The Wild’s decision to buy out winger Zach Parise on Tuesday morning shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Parise had been a healthy scratch at the end of the regular season and that continued in the opening three games of the Wild’s first-round playoff loss to Vegas. The rocky relationship between player and organization was at the point where a divorce was the only answer and the word was Parise would welcome the opportunity to look for employment elsewhere.
Wild general manager Bill Guerin granted him that wish with a phone call. That wasn’t the only call that Guerin and owner Craig Leopold jointly made Tuesday morning — and the second one was a shocker. In a decision that Guerin said had been discussed for six to eight months, the GM and owner called defenseman Ryan Suter to tell him he also was being bought out. It’s safe to say that Suter and no one else saw it coming.
Nine years and nine days after Parise and Suter signed matching 13-year, $98 million free agent contracts much to the delight of Wild fans, they were informed their services were no longer desired at Xcel Energy Center. Guerin, who continued what one-year-and-done GM Paul Fenton had started by dispatching popular players from disappointing teams, had in a few short minutes rid the franchise of the two guys whom Leipold had expected to bring a Stanley Cup to Minnesota.
“I didn’t just wake up this morning and decide to do it,” Guerin said. “It’s been a process, probably about six or eight months, and there’s been a lot of discussion, a lot of conversations over it. On both of them. We know how much they’ve meant to this team and to the city. These are not great choices to make, these are not great decisions to make, but you have to make them and you stand by them.”
Guerin’s message in making the moves was clear: This is his team and his intention is to go for a Stanley Cup next season.
Let’s start with the latter. While the Wild will find itself in a salary cap crunch in the coming years because of this move, buying out Parise and Suter will create an immediate $10.33 million in cap room. That gives Guerin $26,264,754 in projected cap space, according to the CapFriendly website. The Wild can use the money to pursue much-needed help at center — that likely will come via a trade — and also has a better chance to retain veteran center Nick Bonino and defenseman Ian Cole. Guerin did say this won’t alter what he’s offering wingers Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala.
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The Wild would like to sign Kaprizov to an eight-year deal — he needs a new contract but can only return to the Wild, if he wants to remain in the NHL next season — but the Calder Trophy winner and team have had their differences on the length of the deal. Fiala is a restricted free agent and talks with the agents for both players are ongoing.
Guerin also will find it easier to put together his protected list for the July 21 expansion draft in which the Seattle Kraken will stock their roster. The Wild’s list is due Saturday and Parise and Suter both would have had to be on it because their contracts contained no-movement clauses. Difficult decisions involving defenseman Matt Dumba, winger Marcus Foligno or Jordan Greenway and center Nico Sturm have been eliminated. Odds are good Guerin will protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie and that the Kraken likely will take either defenseman Carson Soucy or goalie Kaapo Kahkonen.
“This will never stop,” Guerin said of the shakeup. “I’m not saying that these size moves are always going to be done, but these things always have to happen. You see teams constantly changing … you have to try to get better. We are trying to win and we have to try to improve all of the time. Sometimes it takes very difficult decisions to do that. It’s not OK to be where we are right now. We saw great signs this year, but we’re not there yet. We have to continuously try to get better and try to build a Stanley Cup winner.”
The Wild surprised many by finishing third in the West Division with 75 points in the pandemic-shortened 56-game regular season — Colorado and Vegas tied atop the division with an NHL-leading 82 points — but were ousted in seven games by the Golden Knights. Guerin, who won two Stanley Cups as a player and two more as an executive with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has put pressure on himself because the financial clock will be ticking on his team.
The Wild will owe Parise and Suter $6.7 million apiece over the next eight years. Their cap charge will start at $4.744 million for both players this season before increasing to $12.744 million for 2022-23; and then $14.744 million in both 2023-24 and 2024-25. That number finally comes down to $1.667 million in the final four years. The problem is that the salary cap is expected to remain a flat $81.5 million for several seasons because of revenue lost due to the pandemic.
“I didn’t think it would do any good just to wait,” Guerin said when asked if he considered keeping Parise or Suter for a longer period to avoid the cap penalties. “Hey, look, those years will be tough but we’re going to have to do a very good job of drafting players, a very good job of developing players and injecting some younger, cheaper players in our lineup. This will be a great opportunity for some of those guys.”
Make no mistake, those guys will be Guerin’s guys.
Parise and Suter were added to the roster by former general manager Chuck Fletcher with the feeling that they would help recruit other free agents and also combine with the Wild’s young talent to begin making Stanley Cup runs. That never happened and after Fletcher was fired, Fenton began jettisoning players like Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. If Fenton pushed the accelerator, then Guerin has floored it.
He began by trading Jason Zucker, then moved Eric Staal and Devan Dubnyk after the Wild was eliminated by Vancouver in bubble hockey last summer. Longtime captain Mikko Koivu was told he would not be brought back when his contract expired last year and now Parise and Suter, once the faces of the franchise, have been shown the door. The most surprising thing about Suter’s ouster might be Leipold’s involvement, considering how close he and Suter had been at one time.
“Craig and I have had I don’t know how many conversations about it,” Guerin said of Tuesday’s decision. “I think the important thing is that when you go to your boss with something this big you better have a plan. I worked very hard with my entire hockey (operations) group and we did. We had a plan and presented it to Craig and over time we talked about it many, many times. He’s in support of this and he’s been aware of what’s going on every step of the way. This wouldn’t happen without his blessing and without him standing right next to me.”
Guerin attempted to downplay any questions about what removing Parise and Suter from the locker room would mean from a culture standpoint. There is no question both were a very big presence in the Wild’s room for a long time, although that had begun to change. But there will be no questions now about who leads this team. That will start with players like captain Jared Spurgeon but also include Marcus Foligno, who has no problem taking charge and getting guys to follow him. Bonino and Cole were difference-makers in the locker room last season, although both could depart as free agents.
Guerin, a former captain in the NHL, clearly likes the direction in which the Wild are headed and has no issue with the immediate pressure and expectations that will surround his team next season.
“Like I’ve always said, we need to expect to win every time we step on the ice,” he said. “We want to win the Stanley Cup and that doesn’t change. No matter what, that doesn’t change. With the freed up cap space, we’re going to do what we can do to put the best team on the ice and then we have to take it from there. We’re coached very well, we have great character guys. They competed like crazy this year, we could have won that series (against Vegas). We didn’t, but we could have, I felt, and if we continue to build on what we did this year, we’re heading in the right direction.”