As September arrives and we inch closer to the start of training camp, the Minnesota Wild finally made some offseason moves that saw free agent Sam Steel sign a one-year contract and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov sent off to the Anaheim Ducks for future considerations (also known as cap space). The Steel signing is a zero-risk depth move, but the Kulikov trade may be a smaller piece of something larger yet to come, as the cap space created is extremely valuable.
Wild Have Defensive Depth
While Kulikov was a serviceable veteran defenseman that averaged over 18 minutes of ice time in 80 games played last season, the Wild’s deep prospect pool has started to come of age and force some of the older players out. Even 24 points and a plus-23 goal differential were not enough to keep him safe from his $2.25 million cap hit on a team where every dollar matters.
General manager Bill Guerin spoke on the matter shortly after the news broke. “We need some more cap space. We felt we had maybe one too many defensemen and we don’t want to put guys in positions where they’re not playing or not playing enough.”
Through the last games of the 2021-22 regular season, the trio of Alex Goligoski, Jon Merrill, and Kulikov were rotated through the bottom pairing, making it obvious heading into this offseason that the Wild were going to have too many defensemen at the NHL level to be able to retain them all. With Kulikov gone and Merrill likely to open the year on injured reserve, youngster Calen Addison is the obvious choice for the job as his offensive abilities and skill on the power play are much needed.
Wild’s Open Roster Spot Invites Competition
Addison is not the only player with hopes of making the roster out of training camp, as the Wild do have other options. For those that feel the right side of the defense needs more size, look no further than recently signed veteran Andrej Sustr. The 6-foot-7 giant was signed to a two-way contract back in July and has over 400 games of NHL experience between regular and playoff contests. He lacks the offensive prowess of Addison and will not be on any of the power play units, but his size and strength may be welcome on a blue line noted for being small.
Should Addison have a weak training camp, other prospects may look to make that leap and show their worth. Simon Johansson in particular is another right-shot defenseman set to play his first year in the American Hockey League (AHL) after being drafted in the fifth round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-foot-2, 23-year-old would definitely benefit from a year in Iowa, but out-performing Addison in training camp may be enough to claim the spot, even temporarily, as he does play a style much more aligned with a third pairing role.
Another Move May Be in the Works
While most of the talk surrounding the Wild in the offseason revolved around the $12.7 million in dead cap, they have quietly amassed $4 million for further moves (roster of 22 players including Marco Rossi and Calen Addison). While Guerin has been solid in his assurances that the roster will be set during training camp and there is nothing major in the works, a surprise move is never out of the question. Just a few months ago he renounced any ideas of trading goaltender Cam Talbot and then proceeded to do so for Filip Gustavsson of the Senators a couple of days later.
With so many teams tight up against the salary cap this year, it is likely the Wild will receive more than a few phone calls as others get desperate, effectively allowing them to weaponize the cap space they’ve managed to create. Guerin has become known for his straightforward approach to deals, and when stating the Wild “need” some more space, it feels as though he knows that it may allow him to make a trade to improve the Wild’s roster significantly, either before the beginning of the season or at the trade deadline.
Even with the cap penalties getting larger next year, the skill with which the Wild have navigated through them so far gives you the impression that it won’t actually affect their ability to stay competitive. The strategic addition of a center or even a winger on a $3-4 million deal doesn’t feel impossible, especially when considering the number of high potential prospects the Wild have on their way with entry-level contracts.
Wild’s Roster Has Openings
With Merrill and Jordan Greenway likely out for the beginning of the season, and now Kulikov’s spot open for the taking, the Wild have a few open roster slots. The big question that will be answered in training camp is, who is going to step up and take those spots? Will Rossi and Addison be able to prove they are ready to make the jump to full-time NHL players or will Guerin use his cap space to bring in a value trade?
It won’t be long until those questions are answered, and the opening lineup is set, as we are just over three weeks away from preseason action. The Wild’s first game will be against the defending Stanley Cup Champions on Sept. 25.
Being from the east coast of Canada, I’ve grown up immersed in hockey since before I was old enough to walk. The Minnesota Wild joined the league right as I was trying to find a favourite team and I have been committed to them ever since. I like to take breaks from my day job of writing reports as a Scientist by writing articles about my hockey passion. Follow me on twitter @tysmck15 for my latest.