An NHL player is expected to maintain a level of mental and physical fitness to best execute at their position. For Kirill Kaprizov, his job is to produce goals. In 56 games this season, he displayed just how elite those abilities are by potting 27 of them while showing off incredible skill and stamina.
Things that a player’s job doesn’t require him to do: make trades, sell tickets, or surrender control over his career.
Last week Michael Russo of The Athletic noted that negotiations with Kaprizov haven't been going smoothly. He insinuated that GM Bill Guerin might have initially thought it would be easier to re-sign the Russian star. While both sides appear to be digging in, the main sticking point seems to be the length of the contract. Kaprizov's side wants a shorter-term deal, one that allows him to control his fate depending on what Guerin does (or doesn't do) to build a contender. The Wild only have $22 million to work with, but there is room to make a deal.
This impasse has big implications. As 10K Rinks discussed last week, it puts a pretty big damper on all of that “premier hockey market” talk Guerin has thrown out there. It places added pressure on the box office to sell tickets if Kaprizov isn’t on the marquee. But most importantly, what does it say to the other players on the team that the front office won’t pay the best of them?
When does pending free agent Kevin Fiala, arguably the Wild’s best scorer in the last 114 regular-season games, think about Kaprizov’s stalemate? Each player managed to stay above water in expected-goals percentage while playing on separate lines. Together, expected goals rose to 75% in 48 minutes of even-strength ice time. This Wild team is good with Fiala or Kaprizov alone. It’s so much better when Fiala and Kaprizov are a bonafide one-two punch leading the way.
According to Evolving Hockey’s contract projections, Fiala’s new deal could come in at $6.1 million AAV over five years. That’s before adding in the dynamics of this offseason. If the Wild can't re-sign Kaprizov, does a deal with Fiala get done? Or maybe he refuses to sign the five-year contract that Evolving Hockey predicts, opting for a shorter-term contract that allows him to leave when he hits unrestricted status.
Fiala has to wonder if the Wild cannot pony up for No. 97, why would they ever pay him what he’s worth? Same goes for Joel Eriksson Ek, who isn’t in line for nearly the same payday as Kaprizov or Fiala. But he's been the team’s best center, taking on the most difficult minutes while simultaneously having a breakout season offensively. He’s been pigeonholed as a third-line center since he was drafted, and no amount of offense or play driving has caused any of his coaches to waver from that position. Not only is Eriksson Ek likely to not get paid his worth, he won’t get a chance to prove he’s worth more.
If the Wild think there isn't room for a $10 million cap hit and both Eriksson Ek and Fiala, I'm not buying it. There's room. The Expansion Draft might be the first and simplest way to clear cap space. The Wild could expose Matt Dumba, and he'd likely be chosen, taking $6 million off the books. They could sell high on Jordan Greenway to get young, inexpensive players. Victor Rask can still be bought out. There are replacements for each of those players in the system, which will be a fraction of the cost.
The flat salary cap continues to be the biggest squeeze. Commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly warned of the long-term effects of the pandemic. However, it's hard not to see the league bouncing back much more quickly than Bettman suggests. The NHL will receive $425 million more per year than the expiring NBC agreement between the two new TV deals with ESPN and Turner Sports. Add in the $650 million the league received as the expansion fee for Seattle, and that's well over a billion dollars of new money. And, to top it off, fans will return this fall. The money will eventually be there.
In a vacuum, the Wild can play hardball with Kaprizov. However, this isn’t a vacuum, and each move could have a ripple effect on the next. Minnesota is rebuilding on the fly, and they could potentially be opening up a window of contention. Messing this deal up could derail the rebuild. It could also plant doubts in the minds of the new batch of prospects.
Signing Kaprizov now isn't just for the right to retain him as an asset. It's not just to help the team win. Signing him now and not shortchanging the team's best player is a signal to everyone else on the roster that Guerin is building a winner from within, and if they want to be a part of this, they’d better perform.