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Zulgad: Part of the plan: Wild GM continues to stockpile picks, prospects in dealing Kevin Fiala

Bill Guerin
Bill Guerin addresses the media before his induction into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Detroit, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013. Guerin is an American retired professional ice hockey player and current player development coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

As Kevin Fiala put together a ridiculous late-season stretch in which he scored 10 goals and 24 points in a 12-game span, the feeling grew that Wild general manager Bill Guerin was going to have to find a way to keep the talented winger. Fiala had gambled on himself by signing a one-year, $5.1 million deal as a restricted free agent last summer and it was paying off. He finished the season with a career-high 33 goals and 85 points in 82 games.

But even as Fiala showed he was the Wild’s second-most dangerous player behind Kirill Kaprizov, Guerin knew what had to be done. The Wild were about to enter three years in salary cap hell thanks to the buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and that meant bringing back Fiala again as a restricted free agent wouldn’t be prudent and probably not possible.

“He had a great year and we knew we just were not going to be able to do it,” Guerin said Wednesday. “We knew that, they knew that and there’s no sense just trying to screw around and trying to fit this and fit that and give him a lowball deal. It’s not going to work. We knew we were going to have to move him.”

Guerin did just that on Wednesday afternoon, trading Fiala to the Los Angeles Kings for the 19th pick in the first round of next Thursday’s draft and Minnesota Gophers defenseman Brock Faber, who was taken in the second round of the 2020 draft by the Kings. There had been numerous trade ideas floated regarding Fiala — to the Devils for the second pick in this year’s draft, to the Senators for the seventh pick and on and on — but with several wingers and centers expected to be available either via trade or in free agency, Guerin took what he felt was the best deal.

“I think we got fair value,” he said. “I really do.”

Fiala, who will turn 26 on July 22, reportedly will receive a seven-year contract worth $7.9 million per season. He will join a team that has a very good prospect pool and was eliminated in seven games in the first round of the playoffs by the Edmonton Oilers.

The Wild, coming off a disappointing six-game loss to St. Louis in the first round in which Fiala had only three assists in six games, could be looking at taking a step back after finishing in second place in the Central Division with a franchise-record 113 points. That was only six points behind the Stanley Cup champion Avalanche.

The trade enables Guerin to continue to build through the draft and to add prospects from other organizations. One reason Guerin was so active at the trade deadline this past season is likely because he knew he had salary cap space and figured he could take a shot at helping a good team make a playoff run. It didn’t work.

But with Parise and Suter’s buyouts eating up $12.744 million in dead cap space in 2022-23 and then $14.744 million in each of the following two seasons, adding high-priced veterans won’t be possible. The Wild have projected cap space of only $6.589 million for next season.

Making up for Fiala’s 33 goals isn’t likely to be possible, but the Wild should see 2020 first-round center Marco Rossi next season and the team’s two 2021 first-round picks, goalie Jesper Wallstedt and defenseman Carson Lambos, shouldn’t be too far behind. The Wild have four picks among the first 56 in next week’s draft, and are likely to have five prospects playing on the blue line when the World Junior Championships open in August.

Lambos, the 26th pick in last year’s draft, will be joined on the Team Canada roster by 2020 second-round selection Ryan O’Rourke and 2020 third-round pick Daemon Hunt. Faber, who played for the U.S. in the Olympics last February, will be joined by 2021 second-round selection Jack Peart. Wallstedt, meanwhile, will be in goal for Team Sweden.

This isn’t to say the Wild can’t have success in the next couple of seasons — any team with a superstar like Kaprizov on its roster has to be considered dangerous — but if everything comes together for the Wild, they could be in position to add veteran talent to one of the NHL’s best young rosters in 2025. Kaprizov will be nearing 30 at that point and entering the final season of his five-year, $45 million contract. Of course, there’s also the chance that young talent could blossom before then with Kaprizov leading the way.

What Guerin knows is that while veteran additions can supplement a roster, successful teams focus on developing their prospects.

“We need younger guys, we need guys that don’t make millions and millions of dollars,” he said. “We just have to do it that way. I think for long-term success as well, we have to keep adding to our prospect pool. Look at the two teams that were in the finals. Those teams were built by the draft. There were some trades made along the way, but the bulk of those teams were made through the draft. I think they’re very well built teams. … That’s the way you have to do it.”