manager Doug Risebrough quelled by trading for Pavol Demitra, landing Mark Parrish as a free agent, and eventually signing Marian Gaborik to a contract extension.
But the Wild appear to be stagnating. They’ll probably make the playoffs again, and they’ll again need some luck to get out of the first round. So this is the right time for, maybe not a change, but a little push. Wild fans should welcome new owner Craig Leipold, who in Nashville demonstrated an aggressiveness the Wild badly need.
If you use the 1970s New York Islanders as the model for expansion franchise development, the Wild lag behind. The Islanders missed the playoffs their first two seasons, but made it in Year Three and the next 13. By Year Seven, they had drafted three future Hall of Famers (Mike Bossy, Brian Trottier and Denis Potvin) and developed gritty, reliable players who contributed to Stanley Cups the next four seasons.
Wild need more depth, more grit to rise
In six full seasons, the Wild have made the playoffs twice, advanced past the first round once and developed one dynamic but not yet Hall-worthy player in Gaborik. They have some good players, but could use more depth, more grit, an All-Star-caliber goalie and a top-of-the-line defenseman.
Players in their system may yet fill those roles. But if they don’t, management can’t sit back, keep singing the Wild fight song and pretend everything is peachy.
Leipold won’t. Though the Predators struggled financially, they signed Paul Kariya and Jason Arnott as free agents and traded for Peter Forsberg. Only Detroit and Buffalo bettered the Preds’ 110 points last year, in a market that can’t hold a hockey stick to Minnesota. That aggressiveness is exactly what the Wild needs.
Here’s hoping that Naegele remains a minority investor as long as it takes the Wild to win a Stanley Cup. Naegele deserves to drink from the Cup, or even sleep with it if he wants. He should get oodles of credit for restoring the NHL to Minnesota, for preaching to the puckhead choir and getting it to sing along.
Naegele took the Wild as far as he could. The rest of the journey belongs to someone else, as it should.