The answer to this, of course, is yes. Adding savvy vets in Staal and Stewie was a smart move, but neither one is the franchise No. 1 center the Wild needs and the fan base deserves. It's clear that center isn't going to come through free agency; they cost way too much, and agents know just how much their clients are worth. Therefore, the only way to obtain the object of Minnesota's desire is either through drafting and developing one or biting the bullet and trading for one.
Buns in the Oven
As of right now, the top three centers in the prospect pool would be Graovac, Eriksson-Ek and recently selected first round pick Luke Kunin. Graovac is a hulking pivot on a one-way deal, and the most NHL ready of the three, but isn't likely to be much more than a bread and butter third line grinder. Eriksson-Ek will have every shot to make the team out of camp with key players missing due to World Cup of Hockey participation. Paired with Tuch, the 2015 20th overall pick was one of the biggest highlights of the Wild's 2016 Development Camp, and has bulked up to close to 200 pounds. A complete 200-foot player with a goal scorer's touch, it's currently unclear where he will go if he doesn't make Minnesota's opening night lineup. If he is returned to Sweden's Farjestad instead of Iowa, he can still always be recalled by the big club.
That leaves us with Kunin, who won't even be a factor within the organization in any capacity as he returns for what looks like just one more season with the Wisconsin Badgers. That said, the 2016 15th overall pick could be a legitimate dark horse candidate this time next year for the big club, and is considered by many to be the potential heir to current team captain Mikko Koivu. Slightly undersized, Kunin is a speedster that can play all three forward positions and score from nearly anywhere in the offensive zone. Do the Wild have the next Dylan Larkin on their hands?
Swinging for the Fences...
There is another option. It will mean the departure of assets, and maybe a few more than we might like at first glance, but bear with me. Are you ready?
Wild GM Chuck Fletcher needs to give his team, prospect pool and competitive window an honest look, swallow his pride and make a phone call to the Washington Capitals. The trade? Jonas Brodin, Minnesota's 2017 first round pick, Mario Lucia and Dmitri Sokolov for Evgeni Kuznetsov.
I'll give you a second or two to let that sink in. It's a hard pill to swallow at first glance, that's for sure.
I know what you're thinking. Why give up so much for one player? You're mortgaging the future! Are you so desperate to win a Stanley Cup now? The answer to that last question is most definitely yes, and yours should be, too! The Wild will enter this fall - their 16th season in existence - having not even sniffed the Western Conference Finals since their miracle run in 2003. The fan base is expecting the team to take the next step after four straight years of playoffs and two series wins. Locker room discord, underachieving vets and youngsters and coaching changes are indicative of a team falling back into the mire of mediocrity, not one steadily climbing the league ladder.
Fletcher has had a smart off-season with the signing of Bruce Boudreau, who subsequently hired a potential defensive goldmine of a coach in HHOF legend Scott Stevens, a decent draft for what he had available to him and a fiscally impressive opening day of free agency in which he was able to hold on to his top young defensemen. Minnesota looks respectable heading into the season, but has it done enough to keep up with the rest of the Central Division? No.
The trade proposed above allows Minnesota to keep most of their top young defensive talent, and the other assets would still have a year to several more before making a significant impact on the big club. In that span, a Kuznetsov powered Wild club could have a Cup or two.
Take a look at this projected lineup. Keep in mind, Bruce Boudreau prefers to roll a four-line team, so this really isn't a 1-4 lineup.
Zach Parise - Evgeni Kuznetsov - Charlie Coyle
Mikael Granlund - Mikko Koivu - Jason Zucker
Nino Niederreiter - Erik Haula - Jason Pominville
Alex Tuch - Eric Staal - Chris Stewart
Ryan Suter - Jared Spurgeon
Marco Scandella - Matt Dumba
Mike Reilly/Gustav Olofsson - Nate Prosser/Christian Folin
Maybe add a veteran NHL 6th-7th left-shot rear guard as insurance for rookie inexperience, but that looks like a Stanley Cup winning roster. No matter which line Boudreau throws out, it will be a threat in every zone of the ice. The "top-six" would be nearly uncontainable in the offensive zone, while the speed and chemistry of the Haula line would create turnovers and odd-man rush situations nightly, and the "big men" line would see Tuch and Stewart throwing massive hits, dominating the corners and winning pucks out to Staal waiting in front of the net for the goal. It's a lineup that would strike fear into the hearts of 29 (soon to be 30) other teams around the league.
Granted, this is a trade Washington would also have to agree with. They have no reason to give up Kuznetsov, but every player has a price, and adding an established top-four defenseman, a first round pick (albeit in a weak draft class), a big potential middle-six winger and a wild card in Sokolov - we all know Washington loves its Russians, which is ironic when you think about it - could be too enticing to pass up for a player that may have just had one great season.
If that's all it was, I'll eat my socks.
C'mon, we all know the State of Hockey - the state also home to the Vikings, Timberwolves, Twins and Loons - deserves a win. If the Wild can conceivably deliver with the roster proposed above, it's time to swing for the fences, folks.
Stepping up to the plate is Chuck Fletcher. Swing, batter batter..