Wild Need to Improve Their Center Depth

As the 2021-22 NHL season rolls on, the Minnesota Wild continue to sit atop the Central Division with an 11-6-1 record (23 points). With that being said, only five points separate first from sixth in the division, so the Wild still need to figure out a way to distance themselves from the pack. One way of doing that is by adding another top-nine center to the team.

The fact is that the Wild’s centers have been playing below their potential. Yes, Rem Pitlick‘s breakout has been impressive and Joel Eriksson Ek‘s 12 points are more than respectable (albeit, underwhelming for his standards). However, it’s fairly reasonable to say that none of the other players at the position has truly stood out. That’s why Minnesota should consider adding another top-nine center sometime between now and the trade deadline on March 21, 2022.

Wild’s Current Center Group

As mentioned above, the Wild’s current group of centers is led by Eriksson Ek, who signed an eight-year, $42 million contract extension back in July. Expectations are high any time a player signs a contract like that, especially after he recorded 19 goals and 11 assists in 56 games last year. While his current 0.42 goals per game (GPG) puts him on pace for a career-high 34 in an 82-game season, his four assists leave a lot to be desired. It isn’t like he can’t be a capable playmaker. After all, he put up 21 assists in 62 games just two seasons ago. Regardless, he still has more than enough talent that he should find more consistency as the season continues.

Pitlick is the other Wild center who’s positively stood out in the first quarter of the 2021-22 season. Prior to Minnesota claiming him from the Nashville Predators on Oct. 6, he had just two points in career NHL games. Since joining the Wild, he’s had four goals and three assists in 10 games, which includes scoring his first-ever hat trick against the Seattle Kraken on Nov. 14. Still, Pitlick only has 21 games of NHL experience under his belt. While it’s possible that he could be a bit part of the franchise for years to come, he’s still unproven (to a degree) and the team can’t expect him to perform like a top-six forward on a nightly basis.

Rem Pitlick Milwaukee Admirals
Rem Pitlick during his time with the Milwaukee Admirals. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The Wild also have Frederick Gaudreau and Nico Sturm on the roster, however, neither of them have stepped up as the No. 2 guy down the middle. Right now, Gaudreau is averaging the second-highest time on ice (TOI) out of all Minnesota centers at over 17 minutes. Considering he only has eight points in 19 games, that isn’t necessarily enough production to justify his ice time. While Sturm has done a good job at winning face-offs (59.1%), he only has seven points and doesn’t appear to be more than a bottom-six forward at the moment.

And then there’s Victor Rask and Nick Bjugstad. Rask’s tenure in Minnesota has been nothing short of a disappointment. After having two 40-plus-point seasons and averaging 0.48 points per game (PPG) with the Carolina Hurricanes, he’s averaged 0.34 with the Wild and hasn’t finished with more than 23 points in a campaign. On the other hand, Bjugstad has easily been the bigger disappointment this year. Once a guarantee for double-digit goal totals earlier in his career, the former first-round selection has two goals and zero assists in 16 games this season. A history of injuries is preventing Bjugstad from being the player that he once was, making him someone that the Wild should consider replacing for the betterment of the team.

Centers for the Wild to Target

During the summer months and even at the start of the year, it was looking like a real possibility that Jack Eichel could have been traded to Minnesota. Obviously, that didn’t happen with the Buffalo Sabres moving him to the Vegas Golden Knights. Nevertheless, it was still disappointing because the Wild looked like they were ready to bring in a legitimate No. 1 center and now have to pivot to other options on the market.

Related: Revisiting Minnesota Wild Drafts – 2013

One center that could make a real impact for the Wild is the Vancouver Canucks’ J.T. Miller. The Province‘s Ben Kuzma has reported that Minnesota has already kicked tires around a potential trade for the 28-year-old center. He’s the type of offensive talent who could transform any team’s top-nine forward group. His 137 points in 142 career games with the Canucks show just how dangerous he can be and he’s already playing at a point-per-game pace in the current campaign. Miller’s under contract carries an annual average salary (AAV) of $5.25 million per season through 2022-23, however, that’s more than a bargain for the production he brings to the table.

JT Miller Vancouver Canucks
JT Miller, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There are also several pending unrestricted free agents who’ll likely be on the block ahead of this year’s trade deadline. It isn’t the strongest batch of UFAs, although someone like Tomas Hertl could be someone that the Wild look into. Since breaking out during the 2018-19 NHL season, Hertl has 166 points in his last 194 games (0.86 PPG). The Czech center’s most impressive performance came when he tallied 74 points in 77 games just three seasons ago. If that’s the type of player Minnesota can get it’s hands-on, there’s no doubt that he could electrify the offense and maybe even give Eriksson Ek an incentive to compete harder for the No. 1 role.

At the same time, management may not want to spend capital on a big-name rental player if they’ll walk at the end of the year. Or, perhaps, they don’t want to use up future salary-cap space. Fortunately, there are affordable options out there. Philadelphia Flyers center Derick Brassard is a veteran who’s been playing better than expected. After several underwhelming seasons, the 34-year-old Canadian has 11 points in 17 games this season. That’s good enough for a 50-point pace in 82 games, which would also be his best total in six years. Brassard also has 117 games of playoff experience, which includes four Eastern Conference Final appearances and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final as a New York Ranger in 2013-14. He is currently dealing with a lower-body injury, so that’s a situation that needs to be monitored. In any case, his presence could be beneficial to both the Wild’s offense and locker room even at this stage of his career.

Wild Have Options in Iowa

If the trade market for centers doesn’t interest the Wild, they could always turn to a few viable options in the American Hockey League for some help. The organization’s centers in Iowa have been performing well this season, especially when it comes to Marco Rossi. The former Ottawa 67’s star has impressed in his first 11 AHL games, putting up three goals and 11 assists. Considering that Gaudreau leads all Minnesota venters with five assists this season, it’s safe to say that Rossi could be the NHL club’s best playmaker down the middle if given the opportunity.

Related: Wild’s 3 Best Value Contracts for 2021-22

Mason Shaw is another center who’s been looking good, scoring four goals and adding seven assists in 13 games so far. He impressed last season with a 0.73 PPG pace, but his history with ACL injuries have led some to wonder if he can ever reach his potential at the next level. There’s also 29-year-old veteran Kyle Rau (12 points in eight games), although he’s never impressed in the NHL despite his consistent AHL production. With that being said, even giving any of the above an extended look could light a fire under the centers already on the Wild’s roster.

Kyle Rau Minnesota Wild
Kyle Rau, Minnesota Wild (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Unfortunately, the aforementioned players are Minnesota’s best bet at finding an internal solution. Joseph Cramarossa is on pace to have a career AHL campaign as well, however, he too hasn’t found NHL success even though he was drafted over a decade ago. The Wild have given Connor Dewar four games in the big leagues this season, but that resulted in zero points and a -3 plus/minus rating. It just doesn’t look like he’s ready for a lengthy stint in the NHL and Minnesota is better off not burning any more games off of his entry-level contract.

The Wild Still Have Time

The Wild are fortunate to be in a position where they don’t need to add a center overnight. As mentioned before, they’ve been near the top of their division all year and the current group of centers is finding a way to get things done by committee. Still, that isn’t guaranteed to work for the next 60-plus games and it won’t be long before the top centers in the market start falling off the board. Minnesota already lost out on Eichel and adding another player at the position could be the difference between a lengthy playoff run and another postseason exit.

Regardless of whether the Wild’s solution is internal or external, one thing is clear: life will be a lot let stressful if Minnesota addresses the issue while it’s still small.

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