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  • The Wild's Extended Veterans Must Buy Into New Roles

    Image courtesy of David Gonzales-USA TODAY Sports
    Justin Wiggins

    When general manager Bill Guerin decided to extend a few key veterans last season with one year remaining on their contracts, many people who follow the Wild met the decision with angst. Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman, and Marcus Foligno received their contract extensions before the start of the preseason, a full year before they were set to hit the market.

    The fan base was uneasy. Ten months later, that unease turned into concern, and concern was warranted. Injuries hampered Foligno throughout much of his age-32 season, and Hartman and Zuccarello no longer thrived when they weren't on Kirill Kaprizov's line. Instead, John Hynes delegated them down the lineup in less impactful roles.

    How damaging will those trigger-happy deals become? At the time and in hindsight, it looks like the Minnesota Wild were unwise to execute those deals so quickly. However, there’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. The player and team have signed on the dotted line. Still, that doesn’t mean each player can’t return to form and bring value.

    Marcus Foligno

    Let’s start with the man they dub “Moose.” Foligno’s contract extension wasn’t necessarily a surprise. He’s a true heart-and-soul leader of the club, as shown by the ‘A’ on his sweater. Teams around the league covet his physical playstyle at his size, and his two-way abilities enable him to make an impact across every square foot of the 200-foot sheet of ice.

    But kicking in an extension for four years at a $4 million AAV beginning with his age-33 season? That was a concern last fall and was only exasperated by a second straight season failing to reach 66 games played due to injury. Foligno has only played over 60 games twice in the last five seasons.

    What must Foligno do to create value equal to his contract extension? He must manage his body through a season to be at his best in the playoffs. Expecting a player of his age who brings the physical presence he does to remain healthy for an entire season is unattainable. However, that style of play is crucial under the bright lights of the playoffs.

    For the Wild to see value in his extension, they need Foligno to monitor his workload through the regular season to ensure he makes an impact in the playoffs. It’s as simple as that.

    Ryan Hartman

    I may have been cheating there with Foligno. He isn’t necessarily changing his role, just his workload. But Hartman, who will likely play on a line with Foligno, may need to change his role for the upcoming season.

    The days of Hartman centering Minnesota's top wingers are likely over. The Wild have entrenched Kaprizov and Matt Boldy into the top six. With the arrivals of prospects Danila Yurov, Riley Heidt, and Liam Ohgren, Minnesota will likely lock Hartman into a bottom-six role until his three-year, $12 million extension ends in 2026-27.

    It's a role that began last year. However, Hartman struggled at times, leading to the depth of their lineup having problems contributing. The Wild rewarded Hartman with an extension after his work as a top center on a bargain deal. But starting this season, he’ll have to prove his game is more versatile than that of a scorer.

    The 2013 first-round pick must adjust to life as a full-time checking forward. It’s a familiar role for him, though. Hartman's previous teams had stuck him lower in the lineup before he found a home in Minnesota. However, it’s time to fully embrace a role that could likely extend his career beyond his contract expires in 2027.

    Hartman has the chance to be a perfect third-line driver for a team that prioritizes defense and forechecking. However, his inconsistency can be a problem. It is sometimes difficult to tell if he wants to be that player or the one he was in his first few years in Minnesota when his offensive upside befitted from playing with Kaprizov and Zuccarello. For Hartman, he must commit himself to being a checking forward.

    Why? Because while the Wild appear to have written their top two lines in permanent marker when their top-six is healthy, John Hynes will likely pair Hartman with many different teammates on the third line. We’ve already touched on Foligno’s injury history and the likelihood that he will miss significant parts of the regular season. Beyond that, Hartman’s linemates will primarily be an ever-changing mix of young prospects and veterans who the Wild move around the lineup in an effort to find a spot for them (looking at you, Freddy Gaudreau.)

    It will be important for Hartman to lead by example and become the tone-setter on a line that the Wild will rely upon to handle difficult matchups every night. Hartman will still find his opportunities to play up in the lineup and return to a scoring role when injuries inevitably hit the top six forwards. However, when the lineup is at its best, Hartman must adjust to being fully committed to excelling in his new role as the de facto leader of their high-energy checking line.

    Mats Zuccarello

    Perhaps no proposed role change outlined here will be as difficult or crucial as Zuccarello's. The Norwegian forward has thrived alongside his Kaprizov, mentoring him since the Russian arrived in the State of Hockey. Zuccarello's production peaked at a career-high 79 and 67 points, respectively, in his age 34 and 35 seasons alongside the Russian star.

    But Zuccarello's age started to show last year. His five-on-five production plummeted, and the Wild demoted him to the second line. As more prospects graduate to the pros, his time on the top power play will also come to an end. Starting this year, it’s probably time for Zuccarello to contribute in an area he hasn’t in quite some time.

    While Zuccarello’s value at even strength and on the powerplay diminishes with age, he has the skill set to bring value to one of the biggest weaknesses the Wild have had for a few years now: the penalty kill.

    I know it seems odd that the answer to the Wild’s penalty-killing woes could potentially be a player who hasn’t seen more than 80 minutes in such a role since 2017-18. Still, Zuccarello has always had the ability to be an effective penalty killer; it’s just that his offense has always been his best value to his team.

    Now that age and internal competition have relegated him to less impact on the offensive side of the puck, Zuccarello can turn his attention to helping fix the Wild’s ever-struggling penalty kill. His long stick and high IQ should allow him to thrive in such a role. It’s up to the coaching staff and Zuccarello himself to realize such a role could help him remain a key piece for Minnesota throughout the remainder of his extension.

    There’s really no debating anymore, Guerin handed extensions to Foligno, Hartman, and Zuccarello too hastily. It was clear last season that waiting on those extensions was probably the smarter move. Still, each player needs to realize that while their extensions were a reward for past performance, it’s up to them to embrace their new roles to maximize them moving forward.

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    1 hour ago, MrCheatachu said:

    'solid 3rd line player'

    Or a 4th liner who can play 3rd line minutes.

    Expectations are definitely managed.  This meatball better make clutterbuck look soft.

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    Pretty soon I see Spurgeon, Faber, Midds, Brodin, Bogo, Chisholm, and Buium with the Buoy marking the channel between old & new. Spurgeon and Bogo can begin their retirement plans while MN fills in around the new core behind Faber, Middleton, and Brodin. There's your three guys who can hold down a defense pairing. I think Middleton with Buium in a year or two is a good match. So too would Bogo and the Buoy be a bountiful bromance on the back end. 

    Guerin's eyes aren't crossed for no reason boys, that's the look of experience.

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    Guerin's eyes aren't crossed for no reason boys, that's the look of experience.

    I mean, if your ball hit a giant with a guy's shirt saying, "Guns don't kill people, I kill people," you'd get messed up eventually.

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    6 hours ago, viper3119 said:

    can't bank cap space in the NHL, that only works for the NFL

    My hope is that he's referring to banking it for the TDL.

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    The premise of this article is that the guys resigned will get new roles and they have to embrace them. Well, they don't really have to embrace them, but if they don't, they will get shipped out. 

    Here's the thing. Heinzy's a different coach. Johansson, Gaudreau, Foligno, Zuccarello, Hartman were all resigned to be a veteran presence. They were resigned assuming that another good season was coming and to try to get Evason off the schneid in playoff series. 

    Yet, a funny thing happened along the way. Evason was fired and Heinzy came in. John Hynes did his best to come in mid year and work with the system that Evason had built. This year is his year. Do all of those guys fit his scheme? I believe he has serious dislike for the style of play Johansson executes. But, this could be said for a lot of these players. 

    1st shot across the bow-Yakov Trenin to the team. He's a John Hynes alumnist, and is coming back for more. He also knows what Hynes wants out of a 4th line player. Boldy is already a fan, Hynes got his game completely turned around upon his arrival. 

    My suspicion is simply this: If you don't like your knew role, where would you like to go. (Shooter) I can make this happen for you. As for the group listed above, every one of them will have to look and see if this is the type of style they can play in. For me, I think Zuccarello might be a question mark. He's the one with the NMC. Waivers don't matter to him. I could see him expressing some question about where he fits. A bigger question might be where does he fit better?

    Older guys do not like getting bumped down the lineup. But it happens, look at Goligoski. Will Mats have the same fate? It's tough when you think you're still a top 6 player and suddenly you're bumped down with the grinders. My eyes saw him not being worthy of the #1 line anymore. My eyes also saw him slow down and miss defensive assignments. I highly doubt PKing is in his future. Might he be asking for a way out?

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    16 hours ago, mnfaninnc said:

    My hope is that he's referring to banking it for the TDL.

    Basically dont  spend it yet if you dont need to  ,  perhaps the Wall needs more Iowa time and we need a short term goalie to fill the flowers role for another year

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    59 minutes ago, mnfaninnc said:

    My eyes saw him not being worthy of the #1 line anymore. My eyes also saw him slow down and miss defensive assignments. I highly doubt PKing is in his future. Might he be asking for a way out?

    Re Zuccy - I agree.  If I had to bet which of apathetic old core moves this offseason my money is on Zuccy.  Someone out there will see value in Zuc in their top six.  They’ll be wrong as Zuc looked old, slow and ineffective without 97.  This was also how he looked in Wild Jersey before 97 arrived and resurrected his career.  


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    L2: Rossi, Trenin, Ogie.

    L3: I like Hartman, Zuccarello, and Fred.

    L4: Knudi, Foligno, Lauko.

    These lines aren't amazing as of today but by training camp perhaps things change. If NoJo is around yet, plug him in on the 4th sometimes. Fred and Hartman hold down the fort on L3 and if Zuccarello stays healthy there's a little better balance and the Wild can develop the younger players. If injuries happen, Lauro, Clarke, or Sop are there.

    IA will be better we hope with similar experience and youth mixture. Maybe at some point MN can swing a trade too. 

    Winning solves everything. That's gonna be on the current roster, coaches, and special teams factor. Small gains is better then fence-swinging...

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