When the Wild will get back on the ice for next season isn’t set in stone, although the NHL has targeted a Jan. 1 return.
How that season will play out is also a mystery since the coronavirus pandemic could continue to challenge the typical 82-game, home-and-away setup.
But what is clear is what the Wild will look like once the puck drops, and that’s unlike any version in recent memory after an extensive overhaul executed by General Manager Bill Guerin in his first full-length offseason in charge.
“I have a job to do, and this is the direction I believe the team needs to go in,” Guerin said. “These are decisions I have to make. I just feel like the change part is necessary.”
Change has certainly been the theme of the Wild for the past few months, with the team slowly shedding its previous likeness in the aftermath of a quick exit from the Edmonton playoff bubble in August.
Eric Staal was the first veteran to leave, getting traded to Buffalo for a younger but more expensive player in Marcus Johansson to replace Staal at center despite playing most of his NHL career at wing.
Next the team announced it wasn’t bringing back Mikko Koivu, moving on from the captain after his 15-season career with the Wild. Koivu, however, did find a landing spot, signing a one-year, $1.5 million contract with Columbus on Saturday.
After that, the shake-up continued when the team traded its longtime starting goalie, Devan Dubnyk — entrusting its crease to a new No. 1 for the first time since 2015. Ryan Donato and Luke Kunin were also traded, and the team opted not to re-sign Alex Galchenyuk.
“The people that we’ve moved out, they’re good people,” Guerin said. “They’re good hockey players and [have] done really good things here. But so are the people we’ve brought in. They’re good people. They’ve had good careers or have started to have good careers, and that’s important as well.”
Cam Talbot will take over the net after the free agent signed a three-year, $11 million contract, and two-time Stanley Cup champion Nick Bonino will help fill the void at center after he was acquired in the Kunin deal with Nashville.
Blaine’s Nick Bjugstad was also added via trade to play center or wing, and the Wild re-signed forward Nico Sturm, defenseman Carson Soucy and winger Jordan Greenway. Defenseman Jonas Brodin received the longest commitment of all, securing a seven-year, $42 million extension.
All this juggling leaves the Wild with about $2 million in cap space, according to capfriendly.com. Restricted free agents Kaapo Kahkonen, Louie Belpedio and Brennan Menell still haven’t re-signed. Kahkonen filed for salary arbitration.
“When you look at our team now,” Guerin said, “I think we’re even better than we were this time last year.”
Guerin’s assessment won’t be verified until the NHL resumes since the on-ice results will prove just how successful a remodel this is. The Wild still hasn’t snared the No. 1 center it craves, setting the team up for a by-committee approach up the middle next season. And while the defense is the strength of the lineup, the blue line could change if Matt Dumba is traded for offensive help — an ongoing possibility.
As it’s structured now, though, this is a group that will need to be strong in its own end and get depth scoring to support dynamic forwards Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov and deliver the high-octane, aggressive style coach Dean Evason has implemented. Players like Mats Zuccarello and Victor Rask are expected to get extra opportunity to improve.
Still, more revisions could be in this team’s future.
Not only has Guerin made it clear he isn’t afraid to make adjustments, but his maneuvering has also saddled the Wild with quite a bit of cap room next offseason if it wants it.
And that type of planning suggests the Wild’s evolution isn’t over.
Instead, it looks like it’s just beginning.
“We can’t live in the past,” Guerin said. “If we make a move, we make a move and we can’t look back, and that’s just the direction that we’re headed in.”