The Minnesota Wild’s roster is nearly set in stone at forward heading into the summer, with the exception of a few changes. That starts with Kevin Fiala, an RFA with arbitration rights, who is likely getting a new zip code this summer because of Minnesota’s cap squeeze, and the expected raise he will get on his next contract.
The Wild should also have top center prospect Marco Rossi on the roster out of training camp, a perfect fit with Matt Boldy and either Freddy Gaudreau or Tyson Jost. Therefore, there may be a battle for the final spot in the top six. The top line of Kirill Kaprizov–Ryan Hartman–Mats Zuccarello and the GREEF line are expected to remain intact. However, this could change if the Wild acquire an NHL-ready player, such as Martin Necas, in return for Fiala. But as of now, the Wild’s top-nine should basically look the same next season.
Then there’s the fourth line, a focal point of the roster heading into a cap-strapped summer where they have plenty of decisions to make, and the Wild will need to maximize money. The Wild’s fourth line has been a crucial part of Minnesota’s depth over the past several seasons. But that wasn’t the case after the NHL trade deadline when the Wild added Nicolas Deslauriers and Tyson Jost.
The Deslauriers-Jost-Brandon Duhaime line struggled when they were together down the stretch and in the postseason. The trio earned an abysmal 38 percent expected goals rate and was outscored 5-1 in the playoffs. The fourth line simply wasn’t good enough, so it’s critical that the Wild address it and make some adjustments this summer.
Fortunately, they have a ton of options at their disposal.
In an ideal world, Jost takes Fiala’s spot on the second line and gets another look in an elevated opportunity with top minutes. Remember, Jost flourished with an elevated opportunity last season, and it would provide the Wild with more information on whether or not he should be part of their long-term plans. And to be fair, Jost was hardly the reason the fourth line’s numbers plummeted.
That leaves Gaudreau centering the fourth line, with plenty of options for his wingers. With his speed, Connor Dewar is a perfect fit for the position, and his next deal should be near the league minimum. Most importantly, the 22-year-old could be a long-term fit. He was on pace for a 1.4 Wins Above Replacement season, bringing some real value on the fourth line.
Duhaime likely has the best shot to make the final regular spot on the fourth line, considering he has a year remaining on his deal and was a mainstay last season. The 25-year-old winger added a modest 17 points, but there’s a lot to like about his game, especially the physical element. On the other hand, he leaves you wanting more. But at the end of the day, his underlying numbers were fine, and it wasn’t like he was holding the fourth line back.
That brings us to Deslauriers, the guilty party in the fourth line’s collapse. He doesn’t bring much value beyond his physicality — something he didn’t maximize in the postseason. However, his lack of physicality was attributed to an injury. While Bill Guerin has vocalized his desire to re-sign the 31-year-old because he adds “sandpaper,” it feels redundant with Duhaime’s physical presence. It’s also not exactly the move to get the most out of the fourth line.
There’s no reason to believe Nick Bjugstad will return next season. Not only isn’t there a spot for him, but he didn’t play in the playoffs and was sidelined for nearly seven weeks during the season. Give him some credit, though. He’s been a decent play-driver in his time in Minnesota.
The Wild’s best bet is to allow Deslauriers and Bjugstad to depart to free agency. If the Wild don’t want to ice a Dewar-Gaudreau-Duhaime fourth line, they could shop for an undervalued depth contributor in free agency to round out the bottom line. Johan Larsson and Brett Ritchie are strong options to solidify the fourth line.
Larsson, “The Grumpy Swede” the Wild drafted in 2010, nearly scored at a 0.5 point-per-game rate last season. He might be more of a challenge to get at an affordable price because he’s coming off a strong year. The 29-year-old was stout defensively and was worth 1.7 wins overall in his stints with the Arizona Coyotes and Washington Capitals — incredible production for a bottom-six forward.
While Ritchie only had four points last season, he’s a physical, forechecking winger who provides a ton of value under the surface. And the Wild shouldn’t have an issue landing him on an affordable contract, given his lack of point production.
The Wild have many options heading into a crucial offseason, which is good news for an organization that will depend more on depth after losing Fiala.