In case you haven’t heard, the Minnesota Wild kind of did a thing earlier this week. Nothing crazy — they just fired General Manager Paul Fenton.
Yes, the removal of Fenton has put the Wild in a state of extreme turmoil. But there’s no denying that the now former Minnesota GM’s firing was a completely necessary step as the franchise looks to remain competitive in the immediate future.
Fenton’s tenure as Minnesota’s GM was nothing short of (for lack of a better term) abysmal. The decision to sign 31-year-old forward Mats Zuccarello (he turns 32 on September 1) to a five-year contract worth $6 million annually — including a no-move clause and a 10-team no-trade clause for his last two years under contract — was a bold one, to say the least.
But that wasn’t his only shortcoming. There was also the trade that sent Mikael Granlund — a former 69-point player and key contributor to Minnesota’s attack — to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Kevin Fiala. And then, of course, there was the exchange that sent Nino Niederreiter to the Carolina Hurricanes. In return? Victor Rask, who registered all of three whole points in his 23 games as a member of the Wild.
The firing of Fenton may have stopped the bleeding, but there’s still a big mess that needs to be cleaned up. For that reason, former Philadelphia Flyers General Manager Ron Hextall could be a logical choice to take over as Fenton’s successor. And the Wild seem to have a similar opinion. They’ve already interviewed Hextall, along with former Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli this week, per Michael Russo of The Athletic.
So, why could Hextall be a good fit? Mainly because of the fact that he has experience in a situation similar to Minnesota’s.
Prior to taking over as Philadelphia’s GM in 2014, Paul Holmgren, Hextall’s predecessor, was never shy about spending to the cap and dishing out large contracts to aging players such as Mark Streit or Vincent Lecavalier. And, of course, he signed defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who was bought out by the Flyers earlier this off-season, to a six-year contract worth $30 million.
Hextall, however, managed to repair a lot of the damage done by Holmgren. Gone were the days of spending to the cap and giving lucrative deals to players on the wrong side of 30. Instead, Hextall won over a large portion of the Flyers fanbase by giving out low-risk, high-reward contracts (such as those given to Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere). He also focused on building from within. In fact, Hextall’s draft record has been impeccable. Current NHLers Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Oskar Lindblom, Carter Hart, and Nolan Patrick were all drafted by Hextall, while other promising youngsters like Joel Farabee, Morgan Frost, Isaac Ratcliffe, and Wade Allison still await their opportunity to crack the Flyers’ roster.
So, if Hextall was so good at building for the future and making smart cap decisions, why didn’t he remain in Philadelphia?
A lot of that has to do with the only coaching hire he’s ever made — Dave Hakstol, a college coach who had exactly zero years of NHL coaching experience at the time of his hiring.
Despite making the postseason in two of his three-and-a-half seasons as Philadelphia’s head coach, Hakstol was never able to take his team past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And during the regular season, his teams consistently struggled with, well, inconsistency. Under Hakstol in 2016-17, the Flyers became the first team in NHL history to miss the postseason after winning 10 straight games in the regular season.
Hakstol began to wear out his welcome in 2018-19. After a rough start to the season, it became clear that a change at head coach was necessary. However, Hextall didn’t seem too crazy about that idea. Instead of firing Hakstol, Hextall chose not to pull the trigger on the ineffective bench boss, resulting in his own demise as Philadelphia’s General Manager.
Not surprisingly, just weeks after the firing of Hextall, Hakstol was relieved of his duties by upper management.
Hextall was no perfect GM by any stretch. Not only did he possibly refuse to fire Hakstol (who coached his son at the University of North Dakota, by the way), but he also failed to make a lot of the “win now” moves the Flyers had typically made for so many years previously. His off-seasons were quiet, usually resulting in low-impact additions like those of goaltender Michal Neuvirth and forwards Dale Weise and Boyd Gordon, to name a few (though he did sign James van Riemsdyk to a lucrative deal last summer, so that’s something to keep in mind).
Also, pizza was strictly off limits in the Flyers’ locker room. A crime against humanity.
I like structure. I’m a structured guy. I believe in structure. I did see some other things, like I controlled the food and stuff, and I’m like, what? We hired a dietician and between her and Ben, they controlled our diet. The only thing, I met up front, we want to be healthy. You know, after games we want to eat anti-inflammatory food versus pizza, which is the opposite. So yeah we did change a few things like that, our guys went on a very healthy diet. And I believe in the 1% to try to help the players be the best they can be and give them the best chance to win.
In the end, Hextall’s passive nature and funny quirks proved to be the kiss of death for his reign in Philadelphia. Rather than building strong playoff contenders, he opted to build from within through the draft — not always an ineffective method, but certainly a flawed one.
Before falling short of the postseason in 2018-19, the Wild had made the playoffs in the previous six years. Failure — in the regular season at least — is an unfamiliar concept in Minnesota. In fact, according to The Athletic’s Michael Russo, Wild owner Craig Leipold still believes this team is capable of making the postseason in 2019-20. That being the case, a general manager like Hextall, who’s previously struggled with entering “win now” mode, may not be the type of candidate Leipold ideally prefers. But if the priority is repairing the damage done by Paul Fenton, the Wild could do much worse.