The Minnesota Wild lost several players last year. Some, like Darcy Kuemper and Christian Folin left in free agency, getting better offers than they would have in Minnesota (if they were even going to get them from the Wild’s front office). Several other players were lost in trades to the Vegas Golden Knights and the Buffalo Sabres. In the former, the Knights received a brace of forwards during the Expansion Draft. The Knights received right wing Alex Tuch for selecting center Erik Haula. They also sent a third round pick over to the Wild. This preserved the Wild’s talented group of defensemen.
In the case of the Sabres, the Wild sent off right wing Jason Pominville and defenseman Marco Scandella and got back wingers Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno in what was widely considered a salary cap move. That salary cap space helped the Wild close deals with Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund. The extra roster space was also thought to open up some room for blue chip prospects like Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin.
So how is it working out so far for the Wild and their trading partners? It’s obviously less than half a season into the deals, and most trades can’t really be pronounced winners or losers in such a short time. Still, there are at least a few signs that Wild have not come out ahead on those transactions.
Haula was a third/fourth line center for the Wild that used his exceptional speed and defensive acumen to act as a staple penalty killer and shutdown forward. Some seasons saw Haula manage to chip in offensively too. He also seemed to find another level during the playoffs, a rare quality on the Wild.
In Vegas, Haula has seen his role change dramatically. This isn’t surprising. The rules of the Expansion Draft meant the Knights were always going to be thinnest at forward and Vegas GM George McPhee’s seemingly doubled down on that as he claimed several more defensemen than he could fit on his active roster rather than claim available forwards. Haula, as a bona fide NHL center, quickly became one of the best suited to a large role on a team filled with castoffs and journeymen.
The increased role seems to be suiting him. In 18 games, Haula has already reached the halfway mark to his total last season. He has seven goals and six assists already. Last season, in 72 games, Haula scored a total of 15 goals and 11 assists for a total of 26 points. He’s playing roughly three minutes more per game, and is a fixture on the Vegas power play with just shy of three minutes per game. Somewhat surprisingly, Haula is not a major penalty killer for the Knights. He plays less than half a minute per game with the shorthanded crew. All in all, Haula is scoring at a rate of 2.60 P/60 and has doubled his P/GP rate, going from 0.36 last season to 0.72.
The big right winger Tuch only played six games last season for the Wild. Many fans were expecting him to deliver on his promise once he was called up in February. Instead, he went without recording a single point in six games. The swagger that was evident in training camps and the AHL had seemingly disappeared.
Now it appears that Tuch’s NHL-ready game had merely gone into hibernation. Like Haula, Tuch has played in 18 games. In that time, he’s scored five goals and five assists, giving him scoring rates of 2.25 P/60 and 0.56 P/GP. Tuch’s power forward game is being used on the man advantage for nearly three minutes per game. His overall TOI is 14:49. In Minnesota, Tuch was never deployed on the special teams and he averaged only 10:42 per game. On the less top heavy Knights, there has been space for Tuch to shine.
Pominville was a victim of his contract, and, to a lesser extent, the rise of Granlund, Coyle, and Niederreiter as the team’s best options at right wing. While he likely did not enjoy the reduction in overall TOI (falling from over 18 minutes per game during the 2014-15 season to 14:13 per game last year), he was still reasonably productive and was an asset to the team as a strong positional player. His long periods of being snakebitten were incredibly vexing for fans and likely contributed to the desire to move on from him and his $5.6 million cap hit.
Unlike Haula and Tuch, Pominville’s overall scoring rate has actually fallen, though not by much. Last season with the Wild, Pominville scored at a rate of 2.54 P/60 and 0.60 P/GP. In Buffalo, this has fallen to 2.26 P/60 and 0.58 P/GP respectively. What has changed is that Pominville’s goal scoring has improved. Pominville already has six goals on the season, just under half of what he had all of last year. Some of this is likely due to a little more time on the power play units with Buffalo (1:52 per game now compared to 1:07 with the Wild). Another change, Pominville has spent most of his season on Jack Eichel’s line. The increased role, complete with over a minute more ice time per game, has seemingly resurrected Pominville’s scoring touch.
The loss of Scandella is different than those of Haula, Tuch, and Pominville. First off, Scandella is a defenseman and one that Wild GM Chuck Fletcher evidently valued highly enough to preserve over Haula in the Expansion Draft as Scandella was eligible to be drafted. Yet despite that, Scandella was still lost in the offseason in the trade to Buffalo. Many people, including here at Hockey Wilderness, concluded that Scandella was the price to offload Pominville’s large cap hit. Scandella also represented a significant physical presence on the Wild’s blueline. The absence of he and Folin is definitely being felt this season. Lastly, Scandella was traded when his value was not at its peak. He has had to deal with injuries, surgery, and the unfortunate death of his father over the past two seasons and it clearly took a toll on his game. Still, there was reason for optimism from the hard shooting left defenseman. Now that optimism is felt in Buffalo.
Scandella has become a mainstay of Buffalo’s blueline, playing 23:34 on average for the Sabres. Obviously it’s harder to find time for other lefties on a team with Ryan Suter, but this is a huge jump up from the 18:20 Scandella averaged for the Wild last season. A big reason for that increase is Scandella’s presence on the Sabres’ special teams. Scandella averages 2:45 on the penalty kill and 1:40 on the power play each game. The Wild did deploy Scandella on the penalty kill frequently (1:40 per game) but barely at all on the man advantage.
Scandella’s scoring hasn’t changed much, but he’s seen small but noticeable increases in hits per game (1.2 from 0.7), blocked shots per game (1.5 from 1.2), and shots (2.0 from 1.2). All in all, it seems like he is a more engaged player that is taking advantage of the increased role in Buffalo.
Without offering a detailed comparison to the Wild players that have taken over the roles formerly occupied by these guys, it’s difficult to conclude with certainty if the Wild’s offseason trades left the team better or worse. It’s also still very early to be making those sorts of conclusions. Never the less, consider the following:
So far, there isn’t much argument that the Wild have been made better off by the offseason moves. Some, like the Expansion Draft were going to damage the team’s chances no matter what. Other situations, like the cap crunch and losing Scandella for a poor return with no replacement’s ready to take his role on the blueline are problems of Fletcher’s own making.
*All stats are courtesy of the NHL and Natural Stat Trick