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Frustration fuels Fenton, front office heading into offseason

Missing playoffs has Wild GM, club ready to attack challenge of 'building on the fly'

by Phil Ervin @mnwild /

ST. PAUL -- Hard times mean hard decisions.

The sting of missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons was unmistakable around Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday as the team parted ways for the offseason, starting with General Manager Paul Fenton's assessment of 2018-19. The hard-nosed, no-nonsense Boston native was hired to build a team capable of going on a deep postseason run.

So no one's more disappointed than Fenton that a lack of consistent scoring punch and injuries to key players kept Minnesota from even having that chance.

"Certainly," Fenton said, "we didn't want to be having this conversation at this time of year.

"We're all disappointed. This is not what we were trying to do when we started the season. This is on all of us, starting with me, and worked its way down to everybody in the organization, and we're disappointed. We're looking forward to evaluating, getting on to the next step and bring us back to being a playoff team going forward here."

Fenton calls it "building on the fly."

It began shortly after the turn of the calendar when the Wild went younger, acquiring forwards Ryan Donato, Kevin Fiala and Victor Rask leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline. More movement is expected during an offseason in which the Wild will have a top-15 draft pick and more cap space to maneuver in free agency than it's grown accustomed to.

One person who won't be moving this offseason Fenton said, is coach Bruce Boudreau.

"Bruce is my coach next year," Fenton said. "I have total confidence in him. You look at this track record for the number of years that he's been an NHL coach, it's amazing. So Bruce is our coach next year. I'm very confident in him. I have not met with [Wild owner] Craig [Leipold] about the future of any of our coaches to be honest with you right now. But right now, Bruce is my coach and he's going to be the guy that is going to lead this team back to where we want to go."

Said Boudreau, who's compiled a 131-87-28 record in three seasons at Minnesota's helm: "I always see the positive, I guess. I firmly believed we were going to make [the playoffs] this year, but I firmly believe that we've got the core that's going to make it next year for sure. I mean, a lot depends. You talk in August and you look at the lineup and you're like, 'OK, this is going to be really good,' but you never know what happens through injuries or what have you. But if I'm sitting here right now, I'm going, 'Yeah,' looking at the way the season went and what the other teams were that made it have gotten, I think if we were a little healthier and we make an improvement a little bit next year, sure, we'll be there."

Fenton did allude to changes to his front-office staff; the contracts of Director of Player Personnel Andrew Brunette, Assistant General Manager Shep Harder and Lead Hockey Researcher Andrew Thomas weren't renewed following the season.

Fenton also said Zach Parise's knee injury that caused him to miss four games down the stretch should require no more than four weeks of rest for a full recovery. That -- combined with some bumps and bruises to other players and season-ending injuries to defenseman Matt Dumba and Mikko Koivu -- certainly didn't help matters this season.

Fenton said Dumba should be fully recovered from his ruptured right pectoralis muscle by training camp. After tearing his ACL and meniscus Feb. 9, Koivu "has a chance to be ready at training camp," according to Fenton.

The return of the captain and the NHL's top scoring defenseman at the time of his injury represent two much-needed developments. But Fenton knows the roster requires more offensive punch and depth down the middle.

Minnesota finished the regular season ranked 27th in the NHL with 2.56 goals per game. It also went 16-18-7 on home ice -- a place the Wild has historically been one of the NHL's toughest outs.

That sets up a pivotal offseason in Year 2 of the former Nashville Predators assistant general manager's regime.

"Really high on the young guys we brought in, and I believe that once their comfort zone is here, and once they play in a position they're going to be able to succeed with, having some maturity, they're going to be able to score," Fenton said. "Certainly, it's disappointing that we didn't score this year, and that's going to be addressed."

It started with individual meetings with every player and the team's coaching staff on Tuesday. It'll continue with Tuesday night's NHL Draft Lottery at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Network. The Wild has a 3 percent chance at obtaining the first pick in June's draft and a 9.8 percent chance at landing a top-three selection. 

It's more likely Minnesota will end up staying with the 11th pick -- a 69.6-percent chance.

"If we win the lottery ... we'll be doing handstands," Fenton joked Tuesday.

The draft is June 21-22 in Vancouver and features a crop of young talent headlined by forwards Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. Amateur scouts P.J. Fenton and Dareen Yopyk will oversee the team's draft operations, Fenton said, and already have a good feel for who might be available at any position the Wild picks in the first round.

The possibility of an offseason trade remains viable, as well.

The free-agent signing period begins July 1, and the Wild enters the offseason with roughly $19 million in cap space before signing any of its restricted free agents. Fenton has decisions to make regarding RFAs Fiala, Nico Sturm, Joel Eriksson Ek and Pontus Aberg, as well as unrestricted free agents Eric Fehr, Brad Hunt and Anthony Bitetto.

But in any case, the club should have enough financial wiggle room to add a key piece or two to a puzzle that includes some of the NHL's top defensemen in Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon and goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who despite some bumps and bruises of his own compiled a 2.54 goals-against average for the second straight season.

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"I honestly believe that it's a work in motion here," Fenton said. "I've tried to do this on the fly. I do not believe that this is a breakdown team or organization. We have strong goaltending, we have tremendous defense when they're healthy. I have built this way from my previous life that if you build on your goaltenders on out through your strong defense, you're launching the attack and now you get with the way the game is played today with skill and speed. So you acquire people that have the ability to make plays, then we'll have success -- on paper. But now I've got to be able to put it onto the ice."

With that formula, Fenton believes the team can return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs as soon as next season -- and do more once it's there.

"Well, let's see what additions I make, but with the team that we have right now, getting healthy, yes, I do see us becoming a playoff team," Fenton said. "As I said before, the great part is we've been a cap team here, so I have the ability to add people. If it is through free agency, or through trades, we have the money to be able to spend up to the cap. And Craig has been great about that the entire time that he's owned the organization."


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