After dropping two games over the weekend, the Minnesota Wild’s playoff cushion is down to one point. It’s not great, and the reason why is pretty widely agreed on: Scoring.
Despite strong special teams play for most of the year, the Wild are icing a mediocre-at-best offense. Basically, if Kirill Kaprizov isn’t scoring, no one’s scoring.
After assisting on all three Wild goals Saturday night, Kaprizov has registered a goal or assist on 56 of Minnesota’s 140 goals. That’s 40% of his team’s scoring, which is one of the heaviest scoring loads in hockey. Only Connor McDavid, Erik Karlsson, Mikko Rantanen, Leon Draisaitl, and Nikita Kucherov are responsible for a higher percentage of their team’s output.
This trend looks worse at 5-on-5, where Kaprizov has been on the ice for 31 of the Wild’s 82 5-on-5 goals (37.8%). Without Kaprizov on the ice at 5-on-5, the Wild are scoring 2.10 goals per hour. That’s worse than all but the Arizona Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, Ottawa Senators, and Chicago Blackhawks basically all tanking teams.
Combine that with their ever-present perception that the Wild are a top center away from doing real damage, and a 30-goal scorer center sounds great. That’s why everyone from Sportsnet to The Athletic is tying them to being in the mix for Bo Horvat, who is not just a former 30-goal scorer, but a 30-goal scorer this year. In 46 games.
So why is getting Horvat not a good idea for the Wild?
In a vacuum, adding a Horvat is going to make any team better. He’s a legitimate Top-6 center that drives offense and is an asset to the power play. That’s all great.
But the Wild aren’t in a vacuum. They have limited resources and flexibility, and can’t simply try to upgrade for the sake of having a consensus No. 1 Center. Minnesota has to be conscious of how much they are upgrading with any move, and whether it is worth the opportunity cost to make a trade.
It sounds ridiculous to say, given he’s on pace for a 55-goal season, but while Horvat is probably an upgrade for the Wild, it’s not meaningful enough to justify trading for him.
The main reason is that the State of Hockey has Bo Horvat at home: Joel Eriksson Ek. Look at the things Horvat does, then look at what Eriksson Ek does. Both of them have reputations as Top-6, two-way centers. They’re both net-front goal-scoring presences, especially on the power play. Furthermore, their numbers are pretty similar over the past three years.
Now, again, in a vacuum, it’s obviously good to have two centers of Eriksson Ek’s caliber. But taking Eriksson Ek off the top power play hurts his value, and gives the Wild just half a goal more per hour. That’s a goal every 30 power plays, assuming Horvat keeps it up in Minnesota. That bump matters, but how much?
And other than the power play scoring, the difference between the two centers is negligible. Horvat gives his team slightly more offense thanks to his shooting percentage, but Eriksson Ek creates more scoring chances. They’ve had almost exactly equal impacts on their team: About 3.6 Standings Points Above Replacement (SPAR) every 82 games.
But hey, Eriksson Ek is locked into that defensive role. Wouldn’t it make sense to have Horvat go between Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello?
No, not really.
The fact is, Horvat isn’t much of an upgrade for the Wild at 5-on-5 play. If Steel continues to not score at a high level on Kaprizov’s line, they have the option to move Hartman back there. And if you stack up Horvat and Hartman over their last three years, you’re not looking at an obvious upgrade there, either.
Hartman has been more productive at 5-on-5, by a good margin. In fact, he’s played 400 fewer 5-on-5 minutes than Horvat, but his 37 5-on-5 goals trail Horvat by just one, and his points total eclipses Horvat by three (78 to Horvat’s 75). Hartman also has the edge in driving even-strength offense, which is what you’d want for Kaprizov’s center.
You can assume a bump in scoring for Horvat alongside Kaprizov (though he’s gotten to play with J.T. Miller and Tanner Pearson, no slouches themselves), but is Horvat going to improve by a half point per hour with Kaprizov and Zuccarello? That’s what he’d have to do to (slightly) outperform Hartman’s last three years at 5-on-5.
There’s also the idea that Kaprizov might just only be able to be so good in a season. Maybe having a bonafide top-line center could get him more points. But how many more? Last year he scored 108 with Hartman centering him. This year, he’s on pace for 102 with Steel. Is getting Kaprizov to 115, or even 120 points instead of 105 really a priority, assuming Horvat can even get him there?
So fine, you might think, move Hartman with Kaprizov. But isn’t it worth it to put Kaprizov with the struggling Matt Boldy?
That’d probably help, but if the Wild need help for Boldy at center, why not turn to Marco Rossi? After a two-goal night in Iowa on Saturday, Rossi is at seven goals and 20 points in 20 games. That’s exactly 1.00 points per game, 10th in the AHL among all Under-25 prospects. If you think his confidence-building assignment is going merely OK, think again.
Horvat is going to be more of a known commodity, but why block your best center prospect who’s scoring as well as anyone his age does at the AHL? Especially when putting Rossi next to Boldy—or heck, even between Kaprizov and Zuccarello—is free.
Without doing some major, major surgery such as moving a player like Zuccarello or Eriksson Ek, the Wild don’t have the cap space to re-sign Horvat. They can only take his contract on as a rental, meaning three months and a playoff run.
That would, theoretically, lower his price: rentals cost less than players with term. Except that the teams that will also be competing for his services might be able to extend Horvat, which means they’re willing to pay more. This means Minnesota might have to have their trade package match teams that will pay not just for the rest of the year, but the opportunity to keep Horvat around much longer.
Jeff Marek of Sportsnet reports that the Canucks want three players, one of which is a top prospect, for Horvat. The Athletic cited Brock Faber, Carson Lambos, and Marat Khusnutdinov as three that could fit the bill. Is three months of Horvat worth one of those prospects if you can keep your prospect capital’s powder dry simply by promoting Rossi?
The answer is no.
And even if the Wild did find a way to create cap space for a Horvat extension, you shouldn’t want that. Again, Horvat’s a great player. But Evolving Hockey had a contract extension projected for him at seven years with a $7.6 million cap hit last summer. And that is before he scored 30 goals in under 50 games. What’s that AAV going to be now? $9 million? Higher?
Which, if he’s scoring 50 goals, great. Is that happening ever again, though? The odds say no. His career shooting percentage is pretty high, at 13.1% before this season. But now it’s absurd, as he’s shooting 22% this year. If he was simply shooting at his normal rate, he’d be on pace for just 32 goals. Do you want to bet $9 million dollars on him repeating that insane shooting seven more times?
Good for him for having a contract year, it’s just that no one should want their favorite team paying for it.
There aren’t any guarantees his shooting heater will last for the rest of the season, either. Horvat is shooting almost three times per game. Six players since 2000 have shot over 20% over a full season while shooting more than 2.5 times per game. It’s almost impossible to shoot as well as Horvat has for an entire season. Again, do you want to pay a premium to bet on him beating the odds?
Horvat is a very good player, but there’s not a role on this team where he is a huge upgrade over what the Wild already have access to. If they want to address their scoring, there are better and cheaper ways of going about it.
The first is, obviously, promoting Rossi and giving him a crack a real scoring line and power play minutes. He needs to touch the puck. Whether that’s between Kaprizov and Zuccarello, or alongside Boldy, it doesn’t really matter. But he needs to be involved in the play and a featured part of the offense.
The second thing is—especially if Rossi plays with Boldy—to pursue a rental winger, not a center. There are plenty of teams that are going nowhere and have wingers they’ll want to get returns for. There’s no opportunity cost here. The Wild can get a center internally with Rossi, and then support Boldy and Rossi by trading for a winger.
There are pending UFA options that would be worth getting, and probably for significantly less than Horvat’s cost. Vladimir Tarasenko will return from injury well in advance before the trade deadline, and he’s absolutely worth pursuing. James van Riemsdyk is a proven scorer that can bring scoring punch to Boldy’s line. Tyler Bertuzzi is a buy-low option that’s scored 60 points last year.
The Wild could also be creative in pursuing Timo Meier as a rental, then recouping their assets by trading his rights in Restricted Free Agency, as they did with Kevin Fiala last year. Or perhaps pay teams a bit extra to retain the salary of a player with another year of term, keeping their costs manageable for next season. There are a lot of possibilities who would meaningfully upgrade Minnesota’s scoring depth on the wing, but they all close if the Wild go in on Horvat.
The choice is simple. Either the Wild pays a premium for a relatively small upgrade in Horvat. Or they can keep their top prospects and prevent themselves from blocking an internal upgrade at center in Rossi, all while adding a scoring winger to the mix. Horvat has the sexy goal totals, but the smart play is to upgrade elsewhere.
All data via Evolving Hockey unless otherwise stated.