By Jess Myers
ST. PAUL, Minn. — As he prepares for his second NHL Draft at the helm of the Minnesota Wild — but his first with a full season running the team under his belt — general manager Paul Fenton is seemingly taking the Fleetwood Mac approach to the club’s prospects.
Namely, “Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow.”
Right before Christmas 2018, when the team lost standout defenseman Matt Dumba to a season-ending pectoral injury, Fenton could have made a desperation trade and gotten a fill-in on the blue line. Instead, he opted to hold on to the team’s 2019 draft picks and roll with the team that he had. Due in part to the loss of Dumba and later captain Mikko Koivu to injuries, the Wild finished out of the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
When he spoke with members of the Twin Cities media on Friday, June 14, one week ahead of the draft where the Wild hold the 12th overall pick, Fenton defended his plan to hold his cards and build for the future, even if that meant no Minnesota postseason games in the present.
“This year, honestly when Matt Dumba went down, for a specific, we didn’t go out and fill that hole, and in the past that probably would’ve cost an asset and I wouldn’t be sitting here saying that we’re picking 12 and we’re going to get something that we’re really happy about,” said Fenton, who was hired as the franchise’s third general manager on May 21, 2018. “That’s the difference. I tried to look at the whole big picture this year and see how we were, and then Mikko goes down.
“Two huge pieces like that, that just bit into our leadership, our talent level, just where we were as a team. So I decided to go that route and not get rid of any picks.”
The other potential route was the one sometimes favored by previous general manager Chuck Fletcher, who now runs the show in Philadelphia. The Wild made six consecutive trips to the playoffs with Fletcher at the helm, and often were buyers at the trade deadline, bringing in players like Martin Hanzal, which cost the team a trio of draft picks when he arrived from Arizona on February 26, 2017, and Matt Moulson, who cost the Wild a pair of draft picks when he arrived from Buffalo as part of a package deal on March 5, 2014.
On the ice, the impact was minimal, as Hanzal and Moulson were generally non-factors in the playoffs and the Wild won two second round games, total, in six postseason trips. The biggest impact was felt in the off-season, as the Wild’s minor league talent pool dwindled, and in 2016 they had four picks in the draft.
Fenton made “restocking the cupboard” one of his top priorities when he took the general manager job. The fact that his top development team, the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild, made a small playoff run this year was, in Fenton’s view, an encouraging sign of success in that mission.
“I guess I learned that way from my Anaheim days, from my Nashville days. We always had, I guess, a plan that we were going to build through the draft. We were going to develop through the draft and it’s important,” Fenton said. “This year we had the opportunity to win a playoff round in Iowa. It’s the first time they’ve made the playoffs in six years, and my goal is to build through them.
“Iowa did a great job. We have some kids there that have a chance to be potentially some kind of player for us here in Minnesota going forward and we plan on doing that now going forward, trying to make it a successful year every time.”
If that means sacrificing what was more than likely a first-round playoff exit with an injury-riddled Wild team in 2019, it’s one trade that Fenton seemed happy to execute.