May 25, 2018

By Tom Witosky

Follow @toskyAHLWild

If Iowa Wild fans had any misgivings about Paul Fenton, the new general manager of the Minnesota Wild wiped them away this week with a simple statement.

“When we played in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago, we had 17 draftees on the roster,” the former assistant general manager of the Nashville Predators told reporters in a news conference earlier this week. “They all had played in Milwaukee.”

Fenton, who doubled as the general manager of the Milwaukee Admirals from 2006 through 2018, also made it clear while he isn’t expected to rebuild the NHL Wild, which has appeared in six straight playoffs, much of his focus will be targeted on the Wild’s AHL franchise, which has yet to qualify for the playoffs in its five seasons in Des Moines.

“It is the minor league team that has to be the vaulting stone for our organization,” he said.

Fenton expanded on those thoughts in an interview with by suggesting he intends to spend a substantial amount of time learning about the AHL hockey operation to determine what steps need to be taken to improve the operation.

“It is too early to know,” Fenton said. “I have projected from afar what our lineup might look like but there are still a lot of holes. I need to speak to the staff here and get their opinion about the past and what it will be like going forward.”

But make no mistake - Fenton is a strong believer that an NHL team maintains its ability to challenge for a Stanley Cup by having a strong minor league development component.

“In this new world of salary cap, you have to develop your own players and be able to replace so many of the higher priced players with players who are capable of taking on those roles,” Fenton said. “That’s why Nashville has been so successful.”

Fenton, 58, is very familiar with minor league hockey. He played six seasons with AHL teams, leading up to 411 games with seven NHL teams that included games with the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs.

That experience gave Fenton an insight into the painstaking work of scouting and development of young hockey players.

Jon Greenberg, president of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals, had a front-row seat to watch Fenton build the Predator’s farm club with draft choices and free agents over 13 years. Those players in turn transitioned into making the NHL club a dominant club over the last couple of seasons.

Fenton controlled all hockey personnel decisions for Milwaukee throughout those years. Players like Pekka Rinne, Viktor Arvidsson, and Patric Hornqvist are examples of the kind of players Fenton found and developed into top line players, Greenberg said.

“The beauty of what Nashville has done is to take guys who were not ‘can’t-miss’ guys and turn them into not only serviceable NHL players, but superstar guys,” Greenberg said. “It was all about the development, which really was the road to Nashville goes through Milwaukee.”

Greenberg said Rinne’s development into a top NHL goalie is one of the best examples.

“Pekka played in Milwaukee for three years after getting drafted late,” Greenberg said. “You can’t say for sure anyone saw that happening when he was drafted, but you could say that he was showing some skill and some promise.”

Fenton acknowledged player development demands patience as well as an ability to find players with the skill to make it in the NHL.

“A player is ready when he is ready. If you try to force it, your parent club is going to suffer,” he said. “You have to have the patience to let these kids turn into the players that will make them successful in the future. I will continue to have that patience. At least that’s the plan right now.”

Fenton said while he knows little about the Iowa roster, a couple of connections to Iowa already exist.

First, Fenton played for Iowa Associate Coach David Cunniff’s father, John Cunniff, when he played for AHL Binghamton in the early 1980’s.

“His Dad had one of the most brilliant hockey minds that I ever played for,” Fenton said adding his son, P.J. played for David Cunniff at Worcester.

In addition, Fenton drafted Wild center Cal O’Reilly in the fifth round in 2005 for Nashville. O’Reilly, who is expected to return to the Iowa roster this season, played four seasons with the Admirals.

Of the Iowa franchise, Fenton said the club clearly has the ability to draw top-notch players and develop them to make the NHL. 

“It is a first-class rink there and that is a very valuable and attractive commodity for all of our players,” he said. “Based on the AHL, that is one of the premier hockey facilities in the league. I think it will be an attraction for our players.”

Fenton said the initial goal will be to begin the process of getting the Iowa club to develop into a team capable of competing in the toughest division in the league.

“We want to have success with our minor league team,” he said. “We want to teach how to win in a winning atmosphere. That is our goal. The first thing is to put a good enough team together and teach them how to win.”

Milwaukee’s Greenberg also said Iowa fans will get to understand that Fenton’s touch is one that will clearly show that the AHL Wild is important to Minnesota’s success.

“Iowa, if it hasn’t been much of a priority, will certainly be one now. If our experience is any indication, Minnesota will rely on Iowa to help them get over the hump to get back to dominance at the NHL level. Paul will do a great job,” Greenberg said.

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