When Craig Leipold asked Bill Guerin why he wanted to become general manager of the Wild, Guerin raved about the “State Of Hockey” and the state of the franchise.
Smart. Because the honest answer might have cost him the job.
The honest answer might have been: “Craig, you’re not just offering me a lot of money to be an NHL general manager, you’re handing me the easiest gig in sports — following Paul Fenton.”
For the next year, Wild employees will scatter rose petals in Guerin’s path. In meetings, he will receive foot massages whether he wants them or not. During a honeymoon period that could last longer than a Kardashian marriage, Guerin will enjoy royal status. He will be, for a while, Not Paul Fenton, and life will be good.
In one year on the job, Fenton drove down the prices of two stocks: His reputation, and the Wild’s.
So if the team struggles this season, Fenton will be blamed, and rightly so. If the Wild surprises this year, Guerin’s leadership will be lauded. And that, too, might be the correct assessment.
Guerin is the rare NHL GM to start the job in late August. He couldn’t overhaul the roster if he wanted to. He will try to improve the team simply by being himself, and not being the last guy, and there is a chance that might even work.
The fan base is frustrated because Leipold heightened expectations by signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, then failed to follow up by building a team that could make it to the conference finals. After the Wild missed the playoffs last year, the fan base became despondent over Fenton’s obvious mismanagement.
It’s one thing to espouse a philosophy and fail to execute it. It’s another thing to change philosophies every few weeks, while destroying workplace morale at every level of a franchise.
Teams are delicate ecosystems. The Wild could be better this year simply because Fenton’s gone, or because he has been replaced by a general manager who is charismatic and credible.
Leipold botched the Fenton hire; this search might have benefited from that catastrophe. This time around, Leipold leaned on former star Mike Modano, and said of the vetting process, “We probed deeper.” Which is probably better than any of the marketing slogans the team has used for past playoffs.
Leipold said Guerin possessed the “It” factor, and if that’s not a Stephen King reference, it might be valuable.
“You just sense now that he’s very confident, clearly has presence and that ‘It’ factor,” Leipold said. “It’s a valuable factor. Particularly for this team. He’s been there, he’s fought through the trenches. And the way that he played, and this is part of the vetting process, you’re talking to old coaches and general managers of Billy’s.
“He played where team was first. So he’s got a lot of penalty minutes and those weren’t retaliation penalties, those were penalties because someone took out a teammate. That’s the way he played, and that’s the way he is now.”
Teams often hire in reaction to the personality of their last failure. Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders are the opposite of Tom Thibodeau. Rocco Baldelli and Derek Falvey are as new school as Paul Molitor and Terry Ryan were old school. Brad Childress was a rebound from Mike Tice.
Guerin is the logical successor to Fenton, and the differences between the two were evident even at their introductory news conferences.
Fenton looked like he was interviewing for the job of Assistant Administrator of Double Secret Probations. Guerin sounded like he wanted to go to his office and talk some hockey, then go out after work and talk some hockey.
Following Fenton offers more than a long honeymoon. The timing also allows Guerin to spend months observing the franchise as it stands before making any big decisions.
So welcome, Bill, to the friendly city of St. Paul and to the blessed state of not being Paul.