Sometime this month, Wild owner Craig Leipold will announce the hiring of a new general manager, his third hockey boss since 2018. Together, they will lay out their vision and blueprint for the future. Reality isn’t so clear.
In wake of Paul Fenton’s regrettable “tenure,” the Wild find itself in a strange place — dysfunction. The organization has been steady since its inception, not always with success on the ice but in terms of stability and a general perception that its leaders were organized and well-intentioned and had a plan.
The operation now seems in disarray. And it’s hard to know or make sense of what their plan exactly is.
Fenton tried to go young in reshaping the roster in a semi-rebuild while simultaneously pursuing aging players — a dizzying display of mixed messages. Leipold desperately wants to return to the playoffs and has zero patience for an outright rebuild. But the Wild roster, as constructed, isn’t a championship contender.
ESPN’s hockey staff recently ranked the Wild 25th in its NHL power rankings, and betting oddsmakers aren’t much more optimistic. Those are only predictions, but they provide insight into outside, unbiased perceptions of the team.
Season-ticket renewals are declining. Fan frustration is rising. The new GM will inherit contracts with no-trade clauses.
This feels like a pivotal moment in the organization’s existence, similar to that July 4 seven years ago when Leipold pushed all his chips to the middle of the table by signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Here was Leipold’s answer when asked on the day he fired Fenton where the organization currently stands:
“We’re kind of in an area of not really knowing where we’re going to go,” he said. “I really sense that we need to get recharged and we need to get refocused on who we are as a team and don’t let the outside elements distract us.
“I’m excited about our team. I like our defense. I like our goaltending. I like our offense. We should be a playoff team. I look at it and I believe we are a playoff team. We have to get everybody believing that and moving in the same direction. We have to believe we’re a playoff team and we’re going to be there next year.”
The Wild might be a fringe playoff team, but isn’t being good but not good enough precisely why Leipold cut ties with Chuck Fletcher?
Leipold demanded tweaks and not a rebuild in starting fresh with Fenton, even though the owner admitted after the 2018 season, “I just don’t see us with this team getting to the championship series.”
Has his thinking changed? And what message will he convey to fans publicly and to his new general manager privately?
The Wild — and Leipold, specifically — appear caught in a tug-of-war between reality and wishful thinking. Leipold likely dreams about the St. Louis Blues’ magic carpet ride last season from misery to sipping champagne out of the Stanley Cup.
Yes, hockey playoffs are wonderfully unpredictable. Get in, get hot, you never know. But is that really an organizational plan?
Rebuilds can be painful, with no guarantee of a glorious payoff at the end. Leipold’s hesitancy in committing to that plan is understandable from a business standpoint (especially with a loyal fan base already growing skeptical) and from a purely personal viewpoint. Leipold is a fan at heart and hates losing.
The Wild, though, still finds itself trapped in that gray area — good enough to set playoffs as a goal, not good enough to be considered a viable championship contender. Leipold probably feels that he owes the Parise-Suter-Koivu-Dubnyk-Staal-Spurgeon crew a chance to win, even as a segment of fans shout “rebuild.”
The new GM faces a daunting task. No true No. 1 center on the roster. Veterans on the backside of their careers with no-move clauses. An analytics department that needs to be rebuilt after Fenton wrecked the previous one. A group of young players that still must prove themselves. And an owner who expects to win now.
The organization is in a tough spot, with many challenges and no easy answers. Leipold can’t afford to swing and miss again on this hire.