What’s next for the Minnesota Wild?
NHL fans and pundits were surprised by the Wild’s decision to fire general manager Paul Fenton, who had only been GM for one season, last week. During his press conference announcing the move, team owner Craig Leipold cited a number of growing issues, including questionable trades, the club’s direction and turmoil within the front office, for axing Fenton.
Many observers, however, wondered why Leipold waited until the middle of the offseason to address the issue. Despite the growing problems, Fenton remained as Minnesota’s GM for the 2019 NHL Draft and the opening weeks of the free-agent period. The Athletic’s Michael Russo provided an in-depth, behind-the-scenes account of what led to Fenton’s demise after just 14 months on the job.
MORE: Wild oust GM Paul Fenton following disappointing 2018-19 campaign
Meanwhile, the Wild is wasting no time searching for his full-time replacement. Within days, the team has already interviewed Ron Hextall and Peter Chiarelli. Hextall spent over four seasons as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers while Chiarelli managed the Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers.
Hextall did a fine job drafting and developing talent for the Flyers, but his unwillingness to make significant additions via trades proved his downfall. Chiarelli won a Stanley Cup with the Bruins, but his once-sterling reputation was tarnished by his mismanagement of the Oilers.
At this point, Hextall and Chiarelli aren’t considered front-runners for the job as Minnesota continues to look at other options. The Wild has reportedly received permission to speak with Montreal Canadiens assistant GM Scott Mellanby and Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin.
According to Russo, Minnesota also had an in-person interview with Carolina Hurricanes GM Don Waddell, who’s currently without a contract. Waddell, however, could be using Minnesota as a means to pressure Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon into re-signing him.
While the Wild did qualify for the playoffs from 2013 to 2018, they garnered a reputation for regular-season inconsistency and postseason underachievement. Fenton was supposed to improve things but Minnesota was left in worse shape than when he took over.
By the middle of last year, Fenton moved out core players Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund in favor of Victor Rask, Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala. Those moves ultimately never paid off as the Wild failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Time will tell, though, if those acquisitions will end up having an impact down the road. Donato, 23, showed some scoring potential following his acquisition from Boston with 12 points in 18 games. Fiala, also 23, had a 23-goal, 48-point performance with Nashville in 2017-18, but only seven points in 19 games with Minnesota. Rask, 26, has two 40-plus point campaigns on his resume, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him over the last two seasons.
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Fenton also tried and failed twice to trade winger Jason Zucker; a deal with the Calgary Flames at last season’s trade deadline fell through, and another trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins involving Phil Kessel was spiked by the latter refusing to waive his no-trade clause. Kessel was later shipped to the Arizona Coyotes.
Clearing up Zucker’s future with the Wild will be a priority, as will assuring veteran winger Zach Parise that the club will regain its footing. He recently expressed concern over the Wild’s direction while Fenton was said to have inquired about trading the 35-year-old forward earlier this summer.
Fenton’s replacement will also be tasked with negotiating a new contract with defenseman Jared Spurgeon. The 29-year-old is slated to become an unrestricted free agent next July. Russo reported that Spurgeon expressed a willingness to re-sign with the Wild. How much, and for how long, are potential sticking points.
Overall, Minnesota still carries an aging core of talent. Parise, captain Mikko Koivu, defenseman Ryan Suter and center Eric Staal are in their mid-thirties, and goaltender Devan Dubnyk is 33. Free-agent acquisition Mats Zuccarello turns 32 in September entering the first year of his five-year contract.
Spurgeon, Zucker, and blueliners Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin are in their mid-to-late twenties and are in their primes. Dumba, 25, has the most upside of the four. He enjoyed a 50-point breakthrough performance in 2017-18 and tallied 22 points in 32 games before suffering a season-ending upper-body injury in 2018-19.
Russo also reported tension between Fenton and head coach Bruce Boudreau stretching back to last spring’s replacement of assistant coach John Anderson with Dean Evason. Fenton also apparently wanted to fire Boudreau at several points, but Leipold refused to let him walk.
The Wild bench boss is entering the final season of his contract. It’ll be interesting to see where he fits into the new general manager’s plans and how much sway Leipold will have in that decision.
Fenton’s replacement could be installed before training camp opens next month. Whoever gets the job must bring back stability and direction to the front office, as well as address those ongoing roster issues.
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