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Judd Zulgad

Capped Out

Disappointing finish aside, defiant Guerin refuses to entertain idea of a rebuild.

MHM Photo / Rick Olson

The feistiness Bill Guerin displayed during portions of his season-ending press conference on Tuesday was interesting. What might have been most telling was the look on the face of the Wild general manager as he discussed the latest first-round exit for a franchise that hasn’t advanced past the second round since 2015 and made its only appearance in the Western Conference finals 20 years ago.

MHM Photo / Rick Olson

Guerin looked like a guy who hadn’t slept much since the Wild was ousted by the Dallas Stars during a lifeless performance that earned well-deserved boos from the home crowd on Friday night in Game 6. That potential lack of sleep could be tied as much to Guerin’s concern about the future, as his frustration with opening round losses to Vancouver, Vegas, St. Louis and now Dallas since he became GM in August 2019.

In his opening statement, Guerin said he didn’t, “view this season as a failure,” before adding, “it is extremely disappointing.”

His agitation level quickly grew when Michael Russo of The Athletic asked him about how the Wild will get over the hump. “What hump do you want us to get over?” Guerin said. When told that would be getting past the first round, Guerin said: “They’re not going to put our name on the Stanley Cup (by making) it to the second round. They’re not going to give us a ring. But you know what? That’s not our goal. Our goal’s not to make it to the second round. Is it going to make it feel any better? It’s not.”

Maybe not for Guerin, but it would certainly would make Wild fans feel better to see the team end a streak of seven consecutive first-round exits and eight consecutive series losses. Guerin won two Stanley Cups as a player and two as an executive with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He knows exactly how important playoff experience can be for a team and its players. Getting to the second round isn’t the goal, but it’s certainly an improvement on how far he and coach Dean Evason have managed to the take franchise so far.

Ryan Suter and Jake Oettinger share a celebratory moment after Game 4 at Xcel Energy Center. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

So why be so defensive? Because that’s what happens when you realize better days might not be immediately ahead. The reality of the Wild situation simple: Guerin’s decision to buy out Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in July 2021 will continue to haunt this franchise for two more seasons and there’s nothing that can be done about it. To be clear, I’ve always supported the decision because in order to get the Wild headed in the right direction, Parise and Suter had to be removed from the locker room.

The fact that Suter was just part of a Dallas team that beat the Wild — and that no one on the Wild came close to retaliating for Suter’s cross-checks on Kirill Kaprizov in Game 1 — likely will bother Guerin well into the summer. But nothing will bother him as much as the fact that Suter and Parise’s buyouts will leave $14.7 million of dead money on the Wild cap for the next two seasons. That figure was $12.7 million this season and, because the cap continues to grow slowly, caused issues.

The cap for 2023-24 is expected to be $83.5 million in 2023-24, only a $1 million growth of this past season.

“I rarely bring this up, but I’m going to bring this up today because it’s real and it’s important,” Guerin said with Evason sitting beside him. “I think our players and our coaches deserve a lot of credit because they are fighting with one hand tied behind their back because of these cap restraints. We don’t apologize for it, it’s fine, we’re fine with it.

“But I think our players and our team have done a fantastic job in just ignoring that and moving on and playing hockey. (Is this playoff loss) disappointing in the end? 100 percent. I’m very disappointed but I don’t view this season as a failure. Our team played well. Back to back 100-point seasons. We have two of the best seasons that this franchise has ever had. Winning is hard, it’s hard and we’re working towards it.”

But Guerin is at an important crossroads with this team.

He is never going to use the word “rebuild” or acknowledge he’s OK with the Wild missing the playoffs, but deep down knows next season needs to be one in which he begins making decisions with the future in mind and giving chances to some of the heralded prospects, such as center Marco Rossi. The ninth pick in the 2020 draft, Rossi has gotten cups of coffee with the Wild the past two years before being dispatched to Iowa of the American Hockey League to gain more experience.

Marco Rossi (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

“Marco just wasn’t ready,” Guerin said of Rossi, who had one assist in 19 games this season. “The worst thing we could have done was forced him into the lineup every night. He’s going to spend the bulk of the summer here to focus on his fitness here, rather than going back home. We don’t want to put him in positions to fail, or to stunt his development.”

The Wild now have little choice.

They need to find out if Rossi, and some other young players, can handle the NHL. Their playing time needs to come at the expense at some of the grinders and veterans that Evason, a grinder himself in his playing days, and Guerin love so much. If nothing else, those young players can get valuable experience and put little strain on the salary cap.

Guerin has built two very different teams the past two years. Last season, the Wild produced plenty of goals and dramatic comebacks but fell flat in a six-game loss to the Blues in the first round. This season, Guerin put together a group that was far more defensive-minded and had the ability to grind. It looked like a team built for the postseason. Unfortunately, after taking a 2-1 lead against the Stars, this collection provided a no-show as bad as the one against St. Louis. 

Kaprizov, the Wild’s star, had one goal in six games against Dallas, while winger Matt Boldy, coming off an incredible March, didn’t score a goal. In both 2022 and 2023, Guerin made deals at the trade deadline to try to improve the Wild in order to help them make a playoff run. It didn’t work and now Guerin is faced with being so tight against the cap entering next season that he almost certainly is going to have to subtract some veterans. That means longtime defenseman Matt Dumba, who will be a free agent, won’t be the only recognizable name departing.

Matt Boldy never found the scoring touch he was looking for once the postseason began. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

And this isn’t even getting to the concern about Evason, who is now 8-15 in the playoffs as the Wild’s coach and was 1-12 with four playoff series losses while coaching Nashville’s minor league affiliate in Milwaukee before he joined the Minnesota organization.

Evason’s lack of adjustments and uptight nature in the postseason raises questions about his ability to coach in the spring, but he has two years remaining on his contract and his job doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy. Should it be? Depends on how you look at the situation. If the Wild had big aspirations for next season, it would make sense to consider a coaching change. But if the Wild is going to spend next season resetting, there likely isn’t a hurry to make a move.

“That’s not what I’m going for,” Guerin said when asking about sacrificing a season in the playoffs for developmental purposes. “Craig (Leipold, the Wild owner) and I have talked about this at length, even while I was interviewing for this job, and, quite frankly, neither of us had time or the stomach for a rebuild.

“We felt we were good enough to kind of do it on the fly, and I think we’re doing a good job of it. We’ve kept all our picks and things like that. We’ve got some really good young players in the system that will be here soon and I think they’ll help. Honestly, I wish I could kind of speed things up and get some of these kids here now. I don’t want to miss the playoffs. That’s not my goal and I know it’s not Deano’s goal and it’s definitely not the players’ goal.”

The Wild’s salary-cap situation — and the need to get a look at at least some of those kids — might mean Guerin and the franchise need to reset those goals. No matter how painful  that might be.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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