The Minnesota Wild made a crucial move last Friday by locking up Joel Eriksson Ek to an eight-year contract extension. It isn’t exactly surprising that they witnessed the promising young forward breakout this season as he became a dual-threat by unleashing his offensive untapped potential. He has emerged as one of the best two-way centers in the league and was due for a raise.
After checking off a significant item on the agenda, Bill Guerin turned his attention to another order of business. On Monday, he signed Nick Bjugstad to a one-year extension that will pay him $900K next season. He is versatile and can play both at center and wing. He registered 17 points in 44 games and controlled 58.11 percent of expected goals while he was on the ice, strong numbers for a depth piece. He will forego free agency and become a decent depth option as there are still many moving parts this offseason.
The downside of this signing is that it hints that pending unrestricted free agent Nick Bonino will likely depart to free agency. With limited roster spots, there was going to be a decision between the two forwards.
After these two signings, there is roughly $16 million in cap space remaining, with Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala unsigned and a few roster spots still needing to be filled. This doesn’t take into account the casualty in the Seattle Expansion Draft or any trades.
Vying for spots: Marco Rossi, Matt Boldy
Unrestricted free agents: Nick Bonino, Marcus Johansson
For starters, the depth chart only has one hole, which is a top-six center. I moved Ryan Hartman to the wing because he is more effective at wing and shouldn’t be forced into a center role. This leaves just one roster spot open, but there are several other question marks. Zach Parise could be moved for the purpose of a buyout. The Wild could try to unload Victor Rask too.
The biggest question is whether top forward prospects Marco Rossi and Matt Boldy will be ready to make the jump to the big stage. The brass has voiced that they won’t decide until they are truly ready to play in the NHL. It has become clear that neither is a lock to make the roster out of training camp, but both should be up on the roster at some point during the season.
At a minimum, there will need to be at least one spot filled but could be as many as three or four depending on expansion and trades. It appears the Wild would prefer to utilize the standard protection list, meaning it is unlikely the Kraken will select a forward from them. However, a side deal could be orchestrated, or they could circle back to protecting eight skaters, the presumed protection list just a year ago to protect Matt Dumba.
Vying for spots: Calen Addison, Brennan Menell, Louie Belpedio
Unrestricted free agents: Ian Cole, Brad Hunt
The defensive core may experience a change this offseason with the high possibility that Matt Dumba will be moved via trade or become an expansion draft casualty. Even taking that out of the equation, the Wild may need to find someone to pair with Carson Soucy on the third pair depending on if they can reach a deal with Cole.
If Dumba is indeed moved, it opens up a spot for top defensive prospect Addison. They also have several other internal options that could be replacements, including Menell, if they can sign him as he left to play in the KHL. The Wild have the option to bring Hunt at league minimum too.
However, if Dumba somehow escapes a second expansion draft and is on the roster post-expansion, there’s a good chance that Carson Soucy could be taken.
The big three – Suter, Spurgeon & Brodin – will remain but nobody else on the backend is guaranteed roster security. There is at least one roster spot (but likely more) that will need to be filled on defense, whether it’s Cole re-signing or acquiring a replacement through free agency.
There is a very strong chance the goaltending tandem will remain this offseason. There are some really intriguing goaltender options that the Kraken have at their disposal this summer, which is why it seems unlikely either will be taken. It is unclear whether the Wild will protect Talbot, who established himself as the clear number one last season, or Kahkonen, who is the presumed goalie of the future despite his clear growing pains and the fact it is unclear whether he can become an NHL starter.
This is a decent tandem that provided the team with consistency and stability last season. The hope is that this is just the beginning of what could be a solid pairing.
Free Agent Options
The Wild have a few roster spots to fill this offseason. It is unknown whether pending UFAs Bonino or Cole will get new contracts, meaning that it is useful to examine alternatives in free agency. Likewise, the uncertainty surrounding Rossi and Boldy’s chance to make the roster makes it essential to look to other pieces as a safety net.
The main priories are upgrading the center position and finding a defenseman to fit on the third pair. The reality of this offseason is that they don’t have the financial flexibility to be active or acquire any significant names. As a result, finding undervalued players to fill the need on cheap contracts will alleviate a huge financial burden.
Here are some free-agent options to fill the roster holes if needed:
Note: All contract projections are from Evolving-Hockey
Phillip Danault (C), Montreal Canadiens
Projected Contract: 7 years x $6.24 million AAV
2020-21 Stats: 5-19-24
This year’s free-agent market is thin in terms of impact centers. After Ryan Nugent-Hopkins re-signed a long-term extension with the Edmonton Oilers, Danault is one of the few top-six options that remain. He would be a great addition, but the problem is that his game is way too similar to Eriksson Ek. Acquiring Danault really doesn’t move the needle and I don’t think the Wild necessarily want to invest something in the $6 million range on a long-term deal after extending Eriksson Ek to an eight-year extension.
With that said, it’s hard to ignore him because he would immediately help upgrade the center position. The playoffs reinforced how effective Danault is and the value he brings with his strong two-way game. He fits many of the Wild’s boxes, but not sure it’s the right long-term play to invest a significant amount of money in, given their cap constraint this offseason.
Alexander Wennberg (C), Florida Panthers
Projected Contract: 5 years x $4.93 million AAV
2020-21 Stats: 17-12-29
Wennberg is a really intriguing option in free agency and might be one of the better under-the-radar options. It would be a low-risk, high reward move depending on the financial details of a potential deal. The projected contract seems a little high, especially given his decreased production over the past four seasons. He did, however, have his best season in 2020-21 since his 59-point campaign in the 2016-17 season.
The 26-year-old has shown his offensive upside but fell out of favor with the Blue Jackets, which led to them buying out the remainder of his contract. He signed a one-year deal with the Florida Panthers and was able to notch 17 goals and 29 points in 56 games. He was over 50 percent both in Corsi and expected goals percentage at 5-on-5. There is some potential here and the Wild might want to explore him as an option to help upgrade down the middle.
Paul Stastny (C), Winnipeg Jets
Projected Contract: 1 year x $2.07 million AAV
2020-21 Stats: 13-16-29
Another center they could explore is Stastny. They could sign him to a one-year deal, hopefully on a team-friendly contract, similar to Evolving-Hockey’s projection of $2 million. He could act as a stopgap before the Wild figure out their long-term plan. He could help bolster the center depth and be a strong 1-2 punch with Eriksson Ek.
Make no mistake, Stastny is still a top-six center despite his point totals. He posted a roughly 0.50 point-per-game rate, a little low for a top-six center. His underlying numbers were strong as the Jets controlled 57.40 percent of shot attempts and 56.52 percent of expected goals with him on the ice. If he can maintain good underlying numbers and notch 40-50 points, it would be a perfect addition for the Wild. Sure, there’s some concern, he’s 35 years old and next season is still far away. After witnessing the strong, quick fall of Eric Staal, there’s no point in attempting to guess when regression will occur.
David Krejci (C), Boston Bruins
Projected Contract: 2 years x $4.69 million AAV
2020-21 Stats: 8-36-44
It will be a shock if Krejci doesn’t re-sign with the Bruins. He’s spent his entire career with them, which included winning the Stanley Cup. He’s also an assistant captain, meaning the likelihood of the veteran testing the free-agent market is very slim. With that said, if he becomes available, the Wild should do everything they can to persuade him to come to Minnesota.
Krejci continues to be a force at 35 years old. He registered 44 points in 51 games. He’s a power-play specialist and a strong defensive center. He had a 61.30 share of shot attempts and a 65.02 share of expected goals. He’s above 50 percent in the dot, which is the cherry on top. He checks off all of the boxes, making him a prime candidate, but it would be shocking if he became available.
Derek Stepan (C), Ottawa Senators
Projected Contract: 1 year x $1.11 million AAV
2020-21 Stats: 1-5-6
Stepan is an interesting option but should be the last resort acquisition. He would certainly sign for cheap because his production has dipped because of injuries and he’s a Minnesota native. After getting surgery for an arm injury, he should be ready for the 2021-22 season. This would obvious come with some risk because his level of play hasn’t been great the past three seasons.
He has provided 0.5 wins above replacement over the past three seasons via Evolving-Hockey. He hasn’t been particularly effective and he’s on the wrong side of 30. This shouldn’t be at the top of the list, but it is certainly an option the Wild have this offseason.
Jon Merrill (LD), Montreal Canadiens
Projected Contract: 1 year x $1.13 million AAV
2020-21 Stats: 0-5-5
If the Wild need a depth defenseman this offseason because Dumba departs and/or Ian Cole departs free agency, Merrill should be at the top of the list. His point production doesn’t do justice as he’s a top defensive defenseman in the league. There is no doubt he is an undervalued player the Wild could get relatively cheap through free agency.
Ben Hutton (LD), Toronto Maple Leafs
Projected Contract: 1 year x $1.07 million AAV
2020-21 Stats: 1-4-5
Another depth defenseman that could be of interest is Ben Hutton. He has shown potential in the past, but his game has fallen apart the past few seasons. The 28-year-old would be a cheap acquisition to have on the third pair if the Wild are looking to save money on a low-risk deal.
Jordan Oesterle (LD/RD), Arizona Coyotes
Projected Contract: 1 year x $1.12 million AAV
2020-21 Stats: 1-10-11
The last option is Oesterle from the Coyotes. Another cheap option for the third pair if they don’t re-sign Cole. A one-year deal of just over $1 million is a small price to pay for a decent third-pairing defenseman.
The depth chart is far from being finalized with so many moving parts this offseason. There is still the Seattle Expansion Draft, NHL Entry Draft, free agency, and trades that will alter the current state of the depth chart. This offseason is poised to be eventful and will make significant changes to the Wild’s roster.
(All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey-Reference & Cap-Friendly)
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.