This offseason, the Minnesota Wild made a monumental decision by buying out the remainder of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise's contracts. Fortune is favoring the bold. They have shifted the culture and provided dividends early.
The Wild sits at 9-4 to start the season, and a huge reason behind their success has been the offseason additions.
Freddy Gaudreau was a sneaky addition given his strong underlying numbers in a small sample size with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. It doesn't appear that he will be an offensive threat or produce any significant numbers. However, Gaudreau has been bouncing around between Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala in a top-six role. At a minimum, he has been a suitable center for the Wild's stars.
Gaudreau has been a strong replacement after the departure of Nick Bonino in the offseason. In fact, Dean Evason has deployed him in a more significant role. He has one goal and five points through 11 games, but his value is evident beyond the box score numbers. Among forwards this season, the 28-year-old center ranks 17th in expected goals against per hour. While he has provided some value in terms of above-average play-driving, most of Gaudreau's value has come on the defensive side of the puck.
He leads Wild forwards with a 65 percent expected goals rate at 5-on-5, which would align with the eye test. He's made some great plays and has looked comfortable even if his production doesn't appear on the scoresheet.
While Brandon Duhaime isn't necessarily an offseason addition, the Wild made a wise decision by giving him a shot at the NHL level. The Wild's 24-year-old rookie has done everything they needed from him this season after beating out top prospects Marco Rossi, Matt Boldy, and Adam Beckman to make the team.
Duhaime is a two-way depth threat this season and is quickly becoming the Wild's secret weapon. The rookie has a 57 percent expected goals rate at 5-on-5. Furthermore, his 2.72 individual expected goals generated by himself rank fourth on the team, proving his hard work is paying off.
There's no doubt now why he made the team. His exhausting forechecking and gritty play has allowed him to flourish at the NHL level.
Even Rem Pitlick, acquired through waivers, is another depth option the Wild can turn to this season. He hasn't exactly been noticeable, but that's also not a bad thing considering he has only 15 NHL games of experience under his belt.
A revamped defense
The Wild's additions up front have helped contribute early, but the defensive acquisitions have made the most significant impact to start the season. While Suter is struggling early with the Dallas Stars, Alex Goligoski has been everything the Wild needed from him so far. Goligoski hasn't been a threat offensively by any means, but he has a strong defensive game, as advertised.
However, the third pair of Dmitry Kulikov and Jon Merrill deserve the most credit defensively in the Wild's early-season success. They are two defensemen I suggested would be a good fit on the Wild blueline this season.
While it is certainly way too early in the season to suggest the Wild won the free-agent defensive market, here are the depth options that received contracts in the offseason:
David Savard - $3.5 million (4 yrs)
Cody Ceci - $3.25 million (4 yrs)
Derek Forbort - $3 million (3 yrs)
Travis Hamonic - $3 million (2 yrs)
Ian Cole - $2.9 million (1 year)
Patrik Nemeth - $2.5 million (3 yrs)
Tucker Poolman - $2.5 million (4 yrs)
Ryan Murray - $2 million (1 yr)
Michael Del Zotto - $2 milllion (2 yrs)
Erik Gudbranson - $1.95 million (1 yr)
It can't be overstated how important it was that the Wild were able to sign both Kulikov and Merrill (a combined $3.1 million) for two years and one year, respectively, while teams were handing out more lucrative three- and four-year deals like candy.
Both Kulikov and Merrill have outperformed everyone on that list so far this season. It's still early, of course. Nonetheless, it's a positive sign for a team that came into the season with uncertainty regarding their defensive changes. Getting them both for a low cost on a preferred term is incredibly important for the Wild with cap complications on the horizon.
While Kulikov's numbers have been slightly better, the defensive pair have been excellent together. The Wild have controlled 56 percent of shot attempts and 67 percent of expected goals with them on the ice. They've completely dominated the opposition and dictated play while on the ice. It will be integral to the team's success that this pair can stay dominant moving forward.
The Wild's offseason additions are looking great so far. Hopefully, it will be a blueprint over the next four years as the Wild suffer from the significant cap damage in the aftermath of the Suter/Parise buyouts. Bill Guerin deserves a lot of credit for the transformation this offseason.
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