The realization that Paul Fenton was on shaky ground as the Wild’s general manager only one year into his tenure came during his end-of-the-season press conference at Xcel Energy Center.
Fenton handled the majority of questions from the media — you know, the people a GM has to deal with on a regular basis during the season — as if they were lobbing hand grenades in his direction. It’s one thing to seem uncomfortable and defensive about a few questions when your team has missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years, it’s another to come off that way after every question that’s asked.
Sitting beside Fenton that day in early April was Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. At one point, deep into the press conference, Fenton was asked about Boudreau’s job security. He confirmed that Boudreau would remain his coach. Boudreau took the opportunity to thank the reporter who asked the question because until that day he had not been informed he would be back.
Think about that for a second. That’s inexcusable.
Unfortunately, that press conference was Fenton in a nutshell. This was a guy who came close to making Fran Foley look polished. Fenton, the former assistant general manager in Nashville, lacked the ability to casually answer a question, he seemed to lack people skills and, ultimately, he clearly lacked a plan when it came to having a direction in which he wanted to take the Wild.
On Tuesday, all three of those things — not to mention perhaps the worst trade in Wild history (Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask) — contributed to cost him his job after only one season. Fenton’s lack of a real plan was probably the biggest reason that owner Craig Leipold pulled the plug on him and will begin the search for a new GM.
There were many who were shocked by the timing of the move, but there had been rumblings for months about Fenton’s job security and firing him now was a better idea than wasting another season allowing him to run roughshod over the organization. Assistant GM Tom Kurvers will serve as acting general manager until a replacement is found.
Leipold issued the following statement before a press conference was held Tuesday afternoon. “After giving much thought to this difficult decision, I informed Paul today that he was not the right fit for our organization going forward,” Leipold said. “I believe we have a good hockey team, a team that will compete for a playoff spot this year, and I look forward to hiring a General Manager that will help us win a Stanley Cup.”
With Fenton out of the picture, it’s Leipold on whom we now must focus. When Leipold fired Chuck Fletcher as GM after the Wild was ousted from the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season in 2018, the owner talked about the team needing only tweaks to remain a contender. This was nonsense and the hope was that Leipold was just paying lip service to a fan base he did not want to lose.
Unfortunately, it appears that Leipold did believe what he was saying and, as a result, Fenton was trying to serve two plans during his one season in charge. The first was his and included turning over the roster and getting younger by making trades that sent Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund packing and almost saw Jason Zucker dealt twice. Zucker ended up staying put in part because Fenton decreased his value so much.
The other agenda being served, however, was Leipold’s “still trying to win plan” that saw the Wild sign free agent left winger Mats Zuccarello (31 years old) to a five-year, $30 million contract that includes a no-movement clause and a modified, 10-team no-trade list for years four and five.
The Wild also had resigned 34-year-old center Eric Staal to a two-year, $6.5 million contract, despite the fact he was in the midst of a down year and should have been traded to a conteder. This goes along with the fact the Wild still has Zach Parise (35 years old) and Ryan Suter (34) entering the eighth season of 13-year, $98 million contract and center Mikko Koivu is entering the last season of a two-year, $11 million contract at the age of 36.
So what direction is this franchise headed? It’s going to be the next GM’s job to figure that out. It’s also probably in the best interest of these job candidates that they not to take the position unless they are certain Leipold is on board with their plan. That plan can’t be trying to win now and rebuild.
It’s one or the other and the this team isn’t built to win now. Fans in Minnesota are smart enough to know this and aren’t going to get back on board because of anything the owner says. Somebody has to tell Leipold this, no matter how difficult it might be. Parise and Suter aren’t going to like it either but that’s too bad.
The most important thing is that before Leipold worries about hiring a general manager, he has to stop and learn from the mistakes he made in giving the job to Fenton. He also needs to understand that trying to keep this team competitive for a wild card playoff spot is a mistake.
Whether Fenton learned his lesson no longer matters. All that’s important is that Leipold has learned or else the NHL team that calls that State of Hockey home will continue to be nothing more than in a state of chaos.