When Bill Guerin decided to buy out the remaining years on Ryan Suter and Zach Parise’s contracts, he knew he made his bed in the infernal regions of salary cap hell. Everyone else knows it too. That’s why the Minnesota Wild were going to be active when free agency opened on Wednesday. However, they couldn’t be that active, nor could they land a big fish. With a salary cap hit from the buyouts beginning after next season, the Wild were forced to bargain shop, even with $26 million to play with for this upcoming season.
Guerin knows the self-inflicted pain he just caused with his decision to make such a bold move. That’s why his decision to trade the rights to RFA Brennan Menell to the Toronto Maple Leafs is such a baffling one. Instead, the Wild signed two defensemen on Day 1 of free agency. Former Golden Gopher Alex Goligoski was rumored to be signing with Minnesota before the frenzy, and they got him. The other defenseman, Dmitry Kulikov, is expected to fill a depth vacancy in the Wild’s revamped defensive corps.
Kulikov comes with a decent price tag for a team perusing the market for discounts and one that can’t commit to anything long term — two years with a $2.25 million average annual value. The Lipetsk, USSR-born defenseman is going to be 31 years old this season, and tallied just four assists in 48 games played last season. That lack of offense is striking. Especially for a team that was goal-starved until Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala arrived.
What he lacks in total offense generated, he makes up for in good defense in his own zone. Opponents had almost 14.2 fewer expected goals while he was on the ice last season with the Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils and the season before that with the Winnipeg Jets. Those two seasons combined were worth over half a win above replacement, and it was all defensive-driven. The Wild could have done much worse than Kulikov.
But that’s where the decision to not sign Menell comes into play. According to reports by Michael Russo, Menell’s camp was seeking a one-way contract — a contract that would pay him the same salary in the AHL as it would in the NHL. He wasn’t seeking a long-term deal or a giant sum of money. He was simply asking to be paid the same in both leagues and to be offered a chance with the NHL roster.
However, making young players earn their spot has been Guerin’s mantra so far. There seems to be no room on this roster for a talent who has yet to prove himself at the NHL level. So what did Guerin need to see from Menell to earn the ability to have some salary security no matter what North American pro league he was in?
It’s not like Menell had much opportunity to crack the NHL lineup in the last two seasons. With a top-four locked in with Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba all on long-term deals and some with trade protection, chances for a call-up to the big club were slim. Plus, Menell’s game and age weren’t suited to playing an off-the-bench type role. At 22 and 23 years old, he needed to play and in a role that allowed him at least middle-pair minutes and responsibilities.
He got that in Iowa and succeeded. In 199 career AHL games, Menell put up 116 points, or 0.58 points per game. To be clear, he had the 47th best season for a defenseman as a 21-year old in the AHL of all time with .629 points per game. The Woodbury, Minn. native then followed that season up with a .825 points per game mark at age 22 for the 11th-best season by a defenseman in the AHL. There was a legitimate reason to be excited for Menell as a real prospect for the Wild. Enough excitement that he was ranked eighth in 10k Rinks.com’s list of the Wild’s Top 10 Prospects.
Signing Kulikov in free agency isn’t a bad move. The Wild were looking for some size on the third pairing, and Kulikov fills that void. But Menell does things that defensemen need to in the modern NHL. Where Kulikov can protect the front of the net and little else, Menell can tilt the ice in his team’s favor. The production didn’t stop when he jumped to the KHL. Who could blame him when the decision was to potentially not play, or be saddled on the taxi squad?
Apparently Guerin did. It’s not a secret that there was some consternation within the front office over Menell’s decision to play in the KHL last season. Guerin also doesn’t seem like a guy who will back down in contract negotiations, even when it comes to relatively small things like handing out a one-way contract to a seemingly deserving player.
When Guerin could have signed Menell and retained team control over him for another three seasons, the Wild GM couldn’t bend even a little. Minnesota had few NHL-ready defensive prospects, and he just traded one for virtually nothing in return.
In doing so, he cut off his nose to spite his face. He sacrificed precious cap space to sign Kulikov. But he also sacrificed offense from the back end. Both of which will be doubly important if the Wild can’t land Jack Eichel or some other first-line center before the season starts.