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  • The Wild Must Decide: Is This Their Year, Or Not?

    Tony Abbott

    The Minnesota Wild had many games postponed around the Christmas break, but they couldn't escape the injury bug. Jared Spurgeon reaggravated a lower-body injury, and Joel Eriksson Ek suffered what seems to be a significant upper-body injury. Now news emerged today that Jonas Brodin will likely miss the Winter Classic due to COVID protocols.


    To deal with this, Minnesota recalled defensemen Calen Addison from Des Moines. They'll need more help to weather the Winter Classic and beyond, though. The Wild are apparently debating which forward should take Eriksson Ek's place.


    Truthfully, there shouldn't be a debate. That spot is a natural, perfect fit for top prospect Marco Rossi. The stud center is lighting up the American League right now, scoring 18 points in as many games. His work ethic is legendary, and his story of working his way back from myocarditis is inspirational. In terms of marketing, too, he's a no-brainer for the Winter Classic. Who do you want to showcase in your biggest event, a coming-out party on the national stage? Your top prospect and a potential cornerstone of their future? Or a potential bottom-six player?


    Apparently, it's not nearly as cut-and-dried for the front office. General manager Bill Guerin went on KFAN last week, where Michael Russo asked whether we'd see Rossi soon. "I don't know," the GM responded. "These call-ups and opportunities need to be earned. That's the way we're doing things here."


    Guerin disagreed when Russo pressed, asking whether scoring a point per game was worthy. "That's a nice stat to have, but it's also expected. A point a game's great, but how are you doing it? We expect our guys to play a certain way, and to contribute in a certain fashion. Points are points, but you have to play a certain way, too."


    We have limited on-ice data in the AHL, so it's difficult to verify whether Rossi is playing poor defense in Des Moines. It's certainly difficult to find any such criticism coming from public availability with Tim Army or any other reporting.


    Guerin could certainly call up Rossi tomorrow — his radio statements aside. But if he doesn't, it's hard to look at the situation and conclude he isn't motivated by financial reasons. As you likely know, playing Rossi in ten NHL games this year (regular season and playoffs) burns the first year of his Entry-Level Contract. If that happens, Rossi will hit restricted free agency in summer 2024, when Zach Parise and Ryan Suter's buyouts carry nearly $15 million of salary cap penalty. If not, Rossi becomes an RFA when $13 million of dead cap hit comes off the books.


    You can make an argument that this is a smart, prudent move. After all, spending $900K on Rossi in 2024-25 will make things a lot easier for Minnesota than whatever his next contract holds for him. This goes doubly if Rossi cashes in the same way, say, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, or even Kirill Kaprizov have on recent RFA deals. It's a distinct possibility that an early second deal for Rossi could cause Minnesota to part with a player down the road. Those complications go away if Rossi hits RFA in 2025.


    But here's the problem: That's three years from now.


    For a rebuilding team, it's probably a no-brainer to play service time games with a top prospect and pretend it's about playing defense or whatever. But Minnesota is competitive now, and perhaps even Stanley Cup contenders. They need someone to fill the spot of arguably their most important player. How can they justify leaving Rossi in the AHL when they're gunning for first in the Central?


    What's more, this will probably be the most competitive Wild team in the next three or four years. Leaving Rossi in Des Moines potentially diverts a problem in 2025, but a talent exodus is happening soon, no matter what. Nearly $13 million in dead cap means Minnesota's slated for just $16 million in cap space this summer. Kevin Fiala is looking for a raise on his $5.1 million salary, which the Wild may not be able to afford.


    And with only 11 players signed through next year, Minnesota will need to fill 11 roster spots with that $16 million. Not signing Fiala won't be enough. Could Matt Dumba, an integral part of their defense and leadership group, leave as well? Will depth pieces like Nico Sturm, Jordan Greenway, Rem Pitlick be priced out of Minnesota? That's a lot of important players to the lineup that could go.


    Sure, there are replacements waiting in the wings. The hope would be that Matt Boldy replaces Fiala, Calen Addison slots in Dumba's lineup spot, and the Mason Shaws of the world backfill the rest. That's a decent plan.


    But here's the thing: Not only do the Wild have all those NHL guys in-house now, but they also can integrate those prospects into the lineup for even more talent. This season, Minnesota can play Fiala with Boldy or put Addison as a third-pair regular behind Dumba and Spurgeon. They won't be able to do that next year.


    And, of course, Minnesota can put Rossi in this loaded lineup, theoretically giving them three strong centers in Eriksson Ek, Rossi, and Ryan Hartman come playoff time. That can happen next year, but this is the only year Minnesota could put Rossi alongside a game-breaker like Fiala. Given how bottled up he was last postseason, having to do everything himself, Rossi eliminates that problem for them.


    Age is another factor that suggests Minnesota will be better this year than in the 2024-25 season. Brodin will be in his age-31 season. Spurgeon will be 35. If veterans like Mats Zuccarello and Marcus Foligno stick around, they'll be 37 and 33, respectively. Who knows what the goaltending will be like once 34-year-old Cam Talbot's contract ends next year? But for now? Those players are all productive. Guerin can't count on that in three years.


    Heck, Guerin can't even necessarily count on being in Minnesota in three years. A 2016 study showed that the average term of an NHL GM lasts 5.5 years. By the summer of 2025, Guerin will have served for six years as the Wild GM. Owner Craig Leipold showed a lot of loyalty to Chuck Fletcher, who spent nine years in that seat. But Leipold is also about to enter his 70s. How much patience will he have without playoff success, particularly if Guerin doesn't go all-out to compete this year?


    In a league of GMs on the hot seat making quick fixes, it's admirable to make and stick to a long-term plan. But is it time to compete, or is it time to play for the future? It sure looks like the former in St. Paul. Will Rossi be the missing piece to a Cup Contender? Maybe, maybe not. We can't know until he gets here. But he's shown himself capable in the AHL, and Minnesota must have a center if they want to keep pace at the top of the Central Division. There'll be plenty of time to solve tomorrow's issues. In the meantime, the Wild need Rossi now. This should be an easy problem to fix.

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