Friday, 2 August 2019

Tarnish Over The Luster

There was always something a little surreal about Paul Fenton. As a member of Jets v1.0, he always found his way onto a roster that seemingly left him behind - an old-school Swiss Army Knife in a changing NHL that was transitioning to bigger and stronger. After being traded to Toronto with Dave Ellett by the Jets, he bounced around the league for the next three seasons, spending hours with Washington before a same-day traded landed him in Calgary before a summer trade to Hartford resulted in the Whalers moving him to San Jose early in 1991. His work as an assistant GM with Nashville was lauded for his ability to make magic with contracts, so I find myself asking what went wrong with Paul Fenton once he landed as Minnesota's general manager.

Fenton's hiring by the Wild was considered a minor coup for the Minnesota club after is work in Nashville, and the team dismissed him on Tuesday just 14 months after prying him away from David Poile. Looking back, maybe "prying" isn't quite the right verbiage when the scenario could have been entirely different. In any case, the work done by Fenton in Minnesota seems like two steps back without taking a step forward. Perhaps that is still coming, but the moves that Fenton made in opening cap space and getting younger seem to have been contradicted by his moves this past summer.

There was solid justification for Fenton's first moves in signing Matt Dumba to a five-year, $30 million deal, Jason Zucker to a five-year, $27.5 million deal, and Greg Pateryn to a three-year, $6.75 million deal. Dumba is arguably the most offensive defenceman that the Wild have, and he's becoming a better defender with each day. Zucker was fresh off a 33-goal, 64-point campaign, and the Wild needed to keep his production in the lineup. Pateryn is a serviceable defender who can play second or third pairing on a regular basis, and his durability made him invaluable as he filled in for various injured defencemen throughout the season.

While he may have overspent for Dumba and Zucker, the questionable move was handing Zucker a no-trade clause which kicked in on July 1. The no-trade clause likely kept the dollar value on Zucker's contract down, but it's making the winger harder to move after rumours of him being dealt all year went nowhere. When it appeared that he was on the move to Pittsburgh this summer before Phil Kessel vetoed that deal, a lot of people wondered why Fenton agreed to Zucker's deal if his intention was trade him.

With Minnesota struggling to find its footing this season, it was clear that Fenton needed to decide on being a buyer and going for a wild card spot or a seller and planning for the future. With an aging core of players, he opted for the latter and began the dismantling with a minor-league trade that saw popular Iowa Wild defender Justin Kloos sent to Anaheim for Pontus Aberg. Aberg, who was a solid player in the Nashville system, looked lost since leaving Music City, and he continued this trend under the Wild's care. Kloos, meanwhile, was a great defender with the occasional offensive showing. The first non-summer move made by Fenton was a miss.

One day later, and I'm going to say the roof caved in. For a team that already had a couple of checking centermen, Fenton dealt popular winger Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for Victor Rask in what amounted to a $1.2 million in savings despite the point totals that Niederreiter posted in comparison to Rask. Both players are 26, so it's not like this move was made to get younger or move an aging veteran. Instead, it seems that Niederreiter didn't fit into Fenton's vision of the future while Rask, who scored a whopping nine points in 49 games between Carolina and Minnesota last season, somehow did. This deal was a huge blemish on Fenton's record.

Fenton decided to improve his blue line, acquiring Brad Hunt from the Vegas Golden Knights for a conditional pick, but he added in a 30 year-old Hunt which, if I'm doing the math, adds another aging veteran player to the squad. Hunt had seven points in just 13 games for the Golden Knights after being a healthy scratch for most of the season, and the time off didn't seem to help as he came to Wild and recorded just five points in 29 games. While this move isn't a bad one on the surface, it does take a roster spot away from a player from Iowa. If Fenton is looking to unearth talent in building for the future, this move makes little sense.

Fenton went back to the phones to make another deal, swinging centerman Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins for winger Ryan Donato. While Donato was a serviceable player for the Bruins, he was arguably the best player for the Wild over the final month and a half of the season. Coyle filled the third-line centerman role for the Bruins very nicely as well, so it seems both teams benefitted from this trade. If Donato comes out this season and plays like he did in that last 45 days, this might be the best move in the very brief Fenton era for the Wild. Until that happens, though, the jury is out on this one, especially when one considers Coyle's contributions in helping the Boston Bruins reach the Stanley Cup Final.

If that wasn't enough, Fenton went back to his old stomping grounds in acquiring Kevin Fiala from Nashville for arguably Minnesota's most talented player in Mikael Granlund. Granlund's $5.75 million contract for the upcoming season may have warranted some review based on his 49 points in 63 games last season, down from 67 points in 77 games one year earlier, but the value was clearly there based on this summer's market. There was no need to trade Granlund whatsoever, yet Fenton dealt him for a player whose durability has been a problem and whose productivity has been streaky at best. Fiala's career-best point total is 48 - one less than Granlund's total with the Wild last season - and his 7 points in 19 games with the Wild to finish last season is 0.41 points-per-game less than what Granlund had. This trade made no sense then, it makes no sense in hindsight, and the only thing that one can rationalize from it is that it provided some cap relief. Chalk up another significant blemish.

After missing the playoffs, one had to believe that Fenton would enter this summer with a gameplan to put the Wild back into the playoffs with some key signings. Combined with his knowledge of the salary cap and his work shown with the Predators, there was hope of bringing in a couple of younger stars who could push the lineup to new heights.

On July 1 with free agents such as Jake Gardiner, Matt Duchene, Joe Pavelski, and Artemi Panarin out on the market, the only major signing that Fenton could produce was 32 year-old Mats Zuccarello who the Wild inked to a five-year, $30-million contract. Zuccarello did record 40 points in 48 games with the Rangers and Stars last season despite missing significant time due to a broken arm, but giving a 32 year-old $6 million per season until he's 37 seems entirely the opposite of "rebuild". Unless Zuccarello can find 80 points this season, there is no way this move can be considered anything but a miss.

Behind the scenes, Fenton dismissed hugely popular, "heart of the franchise" assistant coach Andrew Brunette who literally bled green-and-red for the majority of his career. While Brunette was never going to ascend to the head coaching position while Bruce Boudreau was in town, firing a guy who had been through everything with the Wild franchise seemed awfully shortsighted.

He also dismantled the analytics department that was led by lead hockey researcher Andrew C. Thomas and analyst whiz Alexandra Mandrycky. They had been hired for data collection and interpretation for the organization after the two worked together for the popular and highly-referenced War-On-Ice website. Highly-respected for their insights, Mandrycky wasn't out of work long as she was hired by the Seattle NHL group to help them get things off the ground, proving that her work is still sought out by people in NHL circles. Considering all that War-On-Ice did for the hockey and hockey blogging community, these dismissals still make no sense.

Overall, when considering this resumé of work, it's hard to justify keeping Fenton. While I'm not here to pile on the guy, I don't see one move that has worked out for the positive outside of the Matt Dumba deal which would qualify as a "no-brainer". I'm not certain that we've seen or heard the last from Paul Fenton as he likely will find another job in hockey. Like John Ferguson Jr., the chances are seeing him sitting in a GM's chair again is likely closer to none than slim.

While he may have been versatile on the ice as a player, Fenton's ability to adapt and find value as a GM simply wasn't there. Whoever takes over in Minnesota will have a lot of work to do moving forward.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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