For too long, Minnesota has lingered in the shadow of bigger U.S. hockey markets. The Minnesota Wild’s marketing department declared their home “The State of Hockey,” which may well be true. The Minnesota High School State Tournament is storied, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame resides there. The state also is home to UMD, the best college hockey program in the nation.
So, sure, Minnesota’s the State of Hockey. But it’s a state that most can’t find on a map. You know what hockey fans can find on a map? Boston, Chicago, and New York (for the Rangers, at least). Big-name free agents don’t seem to have any issues locating those teams, either. Those markets are destinations.
Minnesota? Not so much. As proud as we are of our State of Hockey heritage, no one else got the memo. Marian Gaborik, the franchise’s one true star, certainly didn’t. He bolted in free agency at age 27. It’s no coincidence that the biggest free agents the Wild have signed since — Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Thomas Vanek, and Eric Staal — all have ties to Minnesota or the Upper Midwest. The State of Hockey is a destination, but for Minnesotans only.
This isn’t meant to insult the Wild or its fans; it’s just the way it is. Twenty years of the Wild building around defense only to bow out in the first round of the playoffs will make you an also-ran in the national consciousness.
That’s what prompted general manager Bill Guerin to say this on an episode of The Athletic’s Straight From the Source podcast: “[I’m trying] to change the way we view ourselves, the way we think, and the expectations of ourselves. I just feel we need to start thinking of ourselves on a bigger stage. We’re the premier hockey market in the United States, we gotta start acting like that.”
Those words resonate strongly when thinking of Kirill Kaprizov’s contract negotiations this summer.
Remember when10K Rinks suggested that a five-year contract that’s heavily backloaded could solve the puzzle of Kaprizov’s contract? Whoops, looks like we were wrong there! NHL Network’s Kevin Weekes set off a bombshell over the weekend with this tweet:
That sounds really bad, but there’s context needed that makes this sound less doom-and-gloom. According to The Athletic’s Michael Russo, Kaprizov was in Moscow for a wedding. Also, in his playing days, Weekes was represented by Paul Theofanous, Kapriov’s current agent.
Knowing that, this seems like an agent looking to stir the pot and create leverage. It would be extremely unusual for a player of Kaprizov’s caliber to jump to the KHL in his prime. Alexander Radulov is the only Russian star to do that in recent memory. So while you (probably) don’t need to order a KHL Center Ice cable package yet, the news isn’t exactly great. Russo’s report indeed paints a picture of negotiations that are far apart, with term being the central issue.
Basically, Minnesota doesn’t want to put themselves in the same spot the Columbus Blue Jackets were with Artemi Panarin. Columbus traded for the star winger but couldn’t retain him as he neared unrestricted free agency, and Panarin eventually signed with the Rangers. With Kaprizov three years away from UFA status, so a two- or three-year deal presents that risk.
Now, negotiations are always very fluid, and we don’t know the outcome of these talks. A compromise over term is certainly possible. It’s weird, though, that Minnesota seems fearful of losing Kaprizov one month after declaring themselves the premier US market.
Because what do premier markets do? They keep their star players. Whether it’s Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, or Claude Giroux, those teams never let their stars hit UFA. Even some non-traditional market teams, like the Tampa Bay Lightning, don’t have much trouble keeping stars like Russian winger Nikita Kucherov.
If Minnesota wants to talk the talk of being a premier market, they will have to retain Kaprizov. His short-term leverage is the threat of signing in Moscow, but the biggest leverage he has long-term is that the Wild lose a ton of credibility if he ever leaves. Imagine trying to sell one season ticket in the summer of 2024 if Kaprizov is gone, let alone convincing anyone outside the State of Hockey to pay attention.
One way or another, Guerin needs to find a way to get things done with Kaprizov in the next three years. It appears there are two options: Buy out his UFA years with an offer he can’t refuse. Would that offer clear the $9.5 million cap hit that wingers Kucherov and Mark Stone currently have? Or would it approach Patrick Kane’s ($10.5M) or Mitch Marner’s ($10.9M) or Panarin’s ($11.6M) number? It’s tough to say, but one has to assume there’s a dollar figure that gets him signed long-term.
It’s hard to say that Kaprizov didn’t earn that type of contract last season. Based on his stats from last year, Evolving Hockey projects Kaprizov to earn anywhere from $7.7 million on a five-year deal to $9.7 million on an eight-year deal. So is it worth signing a five-year deal and buying out two UFA years by “overpaying” him $2 million-plus per season?
In a league where paying your stars is never a bad idea, it probably is. But if Guerin doesn’t want to commit top-dollar to secure Kaprizov’s services, that’s a defensible position. As brilliant as Kaprizov was this year, he only has 55 NHL games to his name. So it’s reasonable to bet his season was for real, but there’s still plenty of risk involved there.
But if they won’t shell out for those UFA years now, there’s only one other option. It’s to bet on the Wild being a premier market and spend the next two to three years proving it to Kaprizov. Show him you can get him a proper running mate at center. Build a Stanley Cup contending team around him. Demonstrate that Minnesota is every bit the destination hockey market Boston or Chicago or New York are.
Whatever direction the Wild choose, they absolutely must keep Kaprizov because that’s what premier hockey markets do. If they don’t, they may as well get a bullhorn and announce to the world they’re just Columbus with a slick slogan.