The Zach Parise–Ryan Suter era officially ended on April 20, 2018, when the Winnipeg Jets eliminated the Minnesota Wild from the playoffs in a 5-0 rout. It was the team’s third-straight first-round exit, with just two wins to show for six postseason trips. Both the team’s veterans and young core failed to get the job done, and the whole roster was aging.
The architect of the team, general manager Chuck Fletcher, was ousted three days later. The diagnosis was clear: As much as humanly possible, tear down the team and start over. No fan wanted to see losing, per se, but what was the point in wheel-spinning? Believing the team could move forward with their squad was delusional.
Enter GM Paul Fenton, whose strategy was summed up in an opening press conference. “Our team is not very far (from contending),” he said. “I’ve been brought here to try and tweak this process and get us to win the Stanley Cup.” Owner Craig Leipold was on the same page, declaring, “This is not a rebuild, it’s a tweaking.”
The sentiment that Minnesota could build a contender without the nasty work of actually, you know, rebuilding was just as delusional. The last decade of Cup winners — the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, and Detroit Red Wings — had won because they drafted and developed generational talent. Those players often came via top-three draft picks, the kind that only arrives as a result of losing.
Reading a summary of events since Project Tweak started is a shocking exercise. It started with a series of unpopular trades of popular players for which Fenton was universally criticized because he usually got poor value. Then came an expensive, long-term, and ironclad contract to 32-year-old Mats Zuccarello. A month later, Fenton was fired. In Project Tweak’s first two years, Minnesota neither (officially) made the playoffs or lost enough to secure a high pick.
Taken alone, that whirlwind series of events leads you to believe the Wild’s rebuild-on-the-fly failed. How could any team survive that much turmoil? But somehow, some way, Minnesota’s plan is on the verge of succeeding.
Despite the continued presence of veterans Parise, Suter, and Zuccarello, the Wild emerged as a team on the upswing. The team’s identity now lies with 24-year-olds Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, and Joel Eriksson Ek. Minnesota is poised to complement them with a stocked farm system, with five top-90 picks in the upcoming 2021 draft.
How did they get from having no future to a potentially bright one in just three years?
Weirdly enough, it’s been their drafting and development since 2015.
That’s despite how the Fletcher regime gave away many premium picks. Minnesota had just two picks before the seventh round in 2016, traded away their first, second, and third-rounder in 2017, and lost a second-round pick in 2018. Finally, in 2019 they selected players in each of the first three rounds for the first time since 2012.
So it is really remarkable that the Wild’s past three head scouts, Brent Flahr (under Fletcher), P.J. Fenton (we’ll let you guess), and Judd Brackett (under Bill Guerin) have gotten results under these circumstances. The law firm of Flahr, Fenton, and Brackett has contributed to the organization’s bright future.
The 2015 draft has been the most impactful in the Wild’s rebuild so far. Kaprizov’s arrival proved once and for all that Minnesota got a genuine star with their fifth-round pick. Any improvements past his rookie year will elevate him to a franchise cornerstone. Flahr also picked Eriksson Ek, who combined his Selke-worthy defense with a 28-goal pace at center this year.
Admittedly, 2016 and 2017 were rough, for obvious reasons, but they still came away with Luke Kunin. Their first-round pick in 2015 has yet to establish himself as a high-end player, but Guerin moved on him while his value was still high, recouping center prospect Marat Khusnutdinov last year.
In the Fenton years, Minnesota added Matt Boldy, Adam Beckman, and Alexander Khovanov and picked up fliers on several lower-level prospects. Brackett has had just one year at the helm, but the additions of Marco Rossi, Khusnutdinov, and Ryan O’Rourke elevated Minnesota’s prospect pool into one of the league’s best.
Then there’s what’s become the signature move of the Fenton Era: Trading for Fiala. Dealing the popular Mikael Granlund straight-up for the less-proven Fiala was decried at the time. But now? It’s a home run for Minnesota, leading to some re-evaluation of Fenton’s reputation.
Including the playoffs, Fiala has 38 goals and 73 points in his last 82 games. That’s a hell of a get for Granlund, who, again, was part of a core that couldn’t get over the hump and produced just 62 points in 130 games in Nashville. Kaprizov’s arrival overshadowed Fiala this year, but Fiala deserves a lot of credit for turning the Wild’s fortunes.
Is this the new formula for teams who need to rebuild but don’t want to go into the Tankathon and risk becoming the next Buffalo Sabres? Sure. Just change GMs three times and make sure to nail your fifth-round draft picks. Easy peasy.
Seriously speaking, it’s hard to imagine this being a reliable blueprint going forward. The Kaprizov selection was a great bet at the time, but getting a superstar with a fifth-round pick is insanely lucky. So is being fortunate enough to both be in the right place to trade for an out-of-favor youngster in Fiala and to have him break out afterward. Getting impact prospects outside the top five in the draft is even more luck.
Of course, we don’t know yet whether Minnesota’s rebuild-on-the-fly will get them to break past the second round, let alone to the Cup. Relying on prospects, even ones as good as Rossi and Boldy, can be tricky. At least one of those players needs to join Kaprizov and Fiala in stardom, or Minnesota has yet another young core with a ceiling on them.
But if Rossi, Boldy, or any other prospect becomes a star that elevates Minnesota to true contender status, who cares if their foundation was built on luck? Ask Pittsburgh or Chicago if they care about getting lucky in the draft lottery or if the Vegas Golden Knights care about their one-in-a-million expansion success.
They don’t care. Hockey’s a results-oriented business, and if Minnesota gets results, that’s all that matters to the State of Hockey. Just don’t expect this rebuild-on-the-fly to become the norm — or at least, the norm of successful teams — going forward.