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Zulgad: Damage control: Wild pick Bill Guerin to clean up Paul Fenton’s mess

Bill Guerin was named the Wild’s general manager on Wednesday and he likely will be introduced on Thursday. Once that is out of the way, it shouldn’t take long for the former NHL right winger to realize just how much work he has in front of him.

From all accounts, Paul Fenton left the Wild organization in disarray.  Staff morale was so low that owner Craig Leipold realized he had no choice but to fire Fenton after only one season. Now, it’s up to the 48-year-old Guerin to clean up the mess Fenton created.

The interesting thing about the hire is that Leipold is again going with a guy who has no previous experience as a GM. Guerin played for eight teams during 18 NHL seasons and spent the past eight years working in the Pittsburgh Penguins front office, including the past five years as assistant general manager.

Fenton came to the Wild after having been an executive for the Nashville Predators since their inception in 1998. He had served as the Predators’ assistant general manager from 2006 until he left to take over in Minnesota.

It was Leipold’s complete whiff on Fenton that made many believe Leipold would hire someone with experience as an NHL general manager this time. The early assumption was that former Flyers GM Ron Hextall was the leading candidate.

The issue there was that Hextall was fired in Philadelphia in part for being too patient and, anyone who remembers Hextall during his playing career as a goalie, knows he’s far from the soft and warm type. Personally, the latter point should have played no role, but the usual thing when replacing a coach or top executive is to look to hire the opposite of what you just had.

Fenton’s lack of people skills meant the Wild was searching for a leader with a certain type of personality and Hextall might not have been that guy. As for Hextall’s patience, Leipold has made it clear since the day he fired Chuck Fletcher as his GM in the spring of 2018 that he feels the Wild aren’t in need of a rebuild and can win now.

This means Guerin is going to find himself in a difficult situation to start. His coach, Bruce Boudreau, is entering the final season of his contract; and his roster is a mixture of mostly old (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter, etc.) a few young (Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala) and one huge bust (Victor Rask). There is a ton of work to be done and decisions to be made.

One of those will be what to do with Parise, who in an interview in The Athletic this offseason made it clear the clock is ticking on his career (he’s 35 years old) and that he wants to win. Guerin might have to explain that that is a great goal to have and might not be possible. And given Parise’s contract, and no-trade clause, Parise might have to accept the fact that the next few years are going to be spent accepting he is stuck in Minnesota. At least from a hockey perspective.

The Wild play in the incredibly tough Central Division and, yet, likely aren’t bad enough to be awful and put themselves in the running for a top draft pick. But Leipold is wrong if he really believes Guerin is taking over a team that has a shot at going deep in the playoffs. Could the Wild make a run at a wild card spot? Sure. But Fletcher got the Wild to the playoffs for seven consecutive years and that got him fired because it wasn’t good enough.

Guerin’s best play would have been to inform his new boss of just how far away this franchise is as he presented his plan for the future. Guerin won two Stanley Cups as a player — one with New Jersey and one with Pittsburgh — and was part of two Stanley Cup winners with the Penguins as an executive. He knows what it takes to have success.

Hopefully, for Leipold’s sake, he has landed on the right guy this time. But if that’s the case, Guerin will need to be given the freedom to call the shots both in the front office and on the ice and that will mean Leipold might not like what he sees in the latter area in the short term.


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