Our look back at the year that was for the Minnesota Wild begins with a look back at the biggest deals that Bill Guerin negotiated and Craig Leopold signed the checks for in 2021.
There was quite a bit of nervous nail-biting heading into the 2021 postseason, with some big names needing new contracts, a roster that needed some fresh faces, and two huge question marks surrounding players holding big contracts that were nearing the end of their NHL careers. But which deals made our top five?
In an offseason packed with a bunch of re-signings, a couple notable free agents and two of the biggest buyouts in team history, there are undoubtedly some deals that won’t quite make the cut.
In terms of contract extensions, Forward Marcus Foligno was re-upped with a 3-year, $9.3 million deal and was promptly awarded the “A” for his sweater, and Nick Bjugstad was brought back for a one-year contract for the 2021 season. The biggest re-signing that just missed our list was Kevin Fiala’s one-year, $5.1 million prove-it deal, which just misses our list not because of it’s lack of notability, but the fact that it looks like it’s going to eventually play out with a sad ending, as Fiala has been in the doghouse with head coach Dean Evason and, according to The Athletic’s Michael Russo, Fiala is a prime candidate to be traded by the end of the season to help with the Wild’s cap situation.
For prospect deals, Matt Boldy signed his three-year ELC back in March and quickly made a home on the Iowa Wild, scoring a goal in his debut AHL game, while Brandon Duhaime’s two-year RFA deal opened the door to the young forward making the Wild’s roster out of training camp.
The Wild also brought in a ton of defensive help in free agency, including Jordie Benn, Jon Merrill and Dmitry Kulikov, with the latter having the most impact so far. Forward Freddy Gaudreau has also provided value after signing a two-year deal to join the Wild from free agency.
Trade-wise, only two stand out: the deal back at the start of the 2021 season that sent Greg Pateryn to Colorado for Ian Cole, who played well on the third pairing during the shortened season early this past year, and the draft-day deal with Edmonton to move up two spots to nab goalie-of-the-future Jesper Wallstedt.
Finally, the Wild also said goodbye to backup goaltender Alex Stalock, placing him on waivers last season before seeing him claimed by the Edmonton Oilers. This is another story with a sad ending for all, as Stalock’s COVID complications have caused him to have to sit out the entire 21-22 season with a heart issue, one that could possibly jeopardize his playing career.
Not having a great way to segue from that, let’s take a look at the five biggest transactions for 2021 (so far) for the Wild...
#5: Alex Goligoski signs as a free agent
As much as I wanted to put Fiala’s deal here, I had to include at least one of the free agents in the top 5, and Goligoski’s one-year, $5-million contract was the biggest splash signing of the offseason for the Wild.
So far, the Goligoski signing has seemingly paid dividends for the Wild. Despite missing three games due to injury in October, the former Golden Gopher leads the Wild defensive corps with 18 points and 15 assists, and is tied with nearly the entire rest of the blueline lineup with three goals, tied with Dumba, Brodin, Kulikov and Spurgeon.
Defensively his numbers don’t look that great, but chalk that up to him being without his primary defensive partner in Spurgeon for a big chunk of the season so far. But pure defense hasn’t really been his calling card, and he’s certainly provided the blue-line offense he’s been known for.
Should Goligoski be interested in taking a pay cut from his current $5 million value, the Wild could potentially re-sign him once the calendar clicks over to 2022 as a 37-year-old middle pairing guy.
#4: Ryan Hartman signs a three-year extension
Hartzy got his extension last season back in April, but that deal is really paying dividends this season as the forward is projected to crush his career high in goals and points, and is currently tied for the team lead in goals (including a team-best four game winners) — all on a three-year deal with an AAV of $1.7-million.
Quite the bargain indeed.
Hartman’s low-cost deal means that he’ll be a mainstay for at least the next two-and-a-half seasons while the Wild’s cap crunch comes to bear... hopefully, his rate of production continues. Seeing as he won’t even be 30 by the time he needs a new deal, you’ve got to like the prospects.
#3: Joel Eriksson Ek signs his massive eight-year extension
On the flip side of the coin, where the WIld was able to save some cash on Hartman’s deal, they really backed the Brinks truck up for Eriksson Ek, whose 8-year, $42-million contract signed in August ensures he’ll be a big part of the Wild’s plans for most of the next decade - especially once the modified no-trade kicks in during the 2024 season.
Outside of his first NHL career hat trick back on October 19th, JEEK had somewhat of a slow start to the season but has found some consistency as the weather has gotten colder - especially lately, with eight points (three goals, five assists) in his last seven games. Eriksson Ek currently sits second on the team in goals and fourth in points.
Eriksson Ek hasn’t quite made it back to his Selke-like year during the 2020-21 season (his xGF/60 has taken a dip, among other things), but it doesn’t mean he’s not providing value on his long-term deal.
#2: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter’s buyouts
Say what you will about Parise and Suter during their tenure with the Wild, but whether they were coming or going, their transactions sent shockwaves through the fanbase.
Where the Wild’s last decade had always been measured in terms of what the team could do after Parise and Suter’s massive matching contracts in 2012, the Wild’s 2020s will likely be defined by what the Wild can accomplish without their two assistant captains - or, more succinctly, with the cap constraints that the matching buyouts that Minnesota’s front office staff will have to work around.
Guerin says he has a plan, and that buying Parise and Suter out sooner rather than later makes what they want to do a bit easier. And neither player was going to be a reliable piece over the final four years of the deal... Suter, perhaps could have held on to a second or third pairing defensive slot, but the writing had been on the wall for Parise’s game for a few seasons now.
But the $14 million in dead cap money in just two-and-a-half seasons is already affecting the long-term plans of the roster, forcing some tough decisions on players like Fiala, Jordan Greenway and Nico Sturm.
That kind of impact makes the decision to buy them out a huge gamble, and worth putting at number two on this list. But there’s no way it could be number one...
#1: Kirill Kaprizov signs (finally)
The will they, won’t they summer drama alone puts Kaprizov’s eventual contract at the top of the list - though in retrospect, Kaprizov signing his five-year, $45 million dollar deal was likely a fate accompli.
But what about all the KHL rumors, the deal on the table with CSKA Moscow, the contentious contract negotiations that would go silent for months on end, and the thought that the Wild’s first Calder trophy winner might be one and done in Minnesota?
Kaprizov said it best in his post-signing presser: “No chance.”
Thanks to Guerin and Leopold signing Kaprizov on the eve of training camp, Wild fans will enjoy an elite NHL talent for the first time since Marian Gaborik for a full five more years. And despite needing nine games this season to put the puck in the net, Kaprizov has quickly gotten back up to his Calder-winning speed, riding a recently-ended span of 11 games where he scored 21 points (seven goals and 14 assists) to the top of the Wild’s point-scoring leaderboard with 32.
Signing Kaprizov was always going to be a hefty price, but one that had to be paid in order to keep the elite forward in the fold for as long as possible. Add on the offseason drama, and Dolla Bill’s re-signing is the clear number one transaction in 2021.
Sound off, Wild fans. What was your most notable transaction of 2021? Which moves made your list but missed ours?