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Life provides people with lots of different messages to consider. At times its pretty direct such as when you are driving and you absentmindedly drift into a lane that may be occupied by another car and it immediately yields an angry bellow of a horn from the driver whose car you nearly clipped. Or at times it might be a bit more subtle as when you put on that shirt you liked and it fits a bit tighter than it did the last time. Oh, there’s someone in that lane, I better go back to my original lane or in the case of the shirt fitting a bit tight this time around? Maybe I ought to consider dropping a few pounds or I need to buy a bigger shirt. Either way, the messages take place and its up to you to react and respond accordingly.
For the Minnesota Wild, the 2019 off season has already provided the team with some messages, but have they paid attention or is ignorance truly bliss? The first significant message of the offseason was sent with the proposed trade of Jason Zucker and Victor Rask to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Phil Kessel and Jack Johnson. Kessel, who had a no-trade clause in his contract and had the Minnesota Wild as one of the teams he did not want to be traded to had to reconsider that choice. By all accounts, Kessel did some homework on the Wild, didn’t like what he saw and nixed the deal. That was even after good friend Ryan Suter called Kessel and tried to persuade him to come to Minnesota. Ouch.
While Kessel is a polarizing player to many fans, he is one of the few players whose offensive skills may have been enough to boost the Wild enough towards its goal of getting back to the playoffs. He is a right-shot forward who had 27 goals and 82-points last season in what you could call a slightly above average season. The soon-to-be 32-year old would’ve checked off a lot of the boxes in regards to the Minnesota Wild’s team needs.
However, the painful truth is he took a look at the Wild’s team and didn’t see a Stanley Cup contender even with him in the mix and said no. To his credit, Kessel at least gave it some rational consideration before he made his decision. Kessel eventually was dealt to a team not on his no-trade list in the Arizona Coyotes but the fact the Wild were one of his ‘no trade’ teams has to make you wonder how this market / team is perceived doesn’t it? The Coyotes have been a team on a budget and a pretender for most of the decade but that was at least seen by Kessel as a place he wouldn’t mind being dealt to but not the Wild? Ouch.
The other message sent is Wild General Manager Paul Fenton really wants to get rid of Jason Zucker. Zucker, a player whom he attempted to trade at the deadline to Calgary that only fizzled because the Flames failed to figure out how they’d fit it under the salary cap. Despite Fenton’s more recent comments on how much he likes Zucker as a player, trying to trade the guy you apparently ‘like’ twice speaks for itself. Carly Zucker certainly took notice of this in her not-so-subtle tweet here.
Many expected Fenton to try to deal Zucker again at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft because his no-trade list was going to activate on July 1st but he didn’t get dealt and it looks like he’ll be with the team at least at the start of the 2019-20 season. I can only imagine the relationship between Zucker and Fenton going forward will be coldly professional and otherwise mostly awkward. Any more glowing praise from Fenton about Zucker etc, mostly comes off as fake.
The other message that was sent in the failed trade, apparently the Minnesota Wild didn’t want to keep Victor Rask around either which is a tacit admission that acquiring Rask for Nino Niederreiter was a complete miss. At this point Rask is back for next season as well, which I’m sure did wonders for his confidence.
The other major hint of this offseason was with the Minnesota Wild’s primary free agent target in Plover, Wisconsin-native Joe Pavelski. The 35-year old, right-shot forward was coming off a 38-goal season with the San Jose Sharks and has been a proven NHL goal scoring talent throughout his career. As was the case with Kessel the team had Suter and Zach Parise talk with their former Team USA teammate to try to woo him to come the Wild’s way but it became clear in the days leading up to free agency that he really wasn’t that interested in Minnesota. Pavelski flew and met with team officials in Tampa Bay and Dallas but passed on a offer to fly and meet with Wild management in St. Paul before ultimately signing a 3-year, $21-million deal (with a no movement clause) with the Stars. While nothing was said directly by Pavelski in regards to the Wild’s offer, he obviously felt Dallas had a better chance to win a Stanley Cup. Ouch.
That is two fairly high profile players, with friends and / or local connections that said ‘no’ to the Minnesota Wild. Apparently the ‘Our Ice‘ campaign and ‘State of Hockey‘ moniker doesn’t have the power to bring in top level free agents / players anymore. But honestly, has it ever really been enough to bring in an elite talent? The Minnesota Wild have never had an NHL superstar in its lineup and it clearly doesn’t seem to have the influence to convince any players of that caliber to stake their careers here. Perhaps this is the message to the Minnesota Wild fans who had pipe dreams of the team acquiring Artemi Panarin should consider before they add comments to the end of columns on the Minneapolis Star Tribune or angry tweet at the Athletic‘s Michael Russo.
Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. If Wild fans around you are in denial, they aren’t alone. Homer fans buy the propaganda that the team is ‘oh so close’ to being a playoff team again, afterall look at the St. Louis Blues right?!?! Even though I’m not the biggest promoter of analytics, even with their most optimistic projections the Wild are a team that is in the close but not quite making the playoffs category. So if a few players in their top 6 have ok to below average years then they’re really going to be a ways from making it. However, the person that seems to be in the most denial is the team’s majority owner, Craig Leipold. It was Leipold who told Wild fans prior to the hiring of Paul Fenton as General Manager that the team simply needed to be ‘tweaked’ in order to become a Stanley Cup contender. Just consider the tweaks that have been made, in chronological order.
Gustav Olofsson traded to Montreal for Will Bitten
Nino Niederreiter traded to Carolina for Victor Rask
Charlie Coyle traded to Boston for Ryan Donato and a 4th round pick (2019)
Mikael Granlund traded to Nashville for Kevin Fiala
6th round pick (2019) traded to Vegas for Brad Hunt
Minnesota Wild give Eric Staal a 2-year contract extension, $3.25M (AAV and a No Movement Clause)
Wild trade a 7th round pick (2020) to Toronto for Fedor Gordeev
Wild owner Craig Leipold
Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a lot of moves for something Leipold felt only needed some ‘a tweak.’ On March 1st, Leipold addressed Wild fans directly in a team-produced video that is below. One thing he stresses is that this is ‘not a rebuild’ and that all of the decisions are based around the idea of winning a Stanley Cup.
So consider that ‘noise’ that Leipold mentioned in the video with the cap space saved from most the trades listed above. The Wild then used that space to acquire soon-to-be 32-year old Mats Zuccarello to a 5-year deal that will pay him an average of $6 million per season (and a 3-year NMC, and 2-year limited no trade clause) who had 12 goals last season and 24-year old Ryan Hartman to a 2-year contract who had 7 goals last season as our way to make noise. The one-time 20-goal scorer Zuccarello said all the right things after the signing but wouldn’t you pretty be pretty kind to the team gave you everything you wanted near the start of the twilight of your career? Is Zuccarello and Hartman the kinds of players that will shift the dynamic of this roster to being a Stanley Cup contender?
Umm…nope. But we had to do it, otherwise we weren’t showing a commitment to winning. Right?! Maybe, maybe not. Zuccarello and Hartman along with a healthy Matthew Dumba will probably result in 3-5 more wins, but I don’t think its time to start planning a Stanley Cup parade just yet. If the result is you’re still not going to make the playoffs why not just be bad and get the best pick you can? The most likely way the Wild ever have a superstar on their team is if they draft one.
The team got a harsh dose of reality this season. It is clear that age is starting to catch up to its older veteran group as injuries and production start to slide. Staal dropped from 42 goals in 2017-18 to 22 in 2018-19 and looked pretty fatigued most of the season. Captain Mikko Koivu is 36 years old and coming off a major knee injury and is in the last year of his deal. Alternate captain Zach Parise is openly discussing his frustration about whether the team took a step back last season despite its deadline moves to make the team ‘younger and faster.’ Higher profile players balked at joining the team and the older mid-tier player the team did manage to land had to be vastly overpaid (and given a NMC) to make it happen.
Adding another older veteran player to a 5-year deal means the younger players you have will most likely have to ply their games on the 3rd and 4th lines, roles you are not really developing them for (to play on your top 6) in order for the veteran players to carry most of the scoring load. Because Zuccarello’s NMC, the Wild will have to protect him in the Seattle expansion draft, putting them at risk of losing a younger player we have developed and probably don’t want to part with. Wild fans as well as defenseman Jared Spurgeon would really like to hear what vision this organization has for its future than ‘on the fly’ retooling like the team owner described the video. I’d really like to believe Leipold that this team is a ‘tweak’ or two away from being a cup contender but it isn’t and its simply delaying the inevitable rebuild that needs to take place. A rebuild isn’t a bad word at all, its the message that is loud and clear with what has taken place over the course of last season and into this summer.
Perhaps its time the Minnesota Wild and Craig Leipold to take a hint (or three) when it happens instead of giving into the pressure to win now.