On its own, the Wild’s one-year, $5.1 million commitment to Kevin Fiala prompts some interesting questions. When you zoom out to the Wild’s offseason as a whole, the Fiala signing also follows a pattern. Unfortunately, that’s a pattern of mixed feelings.
Eavesdrop on Wild fans and you may hear a mix: some sighs of relief, some grumbles.
First, the good: the Wild avoided salary arbitration, which could have been quite awkward with Fiala. (Even by the already-awkard standards.)
Most would agree that Fiala’s well-worth $5.1M per year. It could end up being a flat-out bargain.
Kevin Fiala signs for 1 year, $5.1 million. It's lower than his market value, but gives him a chance to boost his earnings next summer #MNWild pic.twitter.com/cehs7A2oj0
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) August 16, 2021
Yet, for the sigh of relief of avoiding arbitration, there are grumbles about the future.
Yes, Wild GM Bill Guerin said all the right things about trying to sign Fiala for more term. Maybe this really was the best option.
#mnwild GM Bill Guerin said the team would have loved to sign Kevin Fiala to a long-term deal but after going back and forth, it seemed that outcome wouldn't happen. Guerin said he's optimistic the team could still sign Fiala long term. "We just have to see how the year goes."
— Sarah McLellan (@sarah__mclellan) August 16, 2021
The lowball salary arbitration number doesn’t inspire the utmost confidence, though.
Arb for Kevin Fiala — MIN: $4M. Player: $6.25M
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) August 15, 2021
Now, it’s true that teams sometimes go extreme in their arbitration offers. Again, though, it inspires questions. Were seemingly “too rich” asking prices actually quite reasonable? Did the Wild balk at term that could’ve saved them money down the line?
At 25, Fiala still has room to go from “sneaky-good” to “undeniable star.” If that happens in 2020-21, the Wild only reap the benefits of a bargain contract for one year.
So, overall: mixed feelings for that Fiala contract.
The same mixed feelings resonate around the Wild’s offseason. That goes for moves they already made, like the still-shocking Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts. You can apply that to moves that need to be made, too. The Kirill Kaprizov contract situation still looms, and it doesn’t look like an easy riddle to solve.
The Kirill Kaprizov contract conundrum
If nothing else, Wild GM Bill Guerin is saying all of the right things about Kaprizov and Fiala contract situations.
He emphasized that the Wild believe in Fiala, even if the one-year contract inspires pause. Guerin also said that reports about Kaprizov’s KHL flirtations don’t bother him “at all.”
“I think things are going well enough,” Guerin said of Kaprizov contract discussions, via NHL.com. “We still have lots of time, there’s no rush or panic. I’m in constant communication with Kirill’s agent. We continue to move forward.”
Maybe there’s truly no panic; maybe that’s just putting on a brave face. A variety of reports are at least making Wild fans a little jumpy though.
Consider that, according to The Athletic’s Michael Russo, seven or eight-year offers in the $9M range didn’t do the trick (sub required).
Kudos to Kaprizov for leveraging his situation to try to get paid what he’s worth. Frankly, Kaprizov stands a strong chance of being worth every penny of a $9M-ish cap hit.
Even so, there are those mixed feelings. If the Wild signed Kaprizov to a big, long (or medium)-term contract, could it become a “be careful what you wish for” situation?
Parise, Suter offseason buyouts cramp Wild’s chances to truly compete
From a personal standpoint, the Wild moved on from Parise and Suter with those buyouts. They didn’t get to walk away from those costs, though.
That’s where the mixed feelings come in. The Wild can now truly view players like Joel Eriksson Ek (and, ideally, Kaprizov) as faces of the franchise. The Parise and Suter buyouts make you wonder about the Wild’s ability to truly compete with that core, though.
According to Cap Friendly, the combined Parise and Suter buyouts look like this for the Wild:
2021-22: $4,743,588 million ($10.3M savings)
2022-23: $12,743,588 million ($2.3M savings)
2023-24: $14,743,588 million ($0.3M savings)
2024-25: $14,743,588 million ($0.3M savings)
2025-26: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)
2026-27: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)
2027-28: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)
2028-29: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)
After this one year (2021-22) of savings, that’s an ugly carcass of dead money. Via Cap Friendly, the Wild have about $13M in cap space left this offseason; that’s enough to deal with even the more extravagant Kaprizov contract scenarios.
[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]
What about after 2021-22, though? And, really, what kind of ceiling will the Wild have, even in the short-term?
Yes, the Wild made progress last season. They still fell in Round One, though. It’s easy to imagine the Wild making it to the postseason again. How hard do you have to squint to picture a deep run, however?
As Tony Abbott discussed in an even deeper rebuild dive, the Parise and Suter buyouts force the Wild to thread a “nearly impossible needle” to compete.
Consider that dead money in Parise and Suter buyouts, then stack a huge Kaprizov contract on the Wild salary structure. Now imagine Fiala earning a raise (or the Wild spending to replace Fiala, if they balk at that price).
Rapidly, the Wild lose breathing room, and would need some breaks just to compete. It doesn’t seem like a great recipe for success. Instead, it feels like the Wild made a bunch of bold changes to stay on the same basic course. Are they doomed to remain a middle-of-the-pack team, much like they did in the earlier days of the Parise – Suter pacts?
Should Minnesota rebuild instead?
Look, this isn’t the first time PHT pitched the idea of the Wild embracing a rebuild.
It’s been a bumpy ride since then, and it’s worth noting that the team looks at a decent window of being reasonably competent. It just doesn’t seem like the wisest path, overall.
Rather than taking this achingly-familiar path toward the bubble, what about a rebuild? The structure of those Suter and Parise buyouts, and the Wild’s overall situation, point a flashing neon arrow to the idea. That doesn’t make it an easy sell, though.
- Should they trade Kaprizov, likely receiving a huge return? It wouldn’t be the wisest PR move. He’s the player Wild fans have been desperate for. At the same time, it might be the cold-blooded, smarter hockey move — at least long-term.
I know there are a lot of Wild fans who will hate any decision that involves not bringing Kaprizov back (burning jerseys, renouncing fandom etc), but if Kaprizov is sticking to an ask of 4 x $10M (or around there) after 55 games in the NHL, the Wild should try to trade him.
— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) August 10, 2021
- If they aren’t sold on Kevin Fiala, maybe it’s best to trade him at some point?
- Matt Dumba has two years left at $6M. Considering the wild defensemen market, it might be too cost-prohibitive to keep him.
- Early on, the Wild have drafted well under highly-regarded former Canucks staffer Judd Brackett.
In a rebuild setup, they could — ideally — optmize the development paths for Marco Rossi, Matthew Boldy, Jesper Wallstedt, and others. There might be less temptation to rush players to the NHL to cheaply plug holes due to cap constraints.
And as far as the cap hits that will increase in Years 3/4 to approximately $14 million for both buyouts, Guerin said, "Those years will be tough." Said #mnwild will have to draft/develop and inject younger/cheaper players into lineup.
— Sarah McLellan (@sarah__mclellan) July 13, 2021
Just as importantly, the Wild could give Brackett & Co. more chances of finding gems simply by stacking up draft picks.
With the way those Suter and Parise buyouts are structured, the Wild could consider following the Coyotes’ lead, even if not to the same extremes. Maybe a cap-challenged team could bribe the Wild to take on one bad year for futures?
Few easy answers for the Wild
Realistically, it seems like the Wild might take some sort of mixed approach. Perhaps they can be reasonably competitive, and bring prospects along to the point of maintaining their upward climb?
It’s not impossible to pull off that tightrope walk. That said, it won’t be easy, either. Do you think Guerin and the Wild are agile enough?
Maybe it really does just come down to the Wild getting that Kaprizov contract right?
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.