The edict from ownership called for tweaks. Paul Fenton came to the opinion, wisely, that the Wild roster required more than subtle changes.
Fenton hasn’t initiated a complete teardown — yet — but his moves before and at Monday’s trade deadline left no ambiguity about his feelings on the roster he inherited as general manager.
He’s ready to start over. Significant changes were necessary.
Fans can debate whether Fenton got fleeced on different deals, but roster churn was the only way forward for a team that is stuck in a position of being good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to win a championship.
“We had the oldest team in the National Hockey League,” Fenton said. “And probably one of the teams that wasn’t as fast as everybody.”
Old and slow is a bad combination, something that minor tweaks wouldn’t fix, which everyone knew when owner Craig Leipold laid out that vision.
Fenton’s roster remake is predicated on breaking up a core that helped the Wild earn annual postseason appearances but had become stagnant in their development.
He jettisoned Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle first. On Monday, Fenton traded Mikael Granlund to Nashville for 22-year-old Kevin Fiala. It won’t be surprising if Fenton tries to move Jason Zucker this offseason as well.
There is an unmistakable youth movement under way, a calculated page turn to a team built around a younger core of Matt Dumba, Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, Luke Kunin, Ryan Donato, Fiala and — eventually, presumably — Russian prospect Kirill Kaprizov.
Fenton is banking on upside and his belief that those young players either already are or will become players with more high-end talent than the veterans he unloaded.
“I like the team that we are putting together and changing,” Fenton said. “I’m not done.”
Fenton traded Granlund for Fiala straight up, which seems like a light return. Fenton made it sound like he didn’t even fight too hard for Nashville to include a draft pick, describing it as “fair-market value” swap. He probably won’t find too many people outside the organization who agree with his assessment. Right now, at least.
Granlund was the Wild’s best playmaker and more productive than Fiala, but he is also four years older and his contract expires after next season. This was a business decision as much Fenton’s fascination with Fiala, who he helped draft.
Granlund likely will expect a new contract that pays him in the range of $7 million to $8 million per season. Would anyone honestly feel comfortable paying that much to a player who has never registered 70 points in a season? No thanks.
“The reason I was hired is for me to put a touch on it that I feel is going to make us better,” Fenton said.
Is the Wild better today than before the trade deadline? To be determined.
The organization’s decision-makers would never admit it publicly, but they know the roster wasn’t constructed for a long playoff run. Another early-round flameout with the same group would have caused more frustration with a restless fan base. Fenton had to shake things up.
The new GM said he still believes his team can make the postseason, but his trades show that he’s viewing his task through a longer lens. He wasn’t paralyzed by uncertainty of whether the Wild should act as buyers or sellers or stand pat.
Donato has given the team a spark since coming from Boston. The Victor Rask-Niederreiter deal has been a lopsided loss for Fenton to date. Fenton offered glowing reviews of Fiala and hopes his arrival has a similar effect as Donato.
Fenton accomplished a few objectives. He made his roster younger, and he freed up cap space that gives him flexibility to make more changes this offseason. Time will reveal whether he made the right moves.
He had to do something drastic though. Tweaks weren’t enough. It was time to try something different.