There’s an excitement in the air surrounding the hockey world now that the 2021-22 NHL season is just a few weeks away. The Minnesota Wild are coming off of an offseason that had a lot to do with contract situations, whether it was the buying out of former franchise cornerstones Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, or the long struggle to lockdown sophomore sensation Kirill Kaprizov. Now that all of that is in the past, the Wild can turn their attention to the upcoming season, which includes addressing three restricted free agents who need contract extensions.
It’s important to remember that there’s a chance that each of these players won’t be signed by the time the 2021-22 season ends. As seen with the Kaprizov saga this summer, the possibility is always there that these signings could come down to the wire.
With that being said, here’s a look that three Wild restricted free agents that are deserving of contract extensions by the end of the season.
1. Kevin Fiala
Out of the 11 upcoming restricted free agents across the Wild organization, none deserve a contract extension more than Kevin Fiala. The 25-year-old Swiss-born winger has gotten better with each passing season ever since Minnesota acquired him from the Nashville Predators back in February 2019. Fiala faced restricted free agency this past offseason, however, he and the Wild agreed on a one-year, $5.1 million contract to avoid arbitration and keep him in town for at least one more year. That begs the question: where do the two sides go from here?
Over the past two seasons, Fiala has 43 goals and 51 assists for 94 points in 114 games. That puts him at a 0.823 point-per-game (PPG) pace, which translates to around 67 points in an 82-game season. That’s the type of offense that hasn’t come around the Wild too often throughout their franchise history, which means there’s no reason for another one-year deal next offseason. Minnesota needs to lock Fiala down at some point this season before the situation becomes a distraction.
All that remains is finding out how much Fiala is worth, and for how long. The Wild currently have four players who will be under contract in 2024-25 and beyond: Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin. Fiala fits into the group because A) he’s around the same age as them, and B) he’s a player that Minnesota can build around as long as the past two seasons weren’t a fluke. With that said, it makes sense for the organization to lock him down for four or five years, because he can grow with the other core pieces and the Wild will have him under control into his unrestricted free agent years.
When it comes to how much Fiala should make annually, something around the $5.1 million he’s making this season could work. Minnesota extended Eriksson Ek this summer and his average annual value (AAV) is $5.25 million. Considering how he’s a center, which is a more valuable position across the league, it’s hard imagining the Wild paying Fiala that much more than that. So, something like a four- or five-year deal ranging from $21 million to $27 million seems appropriate assuming the Swiss winger maintains his current production.
2. Jordan Greenway
It’s easy to think of Fiala, Eriksson Ek and Kaprizov when thinking about the Wild’s promising younger players. That means that sometimes fifth-year winger Jordan Greenway gets lost in the conversation. The 6-foo-6 New York state native, like Fiala, has been improving with each passing season. Last year was Greenway’s best as a Wild player as he set career highs in both assists (26) and points (32) despite playing his fewest number of games (56) since becoming a full-time player three seasons ago.
Greenway is set to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season, and the problem with him is that he keeps improving each year, which makes it tougher to assess his value. For example, he averaged 0.296 PPG in 2018-19, 0.418 PPG in 2019-20 and 0.571 in 2020-21. If Greenway keeps trending in that direction, his price will likely go up. The Wild are now in a position where they have to either reward him for what he’s done or for what they think he will do, which has backfired on both sides for teams of just about every sport.
The smart thing to do is extending Greenway on a two- or-three-year bridge deal at some point this season. The Wild could then further assess his development over the next two years to see if he’s a legitimate middle-six core piece, or if his production drops off. He’s obviously a player that Minnesota fans love, but the last thing that the team needs is a five- or six-year extension that looks awful a few years down the line. The Wild already signed him to a two-year deal last year, so a short-term contract isn’t anything new for Greenway. Still, even on a bridge deal, he deserves an increase over the $2.1 million AAV he’s seeing on his current deal. His production this season will give the organization and fans a better idea as to what that number could look like by the time the 2021-22 NHL season ends.
3. Kaapo Kahkonen
Wild fans were by how comfortable Finnish goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen looked in the crease when Cam Talbot was forced to miss time due to injury. Unfortunately, he was inconsistent throughout the year and saw his starts diminish once Talbot became healthy and returned to form. Now that 2021 first-round pick Jesper Wallstedt is slated to be Minnesota’s goalie of the future, people are wondering where Kahkonen fits in, especially with him hitting restricted free agency next offseason.
Even if Kahkonen does have his moments of inconsistency, it’d be wise for the Wild to extend him on a bridge deal. Wallstedt has proven to be one of the top goaltending prospects around and if his development goes as planned, he should lead Minnesota’s crease for years to come. The issue there is that a goalie’s development can be unpredictable. There have been several instances throughout NHL history where a goalie expected to be the next big thing only not to pan out or to take much longer before they reach their potential.
There isn’t a guarantee that Wallstedt will be the next great Wild goaltender, but at least the organization has a good idea of what they have in Kahkonen for the time being. He’s gone 19-9-1 in 29 games over the past two seasons, recording a 2.88 goals against average (GAA) and .904 save percentage (SV%) during that span. Those are far from the greatest statistics, but he’s only 25 years old, and can still improve if the Wild coaching staff can figure out how to make him more consistent on a night-to-night basis.
This is by no means saying that Kahkonen should be the future starter over Wallstedt. Instead, it’s about the Wild being smart with their assists. Bridging Kahkonen for a few years means they have an insurance option as Talbot ages and his career winds down. The last thing the team needs is to put all of its chips on Wallstedt only for him to flop. Keeping Kahkonen around buys them extra time if their Swedish prospect needs more time to develop. If Wallstedt does end up becoming everything that Minnesota hopes he could be, the good news is that the Wild will have two young goalies to build around going forward.
Conclusion Who’s the Wild’s Top Priority?
At the end of the day, each of the three above players deserves to be a part of the Wild’s future going forward. Taking that into consideration, Fiala should be Minnesota’s top priority. The organization has seen a lot of offensively talented wingers come and go over the years, however, a lot of them either joined the team towards the end of their careers or didn’t stick around too long. The fact the Wild have Fiala during his prime is something they need to take advantage of before it’s too late.
Nevertheless, Greenway and Kahkonen are important too and if the Wild can sign them sooner than later, well that’s all the better.
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!