Many questions are surrounding the Minnesota Wild as it prepares for its 20th season as a franchise. Many involve the future of some of the players on the roster, or where they’ll slot into the lineup on a nightly basis. The team has gone through a multitude of changes to the roster. There are four — potentially five — new faces in the locker room. Ten players have their contracts expire at the end of the season. Oh yeah, the group also needs to find a way to develop chemistry, become a team and do this without a training camp because the nation is dealing with a global pandemic.
The Wild will play 56 games in a newly realigned West division this season, set to begin on Jan. 13. With some of those questions answered, one overarching question this season remains: general manager Bill Guerin’s approach to Marco Rossi.
One way Minnesota could approach the season is to make a run. Pull out all the stops. Try and take advantage of a goofy, shortened season and surprise the NHL with a postseason appearance. After all, there’s reason to think that the Wild could beat up on a lesser division with improved goaltending. Sure, the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues and Vegas Golden Knights are the favorites to make the playoffs, but there are four playoff berths per division. Minnesota could just as easily be that last team in.
The more likely situation is that the Wild will scuffle and grind all season long and miss the postseason. With two first-round picks in next summer’s NHL draft, it’s probably better for the Wild to miss the playoffs again and continue adding top prospects to the pipeline.
Furthermore, if the season is really a year of transition, the Wild should instead get the kids in and acclimated to the NHL level in preparation for an 82-game season in 2022 — just write this season off and be ready to go in the fall. The amount of expiring contracts allows the Wild the flexibility to fill those vacancies internally. Ultimately, it was the roster logjams created by Chuck Fletcher that both kept the Wild’s young talent from prominent positions in the NHL and forced him to re-sign players for longer than they deserved.
Are you experienced?
Famous New York Yankees catcher and manager Yogi Berra once said, “It’s what you need to have. If you don’t have it, that’s why you need it.” Granted, he was talking about insurance, but he could easily have been talking about ‘experience.’
That’s what Kirill Kaprizov and Rossi need the most: experience. Have them get their transition year out of the way so they can be primed and ready to take the reins of the team by next fall.
But per the reporting of Michael Russo of The Athletic, the Wild might be thinking otherwise. That’s because the truncated season also means that the grace period for junior players is reduced from nine games to six games. At that point, Minnesota has to decide to either burn the first year of Rossi’s deal or send him back to his junior club. On a team that is laden with veterans, usually deferring control and cost of a touted prospect another season if he is not ready for the NHL is considered a smart move.
For this iteration of the Wild, however, not giving a player like Rossi that chance now to work out the kinks on a roster is short-sighted. This year the roster has more built-in fail-safes than next season, and doing so only delays those adjustments a first-year player needs to make when the pressure to carry the load will be at its greatest.
If the Wild decide to keep all their prospects not named Kaprizov stuck at the lower levels, it’ll mean that those players will graduate to the NHL at the same time. There is one team that has done that in recent memory: the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Toronto hit on several prospects late in the 2010s including Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. They built up this young core all roughly the same age to take the team to prominence. But even then, the Maple Leafs had signed free agent John Tavares to a 7-year, $77 million deal.
This strategy of graduating the core to the NHL at the same time and spending big money on supplemental free agents was to help turn the Maple Leafs into an instant Cup contender.
It improved the team’s performance in the points column, going from 95 to 105 points in one season. Toronto then maintained 100-point seasons (or 100-point pace after last season was cut short) the next couple of years, but it didn’t vault the Leafs to the top of the Atlantic Division, and they haven’t been able to get out of the first round of the playoffs.
On-ice performance is less of a concern, however, since the core is still young and signed long-term. They will have more chances to win the Stanley Cup. But the Maple Leafs are one of 10 teams over the salary cap, and they have a little more than $40 million committed to four players.
Minnesota already has to re-sign Joel Eriksson Ek, Fiala and Kaprizov next offseason. If the Wild chose to delay the debuts of its prospects, they could be in a situation where Alexander Khovanov, Adam Beckman, Calen Addison and Rossi all become restricted free agents at the same time. That’s also before Matt Boldy, their 2019 first-round selection, joins the fold.
Some might be worried about rushing Rossi to the NHL. However, his situation is unique: As an 18-year old player in juniors, he doesn’t have many options to further his development. He’s shown that he can dominate in the OHL, and if he doesn’t make the NHL, the Wild cannot stash him in the AHL. That leaves Zurich as his only option to play if he doesn’t play with the Wild. Europe might be an option for prospects that don’t have an option like the NCAA on which to fall back.
Rossi isn’t anything like prospects of yesteryear. The Wild arguably accelerated Mikael Granlund, Eriksson Ek or Jordan Greenway‘s development to the NHL, but none of those players had ever been as NHL-ready as Rossi is right now. Not since Marian Gaborik have the Wild enjoyed a player as ready for the big leagues as Rossi. If Minnesota doesn’t put him on their roster this season, they’ll miss an important chance to properly prepare Rossi for the role they expect him to step into.