Just like that, it was over.
When Christopher Tanev’s shot sailed past Alex Stalock 11 seconds into overtime late Friday night (or was it early Saturday morning?) to give Vancouver a 5-4 victory over the Wild, it not only put an end to Minnesota’s time in the Western Conference playoff bubble in Edmonton, it also ended a bizarre season that opened on Oct. 3, 2019, included a coaching change in February and a four-plus month break because of the coronavirus pandemic, and concluded after only four qualifying round games on Aug. 8 (or 9), 2020.
Players will now return home and be free to resume their offseason activities. General manager Bill Guerin and his staff will have no such luxury. They will begin the process of putting into motion a plan that has been waiting for an endless season to finally end.
Guerin is approaching the one-year anniversary of his hiring in Minnesota. He was named GM last Aug. 21 following Paul Fenton’s surprising dismissal on July 30. Guerin took over shortly before the Wild opened training camp, inheriting Bruce Boudreau as his coach and a roster that Fenton had started to make over after Chuck Fletcher was sacked following the 2017-18 season.
Guerin had begun to put his stamp on the Wild, firing Boudreau in February and replacing him with assistant Dean Evason, who last month had the interim tag removed from his title. Winger Jason Zucker had been dealt to Pittsburgh in exchange for forward Alex Galchenyuk, a conditional 2020 first-round pick (that the Wild is now almost certain not to get), and defensive prospect Calen Addison.
Guerin also nearly pulled off a major move at the trade deadline in late February that would have sent winger Zach Parise to the New York Islanders, but the deal fell through and left the veteran’s salary cap hit sitting on the Wild roster.
These decisions likely were appetizers to a main course that is about to be served when the NHL’s “offseason” hits. The league reportedly is hoping to begin the 2020-21 season on Dec. 1, although that might depend on whether teams can have fans back in their arenas by then and where things stand with COVID-19.
The likelihood that Guerin is going to make significant changes increased in Edmonton after he had an opportunity to watch his team win Game 1 before dropping the next three. The Wild went 12-4 under Evason after Boudreau was fired on Feb. 14, playing a more up-tempo style and helping Evason land the job permanently. That got the Wild into the playoff picture before the stoppage.
What Guerin found upon the Wild’s return was extremely beneficial. The jolt given to the roster by the coaching change was predictable and certain players, not surprisingly, had reverted back to being themselves. Guerin is unlikely to tolerate the expected regression. He played 18 seasons in the NHL and won two Stanley Cups, the first with the New Jersey Devils in 1995 and the second with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. Guerin also served as a captain. He has an idea of what he wants the makeup of his team to be on and off the ice and the moves he already made make it clear he will be willing to make tough decisions.
That means that after 15 years and 1,028 regular-season games that captain Mikko Koivu likely has played his last game as a member of the Wild. The 37-year-old figures to have the choice of retiring after playing his entire career with one franchise or trying to catch on with a contender as a fourth-line center. The decision might be an emotional one but it isn’t difficult. Koivu’s contract is up and the $5.5 million he made this season can be invested elsewhere.
An even easier call will be to allow Galchenyuk to walk as a free agent. The third-overall pick in the 2012 draft by Montreal, Galchenyuk has bounced from Montreal, to Arizona, to Pittsburgh and then Minnesota in the last three seasons. He got off to a slow start with the Wild, playing on the wing, but his performance improved after he was moved to center and he had three goals and seven points in 12 games after Evason took over. So was Galchenyuk worth retaining, maybe on a short-term contract? Nope. His most notable play in the bubble was a brutal turnover that led to a J.T. Miller goal in Game 2 of the qualifying round.
The guess here is that Guerin will be willing to deal players who are both young and old. The fact the salary cap likely will stay flat for a few seasons because of the pandemic might make it tougher to move the final five years of Parise’s contract, but Guerin almost certainly will try. It’s pretty well accepted that defenseman Ryan Suter has no interest in waiving his no-move clause to get out of Minnesota, but Parise is a different story. He was willing to go to the Islanders and the 36-year-old (who scored 25 goals in the regular season) wants the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. That isn’t likely to happen in Minnesota, and Parise would be best served by going to a top-end team and playing on the third line.
Also don’t be surprised if Guerin finds a way to part company with either Ryan Donato, who was scratched in the last two games of the qualifying round in favor of Nico Sturm, and/or Jordan Greenway, who started Game 1 on the first line and did nothing to take advantage of that opportunity. The Wild has been waiting for both wingers to emerge and it has yet to happen.
Veteran center Eric Staal is due to make $3.25 million next season in the final year of his contract with the Wild and almost certainly will return because of a lack of depth at the position. Staal, 35, had a goal and four assists in four playoff games while centering the top line with Kevin Fiala and a rotating cast of left wingers. Guerin, however, knows he needs to find a real No. 1 center to play with the mega-talented Fiala and the aging Staal isn’t that guy.
Next season, the Wild will have Fiala and winger Kirill Kaprizov, who has finally been signed and now simply needs to be delivered to Minnesota. Those two are expected to provide game-breaking talent but who is going to get them the puck? Guerin is going to have to be willing to give up something he doesn’t want to if he’s going to land that center.
That could be defensemen Jonas Brodin or Matt Dumba. Brodin is as steady as it gets and while he isn’t a dynamic player, those around the game rave about what he brings. Dumba, coming off a season-ending injury from 2018-19, had a difficult regular season and finished with six goals, 24 points and a microscopic 3.6 shooting percentage (he took 167 shots) in 69 games. Dumba, 26, is under contract for three more seasons at $6 million per; Brodin, 27, has only one season at $4.2 million left on his contract and he is certain to be looking for a big payday.
This could make a tough decision a bit easier for Guerin, who might decide he doesn’t want to make another substantial investment in the blue line (Suter, Dumba and Jared Spurgeon all have multi-year deals). Guerin also is faced with Seattle getting to take a player off his roster in the 2021 expansion draft and that will have to be factored into his thinking.
One thing Guerin undoubtedly would love to do is get forwards Mats Zuccarello and Victor Rask off the books, but that’s going to be nearly impossible. Zuccarello, 32, was a terrible fit in his first season in Minnesota and still has four years left on his five-year, $30 million contract that includes a no-move clause for the first three seasons. (What was Fenton thinking?) Rask, 27, whose presence with the Wild in Edmonton was nothing more than a rumor, has two years left on his contract at $4 million per. Buyouts are an option but those come with cap consequences that make the divorce anything but a clean break.
Trades are the best way to go, if another team will take the player, and that brings us to former No. 1 goalie Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk had a tough regular season, in part because his wife spent time dealing with a health issue, but the veteran did not get a start in the qualifying round as Alex Stalock was between the pipes for all four games.
Dubnyk is due to make $4.3 million in the final season of his contract in 2020-21 and there certainly would be a taker for that deal, although the return might not be significant. The 34-year-old had some good times in five-plus seasons in Minnesota, but the Wild need to see what they have in Kaapo Kahkonen, the AHL’s Outstanding Goalie of the Year this past season. Ideally, Kahkonen would take over the net in 2020-21, and Stalock would play a significant role as his backup.
These moves won’t necessarily make the Wild a Stanley Cup contender next season, but they would put Guerin’s stamp on a roster that has some quality pieces. And there could be one marquee piece added. That would be if the Wild wins Phase 2 of the NHL draft lottery on Monday and become the placeholder team to cash in on its 12.5 percent chance to get the opportunity to draft game-changing winger Alexis Lafreniere first overall on Oct. 9.
If that happens, Tanev’s goal will go down as one of the greatest moments in Wild history.