Craig Leipold

PHT Morning Skate: Hockey community rallies for Nashville tornado relief

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.

• People are stepping up to help those affected by the Nashville tornadoes. That includes the Predators’ Alumni Association donating $20K, but not just that team. Both the Wild and current Wild owner/former Predators owner Craig Leipold are donating $25K apiece in tornado relief efforts. The NHL announced that it is matching that $50K for tornado relief as well. Fantastic stuff stemming from that terrifying natural disaster. (The Tennessean)

• How did the Lightning turn their season around? Can this season’s team compare to the 2018-19 version that stomped through the regular season, and what about the playoffs? (ESPN)

• Some of the Lightning’s turnaround boils down to Andrei Vasilevskiy getting on track. This post looks at a similar trajectory for Mike Smith, who is heating up while Mikko Koskinen stays steady. Between the two, the Oilers have enjoyed reliable goaltending lately. (Oilers Nation)

Bryan Rust‘s breakout season boils down to combining his talent with the Penguins giving him a better opportunity to succeed. (Pensburgh)

• The Maple Leafs look better by a lot of metrics since Sheldon Keefe took over, but goaltending hasn’t been panning out. How much might it help to lighten Frederik Andersen‘s burden? (Rotoworld)

• Speaking of underlying numbers, these smile upon the chances for both the Wild and Hurricanes making late-season playoff pushes. (NHL.com)

[HURRICANES FACE FLYERS ON NBCSN ON THURSDAY; WATCH IT LIVE]

• Now, while goaltending has been letting the Leafs down lately, GM Kyle Dubas views defense as a “long-term need.” (TSN)

• Are the Flames on the verge of a goalie controversy? (Sportsnet)

• In standing firmly behind Claude Julien going forward, Habs GM Marc Bergevin is also gambling on himself. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• No, Valeri Nichushkin hasn’t generated the kind of offense that was expected of him as the 10th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Nichushkin has, however, become a useful play-driving forward as he settles into a still-fairly-new niche as an Avalanche supporting cast member. (The Hockey News)

I mean, look at these almost-off-the-charts Evolving Hockey RAPM charts for Nichushkin:

Kevin Fiala continues to be a catalyst for the Wild’s surge. (Pioneer-Press)

• Breaking down the Flyers’ elite penalty kill. (Broad Street Hockey)

• What’s been different about Cory Schneider during his latest return back with the Devils? (NJ.com)

• Hm, it’s been a while since the Senators experienced some drama … (The Score)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Our Line Starts podcast: Can Ovechkin catch Gretzky?; Merzlikins’ hot streak

Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy analyze Alex Ovechkin’s hot streak; can he catch Wayne Gretzky on the all-time goals list? They react to Patrick Kane’s 1000th point, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith fighting each other, as well as Elvis Merzlikins leading Columbus’ recent run of success. Plus, Pierre McGuire interviews Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, who talks about his favorite memory with the team, and the lessons learned from the 2017 expansion draft.

0:00-1:34 Intros
1:34-10:15 Ovi’s recent hot streak; Caps favorites in East?
10:15-20:36 Kane’s 1,000th point; Blackhawks fighting for playoffs
20:36-38:00 Pierre interviews Craig Leipold
40:05-end Elvis Merzlikins fueling Blue Jackets’ hot streak

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Advice for new Wild GM Bill Guerin

Getty Images
7 Comments

In a lot of ways, it’s fitting that the Minnesota Wild announced Bill Guerin as their next GM during Ottawa Senators Day at PHT.

After all, Guerin is stepping into a GM gig that might be just as tough as what Pierre Dorion is dealing with in Ottawa, even if the challenges are different.

Despite missing the playoffs in 2018-19 and failing to win a series from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Craig Leipold continues to drink the Kool-Aid, rather than pulling off the Band-Aid. He wants the Wild to contend, so if any rebuilding happens, it needs to take place while the Wild also try to compete.

Mock former GM Paul Fenton all you want, but that isn’t exactly an easy juggling act.

The question, then, is will Guerin be able to juggle better than Fenton? (After all, he does have the hands of a former NHL sniper.)

Here’s some friendly advice for Guerin because, frankly, he’ll probably need all the help he can get.

1. Find out who wants out

As a former player, Guerin likely has a leg up on most GMs when it comes to being able to relate to other players. That might come in handy when it comes to a sensitive subject: waiving no-trade and no-movement clauses.

Theoretically, it would be awkward to have such a conversation with a veteran player who’s meant a lot to the franchise, whether that be Zach Parise and his seemingly eternal contract, or Mikko Koivu on a one-year deal. Yet, as we’ve seen from Parise doing some summer soul-searching with The Athletic’s Michael Russo (sub required), some of these players have already pondered moving on. It’s easier to have such chats when you’re accomodating a veteran player trying to win that elusive Stanley Cup than it is to ask if you can uproot their family via a trade, after all.

2. Identify your core, and don’t settle

Such clause talk brings up some tough decisions for Guerin when it comes to who is a core Wild player and who is expendable.

As stuck as the Wild seem right now, it’s remarkable how much of a clean slate Guerin can enjoy in the not-so-distant future … at least if he makes smart calls. Via Cap Friendly, the Wild have about $9.5M in cap space, although RFAs Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek still need deals. Even if the cap remained at $81.5M, the Wild’s 2020-21 cap space would rise to $22M, and then all the way up to about $44M heading into 2021-22.

With that in mind, Guerin needs to be cold and calculating. Should the Wild sign Jared Spurgeon, a soon-to-be 30-year-old defenseman who figures to be expensive following this upcoming contract year, or would it be smarter to trade a quality defenseman for what could be a big haul, and build for the future? The Wild have already seen how bad a long-term contract can look, and while Spurgeon could age gracefully, he could just as easily become another albatross.

Spurgeon isn’t the only tough call, but he’s among the toughest.

[From Wild Day at PHT: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

3. Invest in analytics

Firing Fenton after a bit more than a year wasn’t the greatest look for the Wild, but the silver lining was that it kept Fenton from flubbing a Jason Zucker trade in the same way he made the worst blunder of his time, the atrocious Nino Niederreiter trade.

According to Russo’s scathing, incredible rundown of Fenton’s reign in Minnesota, the Niederreiter trade was essentially made during a Florida retreat where the Wild’s top analytics staffers weren’t even invited.

The dream would be for Minnesota to be cutting edge, yet at a minimum, Guerin can avoiding shooting himself in the Fenton … er, foot.

4. Bring in your people

On the other hand, Russo’s reporting also enforced why it can be so important to surround yourself with people you trust.

As much criticism as Fenton drew in that piece regarding being paranoid about leaks … it also is worth mentioning that stunning details ended up leaking out of Minnesota about Fenton’s foibles. Is that ironic, or Alanis Morissette ironic? Considering all that surfaced, can you blame Guerin if he poaches some of the people he knew from Pittsburgh?

Guerin must aim for the right balance between hiring people you can trust, and fresh faces who innovate. I’d wager there’s a sweet spot between Lincoln’s “team of rivals” and Jon Gruden sending his scouting staff home during draft time out of paranoia.

5. Manage Leipold

Perhaps reality will slowly dawn upon Leipold that the Wild need to at least reboot things a bit. In the meantime, though, Guerin needs to hit the right buttons: keeping this team reasonably competitive, without totally mortgaging the future for marginal present-day gains.

***

Chances are, there will be missed shots here and there for Guerin, but if he gets big picture decisions right where Fenton right wrong, the Wild might just become the top-shelf team Leipold demands.

Eventually.

MORE:
• Did the Wild learn from the Fenton era?
• 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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Wild names Bill Guerin new general manager

Getty Images
2 Comments

Bill Guerin is finally getting a chance to run an NHL team and he has a big challenge ahead of him.

The Minnesota Wild has announced the hiring of the 48-year-old Guerin as their new general manager. He will replace Paul Fenton, who was fired in July after only one season.

“Bill has been a winner throughout his hockey career and I am extremely pleased to be able to add his experience to our organization and The State of Hockey,” said Wild owner Craig Leipold.

Guerin has worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins organization since 2011 starting as a development coach before moving his way up to assistant GM under Jim Rutherford. He spent 18 seasons in the NHL and won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins and the New Jersey Devils.

Leipold and team president Matt Majka headed the search for Fenton’s replacement and were helped out by executive advisor and Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, who played with Guerin for three seasons with the Dallas Stars as well as the United States national team. Guerin had been a candidate for several GM jobs over the last few years, and even interviewed with the Wild last summer before they hired Fenton.

[MORE: Will Wild learn from the failed Fenton era?]

The Wild failed to qualify for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, this first time they’ve missed since 2012. With a roster loaded with older veterans eating up cap space and sprinkled in with some young talent, there will be plenty of work for Guerin to do to try and figure out a way to make the franchise a consistent winner again. There is no teardown coming as part of a full rebuild and it’s going to be a long wait before some of the contracts on their books expire. Guerin will have to get creative in order to infuse the roster with new blood and hope some of the organization’s youngsters take big steps forward.

Despite the turbulent off-season, the confident from up top in the organization is high.

“I believe we are a playoff team,” Leipold said after Fenton’s firing. “We have to get everybody believing that and moving in the same direction.”

MORE:
•  Advice for new Wild GM Bill Guerin
Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?

• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Will Wild learn from the failed Fenton era?

Getty Images
6 Comments

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 GranlundFenton’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.

Yet …

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-fledgedrather 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.

MORE:
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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.