ST. PAUL — It was a simple question that completely staggered owner Craig Leipold on Tuesday, July 30, as he tried to explain why he fired general manager Paul Fenton after just 14 months.
Where does he think the Wild are right now?
“Umm,” Leipold said, pausing to compose his thoughts. “We are kind of in an area of not really knowing where we’re going to go.”
It’s a tough blow for a franchise that thought it had reset before last season when Fenton was hired to beef up a roster that had been to the playoffs for six straight years. Now, after a slew of personnel moves that completely altered the face of the franchise, it’s hard to imagine anything but a complete rebuild under a new GM.
But Leipold has no interest in a rebuild. Instead, he wants someone with a vision of how to take the current roster to the next level.
“I believe we are a playoff team,” Leipold said. “We have to get everybody believing that and moving in the same direction.”
That will be the main criteria as Leipold searches for the next person to lead the franchise.
While he has made it clear that he already has a few candidates in mind, and plans to go with a more experienced person this time around, Leipold also emphasized the importance of finding the right fit, knowing full well he failed at that the last time.
“When it’s done, it’s done,” Leipold said. “When it happens, and we see the right guy, and we’re happy with him, we’ll pull the trigger. We won’t do it until the time is right.”
Here are five names to look for as the search begins:
He’s the front-runner right now, according to reports, and his experience is something that should appeal to Leipold. Hextall served as Philadelphia’s GM for the better part of four seasons before, ironically, being replaced by former Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. Although he was fired last season, he has been given credit for improving the Flyerss farm system, and his pedigree as a former Vezina Trophy winner certainly adds to his credibility.
He made a strong impression 14 months ago, finishing as the runner-up to Fenton, and almost certainly will get another interview this time around. He is basically the antithesis of Fenton with his infectious personality, and the fact that he has served as the right-hand man with the New Jersey Devils for the past four seasons shows he’s been a part of some savvy moves. The big knock is that he doesn’t have any experience being the big boss, something that might make Leipold shy after his experience with Fenton.
If it’s experience Leipold wants, he’ll find it here. Lombardi has nearly two decades as a GM, serving with the San Jose Sharks in the early 2000s before re-emerging with the Los Angeles Kings. Thanks in large part to solid draft picks early in his tenure, the Kings went on to win Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. He was fired a couple of seasons ago after the Kings failed to make the playoffs and currently serves as a senior advisor with the Flyers.
This is another guy that got pretty far in the interview process 14 months ago. He has been the right-hand man with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the past six seasons and has built a reputation as a top-tier talent evaluator. A former agent, Zito also has extensive knowledge of the salary cap market value of contracts. But again, he’s never been totally in charge.
This would be a bit of a surprise considering how much he struggled as the Edmonton Oilers GM, executing one of the worst trades in recent memory when he shipped superstar scorer Taylor Hall to New Jersey for middling blue liner Adam Larsson. That might be reason enough not to give Chiarelli another chance. Still, the fact that he won a Stanley Cup as the Boston Bruins’ GM should hold weight in the hiring process.