One aspect of leadership that is essential is confidence. Whether you’re managing a business, a quarterback in the huddle or the coach on the sideline you not only need to exude confidence but you have to earn the confidence from your employees, players and stakeholders. People have to believe your capable and competent to earn that confidence and you gain their trust through your actions. I wonder how many players, management and fans have much confidence in Minnesota Wild General Manager Paul Fenton.
As the tweet above indicates, at least from Wild fans, the feelings are pretty mixed. So why have so many fans seen their confidence eroded after a year with Fenton at the helm?
It kind of got started with his first major event as General Manager at the NHL Entry draft. The Minnesota Wild had the 24th Overall pick of the NHL draft and went way off the board to select small-ish, puck moving defenseman Filip Johansson. It was a pick that surprised nearly everyone at the draft and it was reported by Darren Pang (albeit somewhat indirectly) that teams had Johansson thought he may have been picked in the 7th round instead of the 1st. Johansson himself did not help his cause by scoring a paltry goal and 3 assists in 42 games playing on a team in Sweden’s 2nd best circuit, the Allsvenskan. He didn’t come close to earning an invite to Sweden’s national team for the U-20 World Junior Championships. The Athletic‘s Michael Russo to the national team’s GM Johan Garpenlov about whether Johansson has a shot to make the NHL. Garpenlov didn’t have a clue who Filip Johansson even was. Ouch.
And while it was acknowledged that Fenton let the incumbent Minnesota Wild scouts make the selection, it still reflects poorly on the new GM. Why? Fenton’s biggest selling point prior to his arrival in Minnesota was being Nashville’s draft and development guru that helped the Predators stay well below the salary ceiling but with enough talent in their pipeline to fill in if needed. One would think that since he probably prepped for the draft with the Predators prior to arriving in Minnesota he’d be able to give some input at the draft table instead of giving a rather questionable scouting staff one more kick at the can. Like it or not, Fenton still had to give his tacit approval to make such an off the board selection and early returns make it appear like it was a foolish pick. The GM has since put his son P.J. Fenton in charge of the scouting department and big things are expected this late June as the Wild currently have the 12th Overall pick, a 2nd round pick, a 3rd round pick, a 4th round pick, a 5th round pick and two 6th round picks each and a 7th round selection.
For many Wild fans, including myself that was effectively our ‘first impression’ of Fenton as the new GM and it left a lot to be desired. Next, he followed it up with free agency that most people knew was probably going to be underwhelming after the team had to re-sign Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker to contract extensions. The result was the mundane additions of 3rd pairing defenseman Greg Pateryn and 4th line forwards Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks, and J.T. Brown. He also added Andrew Hammond to try to push Alex Stalock for the backup goaltending role. The team didn’t haven much cap space left so there really was little to do so few really expected much more.
Fehr had some good moments. Pateryn started out ok, but when injuries demanded he play a bigger role he struggled mightily. It was reported Fenton was shopping Pateryn a lot prior to the deadline but had no takers. Hendricks was mostly a scratch and eventually asked to be dealt and was shipped out at the deadline to Winnipeg for a 7th round pick in 2020. Brown was also a healthy scratch a fair amount of the season and was even demoted to Iowa for a while. Then came back and was ok but ended the year with a public intoxication charge before the team’s last game in Dallas. It is unclear whether his arrest constitutes a breach of contract, but his future appears a bit murky for next season. Hammond never really pushed Stalock too much for the backup job, so he was sent to Iowa to work along side rookie Kaapo Kahkonen. ‘The Hamburglar’ has taken the starting role for the ‘baby Wild’ and been pretty solid as the team qualified for the AHL playoffs for the first time in its 6 seasons in Des Moines. Collectively the acquisitions were underwhelming but not much was really expected anyways.
Yet the area that seemed to draw the largest area of angst for Fenton’s 1st term as General Manager was in realm of trades. Surprisingly it started out with a trade that seems to be on its way of working out fairly well so far. The trade of the fragile defenseman Gustav Olofsson to Montreal for Will Bitten has worked out ok if you look at it as a minor league exchange. Olofsson has been nothing special for Laval, while Bitten has turned into a pretty tenacious forechecking presence for Iowa. But most fans would agree the GM is not going to get a ton of kudos for the deals he makes to help the minor league affiliate as he is for what he did for the big club.
In this area it started out with the trade of Justin Kloos, Iowa’s 2nd leading scorer to Anaheim for Pontus Aberg. Kloos mostly played with San Diego, the Ducks AHL affiliate while Aberg demonstrated to everyone why he was such a regular healthy scratch in his last 12 games for Anaheim. Consistently lazy shifts, very little desire to help out defensively and a poor work ethic off the ice meant the Wild didn’t get much help from the right-shot winger. Aberg is set to be an restricted free agent and most Wild fans hope the team just lets him wander off to the KHL or anywhere else. Kloos was certainly playing very well in Iowa, but it seemed like the organization wasn’t really going to give him much of a shot to play in St. Paul so it was a fairly low risk move by Fenton.
Fenton’s next move was to draw a lot more ire as he shipped out Nino Niederreiter to the Carolina Hurricanes for Victor Rask. It was your classic ‘change of scenery’ trade where teams swap out their problem kids and hope the new guy catches fire. For Carolina, it was a season-changing move as Niederreiter, who was now playing top line minutes rewarded his new club with 14 goals, 30 points in 36 games that helped the Hurricanes make the playoffs. Meanwhile, Rask would get hurt a few games after the trade and managed a measly 2 goals and 3 points in 23 games and the team seemed to have a heckuva time trying to find linemates who would be able to create any kind of chemistry with the somewhat slow and weak center. Any players that had to play on Rask’s line were seen as players put into the doghouse as it was unlikely the line was going to be very effective. Wild fans who were particularly angry at the move would troll the team by posting videos of Nino’s goals and great offensive plays. There is no way around it, at least with the roughly half of a season to evaluate this deal, the Wild got fleeced.
As time went on, the fleecing seemed to call into question the due diligence of Paul Fenton. Especially as Russo pointed out that he had heard from sources that the Hurricanes were planning buying out Rask this off season so I’m sure they were thrilled to have Wild take him off their hands despite the fact Niederreiter made $1.25 million more than the Swedish center. If a player was indeed thought of so poorly by Hurricanes management doesn’t that suggest the Wild didn’t do their homework when they made the deal? The Wild saved a little money, but that is literally all they’ve gained out of that trade.
Then the Wild dealt Charlie Coyle to Boston for Ryan Donato and a 4th round pick in this year’s draft. Coyle had often teased the Wild with becoming a dominant right-shot power forward but was having another ‘disappointing’ season offensively when the team decided to trade him to his hometown team of Boston for prospect winger Donato. Donato and his willingness to Coyle was a welcome addition for the Wild and with a few clutch goals in his first few games he quickly garnered a lot of support from fans who had grown tired of waiting for ‘nice guy’ Charlie to finally breakout offensively. Coyle managed just 2 goals and 6 points in 21 games with the Bruins while Donato had 4 goals, 16 points in 22 games with the Wild.
Most of Donato’s points came within the first 10 or so games after being traded. After that, while he continued to shoot the puck when he had the chance he also demonstrated some holes in his game as a slow first few steps and limited defensive ability. Still, his shot is very good and seems to give goaltenders trouble and it appears to have been a decent trade by the Wild. Donato is an restricted free agent coming off his entry-level deal but he should be a fairly affordable signing.
However, the move that needs more scrutiny both short-term and long-term is trade of Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Kevin Fiala. Granlund was the Wild’s 2nd leading scorer at the time of the deal and while he didn’t catch fire the way Neiderreiter did in Nashville he still was one of the team’s most valuable and move-able assets. He was in line for a big pay day in the season after this one and many felt he’d be asking for at least $7 million per season if not more. Fenton was full of glowing praise about the 22-year old Fiala whom he termed a ‘gamebreaker’ as he talked up his speed and skill. Other than a striking performance against Nashville, the ‘gamebreaker’ title seemed to mean more about Fiala’s penchant for reckless turnovers in his own zone than goals the other way. Fiala did have more points after the trade (3 goals, 7 points in 19 games) than Granlund (1 goal, 4 points in 16 games) but it hardly made it feel like it was a big win of a trade for Fenton.
Fiala is younger and coming off the last year of his entry level contract making him another candidate for a ‘prove it’ deal this summer. But out of Fiala’s control is the massive expectations Fenton foisted on the young Swiss winger by his GM’s comments after the trade. Fenton tried to step back from the ‘gamebreaker’ comments in the weeks after the deal, but the 1-for-1 ‘hockey trade’ means the Wild better get quality play from Fiala otherwise the deal looks like another potential fleecing.
Whether Fenton wishes to accept this fact or not, the Wild were dealing away a proven NHL player and the team’s best set up man for unproven youngster. That means the Wild were selling off a known quantity for a potential one, which should’ve prompted the team to ask Nashville for additional assets in return to be a bit of a fall back just in case that potential isn’t realized as a way of hedging your bet. Fenton was asked this very question when the deal went down and he seemed frustrated and kept insisting it was a ‘fair deal’ and a ‘hockey trade.’ It was a deadline trade to a team within your own division and you’re making a fair deal?!?!
If you are going to make a trade ‘in division’ you better be making that team pay through the nose to get the player they want because you will have your fan base seeing that deal play itself out in the many head-to-head games you’ll have over the next few seasons. More recently, Russo reported the Wild apparently were going to give Nashville an additional asset along with Granlund in the deal for Fiala making the trade even more lopsided in the Predators’ favor. While Fenton clearly liked Fiala a lot, doesn’t this also suggest he’s in a little over his head to overvalue a player of Fiala’s talent and ability?
It was shameful not to acquire at least a pick or a prospect in trading the team’s most moveable asset in Granlund because then you’re at least able to say you’re not only trying to get younger and faster now but you’re also helping re-stock the prospect cupboard. Instead we take a 1-for-1 deal and put it all on Fiala’s shoulders to turn it into a good trade or not. If the GM is angry over the high expectations fans and media had for Fiala, the trade’s structure mandates such lofty expectations as well as Fenton’s own post-trade comments. Sorry Paul, you can’t say those comments were overblown when they were simply the words you used yourself.
Then there was the trade that almost happened between the Wild and the Calgary Flames which would’ve seen 27-year old Jason Zucker dealt for 31-year old Michael Frolik and a pick. The Flames apparently nixed the deal due to cap issues, but it doesn’t seem like a great idea to ship out a younger, faster player in Zucker for an older, less effective player like Frolik. He’d cost a little less and have less term on his contract but to what end? After dealing Niederreiter, Coyle, and Granlund the team had already created a fair amount of cap space. But this would’ve been another ugly trade for a player who has never seemed to be happy since he left the Winnipeg Jets back in 2014-15. Fortunate miss, but honestly it provides more evidence that Fenton is in over his head. Despite pleas to want to get younger and faster, this ‘almost move’ would have done the opposite.
But while he was gloating about making the Wild a younger and faster team, he allowed Eric Staal to submarine most of his trade value by his public demands asking not to be dealt. Then Fenton decided to pass on an offer by the Boston Bruins to give the Wild a 1st round pick and a player for Staal and instead signed him for another 2 years at $3.5 million and gave him another limited no trade clause to boot. So the team has committed itself to having 36-year old center Mikko Koivu, 34-year old center Staal and 26-year old Rask as centers in the lineup which will likely relegate Joel Eriksson Ek and Nico Sturm to the bottom 6. Not sure how fits with Fenton’s so-called whole getting younger and faster mantra.
The team also traded a 6th round pick in this year’s draft to the Vegas Golden Knights for Brad Hunt. Hunt was a player who was often a healthy scratch for Vegas, but he was a player who is very skilled and intelligent. He was once a tryout player at Wild prospect camp and had a distinguished college career at Bemidji State. Cheap, mobile, skilled and a good person on and off the ice, he should be re-signed by the organization to utilize his skills on the man advantage. It was a low-risk move for both clubs as the Wild sent away a late-round pick for a guy the Golden Knights didn’t have a place for in their gameday lineup.
Fenton’s acquisition of former Predators defenseman Anthony Bitetto and his insistence that the 28-year old defenseman get playing time was maddening down the home stretch of the season. Bitetto was a soldier for the Predators and their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee and was supposed to be a bit of a no-nonsense stay-at-home type of defenseman with a bit of sandpaper to his game. Instead, he was a turnover machine and seemed to struggle to keep up with the speed of the play on the ice. Yet it was obvious that Fenton mandated Bitetto get to play while the team sat down Nick Seeler and opponents would wait for Bitetto to take a shift before they’d go on the attack and he had no points and was a -8 in 18 games with the Wild.
I am not raving about Nick Seeler who seemed to struggle at times throughout the season, but even Seeler on his worst day was able to keep up better than Bitetto. Yet if the GM is going to try to micro-manage the roster it doesn’t speak to the ignorance of that GM if the player he’s forcing into the lineup can’t perform as he needs to? I doubt Wild Head Coach Bruce Boudreau wanted to play him after his team won the night before with Seeler in the lineup. Again, an example of a GM meddling when he shouldn’t.
In the post-season team meetings, Fenton went on record as saying Bruce Boudreau would be back as head coach for at least next season. The veteran head coach is still under contract for one more season but the whole press conference seemed to set him up as a lame-duck coach. It kind of reminded me of the situation in St. Louis when they said Mike Yeo (then serving as an assistant coach) was going to take over from Ken Hitchcock after one more season with Hitch as head coach. It doomed Hitchcock to failure. I realize that glowing endorsements from the GM about a coach should be taken with a grain of salt, but if you’re going to recognize how temporary the terms are of your arrangement the only thing worse would’ve been if he added, “if he lasts that long.” after you mentioned he’d be back next year. We know Fenton’s good friend Dean Evason is already on the Wild bench as an assistant coach after having served as the Milwaukee Admirals’ bench boss for years so you kind of see where this is headed. Again, not real smart on Fenton’s part to make it seem like he has only a grudging amount of confidence in Boudreau.
Lastly, Paul Fenton needs to chill out when it comes to the media. No one is out to get him other than his own decisions. It has been speculated that the recent firing of front office personnel like Shep Harder, Andrew Brunette and statistical analytics guru Andrew C. Thomas were over accusations the men leaked information to the media. Some fans were especially angry at the termination of Thomas and suggested that he was mainly fired because he was critical of the moves the organization made based on the analytics he had. The media has come out and stated the information they’ve had in their reports came from sources outside of the organization. It certainly paints a picture of an organization that is distrustful of itself both on the ice and in the front office.
Fenton would be wise to take a little bit of advice from Abraham Lincoln, “it is better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” By going after the media and maintaining an adversarial relationship with them you only encourage them to dig deeper. Paul would be wise to learn to simply dismiss it or ignore it than to challenge it because as we’ve seen already his own words have already come back to bite him.
If the true need is to get younger and faster is the true goal right now. Then stay with it. That means the team should avoid locking themselves into deals with older free agents like Joe Pavelski (33 years old). But with over $17 million in cap space I worry he’ll spend just to spend and counteract much of progress he made towards that goal of being younger and faster. Fenton is unlikely to be fired this soon into his tenure, but we’ll find out a lot about him this summer and whether he really can handle being GM or not.