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Rebuild or reload? For Wild GM Bill Guerin, the answer isn't black or white

The Wild made a seller trade in the weeks leading up to the deadline, but that doesn't mean Guerin believes in blowing the whole thing up. He prefers to hedge his bets for now.

Bill Guerin can take a breath now. His first trade deadline as an NHL GM has come and gone. He’d been around the process before in five seasons as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ assistant GM, but sitting in the big chair, six months after the Minnesota Wild hired him, was unique. As he put it in a conversation with The Hockey News Tuesday, “The phone calls come directly to me now. That’s definitely different, but it was a good learning experience.”

When Guerin took the job, one of the biggest surprises, he said, was how helpful and supportive other GMs were immediately. Among his biggest mentors were Jim Rutherford, under whom Guerin worked in Pittsburgh, and Lou Lamoriello, the man who drafted him in New Jersey three decades ago. So it made sense that Guerin’s first ventures into the trade waters involved those two allies. Perhaps he was easing himself in.

Guerin’s first trade as a GM came Feb. 10, when he sent left winger Jason Zucker to the Rutherford’s Penguins for pending UFA left winger Alex Galchenyuk, defense prospect Calen Addison and a 2020 first-round pick. Guerin was close to making a deal with Lamoriello on deadline day this past Monday, too, with Zach Parise slated to head to the New York Islanders for Andrew Ladd. Parise agreed to waive his no-movement clause and Ladd his no-trade clause, but the Wild and Islanders couldn’t make the money work.

So Parise remains part of the Wild, and the idea of sending him elsewhere is squashed for now.

“No, that’s over,” Guerin said. “We’re looking forward. Zach’s a big part of the Minnesota Wild and a big part of Minnesota hockey in general. And we’re still happy to have him and excited about what he’s going to do for the stretch drive.”

The Wild do have a fighting chance in this season’s stretch drive. They trail their Central division rival Nashville Predators by three points for the last Western Conference wild-card spot. Still, despite the fight this team has shown of late, winning six of 10 games despite firing coach Bruce Boudreau in the middle of that stretch, the Zucker trade was a seller move. It involved sending an impactful veteran forward with multiple years left on his contract to a contender in exchange for a prospects and pick. Parise leads the Wild with 21 goals, so moving him likely would’ve been a seller trade, too.

And yet, Guerin re-signed pending UFA defenseman Jared Spurgeon to a seven-year, $53.025-million contract in September, committing significant term and dollars to a player who was about to turn 30. Juxtaposed with the Zucker trade, the moves look a bit contradictory. Are the Wild a seller or not?

Asked that question point blank, Guerin doesn’t believe a team necessarily has to be classified as either.

“I would say more of a retool,” he said. “You look into the ages of a lot of our players. We have the Matt Dumbas, the Jonas Brodins that are right in the middle, 25-, 26-year-old guys. We have the younger group of guys: Joel Eriksson Ek, Luke Kunin, Ryan Donato, Jordan Greenway. And then we have the older group: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Eric Staal, Mats Zuccarello. I actually think we’ve got some good players. Because we’ve got some younger players, I don’t feel the need to get rid of everybody. It’s not really the way I see it.”

A popular philosophy in today’s NHL says you must bottom out to rise up, and the Wild have done anything but in recent seasons. They made the playoffs six straight times from 2012-13 to 2017-18 but won two total series and never escaped the second round. They slid out of the post-season picture last season but hovered around .500, while they currently sit out of the playoffs with a .540 mark – too good to be bad but too bad to be good. Their most recent top-10 draft pick was Dumba eight years go, and they haven’t picked in the top five since grabbing Benoit Pouliot 15 years ago. But Guerin doesn’t believe that means Minnesota has to tank its way into the top of the first round going forward.

“Not every team that has a lottery pick wins the Stanley Cup every year,” he said. “That doesn’t happen. Not every team is built that way. But it does work (sometimes), and if there’s a different situation, it can work the other way. It’s a difference in philosophy. But we’ve got some young core guys. I don’t find it necessary to just start over. To be honest, where you pick is helpful and important, but most important is, how do you develop? How do you help these players become better? And how do you get a high hit rate in your drafting? Only one team picks first overall.”

It makes sense that Guerin sees player development as paramount. Spending roughly a decade in the Penguins front office, first as a development coach, then as an assistant GM before also taking over as GM of the AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he was part of an exemplary organization. The Penguins have punted away draft pick after draft pick making go-for-broke trades in recent seasons partially because they know they can. They’re just that confident in their player development. The likes of Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel were third-round picks, after all. The Pens do as good a job as any organization molding projects into viable NHLers. Guerin had been a big part of the process there, so it won’t be a surprise if he turns the Wild into a player-development factory.

We thus shouldn’t expect him to strip the team bare going forward. He’s more likely to hedge his bets – perhaps moving another veteran or two if the Wild don’t look like contenders next year, but not nuking the whole thing. Thanks to the Zucker trade, the Wild will pick twice in the first round of a single draft for the second time in franchise history. There’s also a strong chance they bring mega-prospect left winger Kirill Kaprizov to the NHL next season. He's arguably the best pro outside the NHL today.

In Guerin’s eyes, its possible to inject a young generation into his club while keeping around some wily veterans to shepherd them. Call it a soft rebuild.

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