In one way or another, the Minnesota Wild must address their need down the middle this offseason. Beyond Joel Eriksson Ek, who has emerged as one of the league's best two-way centers, the Wild are weak at the center position. It should be one of their top priories; opposing teams were able to efficiently exploit this vulnerability last season. Regardless of what happens this summer, if Victor Rask is playing in the top six next season, it will be a missed opportunity and an error in judgment.
Here's the thing: The Wild have several notable center prospects in the pipeline, including Marco Rossi, who could make his debut next season. If it turns out that he can make an immediate impact, it completely changes the situation. There is no doubt that the Wild have to upgrade down the middle, but the question is whether they want to acquire a stopgap or make a significant move to bring in a bonafide No. 1 center.
Bill Guerin has addressed the center situation with patience, which could hint that a stopgap might be the avenue the Wild could go this offseason. He offered valuable insight on a podcast with Michael Russo of The Athletic.
“Do we have to do anything?” Guerin asked, rhetorically. “No, we don’t have to do anything. I think we proved this year that if you play as a team and you have people on each line driving offense, that you don’t need that No. 1 guy.”
But he does have to do something because Kirill Kaprizov wants to play with a better center.
However, Guerin has a point, in a way. The Wild still made the playoffs, and their early exit wasn't solely because of the lack of center depth. The Vegas Golden Knights have proved that reaching contender status is possible without a No. 1 center. The Wild can still improve the situation without surrendering a package composed of valuable assets for a top-line center or sacrificing salary cap space, which is at a premium in the current financial climate.
If the price for Jack Eichel remains the same closer to the draft, does it really make sense to make that move? The asking price for Eichel could cost the Wild both top prospects Marco Rossi and Matt Boldy, a roster player, and multiple picks. Not only that, but his $10 million cap hit will be cumbersome.
The Wild don't want to sacrifice their future in by moving their biggest assets to acquire a top center.
“Eventually, yeah,” Guerin said, “but we’re not going to overextend ourselves just to satisfy a public perception that we need a No. 1 center. We’re not going to do that. It’s just like going back to the trade deadline, we’re not going to sacrifice our future, our picks, and our prospects just to fix something right now.”
The Wild have roughly $22 million to allocate to their three restricted free agents Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, and Joel Eriksson Ek. Whatever spare change is remaining will be utilized to fill the remaining places in the roster and improve the center situation.
The free-agent center market is very shallow, especially now. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins recently signed a long-term extension, which takes him off the board. Phillip Danault is the only other top-six option available, but his play is redundant with Eriksson Ek's. If the Wild do indeed drop out of the Eichel sweepstakes, there won't be a long list of names to choose from. The fact of the matter is that most teams aren't trading a top-line center, which is why this is so complicated in the first place.
If the Wild decide they would rather fill the hole at center with a stopgap, they have some decent options this offseason. They could get Tyler Johnson from the Tampa Bay Lightning for dirt cheap given that they placed him on waivers earlier this year. The 30-year-old center has three years remaining at an affordable $5 million cap hit. They could get Adam Henrique from the Anaheim Ducks for a reasonable price. He has three years remaining on a contract that carries a $5.8 million cap hit, but some salary could be retained.
If the Wild were to get either Johnson or Henrique, they could always get a No. 1 center next offseason or the one after that. The stopgap center would essentially fill Rask's spot and cap space, and he will come off the books next summer. Plus, there's a good chance Matt Dumba will be departing this offseason, which will open up space too.
There are other options like Derek Stepan, Ryan Dzingel, Alexander Wennberg, and Paul Stastny.
The truth is that most teams draft their No. 1 center, which is why that might be the avenue to pursue instead. Minnesota has internal options right now, but they need to be patient.
Don't get me wrong, if the Wild can acquire a legitimate top-six center, go for it, but it better be the right fit and at the right price. This has to be executed with the utmost precision. They don't want to make a trade that they regret afterward or a move that cap-straps them.
Some potential names of interest via trade are Christian Dvorak, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Sam Reinhart, Ryan Strome, Sean Monahan, and Dylan Strome, among others. The issue is that there are so many questions surrounding these players that really cause you to wonder if it's worth it. Kuznetsov has had off-ice problems and his production has dipped. Reinhart has played a lot of time at wing rather than at center. Monahan has been underwhelming the past two seasons.
Patience is key, which is why improving down the middle with a stopgap might be the better option until they can fill the position internally or via free agency, as there are some very notable names including Aleksander Barkov and Mat Barzal, among others, who could potentially hit the open market in the next couple of years.
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