With training camp starting today, fans throughout the state of Minnesota are excited to get a glimpse of the new-look Wild.
Or, not so much.
Not that Wild fans aren't excited to see their team in action after a four-month absence. They are. But this team is largely the same as it was last season, adding only college free agent Mike Reilly to the mix.
And as for subtractions, most Wild fans wouldn't consider them essential. Sean Bergenheim didn't perform well enough for the Wild to justify a return. Chris Stewart's dud of a postseason left a bad enough taste in everyone's mouth that no one particularly misses him. Jordan Leopold was a bit player for whom there was no room on the team's current roster.
The exception is Kyle Brodziak. Acquired by the Wild way back in 2009, Brodziak had spent 6 years in Iron Range Red. While Brodziak notched 22 goals in 2011-12, his bread-and-butter has been defense, and he was a constant in Minnesota's bottom-6 and penalty kill.
Despite being the third longest-tenured member of the Wild, GM Chuck Fletcher opted to let Brodziak leave via free agnecy, where he signed with the St. Louis Blues. This doesn't appear to have been motivated by salary- Brodziak signed for only a paltry $900K. Instead of making a push to retain Brodziak, Fletcher opted to sign Ryan Carter for the league minimum.
There've been many writers in Minnesota in both traditional and new media who have expressed disdain for losing Brodziak when he could've been retained cheaply. Many feel that Brodziak was an integral part of the Wild's #1-ranked penalty kill, and feel his defense was invaluable.
But is Brodziak really going to be that hard to replace?
I'm not someone who irrationally dislikes Brodziak. I defended his role on the team last season when many were calling for his $3M salary to be moved. So what's changed since last October?
For starters, Brodziak had a pretty good track record of treading water against top threats in the NHL. Not every one, granted, but enough to suggest that he was still a skilled defender. He took a decided step back in 2014-15, getting destroyed when elite players matched up against him*.
His competition has also gotten stronger over the last year. Given Brodziak's defensive drop-off, is he really such a better alternative to the others who can fill the third-line center role? Charlie Coyle is coming into his own on both sides of the puck. Erik Haula (likely) had an injury-hampered season, but he showed in 2013-14 that he was capable of producing in a defensive role. Tyler Graovac is untested, but the 6'5" center seems a solid bet to be good defensively after two solid seasons on a garbage Iowa Wild team. Isn't it more than possible that at least one of these young players will out-produce a 31-year-old Brodziak?
What the Wild's decision came down to was choosing between Brodziak and Carter, and the Wild opted to save a couple hundred thousand by selecting Carter. That decision may have come down to more than just money, though. Carter isn't a spectacular player, but unlike Brodziak, Carter seems to have an elite skill: He's a master penalty killer. Over the last four years, no one has been better than Carter** at putting the clamps on opponent's power plays, a skill that showed no signs of slowing down last season***. Brodziak isn't a slouch, either, but he's much more closer to average when it comes to suppressing shots on the kill.
It's natural (and OK!) to value Brodziak based on him being a fine player and "good soldier" for the Wild for so long. In fact, I haven't said that I didn't want him on the Wild. In a perfect world (one where GMs didn't give ironclad contracts to ancient goalies), Brodziak would be great to have as center depth. But that's not the case, and given the in-house options to fill both the Wild's bottom-6 and penalty killing roles, moving on from Brodziak was the right move.
*If you've the stomach to take a look at Brodziak's possession stats against individual opponents, you can find them on the second table on this page. It ain't got no alibi, it's ugly.
**This table sorts players by the rate at which they allow shots on the penalty kill (SA60). Carter's been extremely good over the last four years. There's more to killing penalties than just stopping shots from happening, but it's a pretty important part of it.
***Same as the last chart, but just for this past season. Again, "Clamps" Carter owns, finishing second among penalty killers with 50+ minutes of shorthanded time.