The surge by the Minnesota Wild down the stretch this season emphatically states that general manager Bill Guerin is not going to tear the whole thing down. However, upon taking this job he received a tangled web with some young unproven players, not a whole lot of previously drafted talent in the prospect system, and an aging core of veteran players.
He has limited cap space to work with and not a lot of roster flexibility. All hope is not lost, though, and Guerin has proven that he is capable of making smart moves and getting good value when he makes them. These are items that should be on his offseason to-do list.
Re-Sign Alex Galchenyuk
Alex Galchenyuk has had a really turbulent couple of years. He really seemed to be progressing the right direction with the Montreal Canadiens, but then in June 2018, he was traded to the Arizona Coyotes. For some reason, it didn’t work out for him in the desert, even though he was the third-leading scorer on the team with 41 points.
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The Coyotes dumped him off to the Pittsburgh Penguins in June 2019 as part of the trade to acquire Phil Kessel. Galchenyuk’s time in Pittsburgh was a disaster – career lows in average minutes and point production really took their toll on his value, in a contract year for him. Pittsburgh packaged him to Minnesota as part of the deal to acquire Jason Zucker.
In terms of the value of that trade, it was almost like Pittsburgh was throwing Galchenyuk into the deal to clear the salary space to accommodate Zucker. Guerin managed to acquire a conditional first-round pick and highly-touted defensive prospect Calen Addison in the deal. In 14 games for the Wild, Galchenyuk contributed seven points and really started to look like he was fitting in with the team. Interim coach Dean Evason and the core of veterans on the team seem to have benefited Galchenyuk, as he started to look more like the player that was a perennial 50-point threat in Montreal. Galchenyuk is only 26 years old and he’s coming off the worst year of his career.
In his worst season, before this one, he was a 40-point player. He’s bounced around a bit these last two seasons and has struggled. The Wild could offer him an opportunity of stability and a new place to get back to the player he was only a couple of seasons ago. In return, Galchenyuk offers the Wild a versatile forward that can play center or wing, and has historically reached the 50-point plateau. A short term, two-year deal with no increase in salary (possibly even a small decrease) looks like it could work out well for both parties.
Be Active on Draft Day
The biggest hole in the roster that Guerin has to address is the future of the center position. There’s a huge amount of “maybe” around it. Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin have both played minutes at center for the Wild this season with varying degrees of success. The team also made some use of Galchenyuk at center. It’s possible that one of these players could establish themselves as the top center of the future for the team, but as of right now, there is no sure thing.
If the Wild are not blessed with great luck at the draft lottery, they should take a look at teams picking in the top five. There are a few elite centers at the top of this draft and all would almost certainly be gone by the time the Wild picked at No. 11. Quinton Byfield is the top of the class at center and is likely to go second overall. Marco Rossi and Anton Lundell are the next two centers up and they project to go anywhere in the 4 to 10 range.
Guerin can sit on his hands and hope that teams leave him Lundell at 11 (because they certainly won’t leave Rossi or Byfield), or he can make a move. Guerin has a lot of pieces that he could consider dangling in trades to teams in hopes of trading up into the top-five and getting his guy. If he doesn’t make a move, his best options at center will likely be Mavrik Bourque and Connor Zary. They’re good players in their own right but are considered a significant step down from the other three that were mentioned previously.
Pursue Mikhail Grigorenko
Obviously, the Wild are hoping to bring Kirill Kaprizov over from the KHL and have him make an immediate impact. The reality of the situation at center for the Wild cannot be overstated. Assuming Mikko Koivu plays another year, the Wild are using two players over the age of 35 as their centers, and one of them is playing top-line minutes.
Eriksson Ek, Kunin and Galchenyuk have all spent some time at center with mixed results. Assuming the team keeps Galchenyuk, these three players are the top contenders to compete for center minutes next season. The only member of the Iowa Wild that seems likely to compete for a job as an NHL center next season is Nico Sturm. (from ‘Nico Sturm ahead of schedule, contributing for Wild,’ Star Tribune, 12/27/2019) The team really does not have enough depth at the position in their system.
Conveniently, the top center Kaprizov has been playing with over in the KHL is on an expiring deal. 2012 12th-overall pick Mikhail Grigorenko has spent the last three seasons in Russia after the Colorado Avalanche let him walk in 2017. In his last two seasons, Grigorenko has been the top-line center for CSKA Moscow, where, while primarily centering Kaprizov, he’s produced 93 points in 102 games.
Grigorenko has 217 NHL games under his belt, but his development was severely mishandled by the Buffalo Sabres, and then he didn’t quite catch on with Colorado. It all seems so long ago, but Grigorenko is still young – he turns 26 on May 16. At 6-foot-3, he’s got great size and he’s clearly developed his game further since his last NHL stint. If there is a possibility of an NHL return for this star KHL center, the Wild should make sure that it’s in their uniform and nobody else’s.
Spend Wisely in Free Agency
This is not the free agency class in which to go shopping for expensive players that want long-term contracts. Guerin would be wise to avoid falling into the trap of believing the Wild are one big-ticket acquisition away from being real contenders. A surge late in the season to battle back into playoff contention does not mean this team is ready to square off against titans like the St. Louis Blues or Vegas Golden Knights in a seven-game series and adding Taylor Hall or Mike Hoffman is not enough to change that. It wasn’t enough to change it for Arizona or Florida.
Instead, spending wisely on versatile players that can play up and down the lineup as needed, and are currently under the age of 30, is the way to go. To that end, a player they should consider is Cody Eakin.
Eakin has shown that, in a pinch, he can be a No. 2 center. He’s had some ups and downs in his career, but he’s demonstrated that he has the ability to produce points and be a solid faceoff guy. He’s also useful in all situations, including special teams. Eakin is versatile enough to be moved around the lineup and contribute positively to the team, even if he’s not exactly producing points. He’s also a great locker room presence and is held in high regard by teammates. (from ‘Golden Knights say goodbye to an original Golden Misfit,’ Las Vegas Review-Journal, 02/22/2020). A character guy with a history of point production and versatility is exactly the type of player Minnesota should be looking to add.
Consider Investing in Goaltending
If the Wild do spend big money in free agency, it should be on goaltender Robin Lehner. At 28 years old, and coming off another stellar season, Lehner is probably going to command big money in free agency. Current starter Devan Dubnyk has one year left on his contract beyond the 2019-20 season but has had a rough go of it this year. Alex Stalock has been serviceable, but it’s unlikely that anyone sees the 32-year-old career backup as a true No. 1 option of the future. Kaapo Kahkonen has been very good in the AHL, but he could still be a year or two away from being ready.
If the Wild are not going to tear everything down and are going to try to remain competitive and retool on the fly, acquiring an upgrade at the goaltender position is key towards that goal. Lehner has proven he can play and somebody is going to pay him salary and term in free agency. He turns 29 years old in July and has shown time and again that he is a force to be reckoned with in the net. Playing behind Minnesota’s stingy defense could help Lehner reach a whole new level in how good he can be.
Guerin will have his work cut out for him this offseason, but the opportunity exists for the Wild to make a splash.
Jack Dawkins is a freelance scout, analyst and avid watcher of “way too much hockey.” He has joined The Hockey Writers team to cover all things Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils, Minnesota Wild, Los Angeles Kings, Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers. He’s an absolute data hound and loves using stats and analytics to calculate and extrapolate data for analysis.