Paul Fenton

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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.

Wild add Zuccarello, Hartman, as GM seeks more ‘hardness’

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild zeroed in on Mats Zuccarello as free agency approached, desiring his competitive drive and playmaking skills for a top-six forward group in need of a new look.

With a five-year, $30 million contract the right wing agreed to Monday when the market opened, Zuccarello has given the Wild another thirtysomething core player on a major deal. Even following their first postseason absence in seven years, though, general manager Paul Fenton was noticeably upbeat about the makeup of his roster.

”You’ve got to have a team that you’re going to field and let these young guys grow with it, so to me it’s just an insulation,” Fenton said, adding: ”He doesn’t have a ton of miles on him if you really look at it. He’s been a healthy player.”

For the fourth line, the Wild also agreed on a two-year, $3.8 million contract with right wing Ryan Hartman, who was not tendered a qualifying offer by Dallas last week. That’ll probably be the extent of the summer maneuvering, Fenton said, with the post-injury recoveries of center Mikko Koivu (knee) and defenseman Matt Dumba (shoulder) now the most important developments leading into training camp.

Zuccarello has 355 points in 511 regular season games, including a combined 12 goals and 28 assists in 48 games for the New York Rangers and the Stars in 2018-19. The 31-year-old has 42 points in 73 career playoff games. The 5-foot-8, 184-pound native of Oslo who is one of only eight players in NHL history born in Norway , according to online database Hockey Reference, played his first eight-plus seasons with the Rangers.

In his first appearance with the Stars, Zuccarello registered a goal, an assist, and a broken right arm suffered while blocking a shot . He needed surgery and missed 17 games. Returning in April, Zuccarello had four goals and seven assists in 13 postseason contests for the Stars, who took eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.

”The way that this guy competes is going to be contagious for our team,” Fenton said, adding: ”I would like our team to play with a little more hardness and passion and excitement, and I think he’ll not only do it himself, but he’ll bring people along with him.”

With left wing Zach Parise, defenseman Ryan Suter, Zuccarello and Koivu, four of the Wild’s top six salary cap charges this season will be carried by players 31 and older, but Zuccarello categorized himself as an ”in-between” guy on a team grooming an under-23 core of forwards Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek.

Zuccarello, a self-described ”hockey nerd,” was eager to immerse himself in a hockey-savvy market with a conveniently significant amount of residents with Norwegian heritage. He could also form a uniquely alliterative first line flank with Jason Zucker around veteran center Eric Staal.

The Wild scored just 210 goals last season, the fifth-fewest in the league.

”It’s a really good mixture of players, and I think hopefully with the pieces we got this summer we can be a contender,” Zuccarello said.

Wild aren’t firing Boudreau, and they aren’t rebuilding

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The Minnesota Wild’s Tuesday press conference was notable for a number of things, but chiefly, one thing the Wild is doing (keeping Bruce Boudreau), and one thing they’ve decided against (not doing a rebuild).

Wild GM Paul Fenton made it clear that he’s not firing Boudreau — you know, at least through the 2019-20 season, which not so coincidentally represents the last year of Boudreau’s current contract. Tellingly, he didn’t really explore the question of a contract extension.

“Bruce is my coach next year. I have total confidence in him,” Fenton said. “If you look at his track record, it’s amazing … he’s going to be the guy that’s going to lead us back to where we want to go.”

If you’re the type to read too much into body language, you might enjoy watching the full press conference, which kicks in around the seven-minute mark of the video above. Considering the rumblings about Boudreau being Wild owner Craig Leipold’s “guy,” and Leipold not wanting to pay Boudreau to not coach the Wild next season, you may enjoy trying to read if Fenton’s truly happy about this path, or kind of stuck. Also, if you’re like me, you’ll giggle at the upside down Wild lapel pin.

Also of note in what could be a dysfunctional relationship:

(There were some chances to the staff, however, including the departure of Andrew Brunette.)

The presser was also notable because Fenton provided this update: the Wild are deciding to “do this on the fly, without having a rebuild.”

Fenton emphasized a few things in that regard.

  • Getting younger. In a somewhat amusing moment, Fenton noted that the Wild entered the 2018-19 season as the oldest team in the NHL, and now are somewhere around “25th.” That’s really not a bad improvement, but it still seems like a modest-enough gain to also be pretty funny.
  • People have criticized plenty of the Wild’s moves, which include transitioning from Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle to Victor Rask, Kevin Fiala, and Ryan Donato in trades. Fenton defended his moves, stating that he believes the Wild would be in this position, even if the trades weren’t made.
  • Fenton emphasized injuries as a factor, bringing up Matt Dumba multiple times, along with players like Mikko Koivu.
  • He also noted that the Wild should have a lot of cap space entering the off-season, and that’s indeed an interesting point. Via Cap Friendly, the Wild have a bit less than $62.5 million devoted to 14 players, and not a ton of must-pay free agents, beyond someone who might not be too expensive in Fiala. With the cap ceiling projected at $83M, Minnesota could indeed make some splashes, though Fenton himself warned against spending just to spend.

Is this really the right path?

An optimist can find a lot to like here.

Boudreau is, by just about any fair measure, a fantastic coach. While his playoff lows have been stated – and often overblown – Boudreau’s been a success basically everywhere he’s been. From the high-flying Capitals to the grind-it-out Wild, he’s been a versatile coach, rather than a one-trick pony. Boudreau isn’t far behind Jon Cooper (.644) and Scotty Bowman (.657) when it comes to his .641 points percentage as a coach.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If you’re goal is to win as much as possible, in the short term, then Boudreau’s your guy. I’d argue that he got every ounce of usefulness out of Minnesota’s limited roster this season.

But maybe that’s the point: there might not be much jelly left in this donut. There can be a curse disguised as a blessing by having a really good coach: Boudreau might just delay the inevitable rebuild, or even maximize results to the point that the team might be misled into believing that a rebuild isn’t necessary.

It’s not that this Wild roster is outright putrid. The truth is likely more confusing for someone trying to run the team: the overall talents ranks somewhere in between good and bad. With that, you risk getting stuck in purgatory.

Dangerous half measures?

The Wild are going with a plan to “rebuild on the fly,” basically hoping to eat their cake and have it too. They want to get younger and compete, which requires quite a juggling act from their GM. Can you plan for the future and the present, without spreading yourself too thin and hurting yourself in both regards?

This “a little from Column A, a little from Column B” plan seems like it can work out if the goal is to be respectable, or a hockey answer to Minnesota Nice. But if the goal is to aim higher than making or barely missing the playoffs each season, to actually win division titles and Stanley Cups, then the Wild might be wiser to hit the reset button, at least as much as they can.

(To be fair to Fenton, former GM Chuck Fletcher left behind issues, such as the contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, that Fenton is almost certainly stuck with — whether he wants them or not.)

***

Ultimately, Fenton seems like he might be poised to echo the team he’s running: having to grind things out, with the risk of minimal gains. In the case of the 2018-19 season, it sure felt like the Wild were simply a team with a low ceiling, and not a high-enough floor.

The question is: can Fenton succeed where his team failed? For better or worse, that seems like the Wild’s plan.

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.

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.”

___

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

Report: Bruins have reached out to Jeff Gorton for GM role

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According to the Boston Herald, the Bruins have contacted the New York Rangers for permission to speak with Jeff Gorton regarding the club’s vacant GM position.

Gorton was the Bruins’ assistant GM when the club drafted Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand.

He served as the Bruins’ interim GM for three months in 2006 signing free agents Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard. Gorton was also responsible for the Bruins’ acquisition of goaltender Tuukka Rask from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Andrew Raycroft prior to being replaced by Peter Chiarelli.

On Saturday Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Bruins would interview Ray Shero and Paul Fenton over the next week.

Shero was the GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2006-14. Fenton is currently the assistant GM of the Nashville Predators.

Related: (Report) Toronto approached Chiarelli before he took Oilers job