In the end, Chuck Fletcher probably needed to be fired. Not necessarily for doing a bad job, but not doing a good enough job, and a change was needed. Fresh eyes were needed, and someone with some new ideas was needed. The status quo wasn’t good enough anymore, and everyone at a position has a shelf life, especially as they climb the ladder in sports.
Enter Paul Fenton, who came with a great track record. He had served under hockey’s longest-reigning GM in Nashville, and helped build them to a perennial powerhouse through his drafting prowess. He came in under much fanfare, and cited the now infamous ‘tweaks’ needed to take the Minnesota Wild to the next level.
Nine months later, and Wild fans are mostly not thrilled with what’s been delivered. Fenton got off to an auspicious start, drafting Filip Johnsson 18th overall, when nary an analyst nor observer had the Swedish defender anywhere close to going in the first round. While Brent Flahr was supposedly running the draft table again this year, as he had under Fletcher, the final call still should reside with Fenton, who hopefully had been doing preparation for the draft all year during his time with Nashville. The second day of the draft went much better for the Wild, but the damage to fans’ confidence with such an important pick had been done.
Before and after the draft, no trades were made, which came as a surprise to many, considering the talk of tweaking the roster to build a winner. The Wild were also fairly quiet in free agency, adding the solid but unspectacular Greg Pateryn on a three-year deal, and filling out the fourth line with Eric Fehr, J.T. Brown and Matt Hendricks. Wild fans again waited for more movement, hoping that the cap-strapped Wild could pull off a miracle of improving their team through a trade.
As the season approached, more silence. The season started and still nothing happened, and Wild fans began to wonder if Fenton was even trying. Some fans understood that Fenton may just be in an observational mode, seeing what he has before he moves any pieces around. Some fans were upset, others remained patient as the Wild season ebbed and flowed approaching the halfway point.
Then, seemingly overnight, the floodgates opened. Fenton dealt former Gopher Justin Kloos to the Ducks for Pontus Aberg, added some forward depth and a right-handed shot, something the team desperately needed. The move was praised, grabbing a young NHL player with potential for Kloos, who seemed stuck in Iowa. Days later, Fenton added Brad Hunt, a left-handed defenseman with some upside, for simply downgrading a fifth-round pick to a sixth-round pick. A paltry cost for a player who could slot into the third pairing when needed. These were small tweaks, but tweaks nonetheless, and Wild fans couldn’t take much issue with them, and very much didn’t, mostly because of the trade that occurred in between.
The trade of Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask came as a shock to most, not because Nino wasn’t performing and very much a name thrown around as a trade possibility, but because of the return. Rask was an acquisition that Fenton hoped would turn things around after struggling early this season with Carolina, and he’s done no more than fall flat on his face so far. Touted as a third-line center type, but with perhaps some upside, Rask has been demoted to the fourth line, and most recently moved to wing, in a parade of demotions that will likely end with him getting the classic “motivational/resetting” healthy scratch soon. Meanwhile, Nino has thrived with a new team and more minutes.
After that flurry of moves, Fenton has added two more of the non-trade variety, first claiming Anthony Bitetto off waivers from Nashville, and also extending backup goaltender Alex Stalock to a three-year extension. Both appear to be complete missteps, as the Nino trade has proven to be. Bitetto has been thrust into the lineup as the fourth left-handed defender, which isn’t fair to him, but has also not looked good himself, as most recently evidenced in the Philadelphia game.
The Stalock extension has perhaps been the most puzzling move made in this entire rough stretch for Fenton. Stalock has proven to be a below-average NHL backup, and while that’s fine to ride out a season, signing him for a whopping three years is an uncommon length for serviceable and above-average backup goaltenders. I touched on this last week in my mailbag.
That brings us to today. Just days before the NHL trade deadline, with news constantly swirling about the Wild’s activity at that juncture. According to Michael Russo of The Athletic, Owner Craig Leipold has supposedly given Fenton the ‘Green Light’ on making whatever trades he feels he needs to, which is great, when your boss tells you that you can actually perform all of the duties of your job without restrictions.
But can Wild fans trust Fenton to make the right moves? He certainly has not fared very well with any move he’s made so far, but maybe there is a learning curve to becoming a GM, and that franchise-altering trade is right around the corner.
There are two facets to the answer. When taken literally, no, Wild fans cannot trust Paul Fenton, as he’s given them no reason to yet, and beyond the lack of a meaningful track record, his early returns have been bad. This isn’t a situation where ‘bad credit is better than no credit,’ but perhaps that does lead to some optimism? Perhaps Fenton has learned from the first handful of moves he’s made. He’s hardly the first GM to make a bad move, so maybe that deserves some leeway.
That leads me to the second facet: Wild fans also don’t really have a choice. In a world where sports is ever-changing, and front offices need to be near-elite to win championships, fans still have the same amount of say in what front offices do as they did when players literally never changed teams. That’d be none, or very, very, absurdly little. Given the behavior we’ve seen from fans at games, on social media, or in any other kind of public forum, that’s probably a good thing in the long run.
It’s crippling, I’m sure, to most fans who have already lost trust in Fenton but have to watch helplessly as he navigates a very important trade deadline. Impending free agent Eric Staal has almost become the Belle of the NHL Ball, and hoping that Fenton does the right thing — either way — has had Wild fans in a tizzy for some time now.
When the dust settles, Fenton will have done what he has done, and Wild fans will have to deal with that, one way or another. Whether this season has been the start of a downward trajectory for the Wild, or merely a bump in the road on the way to a Stanley Cup remains to be seen. For now, I think the key to managing expectations is unfortunately lowering them. Fenton still has to earn the trust of Wild fans, and given his step back thus far, might have a ways to go to get there.
Expecting a brilliant, fleecing trade for Staal or anyone else would be a folly, and fans would be setting themselves up for disappointment. Managing expectations has never been easy for any sports fans; it’s a necessary condition of rooting for a team. But now, more than ever with the Wild, it’s going to be tested, and it’s going to be important.