The Minnesota Wild are not accustomed to – or experienced at – shopping for free-agent defensemen. However, the void left by the departures of Ryan Suter and Carson Soucy forced management to dip into the open market. Unfortunately, they quickly discovered that don’t have the financial flexibility to land the players at the top of their list. The aftermath of the Suter and Zach Parise buyouts is a heavy burden the Wild will have to deal with over the next four seasons. The harsh reality is that they will struggle to be competitive through the upcoming cap-strapped years.
The Wild entered free agency looking to add three defensemen and two forwards while staying cap compliant. There were a ton of options available, but defensemen were quickly signed, as management had to account for lucrative contract extensions that will need to be handed out to their restricted free agents Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala.
Wild general manager Bill Guerin filled a crucial hole by signing veteran defenseman Alex Goligoski and Dmitry Kulikov. Goligoski signed a one-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $5 million. The deal comes with a no-trade clause which, along with the hefty price tag, was used to help persuade the Minnesota native to sign for one year as opposed to the multi-year deals that were handed out like candy around the league. Guerin signed Kulikov to a two-year contract that will pay him $2.25 million annually. The Wild felt comfortable with the deal, which will give them some flexibility for next season and should allow them to bring in one more defenseman if needed.
They have yet to find an upgrade at center, but the Wild added depth center Frederick Gaudreau to the mix, which should help. If all goes well, they can now move a natural winger like Ryan Hartman back to the wing. There is still the possibility that they will pursue one more forward in free agency as well.
The Additons of Goligoski, Kulikov & Gaudreau
The Wild lost their resident shot-blocker when Ian Cole signed with the Carolina Hurricanes but Goligoski will replace that missing element. The 35-year-old defenseman hasn’t shown any signs of regression, which is a good thing because he will play a significant role. He’s earned a 3.9 wins above replacement over the past three seasons, ranked 33rd in the league. While he isn’t the flashiest, he still grades out as a quality top-four defenseman.
Playing an important role on the Arizona Coyotes last season, the veteran defender held his own. Even taking into account the possibility of regression, he should provide stability as a stopgap in the top four. He isn’t a point-producer but consistently puts up 20 to 30 points a season. There was some dip in his transition numbers this past season, but he was in the 60th percentile and higher in zone entries and exits from 2017-2020. His ability to enter the zone was far better than Suter’s, so he does add that element. Regardless, his calming presence and steady game should help fill part of the void left by the departures.
The Wild also added Kulikov. He adds a physical element to the defensive core that was lacking aside from Matt Dumba. The 30-year-old is coming off one of the better seasons in his career, but he won’t provide much scoring because he isn’t a strong finisher.
That said, Kulikov generates offense and was well above league-average in expected goals and shot attempts. He is very strong at suppressing high-danger chances and limiting the number of shots against while he’s on the ice. He also plays most of his minutes against elite competition according to PuckIQ, so he is more than capable of playing tough minutes. The concern here is that last season might have been an outlier and he might regress in 2021-22.
Kulikov was in the 72nd percentile two seasons ago in controlled exit percentage, meaning he was very effective at exiting the zone with possession. Furthermore, he was in the 67th percentile in controlled entries against per 60. He excelled at breaking up possession as opposing players entered the zone and if he can maintain that caliber of play, this deal will be a bargain.
Also on Wednesday, the Wild signed center Frederick Gaudreau. The 28-year-old versatile forward can play on the wing, so he can easily be moved to the bottom-six as a last resort. After not getting a contract in 2019-20, the Pittsburgh Penguins signed him for the 2020-21 season when scored 10 points in 19 games.
He fills an area of need on the WIld with a 53.7 percent success rate in the dot. It’s difficult to predict whether he can become a staple in the bottom six, but he did produce strong numbers in the small sample size. He had a 52.86 Corsi for percentage and a 56.28 expected goal share – both near the top on the Penguins during his 19-game stint. The Wild might have found a diamond in the rough with this addition.
Depth Chart 2.0
After the free-agent signings, the depth chart 1.0 has been updated with just a few more spots to be filled.
Note: For the purpose of this exercise, I added in the possible contracts for Kaprizov and Fiala
Vying for spots: Marco Rossi & Matt Boldy
Assuming Joel Eriksson Ek – who emerged as one of the strongest two-way centers in the league last season – will have an elevated role, he should center the top line with Kaprizov and Zuccarello. The second line will consist of Jordan Greenway and Fiala with Victor Rask at center.
There is a chance that head coach Dean Evason swaps the two centers and opts to put Rask on the first line like last season, but that should be discouraged. Of course, the Wild could acquire a top-six center, but as time goes on, it seems more likely they will play “center by committee” next season.
The bottom-six will consist of Marcus Foligno, Ryan Hartman, Nico Sturm, Nick Bjugstad, and the recently acquired Gaudreau. Management is reportedly interested in signing one more forward in free agency, likely a cheap depth option who can fill the fourth-line wing spot.
Vying for spots: Calen Addison & Dakota Mermis
Goligoski will slide onto the first pairing with Jared Spurgeon as his partner. Jonas Brodin and Dumba will anchor the second pair. Recently acquired Dmitry Kulikov will take the left side spot on the third pairing, but we don’t yet know who his defensive partner will be. Guerin could opt to add one more depth defenseman through free agency or give top defensive prospect Calen Addison a spot on the roster.
The goaltending tandem of Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkoen escaped the Seattle Expansion Draft and will stay intact for next season.
Filling the Holes
The Wild may not be done in free agency, but they have already acquired some good pieces to fill a few holes. There are still a few spots that need to be addressed soon, but the top priority has to be getting restricted free agents Kaprizov and Fiala locked up.
All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey-Reference & Corey Sznajder’s Transition Tool
Aaron Heckmann is a journalism & broadcasting student. He covers the Wild for The Hockey Writers & Zone Coverage’s 10krinks. His data-driven articles are focused on solving problems, telling stories, and discovering unique storylines. Find him on Twitter @aaron_heckmann.