As with most big news in this day and age, that Bill Guerin was the frontrunner for the vacant Minnesota Wild GM post was no secret. It had been reported over the past few weeks that he was a top candidate, his name had been mentioned more often than any other in connection with the job in recent days and when Guerin’s hiring became official Wednesday, it was by no means a stunner.
Make no mistake, Guerin has worked his way into this job. His entire post-playing career has been dedicated to working in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ front office, and he rose fast through the organization, making it somewhat clear that he had a knack for a management role. After spending three seasons as a development coach, he moved into a role as an assistant GM in Pittsburgh, and for the past two seasons, he has overseen the Baby Penguins in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Admittedly, neither season was blow-your-hair-back successful for the AHL franchise, what with the AHL Penguins flaming out in Round 1 of the 2018 post-season and missing the dance altogether this past season, but the team’s combined 81-52-19 regular season record during Guerin’s time at the helm isn’t half bad given Pittsburgh’s shallow prospect pool.
But getting the job and becoming a first-time NHL GM is one thing. As Paul Fenton – Guerin’s predecessor, who lasted all of 14 months in the position after working his way up the ladder for more than two decades – can attest, succeeding in the position is another. And Guerin has his work cut out for him. This past season marked the first time in since the 2011-12 campaign that the Wild missed the post-season, the first time Minnesota finished dead-last in their division since the 2005-06 season and Guerin is taking over the GM chair for a franchise whose direction is more uncertain than maybe other organization in the NHL.
But, as colleague Matt Larkin alluded to Wednesday, that means the first order of business for Guerin has to be determining which direction to take the franchise and outlining a plan of action.
On one hand, with Fenton’s signing of Mats Zuccarello earlier this off-season and the Wild’s cadre of established veteran talent, which includes Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Devan Dubnyk, Guerin could choose to push ahead and attempt to guide this team into contention in the tough Central Division this coming season. But on the other, the changing of the guard in the GM chair, and the quick turnaround from Fenton to his successor, suggests that it would be better for Minnesota to take a different tack under Guerin, one that sees this team buy into the idea of a minor retooling, at the very least.
No doubt, the writing has been on the wall that the Wild would need to take a step back in order to ultimately take steps forward for a few seasons now, but it’s grown increasingly evident that the time to start undertaking a roster reset of sorts is upon Minnesota, whether they want it or not. A big reason why, too, is that the cupboard is awfully barren for the Wild right now. With several players on the back-nine, Minnesota has a prospect system that was ranked 27th in the NHL by a panel of scouts in The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2019. The only prospect to crack the Top 100 was Kirill Kaprizov, and he’s not set to arrive in the NHL until at least 2020-21, at which point his KHL contract will have expired.
There are ways for Guerin to accelerate the retooling, however, which brings us to a few of his first orders of business, which is deciding what exactly to do with a few of the true trade chips now in his possession.
First and foremost, Guerin will need to make a decision about the future of Jason Zucker, who Fenton came a hair away from trading twice during his brief tenure. (The first, a deal with the Calgary Flames, fell apart right before the trade deadline, and Phil Kessel vetoed a trade to the Wild that would have sent Zucker to the Penguins earlier this summer.) It would be wise for Guerin to settle that straight away, too, particularly given how turbulent the winger’s past few months have been in Minnesota. As part of the Wild, Zucker can be a valuable piece, and while he took a statistical step backwards last season – 21 goals and 42 points following a 33-goal, 64-point performance in 2017-18 – Zucker, 27, is one of the few prime-aged offensive pieces and reliable contributors the Wild have at their disposal. Trading him, which is still a possibility, even if he does have a 10-team no-trade list and four years remaining on his deal at $5.5 million per season, leaves Minnesota’s top-six short a piece.
However, when it comes to the Wild’s other top trade chip, Jared Spurgeon, it might be in the Wild’s best interest to take a different approach. A pending unrestricted free agent who will be in line for a significant raise next season, Spurgeon, 29, has a massive trade return written all over him. And unlike Zucker, there’s a readymade replacement for Spurgeon, the top-minute man on the right side, in burgeoning star defenseman Matt Dumba. The 25-year-old was lights out last season before he fell injured and missed more than half the campaign. Spurgeon’s ability to log minutes and his offensive upside is going to make him a potential A-plus addition for any contending team and the return stands to be fantastic for the Wild.
Trade Spurgeon or not, though – and Minnesota would have the money to retain him, with upwards of $20 million in projected cap space as of today, albeit with restricted free agent Kevin Fiala unsigned – Guerin will have to find a way to start building around the next wave. Fiala is a piece of that, as is Dumba, the recently re-signed Joel Eriksson-Ek and Ryan Donato, whose acquisition in the Charlie Coyle deadline deal with the Boston Bruins looks like the now-former GM’s most astute move. Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, Louis Belpedio and even surprise AHL rookie Mason Shaw can also help move the needle. When Karprizov arrives, he, too, will be an important part of the future.
With that group comes Guerin’s opportunity to go all the way in. Previous GM Chuck Fletcher kept this team afloat and in the post-season by trading picks and adding experienced players. Given his acquisition of players such as Fiala and Donato and his signing of a 31-year-old Mats Zuccarello, Fenton seemingly wanted to build the club both ways. But Guerin can really, truly make this team stronger down the line by avoiding the half measures and stop-gap additions and adopting the kind of patient attitude that has paid dividends for several franchises in the salary cap era. That will be the challenge.