The man. The myth. The lizard.
Mats Zuccarello is still here, unlike the man who signed him to the 5-year, $30 million deal with a no-move clause. Paul Fenton doled out that contract as the marquee move in his final days as general manager. Fenton was gone a month after putting pen to paper, but Zuccarello still has three years remaining on his $6 million-per-year contract.
What if Fenton had been fired earlier? Let’s pretend for a moment that Bill Guerin was hired initially in place of Fenton or was brought in before free agency in 2019. With that scenario and knowing Zuccarello’s performance over the past two years, would Guerin have made the same move?
Let’s take a look at his performance, his contract, and league expansion to get to an answer.
Zuccarello underperformed in the first year of his tenure with the Wild. He had 15 goals and 22 assists in 65 games in 2019-20. Overall, that was a significant lapse from his career numbers to that point. Optimism was not high for him going forward, considering he was 32 in his first season with the Wild. Most players experience a decline around that time, and for forwards, it can be faster than other players.
Thankfully for both parties involved, Zuccarello had a resurgence last year. It came in no small because he was often paired with Kirill Kaprizov, and as a result, Zuccarello enjoyed nearly as many points as he had in 2019-20 with 23 fewer games played. He was good for 11 goals and 24 assists in 42 games this past season. Zuccarello’s chemistry with Kaprizov allowed him to be an impact player once again, and his general playmaking that looked the way Fenton described it would be upon signing him.
Many teams would like to have a skilled playmaker who can be a few steps ahead of defenders when rushing up the ice and put up those kinds of numbers. Zuccarello had begun to provide that in 2021 and, as long as he has skilled teammates, will continue to throughout the tenure of his contract.
Five-year deals are not uncommon. Deals with no-move clauses are not uncommon. An annual average value of $6 million on a deal is not uncommon.
So why are people worked up about Zuccarello’s contract? He signed it when he was 32 years old. Fenton hit the trifecta when he gave an older player an expensive deal over a long period of time that will grow increasingly harder to move as time goes along.
After his first season with Minnesota, a little buyer’s remorse has to have set in. Not only did Zuccarello underperform, but he underperformed in the first year of the five-year deal that doesn’t get any cheaper over time and is incredibly difficult to move out from under. Any signs of decline and alarm bells could have been signaled that Minnesota might have yet another aging player on a tough-to-move deal (see Zach Parise and Ryan Suter).
Regardless of how Zuccarello continues with Minnesota, his contract will become increasingly scrutinized, especially this offseason. With plenty of younger and high-upside players to be re-signed, money is tight. If Guerin had some of that $6 million to work with, the team would have more breathing room.
With expansion coming, the Wild again find themselves in a predicament: They could lose a core member of the team. Guerin needs to decide whether to protect Matt Dumba, Jordan Greenway, or Ryan Hartman, among other pieces.
If Guerin decides to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, Zuccarello’s no-move clause doesn’t really affect the team’s prospects of losing Dumba. If Guerin goes the route of protecting eight skaters and a goalie, the lack of a no-move clause for Zuccarello would change things in terms of who the Wild may need to expose in the expansion draft.
Either way, Guerin would have more flexibility with fewer no-move clauses. For the Dumba situation, he solidified a third no-move clause with Jonas Brodin‘s contract extension earlier this season. Fenton handed one to Zuccarello.
So, after reviewing Zuccarello’s impact on the team from multiple angles, would Guerin have signed him in 2019?
The simple answer would be: no. But it can’t be a simple answer, given the circumstances of this extremely hypothetical situation. Guerin definitely would not have signed Zuccarello to the same contract Fenton did. The question is if Guerin being stingy about term, money, or a no-move clause would have notably altered Zuccarello’s willingness to come to Minnesota.
If the market was very low on Zuccarello, it’s safe to say there could have been one of the three major sticking points removed from his contract. Maybe it’s $1 million less per year over the same term. Maybe it’s one or two fewer years at the same AAV. Maybe it’s the same contract, sans no-move clause.
With the way the contract has played out so far and the development of prospects who have started to make an impact in St. Paul, Guerin would not have signed Zuccarello. He proved a valuable player, especially this past season, but the impact on the salary cap and expansion dilemma could be enough to shy anyone away from a contract like his.