Commentary: Plan to 'tweak' Wild into contention seems optimistic
ST. PAUL — Mr. Tweak-It arrived in town Tuesday, May 22, tasked with recalibrating a failed playoff team and jump-starting a relationship with an inherited bench boss who came to Minnesota to hoist a Stanley Cup yesterday, not build for tomorrow.
New Wild general manager Paul Fenton talked plenty during his introductory news conference but said little about his initial evaluation of a roster lardered with unmovable contracts and devoid of any sacred cows.
To be fair, he has to figure out where to park his car, learn the names of his underlings and break bread with head coach Bruce Boudreau before determining how much of this club he wants to break up.
"We're going to dinner tonight, so I'll fill him up with wine and see what he says," Boudreau cracked.
For all the draft picks, trades and free-agent signings Fenton might make this summer, cultivating a shared vision with Boudreau is critical as this humbled franchise transitions from the confounding Chuck Fletcher era to a new management regime and tempered expectations.
Owner Craig Leipold already has walked back his perennial Stanley Cup-or-bust mantra to wanting a wingman to put together a championship team in the next three of four years.
"I'm not trying to temper it," he insisted. "Maybe I'm trying to make it a little easier to put not as much pressure on Paul. But my goals are all the same."
Fenton spent 18 years in the Nashville Predators organization helping GM David Poile curate a fast, dynamic team that reached the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals. They did it with a handful of shrewd trades, but spent years deliberately laying the foundation through drafting and development.
"Tweaks" is the squishy buzzword for how the Wild plan to take their performance to that elusive next level. Easy to fit on seat towels and lampposts, but the byproduct might require more patience than Boudreau or anxious Wild fans are willing to accept.
Fletcher hired Boudreau in 2016 at $3 million a year to pull the Wild out of the mud and carry them deeper in the playoffs than predecessors John Torchetti and Mike Yeo did. He is 63 years old, a decade into his NHL coaching career and is about to get a new roster and another set of matching orders from a new boss.
With two years remaining on his contract, Boudreau is safe for now — and he is eager to salute, as he should be. No telling if that will include a middle finger down the road.
"You're only here to win," he said. "Whatever Paul thinks will improve the team, that's what we're going to do. We're not going to sit still. If it's subtracting one to get another, then whatever he decides to do I'm going to run with."
Boudreau and Fenton have a kinship as minor-league players who spent years knocking around various leagues. Fenton persevered to build an eight-year NHL career before graduating to management. It took him almost 20 years and several rejections to finally ascend to running his own team.
"I talked to him last night and said, 'You know, I was 53 before I got an opportunity to coach in the NHL. You've persevered and you're in your 50s, as well,'" Boudreau said. "I just think it's a great thrill for him and I'm looking forward to working with him."
Will this retooling be more about personnel or playing style? Leipold has some ideas.
This hands-on owner has spent six postseasons watching deeper, tougher Western Conference teams step over the meek and unproductive Wild. He is ready to start bullying instead of being bullied.
"You can be big but not play big," Leipold said. "We need to play heavier, perhaps. That doesn't mean that has to be a new player, but it may be a new way that they need to play. If you look at the playoffs, it's not just the big guys making the big hits. It's guys who play big."
That sounds bold, like twerking, not tweaking.
But that is why Fenton was hired, to cast a fresh set of eyes on a stagnant product. He should have no emotional attachment to Wild players ripe for the trade market such as Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker or even Jared Spurgeon.
"I want to talk to our coaches and get their feel for our team and what are we missing," Fenton said. "It's funny, but sometimes coaches and managers think differently. But there's got to be a happy medium there someplace that we're all going to be able to find what the solution is and give us a chance to win."
Hurry up and wait.