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Wild GM Paul Fenton finally gets his chance, and now he has to prove it was worth the wait

New Wild GM Paul Fenton spent two decades learning the ins and outs of the craft under David Poile with the Nashville Predators, and now is Fenton’s opportunity to show he can do what’s necessary to take a team to the top of the league.

There must have been times when Paul Fenton thought the call would never come. And for a while there, it looked as though Fenton would be one of those guys in the NHL whose name always came up for GM jobs, who always went through the interview process and was a finalist, but was never chosen. But at the age of 58 and after waiting patiently for more than 20 years working under Nashville Predators GM David Poile, Fenton has finally earned his chance.

And when we say ‘earned,’ we mean it. Fenton has spent the past two decades working on every aspect of running an NHL hockey department, from scouting to working on contracts to running an American League team. And he’s done it under the dean of GMs in Poile, a man who is not the least bit hesitant to pull off a blockbuster deal, but also has the patience to stick with a coach longer than almost anyone in the business. He has been a huge part of a program that has cultivated young talent and built one of the most enviable defense corps in the NHL. He has helped build an organization from the ground up, done it with the winningest GM in NHL history and had exposure to every aspect of managing a team. There simply was not a better training ground out there than the one Fenton received.

Does that necessarily mean he’ll be a roaring success with the Minnesota Wild? They’re hoping so, but he also faces some serious salary cap challenges created by the fact that two players on long-term deals taking up so much of their salary structure. On the plus side, the Wild have a boatload of young prospects with very good NHL potential. And it’s important to note that Wild owner Craig Leipold once owned the Predators, so he had an opportunity to see Fenton work on a day-to-day basis. That familiarity was almost certainly a huge factor in him being hired.

So score one for the so-called “hockey guys.” Fenton is almost 60 years old. He is a former NHL player. He was working in hockey long before anyone had even heard of analytics. He has a familiarity with his new employer and he has spent countless hours in junior rinks and on the road looking for NHL talent. He did not come to his job by way of analyzing and interpreting data. He is not Kyle Dubas or John Chayka and that’s just fine. It shows more than anything that in today’s NHL, there’s room for both schools of thought. Neither one is right or better and neither one is wrong. There’s a reason why some teams, such as the Leafs and Coyotes, see an analytics-based hockey boss as the best way to go and others, such as the Wild and the Islanders – who have named three-time Stanley Cup winner and 75-year-old Lou Lamoriello as their president of hockey operations – as the more prudent route.

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The Leafs chose 32-year-old Dubas over Mark Hunter, whose scouting background at both the NHL and Ontario League levels is without peer. And Hunter, who is believed to have told the Leafs earlier this season that he would leave the organization if it chose Dubas over him, did just that and the two sides announced Monday they had parted ways. And if I’m a team that might be looking for a new GM in the near future – let’s say, perhaps, the Montreal Canadiens where Hunter started his career – Hunter has just rocketed to the top of my list. But that’s just me. There are two things that any good GM must do. The first is to be able to find the right coach for the group of players he has. That is imperative. The second is to have the ability, not only to find talent, but to place the right value on that talent. And there are few in the game who have been able to sniff out talent better than Hunter.

Back to Fenton, there’s a pretty good chance he’s one of the oldest first-time GMs in the history of the game. In fact, he’s already the ninth-oldest among the 31 men who run hockey departments. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. The last two GMs to be hired by NHL teams, Fenton and Dubas, could not have come from more different backgrounds. Both inherit teams that have a lot of promise and play in revenue-rich, hockey mad markets. It will be intriguing to see how Dubas does without the experience of Lamoriello and Hunter by his side. It will also be interesting to see how a traditional hockey guy does in a climate where the game is evolving at breakneck speed. It will not be a referendum on analytics vs. tradition because there’s room for both in today’s game, but it certainly bears watching.

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