The Wild will have a week off for the All-Star break starting Thursday and will arrive at the unofficial midpoint (50 games played is not half of 82) in a familiar position. The Wild is very much in the mix for a playoff spot — a little better than a coin flip, depending on where you look at probabilities — but Minnesota clearly isn’t one of the NHL’s very best teams. Top 16? Possibly. Top five? No chance.
This middle ground has defined much of the last seven seasons (counting this one) since the signing of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching $98 million contracts in 2012. And as years have gone on, with six consecutive playoff berths but not much to show for them, a growing segment of local fans (and media members) have grown increasingly fond of the idea of the Wild blowing things up and starting all over.
They might not call this outright tanking — an odorous word given to losing on purpose to increase draft odds — but the process of bottoming out and gambling on an uncertain feast-or-famine future instead of holding steady and hoping for incremental progress is one that is embraced by frustrated fans across all U.S. team sports.
In thinking about and examining the Wild’s situation in particular, though, I’ve arrived at arrived at a series of conclusions that can be boiled down to this: If you want the Wild to bottom out and start over, it’s a lot riskier and harder than you might think. In fact, bottoming out in the NHL might be riskier and harder than in any other U.S. pro sports league. And at least in the short-term, I don’t think it makes sense for the Wild to try it — nor do I think they will.
Let’s start here because the bottom line has a heavy influence on all decisions.
It certainly played into owner Craig Leipold green-lighting those contracts for Suter and Parise. The Wild’s 409-game sellout streak ended in 2010-11, and by 2011-12 average attendance dipped below 18,000 per game for the first — and as it turns out, only — time in franchise history. Suter and Parise (and winning) have been very good for the bottom line
In the NFL, NBA and MLB, as national TV contracts have swelled to massive proportions, revenue from ticket sales has become decreasingly important in recent years. But in the NHL — and to the Wild — it still matters a lot.
Assuming even splits among all teams for existing national TV deals, every NFL team takes in $94 million a year in national TV money; NBA teams each get $86 million a year; MLB teams each get $52 million a year; and NHL teams all get somewhere between $17 and $20 million a year (depending on the current value of the Canadian dollar since the biggest of the two TV contracts is in Canadian funds).
Looking at data collected by Forbes, we see just how dependent the Wild is on attendance for its bottom line.
In its most recent calculations for the Wild, Twins, Vikings and Timberwolves, Forbes shows the Wild with $142 million in yearly revenue — with $56 million of that coming from gate receipts. The Twins have $261 million in yearly revenue, with $70 million from gate receipts. The Vikings have $408 million in revenue, with $65 million from gate receipts. The Timberwolves have $204 million in revenue, with just $23 million from gate receipts.
Assuming those numbers are accurate, they become even more staggering when we look at them this way: Here’s the percent of revenue for each team that comes from gate receipts:
Wild: 39.4 percent
Twins: 26.8 percent
Vikings: 15.9 percent
Timberwolves: 11.3 percent
Thanks to those massive national TV contracts, all three of the other teams were shown as having comfortable operating income (different from revenue) on the positive side of the ledger. (The Vikings, at $90 million, had more operating income than gate receipts. Makes you wonder if they really needed a new stadium, but that’s a story for another day).
The Wild, though, is shown as having an operating income — earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, as noted by Forbes — of $4.5 million. That’s still on the plus side, but it’s a much thinner margin. (The franchise is valued at $490 million, more than twice what Leipold paid for it a decade ago, so try not to feel too bad for him).
Then consider that it’s generally accepted that every home playoff game is worth another $2 million — crunching numbers backs up that rough estimate — meaning that even quick exits with just two home games (as happened last year) bring in $4 million in extra revenue while trips to the second round can bring in $10 million-plus.
So let’s say the Wild decided to rebuild, and as a function of that rebuild attendance dropped 10 percent (a modest amount compared to other markets that have bottomed out, but this is the State of Hockey so let’s be conservative). Lop off $5-6 million a year from gate receipts and cut another $7 million from playoff revenue (the average of what the Wild as made, at $2 million a game, for their last six playoff appearances) and suddenly the franchise is operating at a net loss of $8-9 million.
Tank in another league, and you’re cushioned by huge TV deals and other sources. Tank in the NHL, with a hard salary cap and hard salary floor, and you’d better hope financially that either your fans stick with you or they repay you even more during deep playoff runs if and when you return to relevance.
Pittsburgh and Chicago are often held up on the positive side of the bottoming out argument. Both franchises parlayed a string of poor seasons (which included awful attendance) into high draft picks — with the Penguins getting Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in back-to-back years and the Blackhawks doing the same with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane — and three Stanley Cup titles apiece since those selections.
They are less likely to mention the high volume of failed attempts to replicate this model, though fans in Edmonton and Buffalo could surely give you a brief history as a good start.
Committing to a rebuild means committing to being bad enough to have a legitimate chance at a top-three pick (the NHL draft has a lottery system similar to the NBA, with the worst teams given a better chance at those top three picks while all non-playoff teams are eligible to move up). And then it means making the right choices — a crap shoot outside of the rare can’t-miss prospects — with 18-year-olds likely several years away from their best seasons.
And while one player like Crosby can make a big difference, an NHL team is more dependent on balance than, say, the NBA. The best NBA players will spend three-fourths of the game on the floor. The best NHL forwards will be on the ice for maybe a third of the game. An NFL team might tank for a chance at a franchise quarterback that sets it up to win for more than a decade. Hockey players — outside of goalies, who are rarely chosen with lottery picks — tend not to have such a singular influence on a team. It often takes two or three high-end players, with the right supporting cast around them, to turn things around.
OK, so maybe you’ve read to this point and you aren’t concerned about the warnings about draft picks nor do you care a bit about the owner’s wallet (even if he does). You’re just tired of the current roster. Trade everyone and start over!
Well … unless they want to be traded, Parise and Suter aren’t going anywhere. They have full no-move clauses included as part of their 13-year deals, of which there are still six years left after this. Mikko Koivu, a free agent after next season, also has a full no-move clause while Eric Staal (free agent after this year), Devan Dubnyk (two years left) and Jared Spurgeon (one year left) all have modified no-move clauses (meaning they can’t be traded to certain teams).
Parise, Suter and Koivu combine to account for more than a quarter of this year’s salary cap and will come close to the same next year. The Wild already has $68 million tied up in contracts on the cap (projected at around $83 million, up from $79.5 million) for next season.
If the Wild was further down in the standings this season — trying to shed some of that salary now, while difficult, might make sense. But the playoffs are still a real possibility, and even if this core group has produced just two series wins in six years this is the NHL. Upsets happen all the time, and one hot month from Dubnyk plus a couple of good bounces could produce some sort of run.
So it seems likely that the short-term strategy the Wild will (and should) employ is to “tweak” the roster — the word often used by Leipold and Paul Fenton when he was hired as GM less than a year ago.
Indeed, Fenton has already begun the tweaking in earnest with one medium-level move (Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask) and two low-leverage pickups to bolster forward (Pontus Aberg) and defense (Brad Hunt) depth.
At least Fenton doesn’t seem as eager as predecessor Chuck Fletcher to give up high draft picks as part of his midyear roster building. The Wild didn’t pick until the third round in the 2017 draft and didn’t have a second-round pick in 2018 as a result of Fletcher’s moves, among others.
What Fenton wants to avoid is the descent into a lesser mediocrity — a team that consistently misses the playoffs but isn’t bad enough to get really high draft picks. That was the Wild’s purgatory in the four seasons before Parise and Suter arrived, when they did reasonably well in the first round by taking Nick Leddy (No. 16), Mikael Granlund (No. 9), Jonas Brodin (No. 10) and Matt Dumba (No. 7) in consecutive drafts. The last three are core players for a perennial playoff team (and the first should have been), but they’re not the kinds of superstars you get a crack at at the top of the draft.
Or maybe you’d rather if in 3-4 years the Wild matched some promising young players with a pair of good expensive free agents and tried to relive the last seven years all over again?
Beyond this season, Fenton should probably make some bigger trades and hope that one of two things happen: They either rebuild the Wild on the fly into a more legitimate contender or they position the Wild organically for a dive that is somehow both deep and brief in order to acquire young talent and draft picks for the future without alienating the fan base.
The former would be very hard to do. The latter would be a lot harder than you think.