The Wild went out of their way Thursday to make sure everyone knew their decision to hire Mike Modano as an executive advisor was done mainly so he could assist on the business side. Owner Craig Leipold did say, “we also anticipate as (general manager) Paul Fenton has any issues or questions, Mike will be available for that as well.”
All of this is likely true in the short term, but one gets the feeling that the NHL Hall of Famer, who began his career with the Minnesota North Stars, might have a long-term future with the Wild that goes well beyond trying to keep sponsors and season-ticket holders happy.
This appears like a prime opportunity for Modano to get his feet wet in his second turn as an NHL executive — he served as an executive advisor and alternate governor for the Dallas Stars from 2013-15 — and move into a role overseeing the Wild’s hockey operations department. It could be very similar to what Toronto has with former NHL star Brendan Shanahan, who has served as the Maple Leafs’ president and alternate governor since 2014.
Modano, the top pick in the 1988 draft by the North Stars, retired in 2011 as the highest-scoring American born player in NHL history. He spent his first four seasons in Minnesota before Norm Green moved the franchise to Dallas, and was the most popular player on the roster when the team departed. Modano became a superstar in Dallas.
So why would Leipold consider such a move? It’s pretty simple. The Wild owner has to have some questions about the direction in which Paul Fenton is taking the franchise. Yes, it has only been one season, and Fenton inherited a difficult situation, but the Wild just missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. It’s very possible the Wild will miss the postseason again in 2019-20 — and that’s not going to sit well with the impatient owner.
Fenton’s moves during his first season also had mixed results. The deal that sent Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for the slow-footed Victor Rask might end up being the worst deal in franchise history and that’s saying something. Fenton also convinced himself that winger Pontus Aberg (acquired from Anaheim) and defenseman Anthony Bitetto (acquired from Nashville) could make valuable contributions. Each turned out to be a liability, but still found themselves getting playing time. We’re assuming that wasn’t coach Bruce Boudreau’s choice.
There were other Fenton deals that might turn out to be fine. Trading Charlie Coyle to Boston for Ryan Donato gave the Wild a winger who actually wants to shoot the puck and dealing Mikael Granlund to Nashville for Kevin Fiala brought back a winger who Fenton is convinced can become a big-time goal scorer. The Granlund trade, however, was questioned by many who think it was a poor deal and didn’t get nearly enough back.
Fenton appears determined to trade winger Jason Zucker, who scored 33 goals two years ago, and was nearly moved him to Calgary at the trade deadline. There have been reports in recent days of Zucker being dealt to the Penguins for Phil Kessel but it appears the former Gopher nixed that deal. Still, Zucker is going to be traded at some point, if Fenton gets his wish.
It’s apparent that Fenton thinks he can make trades to get the Wild back into the playoff picture but this franchise has been at that point before. The reason why Chuck Fletcher was fired after the 2017-18 season is because Leipold wanted to build a team that could make a deep playoff run.
Is Fenton going to be able to do that?
There likely would be more patience if Fenton had some public relations savvy, but he appears to have none. His end-of-the-season press conference felt overly contentious and his disinterest in dealing with the media (or providing any information) is apparent. Fenton appears to be doing his best impression of former Vikings executive Fran Foley, whose tenure was cut short, and this has to concern Leipold and other members of the Wild brass.
Having the 48-year-old Modano become the face of the Wild’s hockey operations department — even if Fenton remains GM well into the future — would help take Fenton out of the spotlight. Modano has a savvy hockey mind and could quickly move up through the ranks at Xcel Energy Center.
When Modano arrived in Minnesota the first time, the hope was he would stick around for a longtime and lead his franchise to great success. That didn’t happen. This time it could be an entirely different story.