As the Wild worked to fill the vacancy at the top of its hockey operations, discussing general manager possibilities from a list that kept growing, the feedback owner Craig Leipold received from prospective candidates was the same.
The nominees issued flattering remarks when grading the Wild, but there was a unanimous belief the roster wasn’t complete.
“We’re a damn good team,” Leipold said. “We just need to maybe get to the next level, the next step. And what does that take?”
That answer has eluded the Wild since its inception, never having appeared in a Stanley Cup Final despite morphing into a perennial playoff participant. And while each potential hire diagnosed this problem, Leipold said only one possessed the best qualities to tackle it — the decisive factor that led to Paul Fenton being introduced as the franchise’s third general manager Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center.
“It was just clear that Paul was our guy,” Leipold said.
After the search for Chuck Fletcher’s successor began April 23 when the team opted not to renew his contract, Leipold wrote down five names to consider for the position. Fenton, the longtime Predators executive, was the first name to hit the paper and it never wavered from that No. 1 spot; following a second round of interviews last week, the decision was finalized.
Although Leipold didn’t specify how many candidates he interviewed, he called the group “numerous” and it did include a couple of former GMs. Everyone was experienced, but the Wild believed Fenton was the most seasoned of the bunch.
The 58-year-old, whose wife Nona, sons P.J. and Owen, and daughter-in-law Stefanie joined him Tuesday, spent the past 20 seasons with the Predators and last 12 as assistant GM. He was also the GM of Nashville’s American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee and was previously a director of player personnel and a scout. Before that, he played eight seasons in the NHL.
What stood out for Leipold was Fenton’s work ethic, passion to win and strength as a talent evaluator. The addition of Nashville staples such as goalie Pekka Rinne, captain Roman Josi and wingers Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson were part of his legacy with the Predators.
“I’ve been brought here to tweak this process and to get us to win a Stanley Cup,” Fenton said, “and that’s what our goal is going to be from Day 1.”
This wasn’t the first time Fenton was considered for a GM job; he’s been interviewed before, but he felt those weren’t the right situations for him even though staying patient can be frustrating.
“You’re looking at it like, ‘Is my time ever going to come?’ ” he said. “[But] there was never a give up for me.”
Fenton is familiar with Leipold, who owned the Predators from 1998 to 2007. Fenton was part of the Nashville staff that drafted defenseman Ryan Suter, who took in Fenton’s introduction along with captain Mikko Koivu, winger Zach Parise, coach Bruce Boudreau and other Wild personnel.
He plans to use the insight he gains from getting to know those in the organization to help him assess the roster. He’s already shared some suggested tweaks with Leipold, but firm priorities won’t crystallize until he’s done his research.
“I’m going to talk to everyone,” Fenton said. “I want to get to know what our organization has and what their opinions are and meld it together and see with my eyes.”
An initial survey, though, reveals an opportunity for growth and a team willing to spend to the salary cap, which appealed to Fenton. He had a knack for helping the Predators engineer bold trades that evolved the franchise — the acquisition of defenseman P.K. Subban for fellow blueliner Shea Weber preceded Nashville’s run to the Cup Final last year, as did the arrival of center Ryan Johansen at the expense of standout defenseman Seth Jones.
While Fenton isn’t expecting to make a splash like that in the coming weeks, he’ll look at all options available and maintain the outside-the-box thinking that marked his tenure in Nashville.
After all, that’s also the approach that helped him snag this next opportunity.
“We have a lot of really good veteran pieces, young guys that are coming,” Fenton said. “I’m just looking forward to trying to put on some finishing touches to help us win.”