This summer was always going to be the most difficult test for Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin.
Guerin took over a franchise in disarray after a near-decade run of Chuck Fletcher’s mediocrity was followed by Paul Fenton’s 14-month reign of chaotic incompetence. His steady hand on the wheel made for a welcome change to a franchise that quickly became a laughingstock.
It helps, too, that the Wild’s future got noticeably brighter the second Guerin stepped into the GM chair. Fletcher and Fenton holdovers like Joel Eriksson Ek, Kevin Fiala, and Kirill Kaprizov took significant leaps these past two years. Guerin got an excellent return on Jason Zucker, nabbing star defense prospect Calen Addison. He wisely hired former Vancouver Canucks super scout Judd Brackett, and even more wisely let him run wild at the draft table.
The result of all this is that Minnesota finished the season as a team on the rise. Guerin’s Wild were armed with a superstar and a wealth of high-end prospects. “The Plan” that he mentioned when psyching himself up for this week appeared to be in motion. All he needed to do next was find a way to take the next step.
The offseason’s not over. There are still about eight weeks until training camp starts, and the summer’s biggest piece, Jack Eichel, is still in Western New York. Still, the book is very close to being written. As of 3 p.m. Central on July 29, over 180 free-agent contracts have been signed and $800 million dollars have been spent. The draft, the NHL’s biggest trading event of the summer, is in the rearview mirror.
Where do the Wild stand today? Optimistically, you can look at it as no better, no worse than they were before. They’ve replaced Ryan Suter (bought out) and Carson Soucy (taken in expansion) with Alex Goligoski, Dmitry Kulikov, and Jon Merrill on short-term deals. Minnesota also nabbed Frederick Gaudreau to fill in as a younger, cheaper Nick Bonino.
Sure, they didn’t get suckered into long-term bad money deals, which is more than can be said for others around the league. At the same time, they day wasn’t mistake-free, either. They pursued aging, declining Nick Foligno while young center Pius Suter inked a cheap two-year deal in Detroit. Guerin also traded Brennan Menell, 10K Rinks’ eighth-ranked prospect last year, to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a conditional seventh-rounder.
It may not seem that important for the Wild to do much more than tread water this summer. After all, they were thought to be a rebuilding team that surprised just about everyone by easily making the playoffs. Normally if a team like that takes a step back, it’s not a big deal.
But this is far from a normal situation, thanks to the Kaprizov situation. The restricted free-agent superstar has been at an impasse with the team, locked in a fight over term. He wants a short-term deal to set him up for a massive payday closer to free agency. The Wild want to lock him in for eight years at a (slightly) below-market rate.
One of the hang-ups to a long-term commitment is Kaprizov wants to see the path to Minnesota becoming a contender. There’s also talk that he wants a suitable running mate at center. The Wild haven’t come closer to either objective this summer, which may keep the negotiations at an impasse.
Things could change quickly, but if there’s an element where Guerin is looking like a rookie GM, it’s at the negotiating table. It may be unfair to use a difficult situation like Kaprizov’s as an example, but with rumblings that Kaprizov may re-join the KHL, it’s certainly the most high-profile and high-stakes case of this.
A smaller example of this is with Menell, whose trade arose out of a contract dispute made needlessly difficult. Menell asked for a one-way deal (which, contrary to how it sounds, only guarantees an NHL salary, not an NHL roster spot), a reasonable ask for a 24-year-old with years of success in both the AHL and KHL.
Guerin wouldn’t budge off a two-way deal, perhaps still fuming that he decided to play last season in the KHL to guarantee himself playing time in a pandemic year. Rather than give a very small concession to Menell — probably less than half a million dollars, which is couch cushion change for an NHL team — the Wild traded one of their precious few NHL-ready defensive prospects for nothing.
Menell may not even be the only player to get moved due to a contract dispute. Throughout this summer, The Athletic’s Michael Russo has reported on several radio and podcast appearances that Fiala is “50/50” to be moved this summer. We don’t know where the two sides are at, but if Fiala (who’s scored 38 goals and 73 points over his past 82 games) can’t ask for top-line money without Guerin trying to trade him, then who can?
Even on the trade front, talks about Eichel haven’t seemed to have moved an inch, with the Wild backing out of negotiations yesterday. It seems curious that they haven’t been able to find any sort of middle ground off Buffalo’s initial ask (which includes Marco Rossi, Matt Boldy, and two young assets with the value of a first-round pick) when their ask of a team like the Vegas Golden Knights is reportedly much, much lower. You have to ask: Why is the price for Minnesota so much higher than it is for other teams?
Guerin’s bold move to buy out both Zach Parise and Suter appeared to be a prelude to a bold re-invention of the Wild. They opened up $10 million in cap space for the season, giving them a year of salary cap flexibility. Whatever “The Plan” precisely entailed, there was opportunity to execute it.
Sixteen crucial days later, and “The Plan” seems to have hit a wall. Minnesota tried to improve in free agency, but instead they are stuck in neutral. Their center depth chart remains Eriksson Ek and a bunch of third-liners. They traded a solid piece of their vaunted farm system for a conditional magic bean. The possibility remains that one, or even both, of their leading scorers plays somewhere else this fall.
It’s clear that “The Plan” fizzled. The Wild, as of now, must rely on rookies Addison, Boldy, and Rossi to immediately thrive. Can each of them do that? Of course. Is it likely all three of them seize big roles? Not exactly. Unless Guerin can fix “The Plan” or find a good Plan B, Minnesota’s in danger of taking a step back.