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

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

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 09: Matt Dumba #24 of the Minnesota Wild is congratulated by teammate Kevin Fiala #22 after scoring a goal against the Arizona Coyotes as Jonas Brown #25 of the Wild skates in during the second period at Gila River Arena on November 09, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

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.