If you have ever seen the YouTube clip of Fenton the dog, you can see how a calm walk through a nature reserve can get out of control quickly. Little did Minnesota Wild fans know, that ‘the Paul Fenton era’ was going to be over a little over a year after it started making it one of the shortest tenures for a GM in recent NHL history as his termination was announced on Tuesday. Like the dog, once Fenton got off and running and doing his own thing he was soon out of the picture. I must admit, I’m still really surprised it ended this quickly. I will admit I had high hopes for him when the team hired him.
However for it to have happened when it did in late July, about a month and a half before NHL training camp is set to begin the team obviously felt it wasn’t working out and that the change had to happen as soon as possible. As was reported by the Athletic‘s Michael Russo, that discontentment was growing in the hockey operations department as well as the Wild locker room about Fenton’s approach. In other words, he wasn’t well liked and wasn’t easy to work with and ownership obviously felt he needed to be replaced before he could do more damage to an organization that in a rather tenuous place right now.
The Wild finished at the bottom of the Central division, and season ticket sales have experienced a significant drop as fans are unhappy about the current trajectory of the team. Fenton shipped out Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle to a very limited and questionable return of Victor Rask, Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato. Crease and Assist‘s Aaron Lindgren gave his thoughts on the Wild’s deadline moves. He twice tried to trade fan favorite and this year’s King Clancy Award winner Jason Zucker tanking most of his value in the process and then despite statement about the need to get ‘younger and faster’ signed a 32-year old winger Mats Zuccarello to a 5-year deal.
Players on the team seem to be losing faith in this team’s ability to be a playoff contender as Fenton met with team leaders Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to try to get them to buy in and pull together. While at the same time Fenton may have tried to have traded Parise, a player who is rather close to Leipold, for an underwhelming return. Parise has been rather open in his frustration about the direction of the team.
Jared Spurgeon, who is in the midst of re-negotiation with the team has stated he wants to see what the organization’s plan was to be a winner in the near future. Yet as the Athletic reported that Fenton waited until the NHL Entry Draft to start talking to Spurgeon and after deals were made for other blueliners like Jacob Trouba the asking price for the 30-year old defenseman is probably well north of the initial $6.8 million offer the Wild made to him. Trouba got $8 million per season so waiting so long to really start negotiating with Spurgeon seems like a fairly costly error.
He seemed to chase away well-respected members of the analytics community in Andrew C. Thomas and Alexandra Mandrycky, fired long term scouts and then made his son, P.J. Fenton, a person with just 3 years of NHL scouting experience run the team draft table probably didn’t win many friends among the more seasoned experts. Fenton didn’t endear himself to local reporters by being antagonistic towards media members and being overly concerned about leaks in his organization which made for an uncomfortable working environment. Needless to say his credibility took a fairly big hit with moves like that.
As the offseason moved from the draft to free agency the clouds seemed to only gather over the organization. The Hockey News named the Minnesota Wild one of just 3 teams to be ‘losers’ in NHL free agency while adding another older player in Zuccarello and also extending Eric Staal and giving him a no movement clause that will force the team to protect them both in the Seattle expansion draft. Sirius XM’s NHL Network radio’s Jim ‘Boomer’ Gordon gave Fenton an “F” grade in his latest GM grades. I certainly had my own questions about whether Paul Fenton and the organization had realistic expectations for their club.
Even as the dust started to settle from the firing, the comments of Wild majority owner Craig Leipold confused me.
“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. I would like to thank Paul for his time with the Wild and wish him and his family the best in the future.” ~ Wild Owner Craig Leipold
Ok, it makes sense you want to find a General Manager that will help the team win a Stanley Cup, but is that a realistic expectation right now? If Fenton was expected to make ‘tweaks’ to turn this into a team that would make a long playoff run was he set up for failure?
“I missed it, and this is on me, I don’t like the fact that it didn’t work out. Paul is a really strong, strategic scout, identifies talent, understands development, all of that, but there were parts of his role that just wasn’t working out to my satisfaction.” ~ Wild Owner Craig Leipold
Wasn’t it obvious this team was getting old and that much of its high-priced talent was now past its prime? But did Leipold simply assume that since Fenton was a well-respected scout / talent evaluator that’s all he really needed to be successful? Did he talk to his former Nashville GM in David Poile and asked what it was like working with him? Using Leipold’s own words from this video, he wanted the team to re-shape itself on the fly and seemed to emphasize that this was not going to be a rebuild. But was that realistic? I even questioned this club’s long term future even before they hired Fenton, and not to be a Debbie Downer that situation isn’t changed by firing your GM it simply becomes another person’s responsibility to try to fix it.
I am not excusing the moves Fenton made, as many seemed to be poorly calculated if not outright careless yet wasn’t he at least trying to live up to Leipold’s directive to have ‘change on the fly?’ So let’s toss some fault towards the Wild ownership even if Leipold clearly is taking the bold step to try to correct it such a relatively short time. Either way it had to be bad for a move like this to be made just 14 months into his tenure. In the meantime, Assistant General Manager Tom Kurvers will take over those duties until a new GM is hired.
“It was the other portion of being a general manager — the organizational, the strategic, the management of people, the hiring and motivating of the departments. When I talk about not being a fit, that’s what I’m referring to.” ~ Wild Owner Craig Leipold
Ok, so taking Leipold at his word, this information / revelation must’ve occurred during the post-season exit interviews they did with the players, coaches and other members of the Hockey Operations department. So why did he let Fenton stick around and then make another major mistake in free agency by adding another 30+ year old player on a 5-year deal and giving him a no movement clause that will force the club to protect him in the expansion draft? If Leipold was in the Wild front office right next to Fenton as he said he was, why didn’t he pump the breaks and nix another bad overpayment deal to an older player? Isn’t that a poor reflection on the owner rather than just placing all the blame at Fenton’s feet?
So what do some of the experts and media people seem to think?
How did Wild fans take the news?
So who is out there?
I think former Philadelphia Flyers’ GM Ron Hextall is a likely candidate. He built up a rather impressive prospect pool in Philadelphia and that may seem like the long-term solution to lifting this organization out of the doldrums. It has been reported that Hextall is going to meet with Leipold, Matt Majka and Mike Modano at his home in Wisconsin as early as Wednesday. Other names likely to be considered are Bill Guerin, Tom Fitzgerald, Dave Nonis, Dean Lombardi and Don Waddell. You may remember Waddell as the man who fleeced Minnesota in the Nino Niederreiter trade and currently he doesn’t have a contract for this season with the Hurricanes. It will be intriguing how long this search is going to last considering they are 44 days from the start of training camp.
However, can any GM turn this thing around in a season or two? I think that is highly unlikely and rather unfair if that is the expectation people will have towards whoever replaces Fenton in that role. The team doesn’t have the amount talent waiting in its prospect pipeline to to re-shape its fortunes in the near future. Its probably going to be a slow reclamation project but will Leipold demonstrate patience as long as the GM doesn’t have hostile relationship with media, his own front office and locker room? Hopefully, because otherwise we could find ourselves in this same position roughly a year from now.
While the news of his firing is probably being celebrated by many fans, but what does it really change? Even if the locker room is for the moment happier and the front office is more content, the truth is the Wild is one of the older teams in the league that is offensively challenged and has a log jam at center and left wing. Those are situations that will be tough to solve no matter how great of a GM you hire. When Fenton was hired, many people felt the team he was going to have a helluva time trying to solve many of the issues created by the dealings of former GM Chuck Fletcher. Now this replacement will have to solve a plethora of problems after the worst season in Wild upper management history that has morale among fans, players and even upper management perhaps ever. Whoever gets the job will be walking into an organization in crisis mode.
Will ownership sit back and let the new GM do their job without interference or restrain himself being a helicopter parent for two highly paid alternate captains? If the new GM is to have any chance at all, Leipold must step back and simply be supportive of whoever he hires and that may mean telling some veteran players to work with your new boss and figure it out instead of just changing the boss to satisfy them. That is what should happen.
Yet, I am still rather skeptical because of the fact he seems to think they’re still a winner so a fundamental change like that appears unlikely. Either way, the situation does not do anything to change the growing perception that the Minnesota Wild are an organization with a fair amount of dysfunction. The firing of Fenton should be seen as the 1st step of a much larger process to fix this organization. They still need to address a locker room culture that is just as broken and convince fans this team does actually have a coherent plan to turn this organization into a winner and that may be a process that takes years to accomplish.