COVID-19 pauses aside, the 2021-22 NHL season could not be going any better for the Minnesota Wild. While it’s a close race for the Central Division lead, the Wild currently lead the way with a 19-9-2 record and 40 points. Most of the lineup is playing at their best, which is important for the team’s pending restricted (RFA) and unrestricted (UFA) free agents.
According to Cap Friendly, 10 of Minnesota’s current roster players are set to hit free agency in the summer. With a large chunk of money dedicated to the Ryan Suter and Zach Parise‘s buyouts and about $16 million in cap space to spend, the Wild must make some tough decisions about who to bring back for the 2022-23 season. That’s why the next few months will be crucial for any player heading to free agency. With that being said, here’s a look at three Wild free agents who are most likely to return for the 2022-23 NHL season.
1. Alex Goligoski
The Wild signed veteran defenseman and former Stanley Cup champion Alex Goligoski to a one-year, $5 million contract back in the offseason to take over Suter’s void on the blue line. With the resume that he had ahead of the season, the hope was that Goligoski’s signing would keep Minnesota competitive as the franchise entered a new era.
Fortunately, Goligoski has been playing some of the best hockey of his career with his home-state team. The Grand Rapids native has played 27 games so far, tallying a pair of goals and 18 assists for 20 points. Not only is he tied for fourth in team scoring, but his 20 points on the year are just two fewer than he had in 56 games with the Arizona Coyotes in 2020-21. His plus-14 plus/minus rating is also the best it’s been in five years.
Considering how well Goligoski has performed as Suter’s “replacement,” the Wild should do what they can to bring him back over the offseason. With him being a Minnesota native and 37 years old by the time the next season begins, there’s a good chance that Minnesota can get him locked down at a similar average annual value (AAV).
Something like a two-year, $10 to $11 million contract would be ideal for the team. If he maintains production or it doesn’t drop off too much, the Wild will have a more than capable top-4 pairing defenseman. If, for whatever reason, he declines in the first year, they could attempt to move him in Summer 2023. Regardless, Goligoski has been a key reason behind Minnesota’s success this season and bringing him back next year is a necessity.
2. Kaapo Kahkonen
A fourth-round pick at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Kaapo Kahkonen finds himself in an interesting situation with the Wild. Last season, it seemed like the Finnish netminder was poised to usher in the next era of goaltending for the franchise. However, the idea of that quickly changed when Minnesota selected Swedish goaltending prodigy Jesper Wallstedt 20th overall at this year’s draft. With the team’s newest goalie prospect possessing elite potential, fans began wondering what Kahkonen’s future with the team looks like.
Kahkonen’s 2021-22 campaign started off shaky after he allowed seven goals on 50 shots over his first two games. Fortunately, he’s found his groove since then and it’s paying off. The pending RFA is 3-1-1 in five starts since his first two games, recording a 2.41 goals-against average (GAA) and .919 save percentage (SV%) over that stretch. In fact, his recent play is even more impressive with four of his last five games ending with a SV% of .923 or better.
Even if the Wild are certain that Wallstedt will eventually be their starter for years to come, Kahkonen still deserves another contract. For starters, the former is only 19 years old and anyone familiar with hockey knows how unpredictable goalie prospects can be. It could be three or four years before Wallstedt will be ready to be an NHL starter, maybe even longer.
There’s also the fact that Cam Talbot, the current starting goalie, is 34 years old and will be a UFA in 2023. If Talbot begins to decline or retires and Wallstedt isn’t ready by then, the Wild could be in a tough spot. That’s why it makes sense to lock Kahkonen down for the next two or three seasons as a contingency plan. The worst-case scenario is that he provides a stop-gap before Wallstedt is ready. The best-case scenario is that Kahkonen continues his consistent play and Minnesota has a promising one-two punch in goal for years to come. Either way, it wouldn’t be a great idea to let the Finnish goaltender walk this offseason.
3. Jon Merrill
When Jon Merrill signed a one-year, $850,000 contract with the Wild over the offseason, it marked his fourth team in as many years. Although expectations were low when he initially signed, the 29-year-old has become quite the fan favorite in Minnesota for more than just his signature mullet.
Merrill has showcased solid two-way production in his first season with the Wild. Offensively, he has 11 points in 30 games. Assuming he continues this production, he’s currently on pace for 30 points, which would double his previous career high. He also hasn’t shied away from getting physically involved, proven by his 48 blocked shots and 24 hits. The Wild have also shown a lot of defensive trust in Merrill, with 59.9 percent of his starts taking place in the defensive zone.
Merrill is far from Minnesota’s best defenseman; however, they don’t need him to be. He’s done perfectly fine with the playing time that he’s been given and is more than worth his current contract. He’s shown good chemistry with Goligoski and Dmitry Kulikov, which is important with both of those defensemen likely returning next year. Considering the success Minnesota has seen in the first half of the season, it’d make sense to bring back as many pieces as possible. Even if it’s another one-year deal, Merrill is proving that he deserves another season with the team.
At the end of the day, general manager Bill Guerin will have some tough decisions to make between now and the start of the next season. As mentioned earlier, $16 million to spend across 10 roster players is certainly a task and all but guarantees that some of the team’s pending free agents won’t be back for the 2022-23 campaign. Only time will tell who’s brought back and who’s given the door.
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As a lifelong hockey fan and recent Master of Journalism graduate, it’s always been my dream to write about the sport. That’s why you can find me here on THW covering the Minnesota Wild! You may also see my work on FanDuel, the Ottawa Citizen, and various sports betting sites. Follow me on Twitter @devplat!