No matter how much Craig Leipold might have wanted to believe his team only needed “tweaks” when he fired general manager Chuck Fletcher and replaced him with Paul Fenton last spring, the Wild owner had to know it was going to take far more than that.
A rational owner doesn’t replace his general manager because of something that can be done with a few adjustments here and there. Fletcher was fired because the Wild’s window had closed. Fletcher oversaw a franchise that made six consecutive postseason appearances but got past the first round only twice. Both times the Wild lost in the second round. The past three years the Wild had been bounced in the opening round, losing in five games to the Blues and Jets, respectively.
Fenton showed patience and didn’t immediately start to reconstruct the roster — probably because Leipold was hoping his team would overachieve — but that ended after embarrassing losses to the woeful Red Wings and Flyers. The Wild are somehow still very much in the playoff hunt, but the decision to trade Nino Niederreiter to Carolina on Thursday appears to be the start of Fenton putting his stamp on this team.
Here’s how we got to this point:
The dream is over
Leipold and Fletcher gave Minnesota sports fans what will go down as the most exciting day in free agency for any team in this town. On July 4, 2012, the Wild signed winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.
For one day, Minnesota sports fans got to know what it feels like to be a Yankees fan. The Wild was the big spender and the expectation was that before long a Stanley Cup parade would be in the works.
Seven years into those mega-contracts we now know that isn’t going to be the case. The Wild ended a four-year playoff drought in Parise and Suter’s first seasons in Minnesota and they have made the postseason every year since. The Wild’s playoff record in that time is 15-29.
Parise has battled through back problems and had surgery last season. He has rebounded with a strong year, but Suter broke his leg last season and doesn’t look like the same player. Parise is 34 years old, Suter is 33. In a salary-cap league, they are eating up a lot of Fenton’s payroll and that isn’t going to end anytime soon.
Both also have no-move clauses so they can’t be traded, and their contracts would make them unmovable regardless. Fenton is going to have to rebuild around them and perhaps they can become complementary pieces at some point. Nonetheless, the dream of those two riding in a motorcade in St. Paul with the Stanley Cup held over their heads appears to be dead.
Many Wild fans have been clamoring for Fenton to begin making trades. But when word that Niederreiter had been dealt started to spread, some were upset that the only return was center Viktor Rask.
“Why didn’t they get more for Niederreiter?” was the response by some.
Niederreiter was in the midst of an extremely disappointing season (9 goals, 23 points in 46 games) and so was Rask (1 goal, 5 assists in 26 games). Niederreiter had been demoted to the fourth line for the second time this season on Tuesday.
Folks, this is how it’s going to go. There are very few Wild players who are going to have big value on the market. It’s Fenton’s job to reshape this roster as he sees fit and that means moving pieces that Fletcher had acquired. In some cases, subtraction is going to be the key. Fenton also gained $1.25 million in salary-cap space in the Niederreiter for Rask exchange.
It long ago became obvious that the collection of players in the Wild locker room were only going to go so far. Resetting the chemistry is one of the most important things Fenton will do.
Is Boudreau safe?
Bruce Boudreau, in the third season of a four-year deal worth around $12 million, was brought to Minnesota to get more out of this roster than Mike Yeo and then-interim coach John Torchetti were able to during their time behind the Wild bench.
Boudreau has guided the Wild to back-to-back seasons in which they have more than 100 points — something Yeo only did only once in four-plus seasons — but the early playoff exits have continued. Boudreau, like Yeo, has tried to push as many buttons as possible.
He skated them hard after the brutal loss to Detroit last Saturday, but was restrained after another terrible loss to the Ducks on Thursday.
Boudreau, 64, isn’t Fenton’s hire so that might end up costing him his job. Especially with Dean Evason on the staff as an assistant. Evason had been coach of the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL. That was Nashville’s farm team and the club that Fenton previously ran as assistant GM of the Predators.
Boudreau doesn’t deserve to be fired and Fenton would be wise to keep him around. Of course, there is a chance that if Fenton is going into a rebuild Boudreau might want to look elsewhere.
The Western Conference has been so dreadful as a whole that it might be difficult for the Wild to miss the playoffs, but Fenton would be wise to keep his eye on the future.
Among the players Fenton is likely to shop: Forwards Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund and perhaps defensemen Jared Spurgeon or Jonas Brodin. Spurgeon has a modified no-trade clause that allows him to list 10 teams to which he will not accept a trade. This makes up the group that, along with Niederreiter, helped the Wild upset Colorado in seven games in the first round of the playoffs in 2014. It was Niederreiter who scored the winning goal in Game 7.
Center Eric Staal, 34, who is in the last season of his contract, is almost certain to be moved before the Feb. 25 trade deadline. Staal has a modified no-trade clause that enables him to submit a list of 10 teams to which he can’t be dealt. In addition to Parise and Suter, captain Mikko Koivu also has a no-move clause. The other player with a modified no-trade clause is goalie Devan Dubnyk, who can list 19 teams to which he can be traded.
If Fenton was testing his players with the Niederreiter trade on Thursday, they failed miserably. The Wild, playing an Anaheim team that had lost 12 in a row, went through the motions in falling behind the Ducks 3-0 in the opening 7 minutes, 58 seconds en route to a 3-0 loss.
Afterward, they had no answers. The obvious answer here: the time for tweaks is long gone.