Paul Fenton admits his personality-type doesn’t lend itself to being patient, but nearly two months into his tenure as Minnesota Wild general manager that’s exactly what Fenton has been.
“Every night I think about the same things,” Fenton said Thursday at Xcel Energy Center after watching prospects scrimmage at the team’s development camp. “How are we going to improve this team? How are we doing to make moves if we have to? But I’m not going to force anything. It is a patience game and sometimes you have to look at the big picture.”
Fenton, 58, is looking at a complex picture.
Chuck Fletcher was not retained by Wild owner Craig Leipold after nine seasons because of the franchise’s postseason failures. Minnesota has made six consecutive playoff appearances, but has never advanced past the second round and has been eliminated in the first round the past three years.
Things aren’t going to get any easier in 2018-19. The Central Division might be the best in the NHL and it appears to be getting stronger.
The Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets are coming off outstanding seasons, the St. Louis Blues have been very active in trying to improve themselves, the Colorado Avalanche are an up-and-coming team, the Dallas Stars could become a significant threat if they are able to land standout defenseman Erik Karlsson in a trade with Ottawa and the Chicago Blackhawks figure to be improved after a dreadful 2017-18.
This doesn’t account for the fact that Western Conference teams such as Calgary and Edmonton should be improved and thus create more competition in the wild card race.
Leipold hired Fenton in May declaring that this was not a rebuild but rather “a tweaking.” This was in part because the Wild already had significant salary-cap space tied up in veterans Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu and with all three having no-move clauses a complete overhaul would be nearly impossible.
“It’s not often that you can make the big transition changes when you’re in the salary-cap world,” Fenton said. “That’s probably the biggest thing. So when you had the ability in Nashville to make some trades that were hockey trades, and that’s what I’ll specifically be looking for here if I can find the right fit and our people have the right ideas, then we’ll make the trades that we can make. … But for now, I’m not just going to make a trade to make a trade. … I’m not going to give away things here.”
Fenton, who spent the past 20 seasons working in the Predators’ front office, did make a few minor moves in free agency signing defenseman Greg Pateryn, forwards Matt Hendricks, Eric Fehr and J.T. Brown and backup goalie Andrew Hammond.
“It’s all about evaluation,” said Fenton, who played for the Whalers, Rangers, Kings, Jets, Maple Leafs, Flames and Sharks during an NHL career that began in 1984 and ended in 1992. “We haven’t played a shift since last year. My main goal was to come in and to add the pieces that we wanted to. We wanted to add what we consider a fifth solid defenseman to make sure we’re giving ourselves the best chance to win every night with five capable guys taking up a lot of ice time. We added Eric Fehr, we added J.T. Brown, we wanted some more character so Matt Hendricks was employed.”
The Wild is currently in contracts talks with winger Jason Zucker and defenseman Matt Dumba, who are restricted free agents and thus both eligible for arbitration. Zucker had a career-high 33 goals this past season and his name has come up as a possible trade chip.
Other players mentioned in trade rumors include Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Jonas Brodin. The issue is that Fenton likely would not get the return he desires for Coyle or Niederreiter, who are both coming off disappointing seasons.
“We have a top nine set of forwards right now that are very good,” Fenton said. “Let’s see if they can get better. Let’s see if some guys can transition their games that maybe weren’t as good last year and then have some of these guys that were very good continue to have that progress. If we do that, then we do have a really good strong top nine and we’ve bolstered the bottom part of the lineup (with free-agent signings). I’ll be very excited to see how we come out of the gate.”