In the first home game of what is shaping up to be a very long season, Minnesota Wild GM Bill Guerin watched his team get dismantled by the Pittsburgh Penguins. And he watched with mixed feelings as Sam Lafferty, a fourth-round pick from way back in 2014, scored the first goal and earned the first two assists of his NHL career, and Adam Johnson, a college player who signed with the Penguins as an undrafted free agent in 2017, scored his first NHL goal and added an assist.
Guerin knew both players well. As the former assistant GM of the Penguins and the GM of their Wilkes Barre-Scranton farm team, Guerin was a huge factor in the acquisition and development of both players. For that matter, he had a hand the likes of Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Zach Aston-Reese going from marginal and little-known prospects to solid NHL contributors, first as the Penguins’ development coach, then as assistant GM.
“I had a lot of pride in seeing guys like Lafferty and Adam Johnson score goals and succeed,” Guerin said. “Well, maybe not in our home opener…These guys are really good hockey players. We were never afraid to call those guys up and (coach) Mike Sullivan was never afraid to play them.”
When a team changes GMs, it’s usually for a pretty good reason, which means there aren’t too many times you’re walking into an ideal situation. That is most certainly the case for Guerin, who walks into something of a mess, much of which was created by Paul Fenton, a hire that actually seemed like a pretty good idea at the time. With Kevin Fiala a healthy scratch for the Wild in their 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night, coach Bruce Boudreau has officially scratched each of Fenton’s key acquisitions – Ryan Donato, Victor Rask and Fiala – at least once this season.
The Wild are looking old and slow and in a sport that sells hope above all else, business is not exactly booming in Minnesota. All things point to another very long non-playoff year for the Wild, partly because of their talent level and because they play in the NHL’s version of the Group of Death known as the Central Division. “I don’t have the answer for that,” coach Bruce Boudreau said of his plodding veteran group. “It’s what we have. They’ve got to play. I wish I had a magic potion to make everybody faster, but I don’t.”
With the Wild, Guerin does not have the same luxury of being able to call up a farmhand to press for a spot in the lineup as he did in Pittsburgh, an organization that, aside from their ridiculous level of elite talent, was masterful in developing excellent support players despite not having any high draft picks. There is Kirill Kaprizov, who recently became the youngest player in KHL history to score a combined 100 regular-season and playoff goals, but he won’t be around until next season. Matthew Boldy, a winger the Wild took in the first round in 2019, is a freshman in college.
But Kaprizov is exactly the kind of player Guerin needs for his team, a later-round pick who can come into the lineup and make a positive contribution. Guerin is going over to Russia to meet him in early December. Kaprizov has made it clear he wants to be in the NHL next season with the Wild. Then there is Gerald Mayhew, a 26-year-old who played four years of college hockey and three more in the minors on an American League deal before he signed his first NHL contract (on a deal that Fenton negotiated) in May. Mayhew scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game.
“I want (the young players) to know that it’s OK to do it, you don’t have to wait your turn,” Guerin said. “You have to have a reward-based system where if you’re playing well and there’s an open spot in Minnesota, you’re going to get called up. Gerry Mayhew almost made the team out of camp. He went down to Iowa and he was our best player down there. We had an opening, he’s up. And he’s going to be put in a position to succeed. Now it’s up to him to go out and take that opportunity and make something happen.”
But it’s pretty clear Guerin faces a fairly monumental task here. There is a temptation to come in and change everything when you’re new, but Guerin is also faced with a few hard realities. As Boudreau said, the Wild are essentially stuck with the players they have. For the record, on the topic of Boudreau, Guerin said, “Bruce has been around a long time. He’s a good coach, he’s a good person and we have developed a pretty good relationship, but this is a feeling out process still and we’re all under evaluation all the time. I’ve got to let this play out and give these people an opportunity. They’re good people, good hockey guys, and they deserve that.”
It actually makes sense. The Wild are going nowhere this year and it probably doesn’t make sense to bring someone else in just for the sake of making a change, unless of course, things go off the rails in a big way. Boudreau is in the last year of his deal, so the thinking is he’ll be able to at least coach out his contract.
“It’s one of those things where I want to give this team as much of an opportunity to show me what they have as possible,” Guerin said. “We’re still in that evaluation process. I want them to know I have confidence in them and they should have confidence in themselves. If we play together, play as a team, we can beat anybody.”
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