Minnesota inking Mats Zuccarello to a five-year contract worth an average of $6 million per year seems good in a vacuum, but it also speaks to the larger problem with the Wild. This team is not good enough to seriously compete in the Central Division, but the chances of a rebuild have been deadened for years due to the long-term contracts already cemented around veterans such as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. GM Paul Fenton inherited these contracts from his predecessor, Chuck Fletcher, but the path seems to have remained the same since he took over.
In Zuccarello, the Wild get a consistent offensive producer who can basically be pencilled in for 50-60 points when he’s healthy. This past season, he was limited to just 48 games with the New York Rangers and the Dallas Stars due to a couple of injuries – first, a groin problem in New York, then the famous broken arm in Dallas after he blocked a shot right after getting acquired at the deadline.
But there’s no reason to suspect Zuccarello is done producing quite yet. At 31, he’ll still have a couple good years in him and from all accounts, he’s a great guy in the dressing room. He brings plenty of playoff experience from his days in New York, plus his short jaunt in Dallas.
The question of course, is whether he gets to apply that experience in Minnesota. No sugar-coating it; the Wild are old. Every forward under contract right now (excluding pending RFAs Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson-Ek) is at least 27, while both goalies are over 30. There are four major players on the squad who are at least 34 in Parise, Suter, Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu – and all of them have a ton of NHL miles on them.
Zuccarello is a nifty offensive player, but he’s not going to make Minnesota necessarily better than the team was this past season when they had Charlie Coyle (who was traded to Boston at the deadline) in the lineup. In fact, trades have been a serious problem in Minnesota, where Fenton took on Victor Rask’s contract from Carolina, only to see Nino Niederreiter excel once he joined the Hurricanes as the return.
Where things really get dicey for Minnesota is down the road. It feels like we’ve been saying that for a couple of years now, but it is no less true today. Zuccarello will eventually wear down and he will still have term on his contract when that happens. Then, he will simply join his fellow Minnesota veterans as players who are good, but not good enough to justify how the GM has dealt with his cap space.
The logical answer in Minnesota is to strip down and rebuild, if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – they can find teams to take on the final years of some of these big veteran contracts. Right now, it just feels like the franchise is kicking the can down the road a little further.
Can the Wild make the playoffs with this roster? Totally. Can they win a round? Probably not. If the mission to just to secure a couple of home dates in the playoffs, then mission accomplished. But Zuccarello, while signed to a fairly reasonable contract, will not make this team a juggernaut. His value comes right now and will fall off in time. Minnesota doesn’t seem to be in a position to take advantage of this timeline.
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