In early August, Wild general manager Bill Guerin watched his team get dominated down the middle in their play-in series against the Vancouver Canucks. Aging veterans Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu took most of the meaningful minutes in that series, and after losing in four games, it was clear to Guerin that he needed to overhaul the center position.
And so he did.
Guerin started by telling Koivu, 37, that his contract would not be renewed for another season. The Wild’s longest-tenured player — who was drafted in 2001, played his first game in 2005 and was named permanent captain in 2009 — is now definitely not returning to Minnesota next year. It was a move that was expected, so there was not a lot of surprise there given the fall-off in production from the proud Fin.
Then he traded Staal to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Johansson. Staal, 35, was entering the final year of his contract, but it was believed the Wild would hang on to him while they looked for permanent fixes for the position. Guerin, however, had other plans.
He took a flyer on Nick Bjugstad, who played at Blaine and for the University of Minnesota. Bjugstad spent the last two seasons in Pittsburgh, where Guerin was the assistant GM, and Guerin knew the Penguins were looking to shed salary.
Then he gave Nico Sturm a two-year, $1.45 million contract. The 25-year-old Sturm spent most of the past two seasons in Iowa, but he was solid in his two playoff games against Vancouver and could earn a roster spot next season.
Guerin then used the draft to load up on young, dynamic centers.
In the first round, the Wild got lucky and Marco Rossi fell to them at No. 9. The 5’9″ Austrian said he has his sites set on making the roster next season and has an elite mix of skill and work ethic.
On Day 2 of the draft, Guerin started off by making another trade to add to the Wild’s center depth. He acquired Nick Bonino, the 37th and 70th pick in Wednesday’s draft in exchange for Luke Kunin and the 101st overall pick. With the 37th pick, Guerin and his draft board guru Judd Brackett took Russian center Marat Khusnutdinov.
The Wild got a steal. Khusnutdinov is a very creative and fast center who could crack the Wild lineup in the near future.
That’s two centers with the first two picks, both with the potential to be elite offensively.
Bonino, 32, has put up 35 points in each of the past two seasons with Nashville. He was part of the Penguins Stanley Cup runs in 2017 and 2018, and he provides the Wild with a depth option next season. It is a low-risk move for a player who is an unrestricted free agent after next season.
Rossi, Khusnutdinov and Alexander Khovanov — who has been putting up stellar numbers since being drafted by the Wild in 2018 — now figure to be the future of the Wild at center. Joel Eriksson Ek, 23, has been with the team since the 2016-17 season and has to be factored in as well.
Guerin has taken the most decisive action on the center position in the 20-year history of the Wild. With some trades and a little bit of luck, he overhauled the position in just one month, and now the Wild are looking set at center for the next decade. If you are a believer that a team has to be solid down the middle to contend, then you should be pretty excited for what’s to come in Minnesota.