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  • The Wild May Have To Downsize Their Grit

    Image courtesy of Brad Rempel-USA Today Sports
    Luke Sims

    The Minnesota Wild don’t have much cap space, and enter the offseason with myriad players competing for the same spots in the lineup. Currently, Ryan Reaves, Marcus Foligno, and Brandon Duhaime occupy the “enforcer” or “goon” role.

    The Wild have $8,234,745 in cap space to work with this offseason. Therefore, the front office will not be adding NHL-caliber free agents unless they change up the roster. Instead, Bill Guerin must focus on bringing back the players who helped them last year. The only problem is that they have a lot of similar players vying for limited spots. 

    Here is what the Wild lineup looks like with the players who are under contract: 

    Kirill Kaprizov - Ryan Hartman - Mats Zuccarello 
    Marcus Johansson - Joel Eriksson Ek - Matt Boldy 
    Foligno - Freddy Gaudreau - ???
    ??? - Connor Dewar - ??? 

    There are three spots open, and about seven obvious candidates to occupy them: Reaves, Duhaime, Sam Steel, Mason Shaw, Adam Beckman, Sammy Walker, and Marco Rossi. It’s safe to assume that the Wild do not have the cap space to bring back Oskar Sundqvist or Gustav Nyquist after they re-signed Johansson. 

    Of those three open spots, can the Wild afford to have two of them filled with "Grit First" players in Reaves and Duhaime? For a team that scored 13 goals in six playoff games, does it make sense to have just one top-nine spot open for the Rossis, Walkers, and Beckmans of the world? 

    Or even more literally, can they afford to spend around $6 million or more of cap space on three players whose calling card is physicality? It seems like they have to make a choice between Foligno, Reaves, and Duhaime at some point. So let's break down their options.

    Marcus Foligno

    With one year and $3.1 million left on his deal, Foligno is slated to be the fifth-highest-paid forward on the Wild in the 2023-24 season. However, his production declined significantly this year relative to last season. He scored just 21 points in 65 games, compared to 23 goals and 42 points the year prior. He failed to crack double-digit goals and was inconsistent all year long. Not to mention, his undisciplined play hurt Minnesota in the playoffs. 

    Ryan Reaves

    Guerin has stated that he wants Reaves back. However, Reaves doesn’t provide a lot of on-ice production. He greatly loses the shot attempt share at 5-on-5 (46.9%), and the Wild generated just 2.21 expected goals (xG) per hour with him on the ice. For a player that doesn't move the needle on the stat sheet, it’s going to be difficult for the Wild to find the cap space for him. 

    Still, Reaves had a solid year. His services demand a higher number on the open market than the Wild probably can afford, at least right now. If Reaves wants to return, it would have to be less than the $1.75 million he made last year. Reaves brings an “alpha personality” to the Wild locker room. Given that Minnesota will likely lose Matt Dumba, an emotional leader and alternate captain, the Wild may want Reaves back in the locker room. 

    Brandon Duhaime

    Finally, Duhaime is not afraid to throw fists or get scrappy. He embraces the role of the bottom-six grinder. He was even trusted to play in the top six in a pinch when the Wild faced a plethora of injuries mid-season. 

    He also kept the play in the offensive zone wherever he was. Among Minnesota’s 13 forwards with 300-plus 5-on-5 minutes, Duhaime ranked sixth in controlling the xG share, with the Wild registering 52.3% when he was on the ice. He also led the team in actual goals share, with Duhaime seeing 59.5% of the goals at 5-on-5.

    There's a strong sentiment to bring Duhaime back, and it seems like the Wild agree. According to The Athletic, Filip Gustavsson and Duhaime are considered Minnesota’s top priorities

    Now that we've looked at them, we've got to ask: who should they keep?

    Look at the four teams left standing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Which one of those teams are rocking an enforcer? The Vegas Golden Knights just have a line of cheap guys that forecheck hard, not exactly a heavyweight like Reaves or Foligno. The Florida Panthers, Dallas Stars, and Carolina Hurricanes do not have an enforcer.

    But you'd have to say Vegas, Florida, and Carolina are physical teams. The Wild don’t need to have an enforcer like Reaves to be a physical team. They have plenty of guys who play a hard-nosed two-way game. 

    The offensive and defensive value that Foligno brought in the enforcer role is what made him so good. While he threw the body around and acted as the enforcer, he was also a forechecking nightmare who could score goals. Foligno was a legit two-way force. However, that was not the case last year. Still, if Foligno can return to that form he had when the GREEF line was running, then he is valuable as a two-way enforcer – as long as the offense comes along with it.

    Similarly, Ryan Reaves didn’t offer a lot of value when he wasn’t fighting or being a maniacal chirper. He pitched in some offense here and there, but that was few and far between, outside of two big weeks. Reaves certainly does not counteract the negative value he shows when he is not in physical altercations.

    The Wild do not need a guy to fill that role. While bringing back Reaves' energy on a team-friendly deal and having him play sporadically would be tolerable, he cannot play 70 games on a $1.5 million deal. 

    But with Foligno potentially on the downswing, Duhaime is the most valuable of the bunch. He provides much more offensively and has a gritty side to his game. He is not afraid to get in scraps before and after the whistle and should bring more bang for the buck than Foligno and Reaves. If they could only keep one of those three players, Duhaime should be that guy for the Wild.

    Will Foligno, Reaves, and Duhaime all suit up in green and red on opening night? Maybe, as the Wild like, value, and respect all three. Should this be the case? Probably not.

    The Wild cannot keep dumping money into a role that they do not need. If they bring all three back, assuming they make at least a million per year, that’s $6 million of precious cap flexibility to fill a bruiser role.

    But it's hard to see Guerin wanting to trade Foligno, even if the situation demands moving him. Guerin values his presence in the locker room and would not want to have both of the team’s alternate captains (along with Matt Dumba) exit in the same offseason. Still, Foligno would be valuable to a contender for the right price, and the Wild could probably pick up something in return for him.

    If the Wild re-signs Duhaime and Reaves, that takes up two of those three spots available. Presumably, they would both slot in on the fourth line. That leaves only one third-line wing spot open. Does that go to Beckman? Steel? Walker? Who knows?! But it'd maybe be wise for Minnesota to make more room for these players to play a big role by moving Foligno.

    If you want a tree to grow strong and true, you need to prune the branches. The enforcer's role in the NHL is gone. The Wild don’t need to hang onto the past. The players they rely on to give them a physical presence need to also bring other things to the table. The Wild have to make a choice, and the clock is ticking. 

    All stats and data via Evolving-Hockey and CapFriendly unless otherwise noted.

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