Craig Leipold

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Will Wild learn from the failed Fenton era?

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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.

Why Wild are better off being terrible next season

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When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem is that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who are more or less in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

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.

Report: Wild close to multiyear extension with coach Yeo

The Minnesota Wild are going to have coach Mike Yeo around a bit longer if reports are to be believed.

Michael Russo of The Star Tribune reports the Wild and Yeo are close to locking down a multiyear contract extension to keep him behind the bench in St. Paul.

Final details were being worked out Friday night, but all signs pointed toward an agreement soon, multiple sources said. Yeo, General Manager Chuck Fletcher and other members of the front office are due to leave for owner Craig Leipold’s home in the Bahamas on Saturday for meetings.

Yeo, 40, has been coach of the Wild for three seasons and two of those have seen the team in the playoffs. Each season has seen progression under his leadership as the team started hot but missed the postseason in his first year and advanced to the second round this season. The Wild have lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs the past two seasons.

In three seasons, Yeo’s record is steady at 104-82-26 but it’s the improvements the team has made under him that has Wild leadership eager to keep him around.

Columnist: Wild will ‘spend whatever it takes’ to get Vanek

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While Thomas Vanek is busy trying to help the Montreal Canadiens win their first Stanley Cup since 1993, his impending unrestricted free agency this summer is there tantalizing some teams.

Columnist Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press said Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold will be there waiting for Vanek on July 1 and they won’t be shy about going all-in for him.

“This summer, look for Leipold, the Wild owner, to spend whatever it takes — probably another $40 million or so — to add free agent Thomas Vanek to the roster.”

Vanek, 30, will be cashing in in a big way from someone when he hits free agency. The Wild have long been considered a front-runner to sign him because of his history in Minnesota. Vanek won a national championship at the University of Minnesota in 2003 and his family is from there.

The Wild will have at least one big contract off the books this summer as Dany Heatley’s $7.5 million cap hit is gone after this season. That frees up a big chunk of change to bring in Vanek or anyone else they might desire.

This is the first time Vanek has reached unrestricted free agency in his career and after numerous seasons of big offense with the Buffalo Sabres, he’s shown the New York Islanders and Canadiens he can do it anywhere.

Zach Parise isn’t buying into the “Doomsday” talk

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Minnesota’s Zach Parise hasn’t been one to shy away from speaking his mind during the lockout. He’s called out Gary Bettman and spoken freely about blaming the owners, except his own of course.

After seeing talks fall apart on Thursday, many have been saying how it could ruin talks the rest of the way and kill the season. Parise tells Michael Russo of The Star-Tribune he isn’t buying that at all.

“I don’t think it’s as dramatic as everyone’s trying to make it,” Parise said. “I don’t know the ins and outs of everything. But we have an agreement on a lot of things, I mean, a lot of things. There are still one or two things that need to be talked about, and in my eyes that’s not a total derailment of a negotiation. I think people are being a little dramatic thinking this is Doomsday, which I don’t believe.”

People being dramatic during the lockout? No way…

Truth here is Parise’s right. Thursday’s very public blowup feels almost like it was all for show but both sides are closer than they were before they hunkered down to meet for three days. Time will tell if that’s actually true or not, but both sides clearly need to play this season.