Pablo Picasso once said, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” While the computers of Picasso’s day weren’t the same as what they are now, the musing still holds a grounded truth. In nine words, he gets right to the heart of the joy of asking questions.
That might sound rich to Minnesota Wild fans. Straightforward answers would be comforting in the middle of an uncertain 2023-24 season. Perhaps that’s why Bill Guerin has been so direct in the media about his desire to add a defenseman. “They are going to get a defenseman,” Michael Russo said during a recent episode of his Worst Seats in the House podcast, “I’m reporting what Bill Guerin is thinking of doing. That’s not opinion.”
Not only has Guerin been open about his desire to add a defenseman, but he’s also named his price. Russo provided in-depth details of the Wild’s trade goals in the same podcast:
When I talked to Bill Guerin… he made it extremely clear to me that he plans to go out and get a defenseman, and pretty quickly here. But he doesn’t want to give up a first or second-round pick. He doesn’t want to give up a top prospect.
Guerin has an impressive track record of bringing in bottom-of-the-lineup players and maximizing their value. Frederick Gaudreau had only played 103 games in four NHL seasons when he joined the Wild at age 29. But he became a reliable utility forward for Minnesota until he suffered an injury earlier this year.
Jake Middleton is another great example. The San Jose Sharks played Middleton 14 games total between his age 23, 24, and 25 seasons. Since then, he’s been a fixture on Minnesota’s second pair for two-and-a-half seasons.
That doesn’t sound like the type of trade Minnesota executed on Thursday afternoon.
Maxim Cajkovic, 23, has spent most of his time in the ECHL, even though Minnesota’s injuries have created depth issues in Iowa. On top of that, Will Butcher won’t bolster the Wild’s current defense corps. No matter how much doubt you have in the third pair, Butcher is 29 years old and hasn’t played an NHL game since 2021-22. If this is the move Guerin had in mind, Russo was overselling it.
So, it seems that Minnesota is still in the market to add an NHL defenseman.
The Middleton trade might be the prototype for the move Guerin wants to make right now. If he can get back a player of that same ability level, why wouldn’t he pull the trigger?
Here’s the thing: I don’t believe Guerin when he says he won’t part with more than a third-round pick.
Guerin sent out backup goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen and a fifth-round pick to acquire Middleton. Trading Kahkonen, an established NHL backup at the time, plus a fifth-round pick, seems like a greater price than a third-rounder. If Guerin could do that all over again right now, why wouldn’t he?
On top of that, the difference between a third-round pick and a second-rounder is pretty small. We can calculate the trade value of NHL draft picks based on historical pick-for-pick trades. To do so, we can create a Jimmy Johnson-style trade chart like the one below:
Depending upon where teams pick in the draft order, the dropoff from a first-rounder to a second-rounder is about four or five times as large as the dropoff from a second-rounder to a third-rounder.
Why would Guerin be comfortable giving up a third-round pick but not a second-rounder when the two assets are so similar?
- Guerin wants to hold his second-round pick as ammunition to trade up.
- Guerin doesn’t want to lose value if he has to trade that player away at the deadline.
If the Wild miss the playoffs and they feel there’s a can’t-miss prospect within reach of a trade-up, a third-round pick probably won’t even be enough to move up one spot. Based on historical draft-day trades, a second-rounder can move the needle.
If the Wild miss the playoffs and lose the draft lottery, they could package their first- and second-round picks to create the following trades in a typical market:
Minnesota currently holds the 25th-best standings points-percentage. If they finish the season 25th, they could package their first and second pick to move up to the seventh overall selection.
On the other hand, If the team trades a second-round pick and nails the trade, it still might not be enough to make the playoffs. They’ve dug a deep hole in the standings, and Spurgeon’s injury makes it harder for them to enter the playoff picture. If the team trades its second-rounder and still only finishes 20th, it would be a shame that they can’t use that pick to move around on draft day.
Another reason Guerin may not be interested in parting with more than a third-rounder is that trading for a defenseman may turn into the world’s slowest three-team trade. “His goal is…to get a defenseman that’s going to help right now,” Russo reported in the same podcast episode, “and if things turn south and they turn into sellers at the deadline, is good enough that then he can flip at the deadline.”
Minnesota has experience flipping players from one team to another. They acted as an intermediary in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, retaining part of O’Reilly’s cap hit in exchange for draft compensation. That extra cap retention allowed the Toronto Maple Leafs the cap flexibility they needed to pull off the move, and they sent Minnesota a fifth-round pick for their trouble.
If that retained salary is worth no more than a fifth-round pick, Guerin can’t afford to gamble much on the initial trade. Given Minnesota’s place in the standings, it would simply be too short-sighted. If Guerin parts with more than a third-round pick, it will be extremely difficult to recoup that value at the deadline.
It all depends on how much Guerin is willing to gamble on this season’s playoff run. While the team is enjoying the return of players like Kirill Kaprizov and Jonas Brodin, it’s not unreasonable to believe Spurgeon’s absence will ultimately end Minnesota’s playoff hopes.
Therefore, Guerin’s trade to replace Spurgeon will say a lot about him and how he views this team. Is a third-round pick really his highest price, or is he just negotiating through the media? Does he really believe this team can make a playoff run, and is he right?
If you came here for the comfort of straight answers, I’m sorry to leave you with more questions. On the other hand, the answer to these questions will be revealed in good time.
In the meantime, lean into Picasso’s sentiment. If computers can only give us answers, maybe sports can only give us questions. So, ask your questions, and enjoy the answers you come up with.
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