ST. PAUL — Paul Fenton is in the right line of work but the wrong sport.
Listening to the Wild general manager at the team’s postseason press conference on Tuesday, one had to think that Fran Foley would have been proud. Foley, who had a short-lived tenure as the Vikings’ vice president of player personnel in 2006, came across as a guy who would have preferred getting a root canal over speaking with the media and revealing any precious details about his team.
Fenton might not be as cantankerous as Foley, but he’s not far off. He would fit perfectly in the NFL. Unfortunately for Fenton, he works in the NHL and while he might not want to tell the public what time of day it is in the name of keeping state secrets, there are some who draw paychecks from his team who aren’t so shy about providing a blunt assessment of where things stand.
That is the type of assessment that was needed after the Wild failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in six years and finished in last place in the Central Division with 83 points. The Wild’s biggest issue was scoring goals. They finished with 210, putting them ahead of only Dallas (209), Arizona (209), Los Angeles (199) and Anaheim (196). The Stars were the only team among this group to make the playoffs.
When Fenton was hired to replace Chuck Fletcher as the Wild’s general manager last spring, owner Craig Leipold talked about tweaks being needed to get Minnesota into a place where it could advance past the first round of the playoffs. Fletcher’s dismissal came after three consecutive first-round exits. But anyone who watched the team could see the flaws and knew that simply getting back to the playoffs in 2018-19 could be an issue.
Now that the Wild have failed to do that, honesty is probably the best policy and that’s what winger Zach Parise provided on Tuesday.
“It’s concerning. I guess looking at it selfishly, you only have so many opportunities,” said Parise, who said he played despite suffering a broken right foot on Feb. 26 in Winnipeg and then ended the season with a knee injury. “I guess at my age, where I’m at in the career, you don’t want to be going through a rebuild right now. So we’ll see what happens in the offseason and the direction.
“As far as whether it’s going to be labeled a rebuild, I don’t really know how things are going to shape out. That being said, it goes by pretty quickly and all of a sudden you play for awhile, and I’ve only had one real chance to win it (that coming when he was in New Jersey). That’s how quick things go by and that’s how hard it is, so you hope that it’s not going to be something where it’s a few years of taking it on the chin and missing playoffs. You hope that we can rebound right away and be a competitive team to get back in the playoffs.”
It’s not a given that will happen.
The clock is ticking on the careers of Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who signed matching 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Wild on July 4, 2012, banking on the fact that they would be part of multiple Stanley Cup runs. But Parise, coming off a 28-goal season, will turn 35 in July and has played 13 seasons. Suter, 34, also has played 13 years and both are seven years into their time in Minnesota.
It’s mainly the presence of these two — and a guy like captain Mikko Koivu — who makes the Wild brass so hesitant about admitting that a significant restructure of personnel (how’s that for a way to describe a rebuild?) is necessary. But as much as Fenton might not want to stay it — and as much as now assured of returning coach Bruce Boudreau might not want to think about it — everyone saw what Fenton did to try to get younger and create salary-cap room this season.
This included trading Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for Victor Rask, shipping Charlie Coyle to Boston for Ryan Donato and sending Mikael Granlund to Nashville for Kevin Fiala. The Wild will enter this offseason with eight picks in the draft — a change from the years when Fletcher traded away a portion of his picks in the name of immediate improvement — including the 12th overall selection. The Wild also should be comfortably under the salary cap for the first time in a long time this summer, meaning Fenton will be able to pursue free agents.
Fenton had little interest in discussing any of his plans on Tuesday, pointing out that meetings hadn’t been held yet. Of course, if they had he still wouldn’t have provided any information or hints about which direction he might elect to go. Fenton did acknowledge that finding goal scoring would be nice, but that wasn’t exactly offering a revealing tidbit to the ticket-buying public which has continued to fill your arena for reasons that don’t completely make sense.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Parise said “You can’t sugarcoat it right now. You look at how many times we got shut out in the year (10), the lack of scoring that we had at the end of the season. To just think a (switch) is going to (flip) and we’re going to come back and start putting four or five in a game, I don’t know how realistic that is. We have some work. As individuals, we need a lot of improvement. And as a group, there’s just a lot of work to be done.”
There also are more changes coming. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Fenton deal winger Jason Zucker, whom he reportedly came close to trading to Calgary at the deadline. The only reason that deal didn’t get done was because the paperwork wasn’t submitted in time.
“It’s hard to sit here and say nothing needs to change when you miss the playoffs and, like I said, when you’re what, almost 30th in the league in scoring,” Parise said. “I’d sound like an idiot standing up here saying that nothing needs to change. I’m sure everyone’s got their opinions on what that is and what direction that needs to go, but yeah, we can’t continue, you can’t continue the way things ended this year.”
Everyone agrees on that. What we don’t know is if Fenton will attempt to make changes designed for success in 2019-20, the return of defenseman Matt Dumba from injury should provide a boost, or if Fenton will continue to look toward the future while not overthinking the present. He will be entering only his second season as general manager, so he definitely has time.
“I can tell you that I know that we need scoring,” Fenton said. “We’re trying to address that. This team is going to have an awful lot of cap space, which is great. It gives me the flexibility to now look at things. But I’m not just going to spend to spend. I want to make the right decisions here.
“As a lot of you know, this team was the oldest team in the National Hockey League when we started at the beginning of the season, and significantly — or non-significantly — we’re 25th now. I’m trying to get us younger, faster, more skilled … and that’s what I’m going to continue to do because I feel like that’s where the league is going. That’s where the success is going to happen when we go forward here.”
If this answer leaves you with numerous questions, you’re not alone. There are probably plenty of Wild fans, not to mention employees, who feel the same way.