Wednesday’s news that the Wild sent Eric Staal to Buffalo in exchange for Marcus Johansson was enough of a head-scratching moment that it requires the exploration of a bigger question: What exactly are Bill Guerin and the Wild doing here?
The Wild is in need of centers and doesn’t have a ton of financial flexibility. And so Minnesota … traded its popular top-line center for someone less productive and more expensive ($4.5 million cap hit next year vs. $3.25 million for Staal, with both on the final year of their deals).
What in the name of Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask is happening? Here are three working theories:
*Guerin is stockpiling more of the types of players that Dean Evason wants, and there are more moves to come.
This is certainly the most optimistic, benefit-of-the-doubt explanation — and it’s one Guerin himself advanced in talking about the trade Wednesday.
“Sometimes it’s just not a great fit,” Guerin said of Johansson’s time in Buffalo. “But I think Marcus fits well with us, and he’s going to get a lot of opportunity. Dean knows him very well from Washington and believes he can be an impactful centerman. He’s going to get that opportunity.”
The Wild also acquired another center with size (Nick Bjugstad) recently and could trade Matt Dumba for another forward that fits into a younger and faster style.
Still, the idea of constructing a roster around Evason’s preferences is a bit far-fetched. He only signed a two-year contract after shedding his interim tag. While he’s done a good job so far, we’re a long way from knowing if Evason is the Wild’s long-term coach. Which brings us to …
*The Wild is using 2020-21 as a rebuilding year given that it figures to be impacted by coronavirus and the team needs a reboot anyway.
This feels like the most plausible scenario. No team readily admits to rebuilding, and Wild owner Craig Leipold has been hesitant to commit to anything more than roster revisions in the past. But he did say late last September — yes, almost a full year ago, yes, during the preseason of the season that’s still happening now — that he can see the fruits of a longer-term vision.
“I want to win a Stanley Cup,” he said at the time. “And if somebody came down and said, ‘OK, here’s a guaranteed five-year plan. You’re absolutely going to win it, but you’re going to have to go through a little pain and suffering.’ You show me that plan that gets me there, I’m good.”
The best thing the Wild has going for it in 2020-21 is the idea of Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov teaming up on a top line — centered by someone! — and becoming the sort of devastating offensive force that can carry a team in both the regular season and the playoffs.
But to build around those two, the Wild will need some time and cap space. They can clear a decent amount of room after this season.
And if there are some growing pains this year with an unbalanced, oddly matched roster — not quite tanking, but not quite doing everything to win now, which maybe explains the Staal trade — well, a high draft pick next summer wouldn’t be the worst thing to add to a young team.
*There is no plan, and Guerin is just making trades because he’s stuck with limited options.
OK, I’m not really serious with this one. Guerin is a professional and I’m sure there’s a plan. But he does seem to understand there’s a need to do SOMETHING to get the Wild out of a cycle of being good enough to contend for a low playoff seed and nothing more.
“If I don’t make moves, nothing will happen,” Guerin said Wednesday. “We’ll just stay the same, and that’s not the idea.”
What different place will the Wild land? That remains to be seen.