The Minnesota Wild signed Marcus Foligno, 32, and Mats Zuccarello, 36, to extensions before training camp in late September. "We like the players," Bill Guerin explained. "They are invested in the Wild, and they want to win here. I believe in these guys. I love what they bring to the table — on the ice, off the ice, in the dressing room.
"I think they're a part of how we can get better here."
Zuccarello’s two-year, $8.25 million contract was risky because he’s in his late 30s. But it was prudent to extend him because he has built chemistry with Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota’s franchise player. But extending Foligno for four years, $16 million, was baffling. Foligno is a 20-point-per-season player who’s aging out of his prime. His contract likely wouldn’t offer value, no matter how much leadership he provides.
A week later, he extended Ryan Hartman for three years, $12 million. "I like having cost certainty going forward," Guerin said. "These three guys have all expressed how much they wanted to stay here. We wanted to keep them."
When Guerin said “get better,” he likely was referring to his effort to build a team that could get out of the first round. While he had stated after the playoffs last year that the current roster shouldn’t have to atone for the sins of past Wild teams, he was repeating Chuck Fletcher’s mistakes. At least Fletcher’s decision to sign Zach Parise and Ryan Suter breathed life into a dormant organization. Zuccarello, Foligno, and Hartman are bit players on a failing roster.
Minnesota’s home-and-home series with the Winnipeg Jets became a turning point for its season. The Wild had won seven of their last eight games before playing the Jets. However, they had beaten the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks in a shootout and the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in overtime. Kaprizov and Filip Gustavsson suffered injuries against the Jets, and Winnipeg beat Minnesota by a combined 7-4 score.
Kaprizov and Gustavsson drive winning for the Wild, and Minnesota has lost eight of nine games after the Phoenix Coyotes beat them 6-0 in St. Paul. Kaprizov is the Wild’s superstar, and Gustavsson is their most reliable goalie. Marc-Andre Fleury, 39, was in net for five recent losses; the Dallas Stars shelled prospect Jesper Wallstedt, 21, in a 7-2 win. Marco Rossi, Matt Boldy, and Brock Faber are promising young players. But they alone can’t save the Wild.
Minnesota’s improbable come-from-behind victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in overtime is their lone win in their last nine games, and Columbus is the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference. Guerin has invested $36.25 million in Foligno, Hartman, and Zuccarello. Still, the Wild can’t win without Kaprizov.
The Wild are naturally a top-heavy team; they have $15 million in dead cap space. But Guerin chose to buy Parise and Suter out and try to win with less cap space. He could have decided to roll out a younger, potentially less competitive team. By doing so, Minnesota could develop young players and stockpile draft picks. That would set them up to leverage a robust farm system to win after Parise and Suter’s dead cap comes off the books.
But they didn’t need to enter the season planning to tank. Guerin could have created options for himself by letting Foligno, Hartman, and Zuccarello play out their contracts. Had he done that, Guerin could have moved any of them, or all three, at the deadline and stocked up on prospects and draft capital. Guerin said that Foligno, Hartman, and Zuccarello wanted to be in Minnesota. He could have sold them at the deadline, then turned around and re-signed them if they were on board with the team’s direction in the offseason.
Instead, Guerin built the Titanic.
Guerin constructed a giant, immovable boat that has hit an iceberg and is slowly sinking into the dark, cold sea. Worse yet, he didn’t attach lifeboats. Trading aging veterans was Minnesota’s way out of this mess. It’s unlikely that the Wild will make the playoffs this year. Even if they were on pace to qualify, it wouldn’t be hard for their first-round opponent to shut down a one-line team. They’ve done it before.
The Wild lack direction. They’re not good enough to win, but they may not be able to lose enough to get an impact player in the draft. They can’t sell their aging veterans at the deadline because they extended them in the offseason. Signing Zuccarello will always be justified because it’s a short-term deal, and he enhances Kaprizov’s game. But Foligno’s extension doesn’t start until next season, and he’ll carry a $4 million cap hit at age 36.
They’ve also locked themselves into Hartman’s $4 million cap hit for the next three seasons, and he’s devolving from a glue guy to a goon. The Wild could always buy Foligno and Hartman out, but Parise and Suter’s buyouts got them into this trouble in the first place. Even Minnesota rides things out with Foligno and Hartman, Guerin may functionally have created dead cap space in the future. Few teams will want to trade for Foligno and Hartman on the wrong side of 30. Any offers they get likely won’t be of much value.
Kaprizov is only under contract for two more seasons. It makes sense that they wanted to win with him on their roster. But they should have given themselves an out. Kaprizov is the engine that propels Guerin’s luxury cruiser. Rossi, Boldy, and Faber are core components. Guerin changed captains to salvaged the ship when it hit an iceberg earlier in the season. But he doesn’t have a contingency plan this time. By removing his lifeboats, he didn’t give himself many options. The way things are going, Minnesota’s aging veterans would have been part of how the team gets better if Guerin could move them at the deadline this year.
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