The Minnesota Wild have a very busy offseason ahead, with extensions, attempting to salvage their relationship with veteran winger Zach Parise, the Seattle Expansion Draft, and their center situation that needs an extensive repair. General manager Bill Guerin will be tested with everything he has to maneuver around. This could be a legacy-defining summer for the second-year general manager.
RFA Contract Extensions
The top priority is to lock up their young guns and re-sign restricted free agents Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, and Joel Eriksson Ek. The Wild have roughly $22 million to work with this summer, but most of that will be allocated to these three players. It’s a tough task for Guerin, who still has to fill out the rest of the roster with the little he will have left after these hefty pay raises.
|Kirill Kaprizov||24||27-24-51||5 x $7.738 M|
|Kevin Fiala||24||20-20-40||5 x $6.111 M|
|Joel Eriksson Ek||24||19-11-30||2 x $3.672 M|
The Wild would prefer a long-term extension, but Guerin will have to convince Kaprizov of his vision for the future. Kaprizov is projected to sign a five-year contract worth just north of $7.7 million according to Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections.
However, that will be tricky as contract negotiations between both parties are not going well, according to Michael Russo (from ‘Russo: Latest in the Wild’s tricky Kirill Kaprizov contract talks and the threat of the KHL,’ The Athletic, 06/18/2021). There’s no real concern here because Kaprizov’s only other choice is the KHL, and he left it for a reason. He wants to play in the NHL. With that said, these negotiations will be challenging, and it could take the entire offseason to come to an agreement.
The other problem is that there aren’t many comparables to what Kaprizov should earn. After burning the first year of his contract, he is coming off his entry-level deal with just 62 games of NHL experience (including the postseason). If the Wild sign him to a three-year deal, he will then become a free agent. A two-year deal is very dangerous as he could follow the same model as Artemi Panarin’s two-year bridge deal that inevitably led him to be traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets because the Chicago Blackhawks couldn’t afford him.
Kaprizov became an offensive weapon as soon as he entered the league and finished his rookie season with 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games. He is the consensus winner for the Calder Trophy and has completely transformed the franchise. His track record and smooth transition to the NHL are beyond impressive and can’t go unstated.
After playing a significant time with Victor Rask, Kaprizov may want Guerin to make a significant move to upgrade their centers if he plans to sign long-term. While it is certainly justified, that is a very tall task, especially with the looming expansion draft.
“What I hear from folks close to Kaprizov: Until Guerin shows Kaprizov a clear plan to upgrade the middle of the ice and perhaps even begins to execute the plan, I just don’t see Kaprizov wanting to commit that length of his life and career to a place where, with all due respect, he has no allegiances, no ties. Sure, the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere, but I think Guerin is going to have to sell Kaprizov on his plan this offseason to get him to commit even as much as five or six years of his life” (from ‘Ask Russo: Wild’s eternal search for a star center, Kirill Kaprizov’s contract length, expansion debates and more,’ The Athletic, 06/11/2021).
This could get very messy, very fast.
The fact of the matter is that Kaprizov is the franchise player the Wild desperately needed to get back to relevancy and the negotiations need to be the team’s biggest priority.
They were fortunate that one good thing came out of the Paul Fenton chaos. That was Fiala, who emerged as the game-breaker that Fenton adamantly said he was when he acquired him from the Nashville Predators in the Mikael Granlund trade.
Fiala is coming off a two-year deal and will be looking for a hefty raise from his $3 million cap hit. However, his arbitration-eligible status could become an issue down the line in negotiations, especially when the Wild need to sign Kaprizov and Eriksson Ek, upgrade at center, all while filling out the remainder of the roster as several players might leave this offseason.
He is projected to get roughly $6.11 million on a five-year deal, but that’s on the conservative side. Not only is he arbitration-eligible, but he scored 38 goals over his past 82 games dating back to the 2019-20 season. He notched 20 goals and 40 points in this shortened season.
This is where the concern comes into play. If Fiala plays hardball, these contract negotiations could become a recipe for a disaster. On KFAN (100.3), Russo stated in reference to Fiala being moved, “I actually think there is a 50/50 chance of that this offseason.”
There are only two reasons why the Wild would consider moving Fiala, who has emerged as an offensive threat. First, he is their biggest asset in a trade for a number one center. Second, if he plays hardball, they may choose to move him because there is only so much that they can give him. Of course, moving Fiala would be a mistake. He should be treated like a core player who can help this roster take the next step.
Another player who took his game to the next level is Eriksson Ek. He continued his Selke-caliber defensive play this season and elevated his offensive game with a career-high 19 goals.
His next contract is projected to include a massive raise on his current $1.5 million deal. The projection is a two-year bridge deal worth nearly $3.7 million annually, but that seems very low for a player who has emerged as one of the best two-way centers in the league.
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Anthony Cirelli’s three-year bridge deal worth $4.8 million annually could be comparable. Would they consider locking him up for that amount for, say, five years?
Zach Parise’s Future
Parise’s production dipped this season, which became problematic for the Wild. He was scratched down the stretch and in the first three games of the postseason. Both sides will attempt to get on the same page this summer and salvage their relationship.
A buyout does the Wild nothing in terms of saving money. They could try to trade the veteran winger, but that seems very unlikely and almost impossible. There was little interest in Parise a year ago besides the trade that fell through with the New York Islanders. After what happened this season, trading him would not be a realistic avenue to pursue.
Parise still has four years remaining on his contract with a no-movement clause. He can still be an effective bottom-six forward and an asset to the team, despite that his production fell short of expectations.
Offseason Center Targets
The Wild’s depth down the middle is thin, and it became one of the biggest storylines last season. Teams effectively exploited the Wild here, and the only top-six center they have is Eriksson Ek. The center situation is very complex and will need to be dealt with this summer. They could decide to bring back one of Nick Bonino or Nick Bjugstad, but that doesn’t solve anything as they both are depth centers.
A major development in this situation will be the health of top center prospect Marco Rossi. He could make the team out of training camp, but it is far from a guarantee after suffering complications from COVID-19.
The Wild aren’t banking that Rossi will be on the opening night roster or that he will become an immediate top-six center. So, you better believe they will be exploring all their options, including a trade or a free-agent center.
Tier 1: The Best Options
|Nugent-Hopkins||EDM||28||7 x $8.12 M|
|Danault||MTL||28||7 x $6.24 M|
|Dvorak||ARI||25||4 x $4.45 M|
|Kuznetsov||WSH||29||4 x $7.8 M|
|Cirelli||TBL||23||2 x $4.8 M|
|Trocheck||CAR||27||1 x $4.75 M|
|McCann||PIT||25||1 x $2.94 M|
|Strome||NYR||27||1 x $4.5 M|
If the Wild are looking to upgrade down the middle in free agency rather than in a trade, they have a few options. The issue with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is that the only way he becomes a free agent is if his price tag is unrealistic. He’s a four-time 20-goal scorer and could be a fit in the Wild’s top-six, but do they really want to sign a player in his mid-30s to a lucrative contract? He’s an option to consider, at the very least.
Phillip Danault turned down an extension from the Montreal Canadiens that would have paid him $5 million over the next six years. He would probably sign anywhere between $5 million – $6 million on a long-term deal. He has been in the spotlight given the Canadiens’ deep postseason run, but he has always flown under the radar with his elite two-way game. There’s no question that he’s a top-line center.
My issue here is that his game is very similar to Eriksson Ek’s. Would Danault be the best use of the Wild’s cap space when they could just deploy Eriksson Ek in a top-six role as he deserves?
I’ve written about potential trade destinations for defensemen Matt Dumba and how the Arizona Coyotes could be a perfect trade partner in a deal that involves center Christian Dvorak. The 25-year-old center is under team control for four more seasons on a very good contract. He would fit perfectly in the Wild’s top-six and provide some stability in the dot. Dvorak has strong two-way underlying numbers and had a great 2019-20 season that could be an indicator of his future potential.
Evgeny Kuznetsov is another option, but given his past off-ice issues and after falling out of favor with the Washington Capitals, I am not sure he is the best player for the Wild to acquire right now. He has four years left on his deal at just under $8 million annually. He rebounded well this season and had above-average defensive results, which came as a surprise for a notorious defensive liability in the analytics community. He might not be the best option, but it is worth considering, especially because he is from Russia, which might please Kaprizov.
Cirelli is probably a long shot at the moment, especially since the Lightning have a chance to repeat as Cup champions. However, the Lightning have some serious cap issues to deal with this offseason, including top center Brayden Point, who needs a contract extension.
With major contracts to be handed out in the next two seasons, it would be foolish to think that Cirelli is a lock to stay on the Lightning long-term. Could Ross Colton’s break out alleviate some of the pain in a Cirelli trade?
I think the best fit for the Wild might be Vincent Trocheck of the Carolina Hurricanes. He’s a strong player in transition and the face-off circle, plus he’s coming off almost a point-per-game season. He is one of the better options at Minnesota’s disposal, and he’s only 28, with a lot left in his tank.
Arguably the best move the Wild could make would be acquiring Jared McCann from the Pittsburgh Penguins. He might be a hard get, but it would be a significant move to help bolster the team’s top-six. He has one year remaining on his deal worth just under $3 million. At 25 years old, he could be the solution at center. He’s coming off a career year, posting 32 points in 43 games and 3.2 wins above replacement, which ranked second in the league behind superstar Connor McDavid.
Ryan Strome is another center who could help the Wild upgrade down the middle. Guerin should find out what the price may be to get him from the New York Rangers. He was nearly a point-per-game player this season and could be a reliable option.
Tier 2: The Next Best Top-Six Options
|Reinhart||BUF||25||5 x $6.95 M|
|Duchene||NSH||30||5 x $8 M|
|Monahan||CGY||26||3 x $6.375 M|
|Strome||CHI||24||1 x $3 M|
|White||OTT||24||4 x $4.75 M|
|Kerfoot||TOR||26||2 x $3.5 M|
Acquiring Sam Reinhart from the Buffalo Sabres would be a high-risk, high-reward trade. He is a very skilled top-six forward, but there’s not a ton of evidence that he can be an effective top-six center as he has played mostly on the wing. The 25-year-old forward is arbitration-eligible, so he will get paid this summer, and I’m not sure the Wild want to invest in a player who lacks time at center.
Matt Duchene is an intriguing option because he fits all the boxes. He is an effective player at even-strength, has a strong transition game, and a long track record of being good in the faceoff circle.
He hasn’t been a great fit in Nashville, so they might consider moving him. They would also have to retain some of his salary, but a change of scenery would probably be good for him.
There hasn’t been much interest in Sean Monahan. A change of scenery might help the Calgary Flame get back to his game which has deteriorated recently. It’s not just his dip in production, but his underlying numbers have been a cause for concern. He is still an option, especially if the Wild think he can get back to being an elite top-line center.
Dylan Strome and Alex Kerfoot are middle-six options and have shown some potential, but they have yet to produce like a top-six center. If the Wild don’t want to surrender a ton of assets, these two are options.
After breaking out in the 2018-19 season, Colin White’s play has been underwhelming the past two seasons. He’s making $4.75 million over the next four seasons, which is quite expensive considering his lack of production.
With that said, he has a lot of potential, and the Wild could make a risky bet that he turns out to be the player the Senators got. Ottawa may part ways with the 24-year-old center if the right deal arises.
Potential Stop Gap Options
|Johnson||TBL||30||3 x $5 M|
|Henrique||ANA||31||3 x $5.8 M|
|Stepan||OTT||31||1 x $1.1 M|
|Dzingel||OTT||29||4 x $3.5 M|
|Wennberg||FLA||26||5 x $4.9 M|
The Wild might also consider a stopgap to help temporarily fix the center problem if they feel they have the prospects in their pipeline that can make a difference soon or if they are eyeing centers that might become available, like Aleksander Barkov.
Tyler Johnson is probably the best option in terms of value. He has three years remaining on his contract with a cap hit of $5 million. The Wild could get him for relatively nothing because he was placed on waivers this season and there was no interest.
He is still a decent player who might come at a bargain, considering the low cost it would take to acquire him. Perhaps a change of scenery and an elevated role could benefit the four-time 20-goal scorer.
Another low-cost option is Adam Henrique. He is a little pricier but would most likely carry the highest reward. He is just one year removed from a 26-goal season, proving that he still has some offense left in the tank. He might be intriguing to the Wild because of his good results in the face-off circle. Not only would he be a cheap acquisition, but the Anaheim Ducks will likely retain some of his salary to help unload him.
The last two centers are Ryan Dzingel and Alexander Wennberg. If they do get contracts similar to the projections by Evolving-Hockey, it would be better to avoid them.
Jack Eichel Sweepstakes
What about the Jack Eichel sweepstakes?
One of the storylines to follow this offseason is if the Wild intend to be in the mix for the star center. He is a viable solution to their problem, especially with the term on his contract. It is rare for a player of Eichel’s caliber to be available like this, making this a missed opportunity if Guerin doesn’t thoroughly explore the situation in Buffalo.
There are several pros and cons of acquiring the 24-year-old center. The pros are obvious. It solves the Wild’s center situation in the present and for the future. He is a bonafide franchise center who is among the best in the league. He is locked up through the 2025-26 season on a respectable deal that could become a bargain if the cap rises in the final years of his contract.
He is a point-per-game player with a lethal shot and is incredible in transition, which the Wild are lacking. Surprisingly, he is an above-average defensive player and a strong two-way force.
With that said, there are also cons to acquiring Eichel. First and foremost, he suffered a neck injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the 2020-21 season and will likely require offseason surgery. His $10 million cap hit is also an issue. He is worth his contract but can the Wild afford it with Kaprizov’s expensive second deal looming. It would be tough to build a supporting cast and contender around Eichel with so much money invested in their backhand and Kaprizov to be re-signed.
Seattle Expansion Draft Casualties
The Wild have a tough decision ahead of the Seattle Expansion Draft. The biggest question mark is who they will protect to keep their top four intact. The protection avenue they take will depend on Dumba. His performance hasn’t been good enough for a player making $6 million annually, and they need cap space going forward despite his flashes of an elite offensive game.
Here is the list of the Wild’s potential Expansion Draft casualties, broken down by position, age, contract, and whether they would be exposed under the eight skaters or standard seven-three-one route:
|M. Dumba||RD||26||2 x $6M||7-3-1|
|C. Soucy||LD||26||2 x $2.75M||Both|
|J. Greenway||LW, RW||24||1 x $2.1M||8|
|M. Foligno||LW, RW||29||3 x $3.1M||8|
|R. Hartman||RW||26||3 x $1.7M||8|
|N. Sturm||C||26||1 x $725K||Both|
|C. Talbot||G||33||2 x $3.67M||Both|
It seems the Wild will go with the standard protection list. This means that they must face the fact that they will lose Dumba for nothing, or make a side deal with the Kraken, or trade him before the expansion draft. It would be very risky for Minnesota to make a side deal because of what happened in the Vegas Expansion Draft when they used Alex Tuch as bait to guarantee the Golden Knights would take forward Erik Haula. This deal only happened because the Wild didn’t want to lose Eric Staal or Dumba.
There is a lot for Guerin to work through this offseason because of the implications of the Seattle Expansion Draft. It is potentially a franchise-altering offseason as he continues to make roster moves that will hopefully lead the Wild to becoming a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
(All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey-Reference & CapFriendly)
Aaron Heckmann covers the Wild for The Hockey Writers & Zone Coverage. His data-driven articles are focused on solving problems, telling stories, and discovering unique storylines. Find him on Twitter @aaron_heckmann.