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Big Decisions Await the Minnesota Wild

For a while there in this current NHL regular-season, the Minnesota Wild were looking like world-beaters. But the team faced a bit of course correction, and with that comes a focus that this still needs to be a big year for Minnesota.
Kevin Fiala and Matt Boldy

For a while there in this current NHL regular-season, the Minnesota Wild were looking like world-beaters. 

First place in the league seemed to be theirs for the taking, or at least, for the challenging. But since the second week of December, there has been a course correction of sorts, with the Wild going 3-4-2 and falling back to fourth place in the Central Division.

And, with that course correction, comes a focus that this still needs to be a big year for Minnesota. There are pressure-points that quickly will hamstring this franchise sooner than later. This isn’t to say abject disaster awaits the Wild once this season is through, but it’s a clear fact that winning is only going to get more difficult for them in the weeks and months ahead - particularly, when it comes to Minnesota’s salary cap situation.

Indeed, when you look at the Wild’s cap issues after this year, you want to gasp out loud, primarily because of the double-whammy cap hit involved with last summer’s buyouts of veterans Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. 

The team will have to absorb a $6.37-million cap hit for each of Parise and Suter, leaving GM Bill Guerin with more than $12.7-million in dead cap space for the 2022-23 campaign; incredibly, the two buyouts get even more onerous for Minnesota in 2023-24, when their dead cap hit combines for some $14.74-million. Let’s be generous to Guerin and assume a slight raise in the $81-5-million upper cap ceiling for those years; you’re still talking about a massive amount of space that can’t be accessed.

Even with solid development of the organization’s prospects, the Wild’s depth pool is going to start to shallow out in a hurry. Counting the dead cap moneys, and per CapFriendly.com, Minnesota has only 13 players signed for next season, and a massive cap hit of $68.1-million to the players they have signed. 

That would leave Guerin with only $13.38-milion in available space to sign another 10 players. And that’s before giving a raise to top forward Kevin Fiala (a restricted free agent this summer) and veteran forward Nick Bjugstad and defensemen Alex Goligoski and Jordie Benn to new deals.

In sum, the Wild look like they’re about to be hollowed out come the summer of 2022, with a precious few elite players, and a slew of B-grade veterans on short-term, small-money contracts. Minnesota hardly would be the first franchise to have to face such a problem, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Guerin has gambled big-time on the Wild’s short-and-long-term future. It just seemed more palatable once Minnesota had such a strong start to the year.

Now, though? Now, the Wild could turn out to be first-round toast at the hands of Central rivals from either Colorado, St. Louis or Nashville. That isn’t going to cut the mustard with long-suffering Minnesota fans who haven’t experienced a second-round playoff win since the Wild fell in six games to Chicago in the 2014 post-season.

Has Guerin put the cart before the horse in his two-and-a-half years as Wild GM? It could turn out to be the case. Guerin is projected to have approximately $7.16-million in cap space by this year’s trade deadline, and don’t be surprised in the least to push in all his chips on this year’s group of players. Guerin may not have the same confidence from ownership if this year fails to produce real (read: playoff) change.

In betting on the current Wild players, Guerin has shown a player’s confidence in his teammates. But sometimes that optimism is ill-founded. There’s no guarantee the Wild will take major competitive steps forward. 

And if they don’t? If they don’t, well, somebody else could be stepping into a leadership role for Minnesota. This is always a win-first business, and Guerin will be judged by the same competitive metrics everyone else in his position is judged.

At the moment, that gamble feels like it’s fizzingly out for Minnesota- or at least, into a major stall.

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