“Don’t mortgage the future” has been the rallying cry of many a Minnesota Wild fan lately. A tricky Expansion Draft is on the way, and the Wild might have to cut a deal with Seattle? Don’t do it! Can’t mortgage the future! Star center Jack Eichel floating around on the trade market? We better not see you mortgaging that future, Minnesota.
On Wednesday morning, Wild general manager Bill Guerin didn’t trade any prospects. Minnesota still had their draft picks come afternoon. They didn’t even trade core young guys like Kevin Fiala, Kirill Kaprizov, or Jordan Greenway. Still, they may just have mortgaged the future anyway.
The Wild shocked the hockey world by announcing buyouts for both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. It was a surprise, but not because the moves didn’t make sense. Suter and (especially) Parise were both pushing 37 and had been in decline for the last few years. The move also saves them a much-needed $10 million in cap space next year.
Another benefit is that Seattle Expansion Draft is now a breeze. Instead of having to expose Matt Dumba, or trade him for peanuts to a team that knows they’ll lose him anyway, they now have options. They can continue to try trading him, this time with the leverage that comes from being able to walk away. Or they can keep the top-four defenseman going forward. Being able to protect cheap youngish center Nico Sturm is a nice perk, too.
The shock comes from the fact that nobody really expected the Wild to go there. Buying out those contracts was a nuclear option.
There were more apocalyptic potential outcomes — their retirement would trigger ridiculously burdensome cap recapture penalties — but Guerin’s choice irreversibly cuts off the possibility of any cap relief going forward. Now the Wild can’t engineer a trade that sheds some of their salaries. There’s no help of Long-Term Injured Reserve List stints erasing those cap hits.
Instead, the Wild get a one-year break of $10.33 million before running into heavy cap hits. In the 2022-23 season, Parise and Suter’s buyouts will count for $12.75 million against the Cap. The two following years will see that jump up to $14.75 million.
Teams in richer leagues with larger salary caps may be able to sustain those losses. But what about in the NHL? If the salary cap remains flat at $81.5 million, those buyouts take up 16.6% of the cap in Year 2, then 18.1% of the cap in Year 3. That magnitude of dead cap hit is without precedent since the salary cap was instituted in 2005.
The Wild have spent to the salary cap in nearly every season since Parise and Suter signed nine years ago. With these buyouts, their cap space effectively becomes $68.75 million (not nice) in Year 2, then $66.75 in Years 3 and 4. That’s only $6-8 million above the salary cap floor. They’ll spend three years operating as a budget team.
If Minnesota was still rebuilding, as most expected them to be at this point, the Wild could handle that. But they took big strides last season and face a lot of pressure to build on that success. The Wild can now retain their own players, but the paths to getting better in the medium-term got murkier.
The Wild were expected to go hunting for an upgrade at center this offseason, especially after Kaprizov asked them to upgrade that position. Now that can’t happen without major surgery on this roster. Minnesota currently has just $26 million in cap space free for the 2022-23 season, more than half of which will be taken by Kaprizov and Fiala’s next deals. How can you add Eichel’s $10 million salary to that mix, for example?
Guerin acknowledged this at Tuesday’s press conference, saying they’ll have to rely on their prospects to get by with the reduced cap space.
It’s true, the Wild have players coming in on cheap entry-level contracts that may help them out. Not only are there star prospects on the doorstep like Marco Rossi, Matt Boldy, and Calen Addison, but plenty of depth prospects like Marat Khusnutdinov, Adam Beckman, and Alex Khovanov should jump into the NHL over the next four years.
The problem with relying on prospects is, they’re prospects. The 2012 Wild boasted a wealth of prospects in Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin, and Dumba. None of them emerged as stars, which helped seal the fate of the Parise-Suter Era. Even the older part of the Wild’s youth movement — Fiala, Kaprizov, and Joel Eriksson Ek — took time to make an impact in the NHL.
Could the same happen here? The Wild’s prospects have a lot of star potential, but there is no guarantee they will make the impact Kaprizov, Fiala, or Eriksson Ek have. And if it takes, say, Rossi a few years to develop into an impact player, that sets Minnesota back until they get that dead cap off the books. And that’s a doomsday scenario, because the Wild don’t have a few years to wait to take a step forward.
If they can’t work around Parise and Suter’s buyouts, they’re wasting a lot of very valuable years from their best young players. The first four years of Eriksson Ek’s team-friendly deal will be gone, leaving just the back half of the contract. Four of Fiala’s prime years will have been wasted, or he may just become a cap casualty.
Most crucially, the Wild may exhaust Kaprizov’s patience. Let’s say the Wild sign Kaprizov to a four-year deal, buying out a year of free agency. The good news here is that Parise and Suter’s $14.75 million would come off the books as Kaprizov’s contract expires, which is a hell of a carrot to dangle in front of him.
But does that carrot matter if Minnesota can’t build a team around Kaprizov between now and then? Or if they can’t acquire or develop a suitable center partner for him? Probably not. And without Kaprizov, the Wild might find themselves headed back to the same irrelevance they had before signing Parise and Suter in the first place.