The NHL is eyeing the possibility of adding another team in the upcoming couple of years, with reports suggesting potential expansion to cities. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is not in a rush to expand, but there is notable interest from multiple locations, including Atlanta, Houston, Salt Lake City, and Quebec City. Studio analyst Kevin Weeks recently reported on the South Forsyth Project, which includes plans for an ice arena in suburban Atlanta. That indicates a growing interest in expanding the league again.
For Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin, potential NHL expansion and his willingness to give veterans long-term contracts and trade protection clauses could present a significant challenge. Guerin has made a habit of offering veteran players multi-year contracts with clauses like Moderate No-Trade (M-NTC), No-Trade (NTC), and No-Move (NMC). However, this approach could hinder the development of younger talent because it offers a high level of protection to players whom emerging prospects might otherwise replace.
If Guerin continues to prioritize veterans, he risks making the same mistake the Wild made with Alex Tuch, where the focus on veterans hampers the team's flexibility and growth. Recently, Guerin has been responsible for signing and extending various players with contract protection, including Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman, Freddy Gaudreau, Marcus Johansson, Marcus Foligno, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Alex Goligoski, and Marc-Andre Fleury. These signings and extensions show a trend that could limit the team's ability to bring in younger talent and adapt to potential changes.
Guerin's habit of prioritizing veteran players over developing prospects could lead the team into a difficult situation. Guerin could continue the trend even after Johansson, Goligoski, and Fleury’s contracts expire. He may extend similar trade protection clauses to other veterans. Zach Bogosian lives in Minnesota, and Guerin may give him an extension with trade protection, further limiting the team's flexibility. Could Jake Middleton receive trade protection in his next contract? Anything is possible with Guerin.
If Guerin were to extend Middleton and Bogosian with NMCs, the team's defensive core would have four players holding no-move clauses and three forwards. Looking ahead, Joel Eriksson Ek is expected to have both an NMC and an M-NTC in the 2024-25 season because of his importance to the team. However, this pattern could restrict the team's ability to adapt to future changes and create room for emerging young talent.
Guerin's approach may need to shift to focus more on developing prospects, especially considering the arrival of promising young players like Danila Yurov, Marat Khusnutdinov, Liam Öhgren, Carson Lambos, and Jesper Wallstedt in the next couple of years, which avoids acquiring veteran forwards in the trade market. Instead, the Wild should prioritize young talent while eschewing the continuing trend of awarding extensive trade protection to veterans.
To protect the team's prospects in an expansion draft, Guerin may stash players in Iowa to allow more development time, as he did successfully with Marco Rossi. That strategy would minimize the risk of exposing promising talent during the expansion draft. Another approach involves bringing up prospects within the next few years, capitalizing on the expansion draft rules, which protect first- to second-year professionals. Players like Yurov, Khusnutdinov, and Öhgren would be safe from exposure.
Looking ahead to a potential 2025-26 expansion draft, players like Foligno, Zuccarello, and Eriksson Ek will have no-move clauses. Despite Zuccarello's pending free agency, his NMC gives him protection. Would he waive his clause in what could be his last season with the Wild? The Wild will probably extend Kirill Kaprizov before the next expansion draft. Therefore, he would already have an NMC in place, making him one of the four forwards protected.
The Wild must use the 7-3-1 draft strategy to best protect its assets. That approach would allow Minnesota to shield promising young talent like Boldy and Rossi. The final slot becomes a choice between Hartman and Gaudreau, with Hartman's greater contributions positioning him as the preferred choice despite his M-NTC. In this case, the Wild would leave Gaudreau exposed.
Brock Faber's stellar performance has cemented his status as one of the league's top defensemen under 23, positioning him as a player who deserves protection. While he may not be in contention for the Calder Trophy because of Connor Bedard, he undeniably has the potential to secure multiple Norris Trophies.
However, the Wild will have to make a critical decision on whether to expose Jonas Brodin, particularly because his NMC status expires after the 2024-25 season. If emerging prospects or acquiring a high-caliber left-shooting defenseman to pair with Faber arise, it may make sense to consider exposing Brodin, especially given his susceptibility to injuries.
Jared Spurgeon's M-NTC in the 2024-25 season presents a similar situation to Brodin, given his injury-prone history and the challenge of another NHL team absorbing his $7.575 million cap hit. Daemon Hunt's role on the roster, anticipated to be on the third pair, positions him as a player to protect. If the Wild extend Middleton, his durability and physical presence make a convincing case for him as the final protected player.
Filip Gustavsson is a pending free agent, so deciding to protect or expose him becomes crucial. Given Jesper Wallstedt's exemption from the draft, the Wild may protect Gustavsson, aiming to put him and Wallstedt between the pipes. That strategy might lead to signing a more cost-effective goaltender to improve cap flexibility.
Prioritizing the protection of young talent over veterans is crucial for the Wild. The increasing distribution of NMCs poses a threat, leaving prospects like Boldy and Rossi vulnerable. Minnesota must be more discerning when handing out NMCs, or they risk repeating the Tuch mistake. With the possibility of NHL expansion, including the return of the Atlanta Thrashers, Guerin has an opportunity to retain a competitive roster. He’ll have to change his approach to NMCs to do so, though.
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