On Wednesday, the Minnesota Wild did what many thought wasn’t possible when they locked up high-scoring forward Jason Zucker on a long-term deal without putting themselves in an impossible situation with the salary cap. The team somehow managed to re-sign two young stars, both Zucker and Mathew Dumba, to a combined $11.5MM cap hit as well as add free agents Greg Pateryn, Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks, J.T. Brown, Matt Bartkowksi, and Andrew Hammond all while maintaining some semblance of cap space. The team is projected to enter the season with $1.77MM in cap space and a roster that added talent while only losing the likes of Daniel Winnik and Matt Cullen.
The question now is: is it enough? While it never hurts to return the majority of a roster from a playoff team, there is some question as to whether the Wild are keeping up in the Western Conference arms race. The team has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and has still won just four playoff series in its 18-year history. Fans are clamoring for more than just regular season success and Minnesota – and new GM Paul Fenton – have instead opted to return the same team so far in an off-season where major changes were expected. Although the new contracts for Zucker and Dumba were more than fair and the team addressed needs for more physicality on the blue line with Pateryn and another option in net with Hammond, as well as adding veteran depth pieces, there will be some who are critical of an otherwise quiet summer.
With so little cap space, the Wild may find it difficult to make many additions in-season as well. As the projected 23-man roster currently stands, Minnesota does not seem to be facing many holes and will get an injection of youth in the form of full seasons for Jordan Greenway and Nick Seeler. However, after getting a glimpse of other prospects like Luke Kunin, Louis Belpedio, and Carson Soucy last season, the team will undoubtedly want to avoid leaving them in the AHL all year. The trio all carry $925K cap hits that exceed the salaries of those on the roster they are most likely to supplant and the result will be even more cap space eaten up. Without moving out some salary, Minnesota will be left hoping their young talent can make a major impact as they will otherwise struggle to add veteran difference-makers over the course of the year.
While observers will always point to the massive contracts of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise as the contracts that Minnesota could most benefit from moving (although Suter is still one of the most reliable defensemen in the league), the team has also entertained offers for Jonas Brodin and Nino Niederreiter in the past and could do so again. While Eric Staal has been a revelation for the team, they could also look to move the pending free agent if they get off to a slow start and can land a younger asset in exchange. At the end of the season, it could be that this same Wild lineup plus some free agent additions and young players is enough to reverse their postseason fortunes. However, if they fall short again or, even worse, miss the playoffs, the team will finally have to make some major changes. It’s possible that the team gets ahead of that possibility by making some moves this off-season instead.