Wild’s Dead Cap Forces Early Talks With Upcoming Free Agents

There is no question that Minnesota Wild fans are tired of talking about the cap penalties from the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts. An endless stream of prophesying and analyzing the impacts of their reduced salary cap has been occurring for years already as the main conversation surrounding anything Wild-related. The great news is it’s only going to get worse for the next two seasons after this one, and with some high-quality players needing new deals, the Wild have no choice but to start looking at what the roster for next year could look like.

As of right now, the Wild will have $15.3 million in cap space for the 2023-24 season, with a roster of 14 players. There are six notable restricted free agents (RFA) and two unrestricted free agents (UFA) that are now eligible for extensions. Let’s look at what those eight players’ contracts might look like, and if they’re even likely to be on the team next year.

Wild’s UFAs Bring Experience & High Costs

By the time a player reaches UFA status, there is an innate amount of experience they have gained along the way to get them there. Both Matt Dumba and Freddy Gaudreau are in the last year of their respective contracts and will be UFAs if not extended during the 2022-23 season. While completely different in most aspects, both players represent a key characteristic of the Wild and what they are trying to build, but it is possible some hard decisions will have to be made about their futures in Minnesota.

Related: Minnesota Wild in Win-Win Situation for 2022-23

Matt Dumba has been a mainstay in the Wild’s defensive core for years since he was drafted by the Wild seventh overall in 2012. His pairing with Jonas Brodin has been their most consistent duo through the years and has been relied upon in countless situations. Dumba has also positioned himself as a leader in both the locker room and his community as he actively tries to push hockey to a bigger and more diverse audience. Yet over the years his playstyle as an offensive defenseman has been questioned by many, and rumors of trades have been frequent as a result.

Unfortunately for Dumba, the Wild have managed to collect a lot of potential NHL-level defensemen that will soon be pushing to make the roster, and even if he were to take a massive pay cut from his current $6 million cap hit, it just doesn’t seem to fit. Even an extension in the $3-4 million range is likely to push out other talent because of the $14.7 million in dead cap space. As such, I don’t expect him to be offered one.

On the other side of the Wild’s two UFAs is Gaudreau. While a year older than Dumba, he has had much less success and only has 179 NHL games to his record, with 76 of those coming last season. After he was signed to a two-year deal in the 2021 offseason on a team-friendly $1.2 million cap hit, Gaudreau took his opportunity and ran with it, showing that he could keep up as a center between star Kevin Fiala and rookie Matt Boldy, putting up 14 goals and 44 points in the process. He is a solid two-way player, can play in any aspect of the game, and has been trusted in some big moments; however, it is unlikely he gets the same treatment anywhere but with the Wild, as he has a strong relationship with head coach Dean Evason.

I expect Gaudreau will get some term to provide stability and keep the cap hit low. Look for a deal coming in around four years at a $2.5-3 million cap hit.

Bridge Deals for Boldy & Addison

There is an inherent gamble with most RFA contracts as the player likely has only had a season or two of NHL experience to base the contract on. A long-term deal with a mediocre salary may turn out to be a steal in the later years of the contract, or it could stick a team with an overpaid bottom-line player for years. On the other hand, if they give a young player a short bridge deal and he develops into something special, the team is left paying big money to keep them around. The Wild will face this conundrum with both Matt Boldy and Calen Addison.

Boldy came into the Wild lineup in the middle of the 2021-22 season after an injury in training camp forced him to play at the beginning of his campaign with the Iowa Wild where he was a point-per-game player. He then started his NHL career with a memorable game-winning goal in his first game against his hometown Boston Bruins. His production did not slow and the youngster finished the year with 15 goals and 39 points in only 47 games.

The difficulty in signing Boldy is going to be that he knows he has superstar potential and will want to get paid. If the Wild were to leave his extension too far into the season, he could already be well on his way to proving he deserves a long-term deal with a big cap hit. The best option here is to sign him to a bridge deal early, and then pay the man on his next contract when the buyout penalties are done. Even with only 47 games of NHL experience, he has the air of someone that could be a potential superstar and is well on his way to making Kirill Kaprizov money someday. As a result, I expect his bridge deal would only be two years at around $4-4.5 million average annual value (AAV).

Addison is a little bit trickier to predict because he only has 18 NHL games to his name. Even though he was called up a couple of times during the 2021-22 season he never seemed to stick, but with Dmitry Kulikov off to Anaheim, he has a chance to be on the roster for the entire 2022-23 season. He has been heralded as one of the Wild’s best prospects, which says a lot considering the depth of their system. Should he come into the NHL this year and show that he has what it takes to be in the big league full-time, he should receive a bridge deal similar to Jared Spurgeon’s first non-entry level contract (ELC) of three years at $2.7 million AAV. I expect Addison to do just that and get three years in the neighborhood of $2.5 million AAV.

Bottom-Six RFAs Playing for an Extension

The four other upcoming RFAs for the Wild face a little bit more competition for the open spots. The talent pool is only getting deeper for the organization and there is no room on the roster for players that don’t produce. The trio of Tyson Jost, Brandon Duhaime, and recent signee Sam Steel are all fighting for what will likely be two roster spots in the 2022-23 season. Jost and Steel both were chosen in the first round of their respective draft years, but Duhaime has proven he has the drive and grit to his game that is hard to find. These contracts are the most difficult to predict as if one player has a really good year, it will have ramifications for all three. It will be an interesting battle to keep an eye on throughout the season. I expect Duhaime and Steel to both be extended for three years around $1.5-1.75 million.

The final RFA is none other than newly acquired backup goalie Filip Gustavsson. Gustavsson is an interesting case as he has a great pedigree that led to him being drafted in the second round, but has yet to really have success at the NHL level. With Marc-Andre Fleury starting for the Wild, it is hard to imagine Gustavsson will get more than 25 games, barring any injuries, and even if he were to be outstanding in most of them, the sample size just wouldn’t be large enough to warrant a major pay increase. As such, I expect Gustavsson to extend for two years at an even $1 million AAV.

Moves May Happen Sooner Than Later

While we aren’t even into the 2022-23 season yet, the Wild are definitely in a position where moves need to be made to solidify the roster for the hardest hit of buyout penalties. Boldy’s extension in particular has the potential to increase drastically as the season progresses and could cause major issues for an already thinly-stretched budget. 

The recommended contract extensions leave the Wild with around $450,000 in cap space and a roster of 22 if you include two more ELCs (possibly Brock Faber and Adam Beckman). I did not account for the cap limit to increase, but any increase would likely be about $1 million which would allow another ELC for a full roster of 23. It may be a tough couple of years salary-wise, but the Wild are handling it in stride and look like they’ll stay competitive even in the thick of it.

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