When it comes to building a Stanley Cup contender, paying attention to the salary cap is one of the most important parts. While it’s nice to have as many superstars on a roster as possible, that’s not always the smartest decision. After all, it’s better to have a few top-end players mixed with a balanced lineup rather than blowing a large portion of the salary cap on a handful of stars with weaker surrounding talent. The Minnesota Wild are just one of the teams who have a more diverse collection of contracts on the books for the 2021-22 NHL season. For example, they have nine contracts that cost $2 million or less and seven that are worth at least $5 million. Now, it’s all about how they can get the best value out of these deals going forward.
The Wild enter the 2021-22 campaign looking to rebound from last year’s first-round playoff exit, which is also the fourth time that’s happened in the last six seasons. They have approximately $12.2 million in cap space remaining, according to CapFriendly. A large portion of that remaining money will be used to lock down sophomore stud Kirill Kaprizov, who could potentially earn at least $9 million per season.
However, Kaprizov would only be one of two Minnesota players making more than $6 million per season with the other being team captain Jared Spurgeon ($7,575,000). That’s because the Wild have done a great job at dividing their salary cap so that they can get great value out of their contracts. Some players are living up to their hefty contracts while others are playing above their pay grade. If anything, the 2021-22 season is when the Wild need to capitalize on their bargain contracts because a lot of their players are due for pay increases next offseason. Here’s a look at the three best value Wild contracts ahead of the 2021-22 NHL season.
Best Value Wild Contract #3 — Kaapo Kahkonen: $725,000
Having a young backup goaltender, like Kaapo Kahkonen, is an absolute steal at $725,000. The 25-year-old Finnish netminder was drafted by the Wild in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and waited four years before making his North American debut. When he first came over to join the wild, Kahkonen started with the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Iowa. He progressed as time went on, eventually splitting time between the AHL and NHL in his second season before being promoted to the full-time Minnesota backup in 2020-21.
Kahkonen played in 24 games for the Wild last season, with a lot of his starts coming when Cam Talbot was injured towards the start of the year. He finished his first full NHL campaign with a solid 16-8-0 record, along with a 2.88 goals-against average (GAA), .902 save percentage (SV%) and a pair of shutouts. While those are far from Vezina Trophy-caliber numbers, Kahkonen showed flashes that he could one day be the Wild’s goaltender of the future. According to Hockey Reference, the league average save percentage in the 2020-21 campaign was .908. Kahkonen finished with a rating of that or better in 11 of his 24 appearances.
While Kahkonen was certainly inconsistent at times (nine games with a sub-.900 SV%), that doesn’t change the fact that he’s one of the better backup goaltenders in the league. Everybody knows how unpredictable goalie development can be, so the fact that Kahkonen played as well as he did for a decent portion of the season should be praised. If he can find a way to pull out a solid performance whenever he’s called upon, his rookie contract will hold even more value.
One thing to monitor is that Kahkonen will be a restricted free agent at the end of the upcoming season. Talbot will be 35 years old when that happens with one year left on his contract at $3,666,667, so it’ll be important to keep an eye on how the duo splits time in the crease. The Wild will have an interesting decision to make because Talbot won’t be around forever, so signs point to Kahkonen eventually usurping him as the starter. Minnesota could either sign their Finnish backup to a long-term deal even though he only has 29 games of NHL experience under his belt or they could sign him to a bridge deal, which brings him closer to being 30 years old when that’s done. Regardless, there’s still time to figure that out and until that happens, Kahkonen will be one of the best value Wild contracts in the 2021-22 NHL season.
Best Value Wild Contract #2 — Joel Eriksson Ek: $5.25 Million
One player who showed flashes of being a superstar last season was Swedish center Joel Eriksson Ek. Before the season began, the 24-year-old had notched 24 goals in his first 210 career games. Something changed last season as Eriksson Ek found his goal-scoring touch, finishing third on the Wild with 19 goals in 56 games. Not only did his ability to find the net improve, but so did his defensive skills.
Eriksson Ek finished his fifth NHL season with a career-high 21 takeaways. He also wasn’t afraid to get physical, blocking 37 shots while also throwing 105 hits. He also had a better even-strength defense wins above replacement (WAR) rating than 97 percent of the league, according to JFresh Hockey’s player cards. All of these factors resulted in Eriksson Ek finishing fourth in Frank J. Selke Trophy voting for the NHL’s best defensive forward. While he wasn’t close to cracking the top three, he still finished with four first-place votes and that was good enough to convince Wild fans and management that they have something special on their hands.
All of Eriksson Ek’s accomplishments last season earned him an eight-year, $42 million deal back in July that will see him earn $5.25 million in the upcoming campaign. To put things into perspective, each of the 2020-21 Selke Trophy finalists are set to earn more than that annually with the winner Aleksander Barkov making $5.9 million, Patrice Bergeron at $6.875 million and Mark Stone at a whopping $9.5 million.
Considering how Eriksson Ek is younger than all of those players, who are considered the most elite defensive forwards in the NHL, there’s a lot of excitement surrounding the player that he could become. If he can figure out a way to combine his goal scoring from last season, his playmaking from the 2019-20 season (21 assists in 62 games) and his top-end defensive abilities, Eriksson Ek’s contract will be a steal beyond this year. Only time will tell if his most recent performance was a one-off campaign or if he’s truly the real deal when it comes to being one of hockey’s best two-way forwards.
Best Value Wild Contract #1 — Jared Spurgeon: $7.575 Million
Upon first glance, it’s easy to wonder how a $7.575 million contract could be described as being a bargain, but that just goes to show how good Jared Spurgeon is. From a training camp invitee to the captain of the team, his journey to the top has been nothing short of remarkable. He’s finished top-20 in James Norris Memorial Trophy voting as the league’s top defenseman in three of the last five seasons. Spurgeon also isn’t afraid to do whatever is asked of him, which is proven by his 1,199 blocked shots and 615 hits on his career. He also gets involved offensively when needed and has 33 goals in his last 198 games.
Spurgeon’s 21.1 wins above replacement since 2010 is the fifth-best ranking in the league, which shows just how special a player he is. The truth is that the Wild depend on their captain a lot, as proven by the fact that he’s been on the ice for 94.6 percent of defensive zone faceoffs when Minnesota has been on the penalty kill over the last 11 seasons. While his overall penalty-kill work could use some improvements, Spurgeon truly excels when it comes to even-strength play. From 2017-18 to 2019-20, he was better than 96 percent and 98 percent of NHL players when it came to even-strength offensive and defensive WAR, respectively.
Considering how a lot of the NHL’s best defensemen are beginning to earn more than $9 million annually, it isn’t hard to find the value in Spurgeon’s contract. As time goes on, the top defensemen will keep getting paid even more, which will make Spurgeon’s contract even more attractive. Even in his 30s, he remains one of the most important pieces of the Wild’s blue line. Yes, he may not score the most points or have the biggest body, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s made up for that in other areas. Whether it’s his A+ positioning or the leadership that he brings to the locker room, the Wild should be thrilled that they have a player like Spurgeon playing on the contract that they have him on.
Best Value Wild Contracts Are Paying Off
It’s crazy to think that the Wild have a Selke candidate, top-20 defenseman and their potential starting goaltender for years to come all signed for just over $13.5 million this season. Value like that is hard to come by, especially when the current world we live in has left some uncertainty surrounding the salary cap. While Spurgeon and Eriksson Ek are locked down for the foreseeable future, Minnesota still needs to figure out what it’ll do with Kahkonen going forward. Until then, the Wild need to maximize everyone’s contractual value before financial reasons force some players to part ways.
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!