The Minnesota Wild have had plenty of things to digest since missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years this spring.
On the hockey side, Penguins right winger Phil Kessel, who played one season at the University of Minnesota and is from Madison, Wis., reportedly used his no-trade power to block a deal to the Wild. He ended up being dealt to Arizona last weekend. The Wild also pursued free agent center/right winger Joe Pavelski, a native of Plover, Wis., in free agency but were turned down so the longtime San Jose Shark could sign a three-year, $21 million contract with the Dallas Stars.
On the business side, the Wild took the unusual step (at least for them) of having to announce that season tickets were available. This is a franchise that has announced 229 consecutive sellouts in the regular season, but won an NHL-low 16 games at Xcel Energy Center in 2018-19.
So what do these things have to do with each other? It’s simple. Put them all together and it’s clear an important decision had to be made about the direction of the franchise and the potential willingness to accept some short-term pain on the ice and at the box office.
Kessel, 31, and Pavelski might have had multiple reasons for spurning the Wild, but one factor undoubtedly had to do with the fact that neither felt the team would be a legitimate contender for a Stanley Cup. Not after finishing in last place in the Central Division with 83 points. The fact that a number of disgruntled fans had dropped their season tickets in the extremely competitive Twin Cities sports market meant that owner Craig Leipold had to deal with an issue that hadn’t been a problem since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed matching 13-year, free agent contracts on July 4, 2012.
Kessel and Pavelski were doing the Wild a favor by telling general manager Paul Fenton and Leipold that they felt Minnesota was in a rebuilding mode. The wise move would have been to listen to this and continue spending the offseason retooling and not worrying about a playoff berth next season. But Leipold never has been long on patience and he wasn’t willing to tell fans that they would have to be patient.
This is the only explanation for why the Wild signed 5-foot-8 winger Mats Zuccarello to a five-year, $30 million contract as free agency opened on Monday morning. Zuccarello, who will turn 32 on Sept. 1, was given a full no-move clause through the life of the deal and a partial no-trade clause in the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons, according to The Athletic. That means he must be protected from being exposed to Seattle in the 2021 expansion draft.
Zuccarello sounds like a great locker-room guy — Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist became emotional when talking about Zuccarello after the winger was traded to Dallas in February — and he can definitely contribute as a top-six forward. Last season, he had 12 goals and 28 assists with the Rangers and Stars. Zuccarello is a left-hand shot but can play on the right side, an area the Wild definitely needs help.
What’s confusing about the Zuccarello decision is the mixed message it sends about the Wild’s direction. This is a team that Fenton seemed intent on making younger during the course of last season. That’s why he made some significant trades in February, dealing forward Charlie Coyle (27 years old) to Boston for forward Ryan Donato (23) and forward Mikael Granlud (27) to Nashville for forward Kevin Fiala (22). (The trade of 26-year-old winger Nino Niederreiter to Carolina for 26-year-old center Victor Rask in January looks like a massive bust for Minnesota.)
Fenton admitted at a pre-draft press conference last month that he did not make a deal to replace Matt Dumba after the defenseman suffered a season-ending pectoral injury just before Christmas last season because he did not want to give up draft picks. Trading for a replacement might have given the Wild a chance at a seventh consecutive playoff berth, but Chuck Fletcher was fired as the Wild’s GM after the 2017-18 season because his moves had not gotten the Wild past the first round for three consecutive seasons.
Just making the playoffs supposedly was no longer good enough.
As much as Leipold talked about the Wild only needing tweaks to get over the playoff hump during Fenton’s introductory press conference, one thought common sense had won out as Fenton started to trade off Coyle, Granlund and Niederreiter and that more moves to get younger would be coming. If the veteran players with no-move clauses (Parise, Koivu and Suter) didn’t like it, that was their tough luck. The Wild were in need of a hard reset and it was up to Fenton to hit that button.
Only now, it appears that Fenton is trying to keep Leipold — and the Wild’s veterans — happy while retooling around them. What does this mean? It means the Wild are going to hope that after a one-year absence they can get back into the playoffs. We’ve seen this movie before and it ends with a first-round playoff exit, or no postseason berth at all. It’s basically no man’s land and that’s the worse place you can.
“I think we are a competitor,” Fenton said Monday. “You look at our team right now and the stability we have with our goaltending. There’s not a lot of teams that have the top-four defensemen like we do in the league. And our center ice is just solid right down the middle. You put the excitement of our wingers on the outside, and I think we have a really good team that has a chance to win.”
That’s definitely one man’s opinion.
Fenton had a perfect opportunity to allow coach Bruce Boudreau to play a lot of young players in key positions next season. Koivu, 36, coming off a significant knee injury, will be entering the last year of his contract so he could have played on the third or fourth line and, honestly, with 34-year-old Eric Staal coming off a disappointing season he also could have slotted into a lesser role as younger players like Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin developed in the middle.
Maybe that’s the plan but adding a guy like Zuccarello would seem to indicate that veteran’s who should be being phased out are going to be left in key roles in the hopes they can carry the load.
What would be the worst case if the Wild went as young as possible? The team would lose a bunch of games, get a high draft pick and then get top prospect Kirill Kaprizov, a highly-skilled left winger, out of Russia and into the Xcel Energy Center for the 2020-21 season. (He still will be only 23 by that time.) Rebuilds these days don’t have to take long periods of time, but they do have to be done right and two years of not playing in the postseason isn’t much to ask if legitimate postseason success follows.
Instead, the Wild seems intent on trying to be a bottom playoff seed in 2019-20 and remain just good enough to be bad. This isn’t going to sit well with anyone, it isn’t going to increase excitement and it isn’t going to get fans enthused to buy tickets. Parise, who turns 35 this month, and Suter, 34, are under contract through 2024-25 and now Zuccarello will be around through 2023-24.
If the Wild appeared set to win next season, the Zuccarello addition would make perfect sense and the length of his contract would be justifiable. But given the Wild’s current situation it’s puzzling as to why this move was made. If it was Fenton’s attempt to appease Leipold, then it’s the owner’s thought process on the state of his team that needs some tweaking.