ST. PAUL — Wild owner Craig Leipold knows he made a mistake. He’s known for awhile. Like for months.
It’s something that’s been eating at him since the Wild missed the playoffs for the first time in more than half a decade, and finally, on Tuesday, July 30, he took the first step in making right what he made wrong, abruptly firing general manager Paul Fenton after just one season in the Twin Cities.
“I missed it,” Leipold said. “This is on me. I don’t like the fact that it didn’t work out.”
It was a brief conversation, Leipold said, and Fenton left the phone call surprised by the decision.
How could he not be? This was a bombshell that nobody saw coming.
While there certainly was discontent throughout the organization ever since Fenton was hired away from the Nashville Predators last offseason, the timing of the move still comes as a surprise.
That said, Leipold made it clear that there wasn’t one big issue that led to this decision. No final straw that broke the camel's back.
Instead, it was a bunch of smaller issues building up over time, from some questionable roster moves, to the overall direction of the franchise, to organizational morale.
“Ultimately I decided that this was not a good fit,” Leipold said. “Our culture was 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.”
A search for a replacement will begin immediately, and until a replacement is found, assistant general manager Tom Kurvers will run the show.
Still, the process was puzzling to say the least, especially considering Fenton was allowed to wheel and deal this offseason, taking control of the draft last month, and most notably signing Mats Zuccarello to a five-year, $30 million contract at the start of free agency this month.
“Would I have liked to have maybe done it sooner? Perhaps,” Leipold said. “But I wasn’t ready at that point. I just wasn’t ready to pull the trigger.”
No doubt Fenton had the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
That, however, might have been the only place in which he aligned with the rest of the organization. He ostracized himself at nearly every turn, completely dismantling the core of a team that had reached the playoffs in six consecutive seasons, and leaving it with no clear direction.
As much as Fenton preached the narrative of giving a facelift to a tired team that never advanced past the second round under former general manager Chuck Fletcher, his tactics in executing his master plan always came with question marks.
It started with him signing defenseman Greg Pateryn, centers Eric Fehr and Matt Hendricks, and winger JT Brown a couple of months into his tenure, all of which did little to take the Wild to the next level.
It only got worse when he traded away fan favorites Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund in separate moves last season, netting the trio of Victor Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala, respectively, in return, none of which did much to inspire an exuberant amount of confidence moving forward. He also seemed to have an obsession with reacquiring middling players, like Pontus Aberg and Anthony Bitetto, from his days with the Predators, even though they did little to deserve an extended look.
In hindsight, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Fenton saw his approval rating plummet, reaching almost zero by the time he was let go.
In the end, it just wasn’t the right fit, and as much as Leipold thought he knew Fenton going back to when he was the owner of the Predators, there were things he couldn’t see coming until it was too late.
“I knew him in a different way,” Leipold said. “He was an assistant general manager (with the Predators) doing scouting. That was his role and he was tremendous at that. It was the other portion of being a general manager, like the organizational part, the strategic part, the management of people, the hiring and motivating of the departments. When I talk about not being a good fit that’s what I’m referring to.”
There’s still work left to be done for whomever takes over for Fenton, with star defenseman Jared Spurgeon still unsigned, as well as restricted free agents Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek.
It’s clear Leipold already has a handful of candidates in mind, and beside working alongside team president Matt Majka again during the hiring process, he also plans to enlist the help of the legendary Mike Modano, who was hired as executive advisor in the front office this offseason.
“I would say experience may be more of a factor,” Leipold said. “I’m thinking I would really like to get an experienced general manager if the right fit is out there. That said, we’re not going to rule out anybody at this point. I just think that an experienced person would be a good fit for us.”
If one thing is clear, it’s that Leipold still think the Wild are a playoff team. He’s excited about the roster and wants to find someone to lead that gets everyone else going in the same direction.
“My phone has already been ringing off the hook,” Leipold said. “Everybody likes this job. It’s a great market. It’s a great opportunity. We have good young players. This is a job that a general manager would love to have. And they’re all calling me right now.”