The Minnesota Wild’s training camp battles came to an end on Saturday. Rookies Marco Rossi, Matt Boldy, Calen Addison, and Adam Beckman all came into St. Paul trying to claim one of the few up-for-grabs roster spots. Instead, they’re all going down I-35 to Des Moines.
“They can all play in the league right now — there’s no doubt,” Wild general manager Bill Guerin told the media Saturday. “But we need them to be impact players. And in our opinion right now, the best thing for them is to go to Iowa and play a ton, play in all situations, play as much as possible.”
For three of the four prospects, it makes sense. Rossi and Addison had strong camps, but neither was dominant enough to force their way on the roster. Even if Boldy hadn’t fractured his ankle, he needed to assert himself more with his shot to make the team.
But for Beckman? This wasn’t the deal.
In September, Guerin told Michael Russo, “We’re not going to shut the door on anybody.”
Beckman didn’t just break open the door; he obliterated it, scoring four goals in four games — including an overtime winner last Wednesday. Beckman had much more going for him than a lucky run of shooting percentage, though. He was dominant in every sense of the word.
Of the 431 forwards who got 30-plus 5-on-5 minutes this preseason, Beckman’s 67.9 expected goals for percentage ranks 44th. He’s also shed the rookie stereotype of tending to defer shots to veterans. In fact, his 15.7 scoring chances per hour ranks eighth out of that same sample.
Wild coaches and management have raved about him. Hours after cutting him, Guerin said, “If I could bottle [his energy, play, and production] and show other players [and say]… ‘This is how you say, I’m here, I want to make the team,’ If I could bottle that and show guys, I would.”
Except that what Guerin wants to bottle wasn’t enough to get Beckman onto the team. Quite the opposite, when Beckman beat down the door, all he found was another closed door. Guerin shut that one last Tuesday when he claimed 24-year-old forward Rem Pitlick off waivers.
Pitlick is a decent bet for a team looking to add an extra forward. He has 28 goals and 46 points in 71 career AHL games — about a 31-point NHL equivalency over 82 games. Last year, he opened eyes with an eight-goal, 10-point performance in eight AHL games, though that was built off shooting an absurd 44%.
But why did Guerin feel the need to add an extra forward with Beckman making such a strong case? He explained Saturday, “When they’re here, they need to make an impact.” Later he added, “We don’t want these guys sitting in the stands playing 8-10 minutes a game.” Now it’s Pitlick who is a candidate to play a third-line role with Kevin Fiala, perhaps picking up 13-15 minutes a night.
Can anyone really say Beckman can’t be impactful in that role, considering he made a huge impact in the preseason playing a secondary scoring role? It’s understandable to defer to development when it’s close, but Beckman proved himself more than worthy, and Guerin still blocked his path to the NHL.
Make no mistake, that path was advertised as open this offseason. “I think to have a spot or two open, it gives guys hope that they can make the team,” Guerin said in that September interview. “And I think that’s healthy. I think it just picks up the competitiveness in the guys because they see something attainable.”
The problem is it’s not attainable if a prospect can do everything possible to make the team and still get sent to Iowa. Will saying “There’s a spot open, go get it” carry the same credibility with prospects like Marat Khusnutdinov, Ryan O’Rourke, or Alex Khovanov next year? How could it, after watching what happened to Beckman?
Guerin wants to form a culture in Minnesota where players must earn things like roster spots, playing time, and roles. Sending Beckman to Des Moines after he earned the right to stay in St. Paul feels like a missed opportunity to have a shining example of that concept. It doesn’t matter who you are; you can be a 20-year-old mid-round pick and make the team. Work hard, blow us away, and this could be you, too.
And this wasn’t just a chance to reward Beckman for an outstanding preseason. Keeping Beckman with the Wild would’ve been a great way to show good faith to Fiala after a contentious offseason, where Minnesota spurned him on a long-term deal and took him to arbitration.
Instead of sulking, he entered the preseason on a mission to be the best player he can be. He has a goal and three points in four games, but a deeper look reveals he was even better than his points indicate. Fiala generated 12.1 shots per hour at 5-on-5 in the preseason (21st in the NHL), but that’s pretty normal for him. The new wrinkle? These shots are very, very dangerous.
By any measure or even the eye test, Fiala isn’t settling for perimeter shots and is constantly crashing the net. He ranks 12th in expected goals per hour, 17th in scoring chances per hour, and 13th in high-danger chances at 5-on-5. He’s even shoring up his defense, controlling 64.9% of expected goals at 5-on-5 and killing penalties.
The Wild brass could’ve rewarded both Beckman and Fiala by playing them together and allowing them to elevate each other. Instead, Fiala’s linemates are a rotating cast of Rask, Pitlick, and Frederick Gaudreau — a group that doesn’t share Beckman’s offensive potential nor had nearly his impact this preseason.
Wild fans can take solace in the fact Beckman will likely arrive this year and perhaps even play with Fiala. In the meantime, though, it’s hard to think Minnesota turning down the opportunity to reward both players is the right thing, either for them or the team’s best chances of winning.