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Time To Punt

Zulgad encourages acceptance that the Wild’s future, not present, is bright.

Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin said in mid-January that he expects this team to compete for a playoff spot. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

The Wild’s 11-3 run under new coach John Hynes was a distant memory when general manager Bill Guerin addressed the media before the Jan. 15 game against the New York Islanders at Xcel Energy Center.

The Wild’s 5-10-4 start had gotten coach Dean Evason fired and now Minnesota was in a 1-7-1 slide that dropped it from being on the verge of a playoff spot to again looking like a team that could begin booking tee times for April.

Guerin, though, claimed he wasn’t giving up hope.

“If you look at our roster like when we are healthy,” he said, “I think it’s a good team. I want to keep the expectations high. … I expect us to compete for a playoff spot.”

Guerin’s competitive nature certainly played a role in his continued confidence, but you had to wonder if his real motivation was making sure the guys in his locker room wouldn’t feel as if he was punting on the season.

That’s exactly what he should do.

The word associated with this is tanking, but that’s such an ugly term. It insinuates an entire team is giving up and, as we know, most coaches and players are too competitive to do this. A more palatable word would be acceptance.

Accepting that even if you sneak into the playoffs, you aren’t getting out of the first round and accepting that an already bright future could get brighter by adding draft picks before the March 8 trade deadline, while also potentially putting yourself in the NHL draft lottery. (Eleven of the 16 teams that miss the playoffs are eligible for the first pick in the draft.)

The two things that should influence Guerin’s thinking are:

1) The depth this team has built up through the draft in recent years. Jesper Wallstedt, the team’s top goalie prospect, has been up a few times this season but is likely to take over as the Wild’s top goalie in 2024-25. Russian Marat Khusnutdinov, a speedy two-way center and forwards Liam Ohgren (Sweden) and Danila Yurov (Russia) are included in a prospect pool that has been replenished in recent years. That doesn’t include rookies Marco Rossi and Brock Faber, the latter of whom is a candidate for the Calder Trophy.

2) Next season will be the final one in which the Wild will carry a combined $14.7 million in dead salary-cap money because of the buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. That figure will drop to $1.7 million in 2025-26, meaning that team will have plenty of space to pursue a free agent as well as offer star winger Kirill Kaprizov a long-term extension.

Marco Rossi is part of the Wild’s bright future, and he’s already left a positive mark on the NHL club. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

This plan might not appeal to owner Craig Leipold, who lives and dies with every game and wants his team to be competitive, in part because of the extra cash generated by even a few home playoff games, but Guerin has an opportunity he should embrace.

Wild has plenty no-move, no-trade protection players
The elephant in the room when it comes to the Wild’s potential trade candidates is the fact that in today’s NHL far too many players are afforded either no-move or no-trade protection that gives them a say in whether they want to uproot themselves and their families and go elsewhere to chase a Stanley Cup.

The Wild’s roster has nine players with some type of no-trade protection: Mats Zuccarello, Marcus Foligno, Frederick Gaudreau, Marcus Johansson, Ryan Hartman, Pat Maroon, Jonas Brodin, Alex Goligoski and Zach Bogosian. Foligno, Johansson, Hartman, Brodin and Goligoski have complete protection.

There are some guys who aren’t going to be shopped, even though they don’t have no-trade clauses, including Kaprizov and Joel Eriksson Ek. Perhaps the most interesting chip on whom Guerin could take bids is goalie Filip Gustavsson.

Gustavsson has had an up-and-down season, but the 25-year-old could be very appealing to a contender. He’s in the first season of a three-year, $11.25 million contract he signed in July, meaning his average annual salary is a very reasonable $3.75 million per. Teams that could be in the market for a goaltender include Carolina, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles and New Jersey.

Guerin’s ability to create a bidding war among those teams could make what seems like a difficult decision (trading Gustavsson) too lucrative not to do. If there’s internal confidence that Wallstedt will be ready to take over as the Wild’s top goalie next season, getting a first-round pick and needing to find another goalie for next season could be the prudent plan. And that’s assuming Marc-Andre Fleury does not return.

It was interesting that before the game against the Islanders — one the Wild won 5-0 en route to going on a 4-1 run — Guerin did not close the door on making moves at the deadline, if things were not on the right track.

The fact the Wild then lost back-to-back home games against Western Conference rivals Nashville and Anaheim, the latter of which is a bottom feeder, should have given Guerin a push in the right direction entering a 10-day break for the bye and the All-Star Game.

“I don’t think I can sit here right now and say, ‘If it goes sideways, we’re going to do X, Y and Z,'” Guerin said in mid-January. “But we could.”

Actually, the word “could” needs to be amended to “should” because while there is hope for the future of the Wild, the present isn’t worth preserving.

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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