Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold was certain his team would be winners this season. "I think we're going to have a very competitive team," he said on September 29 after Minnesota’s third preseason game. "We're going to need some of our young guys to step up, and our hope is that they will. We think we got a couple that we believe are ready for the next step.
"If they do that, I think we're going to have a better team than we had last year."
A reporter astutely pointed out that the Wild had $14.7 million in dead cap this year because general manager Bill Guerin bought Zach Parise and Ryan Suter out in 2021. For context, Kirill Kaprizov counts $9 million against the cap, Matt Boldy $7 million, and Joel Eriksson Ek $5.25 million. "It kind of is what it is," Mr. Leipold responded. "We've accepted it. We're not complaining about it. We're doing the best we can and moving forward."
However, Guerin had complained about the cap restraints in May after the Dallas Stars eliminated the Wild in the first round of the playoffs. "I rarely bring this up, but I'm going to bring it up today because it's real, and it's important," Guerin said at his final press conference of the 2022-23 season. "Our players and our coaches deserve a lot of credit because they're fighting with one hand tied between their back because of these cap restraints. We don't apologize for it. We're fine with it."
Fair enough. Building a winner with nearly $15 million in dead cap space is difficult. But Guerin chose to buy Parise and Suter out. He intentionally has iced a veteran-laden team that has never gotten out of the first round of the playoffs. And he doubled down on it in the offseason by signing Marcus Foligno, Ryan Hartman, and Mats Zuccarello to extensions. That’s on top of Frederick Gaudreau’s five-year, $10 million extension and Guerin committing to Jon Merrill and Alex Goligoski on the blue line.
The Wild entered the All-Star Break with 47 points, second-to-last in the Central Division and fourth-worst in the Western Conference. They’re not going to match last year’s 103-point total, and they’re probably not going to make the playoffs. But they have many league-average veterans locked into long-term deals and oodles of dead cap space. Guerin has stuck Minnesota firmly into the mushy middle. They’re too good to get a top pick, but not good enough to compete in the postseason.
Guerin should have had a contingency plan. If the Wild hadn’t wantonly signed veterans to long-term deals with no-move clauses, they could trade everyone who isn’t a core player. Keep the goal-scorers: Kirill Kaprizov and Matt Boldy. Retain Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin as the top defensive pair. Continue to build around Marco Rossi, Brock Faber, and Filip Gustavsson. But get any value you can for any other player on the roster. This season is a lost cause; best to ensure next year isn’t, too.
Mr. Leipold’s best quality as an owner is his commitment to winning. He cut matching $98 million checks to Parise and Suter because Chuck Fletcher felt he could build a contender around them. It’s absurd that the NHL punished the Wild harshly for buying those contracts out, essentially upbraiding Minnesota’s ownership for spending too much. But Minnesota knew the rules (or at least, knew the NHL was upset with the league's rampant back-diving deals), and a responsible GM should take a step back during the harshest dead-cap years to reload for when he can spend again. At the very least, he should have an escape plan if things go haywire.
Mr. Leipold handed Guerin a vintage Pontiac Firebird that was having trouble getting up to speed on the freeway. Experts, or anyone who regularly watches the team, will tell you that the engine has some good components but that Guerin needed to replace some old parts. The transmission might work, and it has power steering, but the alternator and fuel pump are starting to fail. Unless Mr. Leipold mandated that Guerin drive on the freeway, the GM should have taken side roads until he had the cap space to fully replace the faulty parts.
But instead of replacing the aging components, Guerin superglued the alternator and fuel pump to the engine and hit the gas. Predictably, it started to overheat. Guerin complained last year when the media highlighted the Wild’s inability to get out of the first round, saying that his regime shouldn’t have to repent for Fletcher’s sins. But he inherited Fletcher’s car that couldn’t get up to speed on the freeway. It’s his fault that he tried to get onto I-94 when he should have stayed on Marshall and University.
The Wild should never enter a season trying to tank so long as they have Kaprizov under contract. But they should have started selling the aging parts while they had value and replaced them with newer components. Extending Zuccarello makes sense because he’s Kaprizov’s linemate, and Kaprizov is the franchise. But Guerin overcommitted to aging veterans, and the organization nearly botched Rossi’s development, potentially costing them their first bona fide No. 1 center since prime Mikko Koivu.
Things have been chaotic in St. Paul this year. Guerin fired Dean Evason, “mutually parted ways” with his cap guy, and was the focus of an investigation for allegedly verbally abusing an employee. Guerin appears perplexed by the number of injuries the Wild have had, but it’s likely due to their undisciplined play. Still, he seems ready and willing to drive the Firebird onto the freeway, even if the engine looks prepared to give out.
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