Craig Leipold had seen enough.
The Wild’s third consecutive first-round playoff exit last spring brought swift action from the team’s owner. General manager Chuck Fletcher was shown the door after nine seasons, replaced by Nashville Predators assistant general manager Paul Fenton.
So what did Fenton do to shake up things? Not much.
While there has been plenty of movement around the NHL this offseason, the Wild have been mostly quiet. Restricted free agents Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker were retained. Defenseman Greg Pateryn, far from a household name, was the team’s biggest free agent signing. The biggest name to leave, other than Fletcher? Probably Matt Cullen.
When the Wild take the ice on Friday to open training camp, things will look much like they did a year ago at this time. The question is how long will that remain the case?
Fenton wasn’t hired to get the Wild into the playoffs — something they have done for the past six seasons — he was hired to get them deep into the postseason. That’s something that hasn’t happened since the team’s improbable run to the Western Conference Finals in 2003.
Here are five questions/issues facing the Wild entering the 2018-19 season:
Will Fenton makes moves?
Fenton likely explored making trades this offseason and found that his fellow general managers were trying to get too good of deal in return. That means it was on Fenton to exercise patience.
Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Jonas Brodin are names that have emerged in trade rumors involving the Wild and any of them could find themselves being shopped, especially if the Wild struggle this season.
It’s difficult to believe that Fenton won’t want to put his stamp on this franchise at some point. He’s likely waiting for the right time.
The Bruce Boudreau/Dean Evason relationship
This was one of the more interesting moves made by Fenton during the offseason.
Boudreau’s good friend, John Anderson, wasn’t retained as an assistant coach and Evason, who had been coach of the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL, was hired to replace him. Evason was an assistant at one point on Boudreau’s coaching staff with the Washington Capitals but his real relationship is with Fenton.
Fenton’s duties in Nashville included overseeing their minor league team in Milwaukee. The Admirals went 242-161-53 and qualified for the playoffs four times during Evason’s six seasons.
It’s not a stretch to wonder if Boudreau is working with his eventual replacement. Boudreau doesn’t deserve a ton of the blame for the fact the Wild have not advanced beyond the first round in his first two seasons as their coach — they have recorded 106 and 101 points in those two years — but it’s not unusual for a new GM to want to hire his own coach.
Boudreau is entering the third season of a four-year, $12 million contract and if the Wild don’t live up to expectations during the season it will be interesting to see if Evason is put in charge. There also could be a change if the Wild qualify for the postseason and get bounced early again.
A repeat performance?
Eric Staal was coming off a down season when he signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Wild in 2016. It has turned out to be a bargain. The veteran center has thrived in Minnesota and last season he had a team-leading 42 goals and 76 points in 82 games.
The 33-year-old is the Wild’s top center but how long will, or should, that last? This one is difficult for Fenton because if Staal puts together another good season, he will be looking for a decent payday. But does Fenton really want to sign a guy into his mid-30s? The Wild already has contract and salary-cap issues with guys like Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu signed to multiyear deals.
The other temptation would be to shop Staal around the trade deadline to a team that needs a quality second center. Staal has a modified no-trade clause but he lacks the complete trade protection that Parise, Suter and Koivu have because of their no-move clauses.
If the Wild are a borderline playoff team does Fenton keep Staal in hopes of simply making the postseason or does he try to get pieces for the future? It could be an interesting decision.
The Parise and Suter factor(s)
Parise and Suter still have seven years each on the 13-year, $98 million contracts they signed in 2012. The Wild’s annual salary-cap hit on each is $7.5 million through 2024-25.
That’s a lot if both are productive for years to come. But it’s nearly a franchise-killer if they are injured and not productive.
There’s where Leipold, Fenton, Boudreau and Wild fans are simply going to have to hold their breath and hope. Parise is coming off a lost season in which he underwent surgery on his lower back in late October and then was lost in Game 3 of the Wild’s first-round playoff series against Winnipeg after suffering a broken sternum. Parise ended up playing in 45 games, including playoffs, and had 18 goals and 27 points.
Entering his 14th NHL season, Parise must be able to remain on the ice. The 34-year-old has never played more than 74 regular-season games in his five years with the Wild. The issue is that Parise’s hard-nosed, grinding style of play tends to result in injury.
Suter, meanwhile, has a smooth style that appears to be effortless. Thus, it has been taken for granted that he is going to play huge minutes and rarely miss games. But that changed for the 33-year-old late last regular season in Dallas when he suffered a broken right fibula. Suter spent the offseason rehabbing and is expecting to resume his role as the Wild’s top defenseman.
But there’s a difference between Suter being optimistic and actually getting back on the ice in a game and playing the same as he did before. Suter, who is entering his 14th year, was second in the NHL last season in ice time, averaging 26 minutes, 47 seconds per game. Will it be realistic for him to approach that type of playing time coming off this injury? That would seem to be a long shot, at least early in the season.
Hamburglar to the (backup) rescue?
Devan Dubnyk remains the Wild’s No. 1 goaltender but the search for a backup who can be relied upon is an ongoing process.
Two years ago, Dubnyk’s primary backup was Darcy Kuemper but Boudreau found himself unable to rely on Kuemper and thus Dubnyk played in 65 regular-season games, Kuemper played in only 18 and Alex Stalock was in two games. Last season, Dubnyk played in 60 games (59 starts) and Stalock in 28 (23 starts).
Fenton, though, continues to search for someone who can give Dubnyk a reliable backup and keep the starter fresh. That led him to sign Andrew Hammond to a one-year, two-way contract. Hammond and Stalock will compete for the No. 2 job in training camp.
Hammond, 30, had an incredible 1.79 goals-against average in 24 games for Ottawa in 2014-15, but played in only one game for the Colorado Avalanche last season. Stalock, 31, had a 2.85 goals-against average for the Wild last season.