It’s time to give Minnesota Wild general manager Paul Fenton some credit.
That doesn’t mean he has atoned for his missteps to this point — truthfully, he may never recover from trading former fan favorite Nino Niederreiter for human boat anchor Victor Rask — but it appears he at least has a plan for the Wild.
After securing a haul of prospects at last month’s draft, picks mostly met with rave reviews, Fenton convinced creative winger Mats Zuccarello and scrappy winger Ryan Hartman to sign with the Wild when free agency opened up Monday.
Nothing the Wild have done this offseason has been very sexy, but for Fenton that was never really the point. It was about proving to owner Craig Leipold that he is still the right person for the job. And while there remains work to be done before next season, Fenton appears to have the franchise moving in a positive direction.
That couldn’t be said a few months ago.
It started to unravel for Fenton midway through last season, when he obliterated a good chunk of the roster in one fell swoop before and at the trade deadline. He shipped off Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund without getting nearly enough in return. He also seemed to have an obsession with reacquiring middling players from Nashville, where he was assistant GM before succeeding Chuck Fletcher in Minnesota.
Not surprisingly, the Wild missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, and Fenton saw his approval rating plummeted as he entered the offseason without much a clear direction. As far as outsiders were concerned, there was a better chance of Andrew Wiggins turning into a Hall of Famer than the Wild actually contending for a Stanley Cup in 2019-18.
That perception hurt Fenton on multiple occasions this offseason, initially when Phil Kessel reportedly vetoed a trade to the Twin Cities — perhaps a blessing in disguise — and again when he was unable to secure a sit down with veteran free-agent center Joe Pavelski. Both players are near the ends of their career, and the fact that they didn’t feel they could realistically chase a Stanley Cup with the Wild was an indictment of the franchise.
Still, Fenton made the most out of the mess he had made. Bouncing back from Kessel curving him, and pivoting after Pavelski decided he’d rather play elsewhere, he shifted his focus to Zuccarello and Hartman and successfully wooed them both.
It’s likely Zuccarello will slot into the top six, and Hartman into the bottom, providing some depth for a team whose scoring grew worse as last season wore on. It also adds competition for playing time, never a bad thing.
“To have this many guys who are going to push for positions is the best thing this organization can ask for,” Fenton said. “It’s going to show what each and every guy is made of and how they’re going to be able to contribute to us winning. We have been looking for depth. We have been trying to get internal competition. Now, it’s going to happen.”
Fenton said he’s probably done making moves this summer. He talked at length about the fact that the Wild were in the playoff hunt last season before losing star defenseman Matt Dumba to injury, and he feels good about the rest of the core they have in place.
“I think we are a competitor,” Fenton said. “Look at our team right now: We have the stability with our goaltending; not a lot of teams that have the top-four defensemen we do; and our center ice is solid right down the middle.
“You throw in the excitement of our wingers on the outside and I think we have a really good team that has a chance to win.”
All he can do now is hope he’s right.