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Zulgad: Bill Guerin’s offseason to-do list now must be centered on filling one position

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at New York Islanders
Mar 6, 2021; Uniondale, New York, USA; Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (9) reacts during the third period against the New York Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Wild entered the opening of NHL free agency on Wednesday with a modest shopping list that included defenseman Alex Goligoski and winger Nick Foligno, as well as retaining defenseman Ian Cole. What wasn’t modest about general manager Bill Guerin’s list was the presence of Sabres center Jack Eichel, who has demanded out of Buffalo.

It was safe to say that by the time the sun went down on Wednesday that Guerin had made some changes in his offseason plans.

While Guerin landed the 36-year-old Goligoski on a one-year, $5 million contract, Foligno elected not to join his brother, Marcus, in Minnesota and instead signed a two-year, $7.6 million deal with the Boston Bruins.  The Carolina Hurricanes, meanwhile, presented Cole with a one-year, $2.9 million offer he couldn’t refuse. And Eichel? Michael Russo of the Athletic reported that the Wild was “backing out” of the Eichel trade talks because the asset price/cost was too much for Guerin to “stomach or make work.”

This is subject to change because it appears the Sabres are expecting the type of return for Eichel that a team would get for a healthy superstar and not one who still might undergo neck surgery and be lost for a good portion of the season. Unless Buffalo can find a sucker to meet its asking price, the Wild could get back in when the Eichel camp begins to apply more pressure on the Sabres to make a trade, and Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams accepts the fact he’s dealing with damaged goods.

Assuming Eichel is out of the picture for the Wild, at least for now, there remain questions about how the depth chart at center is going to look for Dean Evason’s team. There also were questions about the depth on the blue line at the start of the day, but Guerin worked into Wednesday evening to resolve those.Hours after the Goligoski signing was announced, the Wild locked up veteran defenseman Dmitry Kulikov to a two-year, $4.5 million contract. The 30-year-old Russian had four assists in 48 games last season with the Devils (38 games) and Oilers (10). Kulikov has played with Florida, Buffalo, Winnipeg, New Jersey and Edmonton in 12 NHL seasons and, as evidenced by his goal total last year, is a stay-at-home defenseman who likely will assume Cole’s role on the third defensive pairing.

Goligoski, meanwhile, will be expected to play a top four role and help replace Ryan Suter, who signed a four-year deal with Dallas after being bought out by the Wild. Goligoski could slide into Suter’s old role as Jared Spurgeon’s defensive partner, leaving the Matt Dumba-Jonas Brodin combination intact. Kulikov could find himself alongside offensive-defenseman Calen Addison, a prospect who appeared in three regular-season games and three playoff games with the Wild last season.

Although Guerin has downplayed it as much as possible, the biggest position of concern for the Wild is center. Joel Eriksson Ek, who had a fantastic 2021 and was rewarded with an eight-year, $42 million contract in early July, has established himself as the team’s best center. The issue is Evason likes to play Eriksson Ek with wingers Jordan Grenway and Marcus Foligno on a line that often goes against the opponent’s top line. So would Evason be willing to put Eriksson Ek with a scoring winger such as Kirill Kaprizov or Kevin Fiala?

The answer to that question last season — one in which the Wild was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by Vegas — was no.

The Wild’s other centers are Victor Rask, Nico Sturm and Ryan Hartman, who also can play the wing. Rask and Hartman got an opportunity to play with Karpivoz and winger Mats Zuccarello last season, but that was only because of the lack of quality centers above them on the depth chart.

The Wild did sign free agent center Frederick Gaudreau to a two-year, $2.4 million contract, that’s a move to replace Nick Bonino (who signed with San Jose) on the fourth line.

Bonino’s departure did not come as a surprise, but the loss of Bonino and Cole will have an impact on the locker room. Guerin acquired both players — Bonino from Nashville last offseason and Cole at the beginning of the regular season from Colorado — because he was familiar with what they would bring on and off the ice. Both had won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh while Guerin was an executive with the Penguins.

Guerin knew exactly what he was doing in putting Bonino and Cole in a room that hadn’t been known for its chemistry. Those changes continued with his decision to buyout Zach Parise (not surprising) and Suter (shocking). There was little doubt that Guerin saw Nick Foligno, the former captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets, as another potential leader and an on-ice fit to assume Parise’s role.

But Guerin is in no position to throw around multi-year contract offers, despite the fact the Wild have an estimated $20.564 million in cap space. The Parise and Suter buyouts are only costing the Wild a combined $4.7 million this season but that figure will rise to $12.7 million in 2022-23 and $14.7 million each of the next two seasons after that. Throw in the fact the NHL’s salary cap is expected to remain flat at $81.5 million for the next few seasons because of the pandemic and Guerin is going to have to be careful with every nickel he spends.

He also needs to get deals worked out with Fiala, a restricted free agent, and Kaprizov, who needs a new contract but can’t be offered one by another NHL team because of his lack of service time. Kaprizov’s only threat, and it’s already come up a couple of times, is returning to the KHL next season.

That almost certainly won’t happen, but there is a chance Kaprizov will get his wish and receive a short deal with the Wild. Guerin would like to get him signed for seven or eight years, but Kaprizov would be in a position to hit unrestricted free agency, if he signs a three-year contract.

If that happens, there will be more pressure than ever on the Wild to quickly make a deep playoff run with what could be considered the first true superstar in franchise history. But who is he going to play alongside? Sturm’s success as a rookie was overshadowed by Kaprizov’s season, but he did finish with 11 goals and six assists and was a plus-10 in 50 games playing in a bottom six role.

Sturm could find himself competing for a top-six position at center come training camp. There also is the potential that center Marco Rossi, the ninth pick in the 2020 draft, could find himself in the opening night lineup. Rossi is a big-time prospect but missed almost all of last season after being diagnosed with myocarditis following a battle with COVID-19.

Asking the 19-year-old Rossi to play a first- or second-line role seems like a lot for a guy who is just looking to get back on track. So where else could Guerin turn now that many of the centers believed to be on his wish list are gone?

Arizona’s Christian Dvorak has 35 goals and 34 assists in 126 games over the past two seasons and has been shopped by the Coyotes this offseason. The 25-year-old is signed for the next four years at $4.45 million per season. Dvorak would be an upgrade for the Wild but what would Guerin would have to pay to get him?

This also is assuming the Eichel talks really have broken down. It’s safe to assume that Guerin doesn’t have vacation plans anytime soon.