When Bill Guerin accepted the post as GM of the Minnesota Wild, he was inheriting a mess. That’s not at all to say the Wild were or are an organization devoid of talent or high-quality prospects, but if we’re really, truly being candid, there wasn’t much to love about the makeup of the group in Minnesota.
Sure, there were and are some decent pieces. The newest member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jason Zucker, was among them, right up there with the Eric Staals and Zach Parises and Ryan Suters and Jared Spurgeons. But the fact of the matter is that the roster Guerin took over in Minnesota was old and on the decline. The true top-end talent, the honest-to-goodness game breakers, were few and far between, if not altogether non-existent. Even those aforementioned talents, particularly Staal, Parise and Suter, find themselves far closer to beachfront living than the prime years of their careers. And what resulted in the failure to supplement the veteran talent with the kind of gifted youth it so desperately needs was years of middling results. Fringe playoff contention and post-season trips where the Wild earned nothing but participation medals left the cupboards almost barren, the Kirill Kaprizovs of the system kicking around next to a few prospects inching ever closer to their best-before dates and a leftover ketchup packet or two.
And that's what made Monday’s trade not only an inevitability, but an unquestionable step in the right direction for Minnesota.
At some point, be it this week, next week or the week after that, Guerin was going to have to accept reality and do what was best for a Wild organization that sorely needs a reset of its roster, to retool with younger players and to send packing a few valuable assets to recoup the pieces that will lead to a brighter future. He was given every reason to start that process right about now, too. Try as the Wild might to remain relevant in the Western Conference, where this season’s wild-card door has remained open far longer than some expected, the hope of one last post-season hurrah is dwindling fast. Minnesota is five points out of the final wild-card spot, ahead of not a single team in the Central Division and project to be first-round fodder at best.
But by shipping Zucker to the Penguins – and sending him to a very motivated buyer in Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford, who had coveted the 28-year-old winger since an off-season flirtation with acquiring him was vetoed by Phil Kessel’s no-trade clause – Guerin started what is sure to be a somewhat painful process by fetching a significant haul. Guerin not only landed Minnesota another first-round pick for a 2020 draft that scouts believe to be loaded with NHL caliber talent, but also nabbed blueline prospect Calen Addison. A World Junior Championship standout who led all tournament rearguards with eight assists, Addison was the best defensive prospect in the Penguins’ system. Now he’s property of the Wild. (The 2020 pick, it should be noted, becomes a 2021 first-rounder if the Penguins miss the playoffs. That is an awfully big if.)
For Guerin and Co. in Minnesota, though, this can’t be it. Rather, moving Zucker has to the jumping off point for wholesale changes to the lineup, and regardless of what the record might say or how close the Wild may be to sneaking into a wild-card spot come the deadline, Guerin would be best to start fielding offers on his entire roster. Extreme as that may sound, too, there is not, nor should there exist, a single untouchable on the roster. Of course, there are certain players for whom Guerin would set a far greater price – Mathew Dumba, Kevin Fiala, Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway and Joel Eriksson Ek could be among those with the highest costs of acquisition – but the absolute non-starters? There shouldn’t be a single one.
As for the most likely to move, however, there are a few players who might be well advised to have a bag packed.
Given his production, experience and fairly friendly $3.25-million cap hit this season and next, Staal seems a prime candidate to head to a contender. The 35-year-old is on pace for 25 goals this season, and come the deadline there will be plenty of contending teams interested in the kind of secondary scoring Staal can provide. Likewise, a team looking for some bottom-six sandpaper might be intrigued by a winger such as Marcus Foligno, teams seeking depth on the blueline could kick the tires on Jonas Brodin and Greg Pateryn and don’t sleep on the potential for the Wild to turnaround and flip Alex Galchenyuk. Though he struggled to produce in Pittsburgh and is having undoubtedly the worst offensive campaign of his career, a new home could breathe some life into the 25-year-old. If he puts up decent numbers before the deadline, don't be surprised if the pending unrestricted free agent is shuffled along as a middle-six rental to a club that misses out on the bigger names.
Admittedly, not a single one of those potential trade-bait players will net the same return as Zucker. But each additional asset Guerin acquires is one the Wild can use to start building a foundation upon which a consistent winner can be built, and that foundation is exactly what Minnesota needs to create if it’s going to take meaningful steps instead of continuing to make the lateral moves that have led to their current stagnant state. For years now, it’s been clear Minnesota needs to begin charting a course forward. Maybe with the Zucker deal done the Wild, with Guerin at the helm, can finally do that.
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