No, Jason Zucker didn’t gloat. He didn’t take pleasure in a man losing his job.
On Tuesday, Wild owner Craig Leipold fired General Manager Paul Fenton. On Wednesday, Zucker – who twice was nearly traded by Fenton – addressed the move and took the high road.
“Paul brought in guys who he thought were going to be key guys for our team,’’ Zucker before his game in Da Beauty League at Edina’s Braemar Arena. “We can’t fault him for moves that he felt were going to make us better. Whether you agree with it or disagree with it, it doesn’t matter. He felt those were moves that were going to make the team better.’’
Fenton traded away Wild mainstays Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund near the trade deadline, and Zucker nearly was the next core piece to go. A deal with Calgary fell through at the deadline, and then a trade in May that would have sent Zucker to Pittsburgh and Phil Kessel to Minnesota was vetoed by Kessel.
The situation, Zucker acknowledged, wasn’t easy.
“It was tough in the sense I didn’t want to leave,’’ said Zucker, who was signed by Fenton to a five-year, $27.5 million contract on July 25, 2018. “Obviously, it was a bit of limbo-type thing for the year, but it’s part of the business. Names get floated all the time. I’m glad the trades didn’t happen.’’
Hearing his name bandied about twice ramped up the uncertainty.
“If it happens once, it’s in the back of your mind a bit. If It happens twice, it’s really in the back of your mind,’’ said Zucker, winner of the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for his charity work in Minnesota. “It was definitely something that was in the forefront of my mind for the last while. It’s hard for me to fault him if he thought that’s what’s best for the organization.’’
The Wild struggled down the stretch this season and missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years, with injuries to defenseman Matt Dumba and center Mikko Koivu taking a toll and Fenton’s trades not paying off.
“It’s pretty easy to tell the team we had at the start of the year vs. way we played at the end of the year,’’ Zucker said. “Obviously, that’s hockey. Things change.’’
Leipold informed Zucker and the rest of the Wild players individually of his move on Tuesday. “It was very respectful for Craig to do that,’’ Zucker said.
Zucker, who had 21 goals and 21 assists in 2018-19 after career highs of 33 goals in 31 assists the year before, knows the new GM will make his own evaluation of the team but is confident in his play.
“Everybody’s got to prove themselves to a new GM or a new coach, but I feel like I’ve proven myself in this league,’’ he said. “I’ve shown that I can be a 20-goal scorer and I can definitely be a 30-goal scorer. … I don’t feel I need to prove that I can play.’’
He also expects that adjusting to a new GM will be easier than if it was a new coach coming in.
“With a new coach you’re learning a new system. For us, we know the coach, we know the system,’’ Zucker said. “At this point, it’s finding the way the new general manager wants us to play.’’
As for the management style of the new GM, Zucker is hopeful that communication is a priority.
“I like a GM to be up-front. I think it’s great for the players,’’ he said. “… You earn your way, you earn your respect with the moves you make, the teams that you build and the championships you win. That’s what it comes down to.
“For us, we’re excited to see who’s going to come in and what direction he wants to take this organization.’’