The moment Bill Guerin jettisoned Zach Parise and Ryan Suter from the roster last July, a doomsday clock appeared over the organization's head. For the 2022-23 season, the Wild will have 15.5% of their cap space ($12.7 million) tied up in dead money. We're talking about buyout hell. That number won’t get any lower in the subsequent two seasons, either. Parise and Suter's buyout penalties will consume over 17.3% ($14.7 million) of the cap in Years 3 and 4 of the buyouts.
Was it the right choice? Based on the information that has made its way into the media from past teammates and Guerin himself, you probably have to say the answer is yes. Even if you find yourself in the no category of that dilemma, the fact of the matter is that the decision was already made and now it’s time for the Wild to reap what they sowed.
To put it bluntly, the Wild no longer have the luxury of making any mistakes when it comes to handing out contracts. Most teams wouldn't blink at signing a fourth-line winger to a $1.5 million deal. But if Minnesota signed a player like that, then banishes them to the press box, they're burning precious cap space. They could have easily had someone making $750,000 in that role instead. It’s a mistake that 95% of the NHL can make, but not the Wild.
What this means is that Minnesota will have to enter the offseason with a perfectionist mentality. As if that isn't challenging enough, the Wild don’t have to just worry about future deals. There are contracts from the recent past that also have the ability to derail the organization’s hope of constructing a competitive team on a shoestring budget.
In two surprising in-season moves, Guerin decided to shore up his blueline for the next few seasons by giving Jon Merrill a 3-year, $3.6 million contract in January and fellow defenseman Alex Goligoski a 2-year, $4 million deal in March.
Even on Day 1, those deals were questionable. Yes, both defensemen were pending unrestricted free agents at season's end. But what stood out in either player that screamed commit multiple years to them during the middle of the season, rather than waiting for a discount as summer approached?
Under normal circumstances, even these types of questionable contracts would be fine. Merrill is a serviceable depth defenseman who is only 30 years old and has plenty of quality hockey left in his tank. Goligoski is a solid veteran who actually managed to put up some pretty decent underlying stats throughout the course of the season. The only problem is that the Wild are no longer operating under “normal circumstances.”
When every roster decision needs to be perfect, it only takes one poor choice for the entire house of cards to crumble. Case in point is the Goligoski deal. The Minnesota native had his ups and downs across the season, but the spotlight really shined on him when the Wild sent him to the press box during their first-round exit. He will turn 37 in July. With the game getting faster and faster every year, it will be a battle for him to be an effective defenseman moving forward.
Before the season concluded, the Wild had invested $2 million of cap space to Goligoski for the upcoming 2022-23 season. There was nothing forcing their hand to make that move of the time. In retrospect, it looks like it was a costly mistake.
That $2 million could have gone a long way to help Minnesota shore up other aspects of their game, like signing restricted free agent defenseman Jacob Middleton, who is significantly better than Goligoski or Merrill. Or it might have provided the organization a little more money to give to Marc-Andre Fleury rather than risk forcing the team to look for a budget backup to Cam Talbot. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. The Wild could swallow the deal and move on. But every single penny counts for these next three years.
The same can be said for the Merrill contract. $1.2 million might not seem significant, and that deal most likely won’t be when everything plays out. Still, making that choice so early on is questionable. His price tag wasn’t going any higher anytime soon, so why hamstring yourself by committing early on? In reality, the Wild could have gotten similar value from a defenseman on the open market for a slightly cheaper price. It’s a simple decision that could lead to headaches further down the road.
The cap implications aren’t the only negative to this kind of deal either. If Guerin decides that he can’t have $2 million of cap space sitting in the press box every game, it will lead to an inferior team on the ice. Guys like Calen Addison, who in all reality should have been on the Wild’s blueline towards the end of the season, aren’t given a real opportunity to make the team. Instead, the 22-year-old is potentially stuck in the minors for a third season, possibly stunting his development in the process, all because of the hockey version of the sunken cost fallacy.
These are the kinds of self-inflicted mistakes that the Wild cannot afford to make in the future. When weighing whether to sign the likes of Nicolas Deslauriers and Nick Bjugstad, Guerin will need to figure out if the deal has the ability to put them any further into cap hell than they already are. Even those tiny deals are going to make or break the Wild.
The good news is that Guerin has shown the ability to make solid financial decisions. The Wild gave Jordan Greenway a new contract during the 2021-22 season, signing him to a 3-year $9 million deal that starts this upcoming year. Unlike the Merrill and Goligoski deals, this one probably saved Minnesota a little bit of money in the long run. Despite suffering through a few injuries, Greenway was a key cog in the GREEF line and was one of the best forwards in the Minnesota lineup towards the end of the year.
A lot of pressure will be resting on Bill Guerin’s shoulders. Every deal will be scrutinized and dissected because the margin for error will be razor-thin. Just one more misstep and everything could come crumbling down. Guerin knew that when he bought out Suter and Parise. Now he just has to execute whatever plan he has next.