Last Monday, the Minnesota Wild made news by deciding to relieve General Manager Paul Fenton of his duties. It was just 14 months into his tenure for the position, and it was deep into the off-season, well after Fenton had led Minnesota at the draft and made free agent signings. The decision is in some parts very understandable. Fenton made multiple questionable transactions during his time with the team and reports are coming out now that he struggled to run the franchise’s front office. But at the same time, it was an odd decision, especially given the timing. Why did owner Craig Leipold decide to move on now, nearly four months after the Wild’s season ended and so far into the off-season, instead of much earlier in the doldrums of summer?
Let’s take a look at the events that led to Fenton’s removal, examine that decision to fire him, and look at where the team can go from here.
Timeline of Fenton’s Tenure with the Wild
May 21, 2018: Paul Fenton is hired as the third GM of the Minnesota Wild.
June 22, 2018: The first day of the 2018 NHL Draft. The Wild select Filip Johansson in the first round, a move that still has plenty of Wild fans scratching their heads.
July 1, 2018: The first day of free agency. The Wild sign no major free agents, and instead choose to sign several depth players.
December 15, 2018: Matthew Dumba, on pace to set career-highs in goals and points, plays his last game of the season due to injury. Fenton does not make any major acquisition to replace him.
January 17, 2019: The Wild trade Nino Niederreiter to the Carolina Hurricanes for Victor Rask. Niederreiter played 51 regular season and playoff games for the Hurricanes and scored 15 goals and 34 points, which helped Carolina reach the Eastern Conference Final. Rask played 23 games for the Wild, and scored just two goals and three points. Rask has three years remaining on his contract with an AAV of $4 million.
February 20, 2019: The Wild trade Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins for Ryan Donato and a draft pick. Coyle played 45 regular season and playoff games for the Bruins and scored 11 goals and 22 points, which pushed Boston to the Stanley Cup Final. Donato played 22 games for the Wild, and only recorded four goals and 16 points. He recently signed a new contract with the Wild for two years at an AAV of $1.9 million, and he will be a restricted free agent when it expires.
February 25, 2019: The Wild trade Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Kevin Fiala. Granlund played 22 regular season and playoff games for the Predators and scored just two goals and seven points. Fiala played 19 games for the Wild, and recorded three goals and seven points. He is currently an unsigned restricted free agent.
April 6, 2019: The Wild play their final game of the 2018-19 season. They miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season, and finish seventh in the Central Division.
June 21, 2019: The first day of the 2019 NHL Draft. Fenton picks Matthew Boldy with the Wild’s first-round pick.
July 1, 2019: The first day of free agency. Paul Fenton signs Mats Zuccarello (five years at $6 million) and Ryan Hartman (two years at $1.9 million).
July 30, 2019: Paul Fenton is relieved of his duties as general manager. Tom Kurvers becomes the acting general manager.
The Decision to Fire Paul Fenton
So what pushed Leipold to decide to move on from Fenton? What changed that was not there on April 6, June 21, or July 1? As Michael Russo has reported over at The Athletic, what spurred Leipold’s decision was a compounding of issues due to the way Fenton ran the front office:
It wasn’t the trades that did Fenton in, because a general manager does more than that. A GM doesn’t just do trades and signings. He runs an entire department. He is responsible for a staff of people that need to be able to help move the team forward. And Fenton, apparently, was not capable of running a front office.
This is what makes the decision difficult to let Fenton go at this point in the off-season. In some ways, it was the right decision to do this right now. If Leipold finally had enough, then it was the right time to move on. If Fenton could not run a front office, the team needed to severe ties with him before the toxic work environment caused anyone else to run out the door. If it was these issues more than all of the questionable transactions that did Fenton in, then this probably was the right time.
That being said, it would have been better if A) Leipold had realized these issues earlier or B) if Leipold had realized this before he hired Fenton back in 2018. To Leipold’s credit, he has taken at least some of the fall for this. He is owning up to the fact that he hired the wrong person, and he is determined to do better in the current search for Fenton’s replacement.
But the timing of this also has multiple clear downsides. First, whoever is hired to take over will come in at the end of an off-season filled with all of Fenton’s decisions. Who knows how the next GM would have approached the draft, free agency, or trades had Fenton been fired April 30 instead of July 30. Would the next GM have signed Mats Zuccarello to his five year, $30 million contract? That contract comes in fourth place in this Pro Hockey Rumors poll asking which free agent contract will look the worst a year from now. The timing — about six weeks away from training camp — also sends a bad message to the Wild players: what is the direction of this team? How competent are management and ownership?
Those are questions a lot of members of the Wild franchise are sure to be asking themselves right now, especially defenseman Jared Spurgeon. Spurgeon is one year from free agency and extending his contract had been a priority for Fenton. Given recent events, Spurgeon has to be thinking if the best thing for him, his career, and his chances of winning a Stanley Cup is to get as far away from Minnesota as possible. Again to Leipold’s credit, he has reached out to players, starting with Spurgeon. He is trying to do damage control. The problem with damage control, though, is that it only controls the damage, but doesn’t get rid of it.
So where do the Wild go from here? Clearly, Leipold does not want to make the same mistake twice. He wants someone with experience being a GM, specifically someone with experience operating a front office. The problem with that, though, is that there are not that many candidates who fit that description at this time of year. Teams with general manager openings have already hired some of the top available candidates earlier this year. So the Wild need to choose from who is still available.
That being said, there have been some names that have already popped up. Former Philadelpia Flyers GM Ron Hextall has been mentioned as a possibility, and you can read Ryan’s thoughts on why Hextall could work in Minnesota here. Other names have included Peter Chiarelli (formerly of Edmonton), and the Hurricanes’ Don Waddell. While Hextall and Chiarelli do not currently hold a front office position, Waddell is technically a free agent currently as his contract with Carolina has expired.
Per tweets from Michael Russo, other names include: the Montreal Canadiens Assistant GM Scott Mellanby, New Jersey Devils Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Penguins Assistant GM Bill Guerin, New York Rangers Assistant GM Chris Drury, and former Toronto Maple Leafs Assistant GM Mark Hunter. Given the fact that Leipold has mentioned his desire for someone with GM experience, these five would appear to be at a disadvantage, but every great GM was once inexperienced, so these five should not be automatically disqualified. Now, rather than breaking down all of the potential candidates, let’s take a look at the qualities the Wild should be looking for in their next GM.
Smart Hockey Leader
This is somewhat obvious, but this is the first thing the Wild should be thinking about. They thought they were getting a “smart hockey person” in Paul Fenton and thought he was going to be a leader as well. While some Wild fans may argue over whether Fenton is or is not a smart hockey guy, he clearly was not a leader. The Wild cannot make that same mistake this time around. This is why Leipold wants someone with true GM experience. He wants a person who has run a front office before and has proven they can do it. It should be pointed out that of all those assistant GMs Russo mentioned, all of them except Mark Hunter were at one point captains of their respective NHL teams. They might not have leadership experience in a front office, but they can certainly translate that on-ice leadership to off the ice.
Does Not Get Overly Attached To Players
This appeared to be a problem for both Chuck Fletcher and Paul Fenton during their tenures as GM for Minnesota. Fletcher placed high values on players he brought to the team and especially ones that he drafted. This appeared to prevent him from trading them because other teams would not match the unnecessarily high values he put on certain Wild players. This is honestly understandable: you draft a player thinking he has a certain level of potential and you refuse to move on from him until he either reaches that potential or another team is willing to value him at that same level. But regardless if it is understandable or not, it does not help the team. Fenton appeared to do this too. He brought in four former Predators. He thought so highly of Kevin Fiala that he traded Mikael Granlund for him one-for-one. Whoever is the next GM of the Wild needs to have a realistic understanding of what his players are worth and needs to not get too attached to anyone.
Not Afraid To Make A Big Move
How many times did Wild fans have their fingers crossed after hearing rumors that Fletcher was about to make a big trade only to be disappointed? This is one reason why I (personally) was excited about Fenton. David Poile, the GM in Nashville, was not afraid to make a big move if it was needed. He made the huge swap to land P.K. Subban and made in-season trades for Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris among others. Plenty of Wild fans hoped Poile’s former assistant, Fenton, would act the same way. Fenton certainly was not afraid to make trades during the season, although most of them were either minor or were just plain head-scratchers. The next GM cannot be someone who gets cold feet. The team needs someone who takes advantages of opportunities to acquire significant talent.
Is Realistic (And Communicates That To Leipold)
Fans can (and do) have debates about what direction the Wild are heading in. Does the team need to start over and rebuild? Can they become contenders right now if they add the right piece or two? The next GM needs to be realistic about the Wild’s chances. He needs to really evaluate where they are, what pieces the team has, and what he can do with them. And whatever he decides, he needs to tell Leipold honestly. The next GM has to be someone who does not feel pressure from ownership to take the team in a certain direction.
I’m only partially kidding here. The events of the past week for the Minnesota Wild must have every player in the organization feeling concerned about the team’s direction. That is why Leipold contacted all of the players and why he started with the team’s most important pending free agent — Jared Spurgeon. But Kirill Kaprizov also must be concerned about what he is seeing from St. Paul. His KHL contract expires in one year, and it is not guaranteed he will sign with the Wild. If he is concerned about the team’s potential, it is entirely possible that he would choose to stay in Russia and play for a KHL-championship caliber team over playing for a sinking NHL team. The next GM has to establish a relationship with Kaprizov and do everything he can do make him feel confident the team is headed in the right direction.
Looking over these qualities, it’s not a totally impossible wish list of traits for the incoming GM, right? Leadership, cool intellect for trades and contracts, not afraid to make big moves, is a realist, and can calm any anxiety the current roster and prospects might have. For now, Minnesota fans can only wait and hope that Leipold and the rest of the front office have come to the same conclusion as they continue their search for Fenton’s replacement.