Wild can survive salary cap crunch, but can they thrive?

Wild can survive salary cap crunch, but can they thrive?
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With a franchise-record (by a lot) 310 goals, and a best-ever 113 standings points, the Minnesota Wild just put together their greatest regular season. Unfortunately, that thought won’t resonate — at least not anytime soon — after the Blues ended the Wild’s playoff run a dull thud.

Normally, the Wild — a team with a lot going for it — would focus on getting better during the offseason. And, sure, that will certainly be the hope.

As the headline indicates, this post’s hypothesis is that the Wild may survive their salary cap crunch, but they’re in a very tough spot to actually thrive.

From Kevin Fiala to Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Dumba, the Wild face key salary-cap-related questions both now, and in the not-too-distant future. Let’s sort a puzzle that has a lot of pieces.

Wild truly start to pay salary cap bill for Parise/Suter buyouts

Around the NHL, we see LTIR “loopholes” and similar salary cap shenanigans. In time, seemingly “untradeable” contracts sometimes get moved (often, but not always, at a price).

Could the Wild somehow have wiggled out of the Zach Parise/Ryan Suter contracts over time? Were the locker room dynamics too sensitive for such an approach?

We can only really guess. Either way, it’s just fodder for side debates, because the Wild made the at-times-still-stunning choice to buy out both Parise and Suter. To review, the Wild received their best savings in 2021-22, and will really start to pay that “salary cap bill” for the next three seasons.

Via Cap Friendly, the Suter-Parise buyouts made this impact on the Wild salary cap situation:

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)

Knowing about that surge in buyout penalties, Wild GM Bill Guerin made some … interesting decisions around the fringes of their salary cap situation.

While you can explain an extension like Jordan Greenway‘s deal (three years, $3M cap hit), handing a 35+ contract to Alex Goligoski is more of a head-scratcher, thanks in part to healthy scratches.

Cap Friendly projects the Minnesota Wild to have about $3.5M in cap space, but that number gets tricky with many roster spots covered. But the general feeling is that something has to give, and Guerin doesn’t have much room to work with.

Fiala, Fleury, and the most immediate questions for Wild in free agency

Fiala isn’t perfect, but he’d be tough to replace (or afford)

If you’re like me, you can’t help but notice that the combined cost of Greenway and Goligoski ($5M) almost matches Kevin Fiala’s $5.1M cap hit from 2021-22.

While Fiala is a pending RFA, he has salary arbitration rights, and a real case for a significant raise after an 85-point season (bumpy playoffs or not). In April, Daily Faceoff’s Chris Gear went into detail about Fiala’s contract possibilities, with the lowest comparable contract carrying a $5.4M cap hit.

Just about any reasonable estimate would dictate that the Wild would need to clear salary cap space to keep Kevin Fiala. Considering the Wild salary cap situation, his tenuous relationship with coach Dean Evason, and a tough playoff finish, it feels most reasonable to assume Fiala is out.

[From Adam Gretz on April 23: Why Wild need to find a way to keep Fiala]

For every positive the Wild can provide about replacing Fiala (Marco Rossi is indeed very promising), there’s a counterpoint. It would already be a big ask to hope Rossi, Matt Boldy, and others could fill the potential Fiala void. To maintain this current level of play, the Wild would also hope that Frederick Gaudreau and Ryan Hartman wouldn’t regress after career years. Also, how much longer can 34-year-old Mats Zuccarello be a point-per-game player (and can a person who once suffered a fractured skull stay healthy?).

The Wild also face plenty of questions about goaltending

Going after Marc-Andre Fleury made sense as a medium-risk, potentially high-reward move. Ultimately, it didn’t pay off, though.

Now, it’s hard to imagine the Wild finding the salary cap space to bring back Fleury. In that unlikely event, it would still just be a stopgap answer. Fleury is 37, and Cam Talbot is 34.

It’s absolutely fair to wonder about Talbot’s relationship with the Wild after all that, too. Perhaps the Wild could trade Talbot for cap space ($3.67M cap hit for one more), but as we saw with last year’s goalie free agent market, you’re rarely going to find cheap answers who are reliably better than Talbot.

Now, in the long run, Jesper Wallstedt ranks as one of the most promising goaltending prospects in the league. That said, Wallstedt won’t turn 20 until November. We rarely see goalies jump that quickly, so there’d be a real risk of rushing a promising young netminder.

Wild face questions for 2023 NHL Free Agency, including with Dumba, Boldy

Crucially, the Wild can’t just focus on this offseason. They also need to consider potential costs in the future, especially the most abrasive years (2023-24 and 2024-25) of the Suter – Parise buyouts.

Again, the biggest years there:

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)

At the moment, Matt Dumba, 27, enters a contract year at a $6M cap hit. Between expansion drafts and other shifts, Dumba routinely finds his name in trade rumors.

Could this be the year the Wild finally trade Dumba? They may deem it necessary, as NHL teams go wild for right-handed defensemen, so Dumba could cost quite a bit more than $6M starting in 2023-24.

Importantly, one player will definitely cost a lot more starting in 2023-24: Matt Boldy. If Boldy played a full season (instead of about half of one), he very well could’ve been a Calder Trophy finalist. While RFA status will limit some of Boldy’s leverage, the Wild need to leave themselves some space for a raise. Maybe a big one.

(At least they preserved Marco Rossi’s rookie contract, though there’s a real argument they should’ve thrown caution to the wind.)

If the Wild patch things up with Cam Talbot for 2022-23, he’s still only under contract for next season.

Long story short, the Wild don’t just need to worry about balancing the salary cap for 2022-23. They also need to keep 2023-24 in mind.

Trade possibilities beyond Dumba, Talbot, Fiala

In navigating these salary cap obstacles, the Wild could trade Matt Dumba and/or Cam Talbot. It wouldn’t be shocking if they traded Fiala’s negotiating rights, either.

For the Wild, the dream might be that Rossi, Boldy, and maybe whoever they’d get in a Fiala rights trade would replace that forward. And maybe they’d have similar dreams about Calen Addison replacing Matt Dumba.

Let’s take one more moment to ponder what they’d be losing. Metrics such as Evolving Hockey’s xGAR (expected goals above replacement) point to Fiala arguably being a tougher loss than Dumba. Your mileage — “eye test” or otherwise — might vary:

(The Athletic’s Player Cards estimated Fiala’s value at $10.2M and Dumba at $5.7M, as another way of looking at that.)

So, there’s room to debate the value of both Fiala and Dumba. But let’s say the Wild decide they want to trade someone else to try to make this all fit. Here are a few options, and factors, to consider.

  • First, note that Dumba has a 10-team no-trade clause.
  • Cam Talbot ($3.667M) doesn’t have trade protection.
  • Could they throw a curveball by moving out $6M players Mats Zuccarello or Jonas Brodin? Tough to imagine, especially since Zuccarello has a no-trade clause and Brodin’s NMC lasts through 2024-25.
  • It would be a bit odd if the Wild traded Alex Goligoski or Jordan Greenway so soon after extensions. But note that Greenway doesn’t have trade protection, while Goligoski has a no-movement clause.
  • Marcus Foligno has a nearly identical cap hit ($3.1) to Greenway, also lacks trade protection, and it’s also very difficult to imagine the Wild parting with him. They love his line with Greenway and Joel Eriksson Ek.
  • Dmitry Kulikov ($2.25M, expires after 2022-23) has an eight-team no-trade list. Yes, Kulikov.
  • Trading Tyson Jost would amount to chipping away at a problem, much like moving someone like Kulikov. Jost doesn’t have trade protection, though.

Not a doomsday scenario for Wild, but not easy, either

The more you work through scenarios, the easier it is to imagine the Wild at least surviving these salary cap concerns.

That’s especially true if you view Dumba, Fiala, and Talbot as not just replaceable, but easily replaceable. It’s possible Wild front office members feel that way, possibly about all three.

That said, amid all of these salary cap constraints, it’s hard to picture the Wild being a better team in 2022-23. It seems more likely they’d take a step back, and maybe a big one. The most likely path is about maintaining, rather than upgrading.

Then again, the Wild seemed like they absolutely had to rebuild not that long ago, only to show renewed promise — at least during the regular season. This franchise has a long time to plan for the larger impact of the Parise/Suter buyouts, and other situations.

Simply put, they may have answers that they’re just not sharing. If they do, it would be impressive, though. Because this situation definitely doesn’t look easy.

Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS – Jonathan Marchessault scored twice and started an early blitz that chased the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie, and the Vegas Golden Knights seized control of the Stanley Cup Final with a 7-2 victory over the Florida Panthers in Game 2 on Monday night.

Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Golden Knights, who grabbed a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We finished some plays,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s a good performance for us. Our guys were ready to play.”

Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all coming after the first round.

Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

It was too much for Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

“We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

Teams that take a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era. The Panthers will try to buck history beginning with Game 3 on Thursday in Sunrise, Florida.

Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

“He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

“We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

“I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

“We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

The outcome was determined long before that.

After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

“That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

“I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

“If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

“It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.