As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Minnesota Wild offseason.
2021 Minnesota Wild Offseason Primer
Minnesota usually doesn’t possess a flashy team with flashy players. However, Kirill Kaprizov came to the State of Hockey became the most exciting player this side of Marian Gaborik. The young Russian turned heads with 27 goals in 55 games in his rookie season.
Other young talents like Joel Eriksson Ek, Kevin Fiala, Jordan Greenway and Nico Strum also became vital parts of a suddenly exciting team. Cam Talbot played like he did with the New York Rangers and got the Wild the third seed in the Honda West Division. Minnesota pushed the Stanley Cup semifinalist Vegas Golden Knights to seven games. Head coach Dean Evason also earned himself a spot as a Jack Adams Award finalist.
Pending Free Agents
The Wild do have a good number of free agents in their forward group this offseason. Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek and Fiala are restricted free agents. Marcus Johansson, Nick Bonino and Nick Bjugstad are all unrestricted free agent forwards. Ian Cole and Brad Hunt are UFA defencemen that will likely hit the market.
Getting all the RFAs under contract will be the top priority for general manager Bill Guerin. Things may get messy Kaprizov, but the latter two should be easier to sign to new deals. All three players currently 24 years old and are expecting raises after great seasons. Kaprizov has the added dimension of CKSA Moscow of the KHL trying to lure him back home with a big-money deal.
Salary Cap Outlook
The Wild have just over $22 million of cap space but have to find a way to bring back the three RFA forwards. Guerin knows he has an exciting core that can contend in the Central Division. However, he can’t leave too many holes on the backend of the roster. Strum and Greenway’s deals come up at the end of the next season among the forwards. Likely future franchise goalie Kaapo Kahkonen will also need a boost in pay after next season.
The Seattle Kraken expansion draft could be a big boost in freeing up more cash for the club. Seattle GM Ron Francis could be tempted to take Mathew Dumba and his $6 million salary to give the team a top-four defender. Talbot could be a tantalizing target or Carson Soucy. Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Ryan Suter all have no-movement clauses and will be protected. The Kraken taking Talbot will free up over $3.6 million while a Soucy selection gets Minnesota $2.75 million back.
Major Likely Departures
Dumba is still a quality defenceman, but the Wild have a lot of money locked up in Spurgeon, Brodin and Suter. He likely fetches the best return if he’s traded before the expansion draft or his $6 million goes to signing the RFA trio. It’s unlikely the Wild go 4-4-1 in their protection model, so Dumba will be exposed. Guerin likely finds a way to make a deal if the Kraken take someone else other than the talented blueliner.
The 33-year-old just finished out a $4.1 million per season deal, but he’s reaching the end of his career. Minnesota likely goes younger and cheaper on this bottom-six centre. He did get 10 goals, but he’d have to take a pay cut in order to stay in the Twin Cities.
The Ann Arbor, Mich. native came over in a deal from the Colorado Avalanche last season. Cole is a veteran presence, but he also comes with a $4.25 million price tag. Minnesota already has plenty of cap space devoted to their defence, so Cole may be an odd man out.
Major Likely Re-signings
In the words of a rival NFC North quarterback, “R-E-L-A-X. Relax.” There’s always the fear the youngster goes back to Russia, but Guerin realizes that Kaprizov is a gem. He’s also marketable and a real driver of offence for the Wild. The team has an extra jump and is exciting with him on the ice. Trust that the deal will get done, but it may not be as long of a term as Wild fans may want. Guerin wants to lock up Kaprizov long-term while the Russian is looking for a four to five-year bridge deal, as they wait for a bump in television money.
It’s likely Guerin makes locking down his three RFAs his first priority. Fiala has had a renaissance since coming to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The winger does a familiarity with Evason after he played for him with the Milwaukee Admirals in the Nashville Predators organization. Fiala has scored 20 goals in both full seasons with the Wild, so the Swiss star gets his deal done. Minnesota fans hope that Fiala doesn’t try to play hardball, but negotiations are likely in limbo while Kaprizov’s deal is still being worked on.
Joel Eriksson Ek
Guerin likely makes it 3-for-3 in his 24-year-old forward group. Eriksson Ek has the earmarks of being a yearly Selke Trophy nominee. He was an absolute bargain at $1.5 million the last two seasons and he’s going to get a decent raise. The Swede also potted 19 goals in his best offensive season in the pros.
Also, one of Bjugstad or Johansson could be brought back at a lower rate.
Potential Free Agent Additions
Shoring Up Centre
The Wild need to address the second-line centre position to complement their young forwards. There are pricey options like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is likely not going to sign in Minnesota unless Guerin moves piles of money off the books. The Wild could go with a different option in Collin White or Alexander Kerfoot (if not taken by Seattle). Minnesota may also plug a hole with stopgap measures for now.
A wild card in all this is how Marco Rossi progresses from his COVID-19 sickness. He’s been trying to regain his strength and he could be ready to make team. It would give the team flexibility with their centre options and they could spend their money filling in other needs.
If the Kraken do take Talbot, there’s going to be a need for a veteran goalie to share time with Kahkonen in the net. There are some veterans like Jaroslav Halak, but he could stay in Boston and start while Tuukka Rask is recovering from surgery. There are other options like David Rittich and James Reimer that could be lower-end or they could go high-end with Frederik Andersen. However, the Wild likely keep Talbot if he doesn’t get drafted by Seattle and the point is rendered moot.