The Minnesota Wild made a bold, rare move on Tuesday, firing GM Paul Fenton barely one year after hiring him.
Much like Fenton’s quote about Mats Zuccarello and a lizard’s tongue, I must ask: was Fenton really that bad?
After all, Fenton was trying to dance to the beat of owner Craig Leipold’s drum: any swipes at rebuild couldn’t come at too much of a cost to playoff contention. It was a no-win situation, and Fenton lost. Let’s examine some of his biggest moves and strategies while the Wild determine what happens next.
Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for Victor Rask: There’s no sense sugarcoating this trade. It was bad the day it happened, and is the main reason Fenton was fired, beyond the weird quotes.
Wild get Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala for Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund: Fenton’s other current-day player-for-player trades could end up being very nice for the Wild’s future.
The Wild got four years (27 to 23) younger in both cases, and probably saved money, as Coyle and Granlund are due big UFA deals after 2019-20, while Donato’s already dirt-cheap, and Fiala could follow as an RFA. The Athletic’s Ian Tulloch places both Fiala and Donato as top 10 breakout candidates for next season (sub required), and Donato earned an honorable mention on this list by PHT’s Adam Gretz, so these are players who may make big leaps soon.
Maybe the Wild still “lose” those deals overall, but it’s not as though Fenton never managed this juggling act.
No celebration of the lizard: Signing Mats Zuccarello to a risky, long-term contract was alarming, but it was far from an unusual deal during the reckless free agent spending spree.
No, people were mainly losing their cool about the quote … and you know, it remains pretty weird.
” … I told him when I was talking to him that he’s like a lizard, the way a lizard takes his tongue and sticks it as far as it does and retrieves what it was trying to do,” Fenton said.
Two drafts: Part of Fenton’s allure was in his work with the Predators, but his two draft weekends with Minnesota received mixed reviews. One first-rounder was labeled a reach (Filip Johansson, 24th overall in 2018) while Matthew Boldly could be a bold steal at 12th overall from 2019.
Analytics exodus: As Michael Russo reported in The Athletic in May (sub. required), the Wild parted ways with two prominent analytics-minded staffers in Andrew C. Thomas and Alexandra Mandrycky, with the latter quickly being scooped up by the Seattle expansion franchise.
Staffers like those can often pay for themselves by discouraging GMs from signing Zuccarello-type contracts and making Niederreiter-type trades, so the next GM might be wise to emphasize analytics where Fenton seemingly shrugged his shoulders.
Not too bogged down: The Wild actually have a ton of money coming off of the books in the near future. According to Cap Friendly, they only have $60M going to 16 players for 2020-21, and that number plummets to a bit less than $37.4M for seven roster spots covered heading into 2021-22.
As I’ve stated before, it’s my belief that the Wild could emulate the New York Rangers in going through a brief rebuild, but a rebuild that’s full-fledged, rather than this current “half measures” approach.
Beyond the Zuccarello contract, the biggest cap issues were installed by Chuck Fletcher, not Fenton, and Donato – Fiala could help Minnesota in a number of ways. Sure, Fenton was sometimes saved from himself (see: Jason Zucker), but it could have been worse.
After giving its previous two GMs close to a decade apiece, the Wild fired Fenton after 14 months. It’s still dizzying to contemplate.
However, if this is a sign that the Wild may admit that they’ve been on the wrong course, then maybe they’ll actually reach the light at the end of the tunnel. If not, then the next GM may only last a bit longer than Fenton, who will go down, tragically, as the GM equivalent to a fly trying to avoid a lizard’s tongue.
• Five potential GM replacements for Wild
• Why the Wild are better off being terrible this season
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.