Considering the importance of an owner and general manager being on the same page, Wild fans should have been very pleased that Craig Leipold and Paul Fenton got off to such a good start on Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center as Fenton was introduced as the third GM in franchise history.
Leipold and Fenton, whose relationship dates to Leipold’s days as owner of the Nashville Predators, practically could have finished each other’s sentences. If they had done so, it’s likely each would have ended with the word tweak.
That is the word the Wild brass have decided to go with when describing what needs to be done in the post-Chuck Fletcher era. As in, “certainly, you have to make tweaks to the roster,” (Fenton’s words) or “this is not a rebuild, it’s a tweaking,” (Leipold’s words).
The use of this term — a tweak is defined as a small adjustment made to something in order to improve it — caused consternation on social media from Wild fans. But what were Leipold and Fenton going to say? Yeah, we need to overhaul this roster and start over.
First of all, that isn’t possible. Not with Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu all having no-move clauses in their contracts and Suter and Parise each having seven years left on their 13-year, $98 million deals that take up substantial room against the NHL’s salary cap.
Second, Leipold and Fletcher’s plan, dating to July 4, 2012, was for Suter and Parise to have led this franchise to a Stanley Cup by this point. Wild fans bought into the plan and have remained patient since that date, spending big money on tickets and merchandise and keeping the X filled. In return, they’ve seen the Wild make six trips to the playoffs and never get past the second round.
Leipold isn’t about to tell those fans that they now need to show even more patience and spend on their money on a team that is going to rebuild. Thus, the Wild’s slogan could transition from “This is Our Ice” to “Only a Tweak Away,” for the 2018-19 season.
The question now is what does the term mean to Fenton? Fenton spent the past 20 seasons working for the Predators, including the last 12 as assistant general manager. He was part of an organization that reached the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago before losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins and then finished atop the NHL in points this season with 117 before losing in the second round to the team that ousted Minnesota in the playoffs, the Winnipeg Jets.
Fenton, 58, didn’t provide much information in his introductory press conference, but he did drop a few bread crumbs along the way that indicated there might be more than a tweak on the way in St. Paul.
Fenton, asked about potential trades, said he likes “to think outside the box,” and likes those on his staff to do the same.
“I think looking at the moves that we made (in Nashville) we made hockey trades … and a lot of times in this new salary cap world that we have teams aren’t able to do that,” Fenton said. “We had a creative set of people that looked at the situation and tried to evaluate it and make the right call. I’ll look at small trades. I’ll look at big trades. Whatever is going to improve this organization going forward to give us a chance to win the Stanley Cup, we’re going to look (at).”
Predators general manager David Poile, with assistance from Fenton, made some bold “hockey trades” to improve the franchise. This included the blockbuster deal that sent defenseman Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman P.K. Subban on June 29, 2016. This might have been a one-for-one trade but it was far from a tweak to the Predators roster. Subban has been a force on the Predators’ blue line since his arrival.
At the trade deadline of the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, the Predators somehow got Washington to send them top forward prospect Filip Forsberg for a two-player package that included veteran winger Martin Erat, who had spent 10-plus seasons with Nashville. That trade now has a “Brock for Broglio” feel to it. There have been other Nashville deals that were far more than tweaks, including the January 2016 trade that sent young defenseman Seth Jones to Columbus in for center Ryan Johansen.
This season the Predators got involved in a three-team deal with Central Division rival Colorado and Ottawa, acquiring center Kyle Turris from the Senators in November and then signing him to a three-year, $36 million contract that will begin next season.
“We have to look at the pieces and go from there,” Fenton said when asked about bringing the Predators’ formula to Minnesota. “I love when people try to say ‘You need this,’ or ‘You need that.’ It isn’t as easy as it seems. There’s a lot of manipulating, a lot of analysis, a lot of things that have to happen correctly. The Subban for Weber trade was a vision. It started with a thought and then we went in that direction. Same with Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. Teams need strength from their goaltending to their defense and down the middle. What is the formula? Do you need one? Do you need two? Do you need three?”
That will be up to Fenton.
What’s clear is he learned from a GM in Poile who wasn’t afraid to make a bold move even when that might not have been considered the safest thing to do.
Don’t be surprised if Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and even 42-goal scorer Eric Staal (he’s 33 and entering the final season of his contract) are shopped by the Wild. Much like the Twins hired Derek Falvey and told him to replicate what had been done by the Cleveland Indians to get to the top of the American League Central, Leipold wants Fenton to copy the Predators’ successful formula.
“The thing that was most attractive is Craig has given this organization the opportunity to be a salary cap team right from the very beginning,” Fenton said. “There is no floor here. We have the opportunity to put pieces in place and not have to worry about it. He’s been a phenomenal owner and given them the opportunity to have a chance to win. The roster has some star players and some young players that are growing and getting better. And I see it as an opportunity for us to grow together.”
That growth might involve some major tweaks that neither Leipold or Fenton wanted to discuss on Tuesday.