In what was already a shockingly busy late July week in the hockey world, the Minnesota Wild truly made waves in relieving Paul Fenton of his duties just over 13 months into the job.
It of course makes sense to move on from a guy who lost — or at best drew even — in every trade he made during that time, whose signings underwhelmed, let go of arguably the best analytics team in the biz, and whose management style (like letting his 33-year-old son with minimal experience run the draft) apparently bothered most everyone he worked with.
Team owner Craig Leipold is getting his fair share of the slings and arrows this week, mostly for just hiring the wrong guy in the first place and not really giving any “hockey people” a say in the matter. However, he’s not getting as much criticism as you’d expect for letting Fenton run an entire draft in which his team picked eight times and most of a free agent period in which he signed a guy who turns 32 on Sept. 1 to a five-year deal.
Moreover, it doesn’t seem like Leipold knew just how bad things got until Zach Parise talked at length about his misgivings regarding the direction of the team. Obviously you want to keep your name-brand players happy, and the revelation that Fenton fielded offers for Parise doesn’t help much. But if you’re making these moves in late July to assuage a 35-year-old who’s signed for another SIX seasons by undoing a horrid hiring decision less than 14 months after making it, then how are you not the guy who screwed up the most?
The thing that stands out the most to me about what Leipold has said in the wake of the firing is that the organization believes this is a playoff team. I would tend to disagree with that; they were elite defensively last season, yes, but their offense was horrible, 23rd in the league in expected goals per 60, fourth-bottom in actual scoring per hour. Adding Mats Zuccarello helps, as should a full season of Matt Dumba and Mikko Koivu, if they can get that.
Will that help to the extent needed to get back into the playoff conversation? Well, let’s just say Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock would have to be a lot better because that offense still looks fairly lackluster. Both underperformed their expected goals against considerably, and while you likely wouldn’t expect them to be so bad again, the fact is neither has beaten expected-goals numbers in any of the last three seasons. Now they’re a year older, as is everyone else in front of them.
But let’s give Leipold the benefit of the doubt and say this is indeed a playoff team in 2019-20. What does merely being a playoff team get this group, apart from some gate revenues and a slight improvement on a down season in which they missed by seven points and had two teams ahead of them in line?
Does this Wild team not just look like wild-card fodder for one of the juggernauts of the West? While the Lightning and Flames, who won their respective conferences last season, both went out in the first round, the teams that beat them still went out in the second, so even if you get all that good stuff to come together the odds that it gets you even within a round of a Cup Final aren’t particularly good.
The Wild do have the financial flexibility to go out and take on money, meaning they could acquire a good player if they’re willing to push all in with this group, giving up some futures to be more competitive today. It’s just really hard to see the point of doing that. Making the playoffs is nice and everything, but if Parise is getting all introspective about competing for a Cup — and we can presume Ryan Suter has similar concerns/ambitions — Leipold’s bold vision of the future isn’t all that inspiring.
On the one hand, whoever comes aboard to replace Fenton — and with a Hockey Man like Mike Modano sitting in on the hiring process, how could this next guy not be a huge success?! — is going to be in tough. The edict from ownership is that this team needs to be competitive, and it probably can’t be as things stand. This isn’t a situation where you can make a coaching change and get a Blues-style turnaround; Bruce Boudreau is one of the best in the business and this was one of the better defensive teams of the past several seasons. The problem is the lack of talent up front, and the job will obviously be to add some. And now you have to get it in August. Where? How?
It’s definitely nice to see an NHL team acknowledge its more egregious mistakes proactively and on a shorter timeline than usual. Certain teams will sit a few years with a hiring decision they knew pretty quickly was a bad one, just so they don’t appear to be panicking and flying by the seat of their pants.
But when part of the problem is a fundamental misevaluation of roster quality and chances for success, which began in 2012 with the Parise/Suter contracts and clearly starts at the top? Well, you just gotta say, “Best of luck to the next guy.” You’re gonna need it.
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