Fenton ramps up roster revamp as Wild still chase playoffs

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The patience Minnesota Wild general manager Paul Fenton exercised last summer during his first offseason in charge has yielded to a more aggressive approach.

Fenton’s conclusion about the roster he inherited has become clear: The Wild needed to change their core of forwards before making some long-awaited advances down the Stanley Cup championship contending track.

Over the last six weeks, Fenton has dealt Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund leading up to the NHL trade deadline that passed Monday and served notice that the reshaping process will likely resume once the season is over.
Reaching the playoffs six straight times to match Anaheim for the longest active streak in the Western Conference has only produced two series wins, and Coyle and Granlund were on all six of those teams. Niederreiter was on all but one.

“That’s what I was brought here for, to make some changes,” Fenton said, later adding: “It has nothing to do with cap space or anything. It has to do with the talent level and where we are.”

Niederreiter, Coyle and Granlund, all of whom were drafted in the first round in 2010, were each shipped off at age 26, just entering their prime years, but they each fetched a forward in his early 20s. By average age at the start of the season, no team in the league was older than the Wild.

“We were trying to get younger, faster and more skilled,” Fenton said, “and the last couple of acquisitions have done that.”

Here’s the twist: The Wild are still in control of a postseason spot. They’re tied with Colorado for eighth place with 19 games remaining for each team, taking a three-game winning streak to Winnipeg for a matchup Tuesday with the Central Division leader.

“I think that this team has the potential to make the playoffs,” Fenton said, “and if you make the playoffs, you never know.”

Niederreiter was sent to Carolina on Jan. 17 for Victor Rask (age 25), who had only one goal and one assist in 10 games after the trade until suffering a lower-body injury that has kept him out of the last six games. Niederreiter, meanwhile, has nine goals and six assists in 16 games for the Hurricanes.

But on Wednesday, Coyle was swapped for Boston’s Ryan Donato (age 22), who has one goal and three assists in three games. Fenton said he noticed a “different energy” since that deal. Granlund went to Nashville for Kevin Fiala (age 22). The trades, plus the season-ending knee injury to captain Mikko Koivu , have elevated the roles of youngsters Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin.

Predators coach Peter Laviolette moved Fiala, who has 32 points in 64 games, up one line the past two games to play with Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen. Fiala had two overtime goals in the playoffs before turning 21 and scored five times in his first 18 playoff games, but he broke his leg in a second-round game against St. Louis in 2017 when Nashville reached the Stanley Cup finals. Fiala followed up with a career-best season in 2017-18 with 23 goals, 48 points, 13 power-play points and 80 games, but the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft is a dismal minus-11 this season with only 10 goals.

Fenton drafted him as the assistant general manager for the Predators, however, and remained sold on his potential to provide the unique skill and speed on the rush that the Wild have been lacking.

“He’s got an electric stick. His vision is unique,” Fenton told reporters Monday at team headquarters. “He’s got this ability to find people in really close quarters.”

Fenton, who also reached a deal with center Eric Staal on a two-year extension after deciding not to trade him and his expiring contract, apologized for the timing of the Granlund deal. His fiancée went into labor Monday, expecting their first child. Granlund also had his 27th birthday Tuesday.

“We wish them nothing but the best, especially, hopefully, with a happy, healthy baby,” Fenton said.

Granlund, who was second on the Wild with 49 points, but like Niederreiter and Coyle never quite fulfilled the potential he came with, spoke optimistically after the Wild’s overtime win over St. Louis on Sunday about keeping the team intact.

“It’s a whole new feeling in the locker room. It’s much more fun,” he said. “We’ll just try to keep it up.”

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More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.