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Pulling no punches: Wild GM Bill Guerin makes it clear that goaltending changes are on the way

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Minnesota Wild
Oct 12, 2019; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk (40) reacts after giving up a goal in the second period against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Wild general manager Bill Guerin didn’t waste any time shaking up things when it came to the team’s goaltending situation on Monday and that appears to be just the start. Three days after the Wild’s season came to an end with an overtime loss to Vancouver in Game 4 of the qualifying round of the Western Conference playoffs in Edmonton, Guerin dismissed longtime goalie coach Bob Mason.

“I was disappointed in the goaltending this year,” Guerin said during his end-of-season video chat. “Al (Stalock) had a tremendous year and Devan (Dubnyk) had an off year and it needs to be better. That’s just the way it is. If I told you anything different, I’d be lying to you. It was not a strong point for us.”

Guerin isn’t wrong. Dubnyk, the Wild’s longtime No. 1 goalie, and Stalock combined for an .897 save percentage in the regular season, putting them third-worst in the NHL. Dubnyk missed time to be with his wife in November and December as she dealt with a medical issue and that opened the door for Stalock to take over as the Wild’s top goalie. Stalock did a nice job but, at the age of 33 and in his ninth NHL season, he is more suited to be a backup than he is to handle the majority of the work.

Stalock played every game of the series against the Canucks and, after stopping 28 shots to shut out Vancouver in Game 1, the Wild dropped the next three games as Stalock gave up 12 goals. There would appear to be a good chance that Stalock returns to the Wild next season, but it’s far from certain Dubnyk will do the same.

Dubnyk quickly became the Wild’s top goalie after former general manager Chuck Fletcher acquired him from Arizona for a third-round pick in January 2015. Minnesota was eight points out of a playoff spot and desperate for goaltending help when Dubnyk joined the team in Buffalo. He shut out the Sabres in his Minnesota debut and the Wild ended up qualifying for the postseason. Dubnyk did not start fewer than 60 games over the next four seasons, but that number dropped to 30 before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the 2019-20 season in March. The 34-year-old’s 3.35 goals-against average and .890 save percentage this season were easily his worst stats in five-plus seasons with Minnesota.

Dubnyk will be entering the final season of his six-year, $26 million contract in 2020-21. The deal contains a modified no-trade clause that enables Guerin to move him to 19 teams. There also is the possibility that if Guerin can’t find a taker for Dubnyk that he could be bought out. The salary-cap hit would be $2.7 million in 2020-21 and $833,333 the following season.

Stalock  certainly isn’t breaking the bank. He played for a base salary of $905,000 this season and that figure will drop to $700,000 in 2020-21 and then $750,000 in the final season of his contract. Stalock’s cap hit for all three seasons will be $785,000.

Guerin was about as blunt as one can possibly be when he was asked if he sees Dubnyk and Stalock as the guys for next season who can help turn the goaltending around.

“No, I can’t say that,” he said. “If I have an opportunity to make it better I will. But I’m also confident that if those guys come back they’re going to be battling for a spot. We’ve also got Kaapo Kahkonen pushing. It just has to be better. Flat out. So, I can’t promise anybody a spot. Al did himself a lot of good. He played hard, the guys played for him. But, still, next year is next year and we’re going to be better.”

It won’t be surprising if Kahkonen, who will turn 24 on Sunday, gets a shot to be the starter after he was named the outstanding goaltender in the AHL this season. Kahkonen, a fourth-round pick by the Wild in 2014, led the AHL in victories this season, going 25-6-3 with a 2.07 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. He also was 3-1-1 with a 2.96 goal against and a .913 save percentage in five games.

Guerin also could dip into the free agent market to try to find a starting goalie. The list of available goalies will include Corey Crawford, Robin Lehner, Braden Holtby, Jacob Markstrom, Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss.

Guerin confirmed he is not bringing back Mason after 18 seasons because of his disappointment with the goalie play. “Bob’s a great guy and he’s done a lot of great things and helped goalie’s here over the last 17 years,” Guerin said. “I consider Bob a friend and he’s a wonderful person and he’s got a great track record. He had an incredible run here. I have nothing negative to say about him. Sometimes you just need change and in that position we needed to change.”

Guerin might feel an urgency to improve his team’s play between the pipes, but that isn’t his only concern entering the unusual offseason ahead. The Wild also lacks a clear No. 1 center and finding a top-level player at that position is like finding a true ace in baseball or a top quarterback in the NFL. If you get one, you don’t give them up. Eric Staal ended the season as the Wild’s top center, but he’s soon-to-be 36 and will be entering the final season of a two-year, $6.5 million contract in 2020-21.

“Teams don’t trade No. 1 centers, they just don’t,” Guerin said. “So usually it’s got to be done in the free agent market or through the draft. It’s a position that I think this organization has needed for quite some time now and we’re going to try to address it. It’s not the easiest thing in the world.”

The Wild need to find someone who can get the puck to top level wingers Kevin Fiala and newcomer Kirill Kaprizov, who will be making his first trip to Minnesota in the coming days after arriving in the United States over the weekend. Guerin said he does not see a top-line center in the Wild’s system at this point. “It’s something that we’re hoping somebody can turn into, but you don’t know,” Guerin said. “We’ve got some good players in the pipeline, a lot of them are wingers and it’s something that we might have to get in the draft this year. We don’t know.”

There won’t be much available on the free agent market this year. A listing of top free agents by Sportsnet includes former Wild winger and center Mikael Granlund, whom then-Minnesota GM Paul Fenton traded to Nashville for Fiala, and current Wild center and winger Alex Galchenyuk, who was acquired from Pittsburgh last February in the Jason Zucker trade and had a disappointing postseason.

Guerin declined to say whether center Mikko Koivu could return for a 16th season in Minnesota. The 37-year-old’s contract has expired and Koivu wasn’t willing to answer any questions about his future plans Sunday as he talked to the media. “I’m not going to comment on Mikko right now,” Guerin said. “Him and I need to talk before I start giving you guys answers.”

Guerin said there is no timeline for when the two will talk, adding “he needs some time for himself as well.” Koivu declined to waive his no-move clause at the NHL trade deadline in February, so it’s likely that if he doesn’t return to Minnesota his NHL career will be done.

Even if Koivu is back as a fourth-line role player, the Wild locker room will have a different look after Guerin gets his first offseason to remake the roster.

“I think we’re a good team,” Guerin said. “But there definitely have to be changes. There are always changes. We haven’t had success here and things need to get better. That’s just the way it is. … We need to be better.”