Which players will take to the ice for the Wild next season is all but finalized, the normal status for an NHL roster on the brink of August that has had nearly four months to recalibrate through the draft and free agency.
But who will oversee this roster is suddenly unclear.
Only 14 months after hiring him, the Wild dismissed Paul Fenton from his post as general manager Tuesday — an unsurprising move in the sense it capped off a tenure that was tumultuous but a decision that puts the organization in a bizarre spot seeking leadership about six weeks ahead of training camp.
“The reason for the termination is not any one big issue,” owner Craig Leipold said during a news conference at the team’s St. Paul headquarters. “Over a time, smaller issues just were building up and [I] ultimately decided that this was not a good fit. Our organization and our culture were a little different than the way Paul wanted to handle things. We just felt this was the time to do it, and we were going to move forward in a different direction.”
Guiding the Wild past the first round of the playoffs and toward a Stanley Cup was Fenton’s objective when he was named the third GM in franchise history on May 21, 2018, after 12 seasons as an assistant GM in Nashville. He filled Chuck Fletcher’s void after Fletcher’s contract wasn’t renewed.
Instead, the Wild missed the postseason for the first time in seven years and looked caught in the unenviable position of having too veteran a roster to embrace a rebuild but not competitive enough to seriously contend — a tricky no man’s land that Leipold seemed to acknowledge when he said, “We’re kind of in an area of not really knowing where we’re going to go.”
Leipold delivered the news to Fenton, 59, Tuesday morning over the phone, a conversation Leipold described as brief and one he sensed caught Fenton off guard. The two had worked with each other in the past, when Leipold owned the Predators from 1998-2007.
While Leipold came to know Fenton as a strong scout and talent evaluator, Leipold said other facets of the GM role — such as his managerial style and how he motivated departments — didn’t meet expectations.
“I missed it,” Leipold said, “and this is on me.”
Even though the timing of the dismissal is unusual, there wasn’t a “final straw” that triggered it. Leipold said he might have liked to cut ties sooner, but he wasn’t ready until now — evaluating a vibe that felt off after exit meetings with players.
“There was a sense there that just things weren’t all right,” Leipold explained. “So as we pulled back the onion of some of those issues, we realized that was maybe part of the problem. But I’m certainly not pointing the finger at Paul that, if there’s issues in our locker room, I’m not saying it’s Paul. I just didn’t think Paul was the solution.”
Fenton did not return a request for comment.
After making a controversial 2018 first-round pick at No. 24 in Filip Johansson, an under-the-radar defenseman who struggled last season in Sweden, Fenton was conservative in his first free-agency period. He added three fourth-line forwards and third-pair defenseman Greg Pateryn in addition to re-signing defenseman Matt Dumba and winger Jason Zucker to long-term contracts.
Despite a steady first half, the Wild started to struggle after season-ending injuries to Dumba and captain Mikko Koivu, but Fenton didn’t acquire outside help to patch those holes.
Leading up to the trade deadline, he jettisoned popular pillars in Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle in exchange for forwards Victor Rask (Carolina), Kevin Fiala (Nashville) and Ryan Donato (Boston) — trades that drew criticism but transactions Leipold said didn’t cause Fenton’s firing.
And although Leipold had been mulling a change ever since the end of the season, which saw the Wild fade from contention amid a scoring shortage, Fenton continued to work.
His support staff was overhauled, as Andrew Brunette, Shep Harder and Andrew C. Thomas were let go and Alexandra Mandrycky joined Seattle — this after senior vice president of hockey operations Brent Flahr reunited with Fletcher midseason in Philadelphia, where Fletcher took over as GM.
Hires under Fenton, which included assistant general manager Tom Kurvers, assistant to the GM Jack Ferreira and amateur scout P.J. Fenton, will stay on board, Leipold said. Kurvers is acting as interim GM, and Bruce Boudreau remains as coach. His future beyond this final season of his four-year contract will be decided by the new GM.
This year’s draft haul was more traditional, with the Wild tabbing winger Matt Boldy with the 12th overall pick, and Fenton attempted to address the offensives woes in free agency by signing right winger Mats Zuccarello to a five-year, $30 million deal.
He also tried to move out Zucker at least twice, once at the deadline to Calgary and again in the offseason to Pittsburgh, and these botched trades only stoked confusion about the Wild’s plan.
“The culture wasn’t the same,” Leipold said. “I didn’t have the same vibes with our employees in hockey ops, and I think the attitude of some of the players and all the people and the coaching and the locker room and the training room — it was just a feeling that we didn’t have the right leader for our organization.”
Leipold and Wild President Matt Majka led last year’s GM search, and they’ll be at the helm again alongside new executive advisor and Hall of Famer Mike Modano — an addition that should offer a hockey perspective to the process. Modano is not considered a candidate.
Already, Leipold has options in mind and plans to circle back on the list of possibilities from a year ago.
An experienced hire is Leipold’s preference, but he isn’t ruling anyone out at this stage. How a potential GM interacts with players, including the trust between the two sides, will be a factor.
The Wild isn’t operating under a deadline, a patient approach that makes sense considering the calendar. Forwards Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek and minor leaguers Louie Belpedio and Hunter Warner are the only restricted free agents who remain unsigned.
Still, the uncertainty in the meantime could be cumbersome.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon is entering the last season of his four-year, $20.75 million contract and can sign an extension now. Leipold offered to meet Spurgeon in his native Edmonton this week, but the two decided to have lunch another time.
Almost everyone else on the team also spoke to Leipold. Players were understanding of the situation and expressed an eagerness to get back in action.
When that happens, Leipold expects the Wild to be competitive despite how turbulent the last year-plus has been — a rough patch that has only plopped more adversity between the organization and its ultimate goal.
“I believe we are a playoff team,” Leipold said. “We have to get everybody believing that and moving in the same direction.”