Any doubts about whether Bill Guerin was a man of his word were put to rest on Wednesday evening. After saying during an end of the season call with reporters that “there definitely have to be changes,” the Wild general manager began to deliver by trading veteran center Eric Staal to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Johansson.
Guerin won’t say it, but it feels as if this is just the start. Who will be next? Maybe Zach Parise (who likely would waive his no-move clause to go to a contender), or Devan Dubnyk, or Matt Dumba, or any other veteran that Guerin thinks underachieved or for whom he can get a decent return. Guerin already said Wednesday that it’s unlikely center Alex Galchenyuk will return, and while he would not comment on the future of center Mikko Koivu, it has been reported the longtime captain won’t be back and he isn’t under contract for 2020-21.
The Staal trade comes a day after the Wild signed defenseman Jonas Brodin to a seven-year, $42 million contract extension that means it’s likely fellow defenseman Matt Dumba will be moved this offseason in a deal for a top-line center. Guerin has acknowledged the Wild’s need for more depth and better play at center, but that created the assumption that the 35-year-old Staal was probably safe.
That assumption proved to be incorrect in part because, in addition to trying to fill areas of need, Guerin also wants to change the chemistry on the Wild. This isn’t new. Paul Fenton, who lasted one season as GM in Minnesota, began the turnover process by dealing Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter during the 2018-19 season.
Guerin, who took over just before the 2019-20 season began, dealt Jason Zucker in February and was close to trading Parise to the Islanders at the trade deadline before that deal fell apart. Staal had a 10-team no-trade list but Buffalo wasn’t on it, so he becomes the latest guy to be shown the door.
“Eric was a positive influence on guys, but sometimes change is good for us,” Guerin said. “This is part of it. Sometimes we need to mix things up, we need to find a different pathway to success and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to build a better better team and sometimes you have to take some drastic measures. … It’s a lot about just changing the mix of the team.”
In what has been a bizarre season that is still ongoing for some teams, Guerin got a lengthy look at the Wild before COVID-19 caused the NHL to shutdown in March. The Wild then played four games in the qualifying round of the NHL’s return to play in the Western Conference bubble in August in Edmonton. Minnesota won its first game against the skilled Vancouver Canucks before losing the next three.
Guerin made it clear Wednesday that his decision to deal Staal was made in part to send a message to the younger players that this is their team and expectations for them are going to be high. With Koivu likely gone, Staal might have been in the mix to take over as captain of the Wild, but that would have been treading water and, in Guerin’s mind, likely a waste of time.
“This is the move we made and you have to move on and adjust,” Guerin said. “We have some younger guys in our room that need to step up and take more of a leadership role. I think Eric is a guy that they relied on heavily for that, but he’s not going to be there, so who’s going to do it?”
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That’s a challenge to guys like Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, Ryan Donato, Marcus Foligno, Kevin Fiala, Joel Eriksson Ek and on and on. A Wild general manager challenging his younger players to take control is nothing new, but Guerin has the advantage of having been a key part of many successful teams. Guerin’s 18-season NHL career included 15 appearances in the playoffs and two Stanley Cups. Guerin has a good idea of what success looks like and he clearly didn’t see enough signs of it last season.
“You have a vision of what it looks like but it takes time to get there,” Guerin said of the roster construction. “If I don’t make moves nothing will happen, we’ll just stay the same and that’s not the idea. I’ll try to make the right moves at the right time. I’m not going to say I’ll be super aggressive or super passive, we’re just going to try to improve our team. When those deals come, it doesn’t matter what time it comes at, we’ll do it.”
Staal, who will be playing his 17th NHL season in 2021-22, is close to the end of his career, but it’s fair to wonder if Guerin got enough in return for a guy who scored 42 goals in 2017-18 and had 19 goals and 28 assists in 66 games this past season.
Johansson, 29, is six years younger than Staal — they both have October birthdays — but he’s more expensive and coming off a disappointing one-season stint in Buffalo. Staal will be entering the final season of his contract and is set to make $3 million and count $3.25 million against the salary cap. Johansson, who signed as a free agent with Buffalo after finishing the previous season with Boston, will have a $4 million base salary and count $4.5 million against the cap.
Johansson had a career-high 24 goals and 58 points with Washington in 2016-17, but scored only nine goals with 21 assists in 60 games last season. He also was a minus-12, marking the third consecutive season in which he has been a minus player. Johansson’s underwhelming performance came during a season in which the Sabres moved him from left wing to center. But Guerin acquired Nick Bjugstad from Pittsburgh last week thinking the center and winger can play in the middle and he feels the same about Johansson.
“I think they’ve got a pretty good No. 1 centermen there (in Jack Eichel) and sometimes it’s just not a great fit,” Guerin said when asked about Johansson’s situation in Buffalo. “But I think Marcus fits well with us and he’s going to get a lot of opportunity. Dean knows him very well from Washington and believes he can play and be an impactful center, so he’s going to get that opportunity.”
Wild coach Dean Evason was an assistant in Washington during Johansson’s early years with the Capitals and Johansson’s speed should fit the up-tempo style that Evason wants to play.
“It’s a different look for our team,” Guerin said. “Marcus provides us with a lot of speed, a lot of skill and we’re looking forward to adding him to our lineup. … We have him slated in as a center. That’s where he likes to play and we’ll see how he does, but I’m confident that he’ll do well there. … I like (his) play-making ability. I love him on the power play. I remember him very well from his days in Washington when I was in Pittsburgh. I always admired his skill set and the things that he was able to do on the power play with that talented group of guys.”
The 24th pick in the first round of the 2009 draft by Washington, Johansson scored more than 10 power-play goals in a season three times during his seven years in Washington. He was traded to New Jersey in July 2017 and then to Boston in February 2019. Johansson had four goals and seven assists in 22 postseason games with the Bruins in 2018-19 as they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Blues.
Guerin projects Johansson as a top six center, but the expectation is he will continue to look for someone to center the first line.
“Right now, I feel pretty good about the direction that we’ve gone in with the last couple of moves,” Guerin said. “Are we going to continue to try to improve there? I think we have and I think right now we just have to maybe take a little while and reassess and see where we are. But I like where we are sitting right now. Very few teams trade their No. 1 center, so we’ll just keep looking at things, but I like the moves that we’ve done the last couple of days.”