It seems like the Minnesota Wild have been on the precipice of the fabled “next step” for the past decade.
First, it was finding the talent to replace Marian Gaborik. An experiment can be safely ruled a failure, considering it hadn’t truly happened until this year. Next, after signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, it was making the playoffs. That was quickly accomplished when the Wild snuck in during their first season on the team.
Since then, though, the next step for the franchise has been to not only make the playoffs but to make a deep run. But, unfortunately, that endeavor has been fruitless, no matter how well the Wild have played in the regular season.
Now they have a new core in place and are on the verge of taking the same next step. How do they get there, though? Well, the roster is largely malleable, and general manager Bill Guerin will need to use the space he has now to shape the future of the franchise. The decisions he makes with the cap space now will define his legacy in Minnesota.
Fortunately, the Wild have roughly $21-22 million in cap space this offseason to shape the team for the future.
Narrator: It wouldn’t be that simple.
Unfortunately for the Wild front office, the new core needs to be re-signed this offseason. Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, and Joel Eriksson Ek all need new contracts. All three of them will undoubtedly receive significant raises.
Kaprizov will likely command a salary near the highest in the Wild’s history. He was making rookie money this past season, and there’s no more discount for the 24-year-old Russian phenom. Fiala will get an upgrade from his recent bridge-type deal. This past season, he made $3 million and could double his salary after scoring 20 goals in 50 games this year. Eriksson Ek notably had a breakout season offensively while retaining the defensive qualities that made him a great shutdown player in the past. The Wild will covet his two-way ability as a top-six center for years to come. The need for his services will drive his salary well beyond the nearly $1.5 million he made last season.
It looks like Guerin has cap space to deal with on the surface, but he’s actually pretty tied up. That is to say, Minnesota will retain these players. They won’t be going anywhere, barring a surprise trade. Whatever their salaries will be, Guerin and the Wild will need to take those contracts on. For Guerin, it’s just a matter of the small adjustments in years and specific dollar amounts. Either way, these players are staying in Minnesota and getting significant raises.
This means Guerin will have to make some difficult decisions at the bottom of the roster to give his team the tools to take the next step. The choices he makes will cement his reputation as the Wild’s top decision-maker.
Imagine the big three get a total of $18 million. That leaves just $3-4 million in cap space next year. And that could be a grossly conservative estimate, given it assumes Kaprizov gets $7 million, Fiala $6 million, and Eriksson Ek $5 million.
Making Waves on the Fringe
The rest of the team will need to be carefully constructed to avoid another first-round playoff exit, so Guerin needs to hit home runs on the fringe players.
After signing the priority players, Guerin will need to add a sixth defenseman and two or three forwards, especially through the center position. Whether or not they buy out Victor Rask could alter Minnesota’s ability to make certain plans going forward. Also, if the Wild loses a player like Matt Dumba, Ryan Hartman, or Jordan Greenway to expansion, there would be more holes to fill with little cap space to do so.
Right now, their best bet is having younger prospects compete for roster spots and give Minnesota the benefit of potential upside on a cheap rookie contract. Specifically, if Calen Addison makes the team, that could be one of the final holes to fill on defense. Also, if Marco Rossi and Matt Boldy make the NHL roster, that could solve a gap on the wing and at center. The team will arguably need another center and could fill it by extending Nick Bonino and Nick Bjugstad on affordable, short-term deals.
The dilemma in taking the next step is, will each of these moves hit? The team can’t afford to have any of the new core regress. Each of the young players in Boldy, Rossi, and Addison will need to over-perform their contracts to help the Wild make it further into the playoffs.
This is where Guerin’s legacy will be made. Can he make the right moves and bet on the right players at the right time to get this team deep into the playoffs? This offseason will set the team up for not just this season but many to come.