The Minnesota Wild have given up 20 goals in their first three games. That's not just bad – it’s historically bad — having not been done since the 80s. Father Time may be catching up with Marc-Andre Fleury, 37. Filip Gustavsson, 24, entered the season as an unknown commodity. It's safe to say, neither has worked out.
Bill Guerin traded Cam Talbot to the Ottawa Senators for Gustavsson after Talbot asked for a raise. Now he’s got a Hall of Fame goalie who may be experiencing serious decline and a second-round pick from 2016 who had a .905 save percentage and 3.12 GAA in 27 games with the Senators.
Did Ottawa put Gustavsson in a tough spot goaltending for poor teams the past two years? Or is he just not ready to be a full-time netminder yet? And is Fleury off to a slow start, or is this it for a player who broke into the league in 2003? If neither player can get the job done, who do the Wild turn to? It’s probably too early for 21-year-old Jesper Wallstedt. There may not be a Devan Dubnyk sitting around, waiting to be rescued from hockey purgatory.
It’s not just the goaltending, of course. Minnesota’s once-stout defensive tandem is undergoing a transition. Ryan Suter is in Dallas, and Matt Dumba hasn’t been the same since his fight with Matthew Tkachuk. But it’s hard to see defense as the main culprit here. The Wild also have less scoring firepower than they did last year. They traded Kevin Fiala to the Los Angeles Kings, and Paul Fenton’s game-breaker had three points against them in Game 2. Still, it seems like goaltending is the primary weak link.
Guerin had a quixotic task entering the season. He bought out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter two years ago, and he knew a cap crunch was coming. Parise and Suter’s buyouts cost $12.75 million against the cap this season, and that will jump to $14.75 million in the next two years. That means the Wild will spend slightly more on players than bottom-feeders like the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, and Chicago Blackhawks this year.
Most teams would tank in this situation. They’d use the draft to load up on young talent and hope to be competitive as soon as the cap penalties end. And with elite talent like Connor Bedard, Matvei Michkov, and Adam Fantilli coming out this year, doubly so in a season like this.
But the Wild play in a hockey-crazy market and have Kirill Kaprizov on a 5-year, $45 million contract. It’s a team-friendly deal, but he’s a generational player, and forwards tend to be at their best in their early 20s. Kaprizov is a third-year NHLer but is already 25 because he started his career in Russia. Almost any team with a player of his caliber would be all-in, but almost every team gets to spend more than $70 million on their roster.
The Wild have also been able to fill out prospect depth without tanking, an impressive accomplishment that allows them to have young talent without ruining their culture. However, while other teams would give their prospects ice time in the NHL to try and accelerate their development, Minnesota has leaned on veterans to try to keep the team competitive.
They’re serving two masters, with one eye on the present and the other on the future. It arguably hurt them last year, as they stashed Calen Addison and Marco Rossi in the minors longer than they probably had to. In Rossi’s case, it’s unclear what the plan is this year.
The chief concern for the Wild shouldn’t be being bad. In our upside-down sports world, bad is good. Lousy teams get high draft picks, and generational players often bring home championships. Yes, for every Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins success story, there’s a team like the Edmonton Oilers or Arizona Coyotes. But since Marian Gaborik left town, the Wild lacked game-breaking talent until Kaprizov (and maybe Fiala) showed up. Now Fiala is gone, and Kaprizov alone cannot turn Minnesota into a winner.
The Wild could trade Kaprizov, move any disgruntled but talented veterans, and stock up on draft picks and prospects. They’d be fully justified in doing so, and there probably would be a long-term payoff. But how do you trade a generational player like Kaprizov, knowing there’s no guarantee they’ll get another one in the draft? How do you completely dismantle a team that earned a franchise-record 113 points last season? Culture and the passionate hockey fans in Minnesota have to be considered here.
It’s unlikely that the Wild will be this bad all year. If they are, they may unintentionally tank, which may be the best of both worlds. It would probably be less damaging to the culture but also garner them a top pick. But it’s more likely that they find a goaltender who is just good enough, either because Fleury or Gustavsson step up or via trade. Their defensive corps may not be as stout as it once was, but it probably can be good enough. And they probably can replace some of Fiala’s offensive production internally.
But that isn’t the makings of a championship team. It’s the making of a squad that floats around the playoff bubble and loses in the first round. It’s hard to advance in the playoffs without elite goaltending, and teams have proven that they live with Kaprizov going off, as long as there aren’t other players who are a constant threat to score.
The chief problem with the Wild this year isn’t that they might be historically bad. It’s that they’re mediocre again. It’s that they finally landed a generational talent, and the Parise and Suter contracts that once looked like they’d transform this organization will hold them in purgatory throughout Kaprizov’s best years.