One quick look around the Minnesota wilderness will reveal what is a commonly accepted fact in nature and around the NHL: Top-six centers don’t grow on trees. Wild general manager Bill Guerin must now find what does to send back in return, as he reportedly seeks to add depth down the middle. Keep in mind mere foliage likely isn’t to get it done.
Guerin vs. Fenton
Guerin’s predecessor, Paul Fenton, was a mixed bag in that regard. He traded winger Nino Niederreiter for a center in Victor Rask, but, needless to say, that deal didn’t work out as planned. On the other hand, he did also trade away Mikael Granlund, who is a near-top-end top-six center. So, yeah, there’s that.
In his defense, on another occasion Fenton acquired Ryan Donato, who’s shown offensive promise and can play center, but he’s primarily a winger. Granted, Fenton gave up Charlie Coyle, who has more experience playing center, to get him, but there’s no use crying about it now. Assuming on the off chance Donato does eventually work out down the middle, Guerin would still need at least one more to replace the ones he’s got now.
Staal and Koivu on Their Way Out?
The Wild technically have Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu, but for how long? Koivu is 36 years old with an expiring contract, while Staal is 34. His team-friendly deal, which pays him an average of $3.25 million per season, may be an undeniable asset, but his production took a hit last season. He shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a long-term solution at center.
Unfortunately, neither Luke Kunin (2016) nor Joel Eriksson Ek (2015) seem to be either, in spite of their draft pedigrees as former first-round picks. Granted, they’re just 21 and 22 years old respectively, but, at best, they are each projects from an offensive standpoint. So, which pieces can Guerin use? A winger, put simply.
Wild in Holding Pattern on Trade Front
Through the process of elimination, looking from the net out, the NHL goalie market has been historically weak. So, Devan Dubnyk, even if he would be attractive to other teams based on his high level of play and cost-effective deal, likely wouldn’t fetch much.
The Wild could theoretically get a lot for one of their top defensemen, which is a source of strength. However, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon have no-movement clauses and beyond them and Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin, there’s not a lot with which to work. So, compromising whatever depth the Wild do have on defense now might not be wise.
Unfortunately, that sentiment extends to their prospect pool. Former first-round-pick Filip Johansson’s development has stagnated significantly overseas. That leaves the undrafted Brennan Menell as probably their top defensive prospect, which is not meant as a slight, seeing as he’s performed impressively in the American Hockey League. In terms of appeal, the Wild may have a hard time selling a potential trade partner on a 5-foot-11, 172-pound defenseman with zero NHL experience. He could realistically pan out, but whatever NHL career he ends up having will likely be with the Wild, at least to start.
Up front, left-winger Kirill Kaprizov is one of the best NHL prospects playing outside of North America. He has a year left on his Kontinental Hockey League contract though and his rights likely wouldn’t yield as much as Guerin would hope. That leaves Matthew Boldy, in whom the Wild have high hopes. Seeing as the Wild just drafted him, they probably wouldn’t want to trade him until they get a better idea of what they have in the prospect, who plays the left side too and projects as an elite two-way forward.
Zucker vs. Fiala
That really just leaves whoever’s on the roster up front, including the usual suspects like Jason Zucker. During Fenton’s tenure, Zucker’s name was all over the rumor mill. Look for that trend to continue, even though trading a proven 20-goal scorer on a decent deal may come back to bite Guerin. Zucker’s also 27 going on 28. While that means Zucker’s in his prime, it also means he’s likely peaked and may not be as attractive, as, say 23-year-old Kevin Fiala.
Fiala’s shown offensive flare, is a former first-round pick (2014), and is young enough that teams may be willing to invest in his future by sending an established center back the Wild’s way. Kinda like how Fenton did the exact same thing for Granlund. Good times.
It might be seen as a step backwards, especially if Guerin would have to add on a draft pick to get something done. However, give Fenton some credit here in the sense that it wasn’t working with the players he had. Fenton had to do something. It just turns out he did the wrong things time and again. Even if Guerin has to undo some of the damage done, he can theoretically acquire the right players in the process this time around.
Fiala can still be a key component for the Wild. However, if it means getting back a sorely needed center, he’ll have to be a key component in a trade instead. He’s probably the best and biggest trade chip the Wild have, which isn’t as ominous as it may sound. After all, Guerin has it right when he sees a center as being his biggest need.
Even if he can’t realistically trade a defenseman or goalie, the Wild are effectively a top-10 team in terms of shots and goals against. Their organizational depth chart may be lacking in terms of prospects at those positions, but at least they’ve got the right players in place now. Fixing the offense is the ticket. Getting a center could do the trick and get the Wild back into the playoffs. Admittedly easier said than done, but at least Guerin knows what needs to be done. Fenton was lost. That’s already a step in the right direction out of the woods.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.