Wild General Manager Bill Guerin is doing exactly what he said he would.
After taking stock of the team once it was done with its first season with him at the helm, Guerin vowed to shake up the roster. That transformation has been ongoing since the Wild was eliminated from the postseason in August.
And that trend continued on the second day of the NHL draft.
Not only did he trade Luke Kunin to Nashville for veteran center Nick Bonino, but Guerin oversaw a solid five-pick draft haul that addressed organizational deficiencies and seemed to suggest the type of culture he wants to implement on his watch.
“I’m not going to make change just to make change,” Guerin said Wednesday after the Wild wrapped its virtual draft experience. “I’m going to do things I think make the team better, and I think we’re better. That’s no disrespect to anyone else or anyone that’s been here, but I think we’re better.”
Kunin’s departure kicked off the day, setting a businesslike tone for the Wild.
Aside from sending the restricted free agent to the Predators, who are fond of the center/wing and were persistent in their pursuit, the Wild also included a fourth-round pick to receive Bonino, a second-round pick and a third.
Guerin said it was difficult to cut ties with Kunin, a 2016 first-round draft pick who was hyped as a potential heir to the Wild captaincy one day because of the leadership qualities he demonstrated while playing at Wisconsin and for the U.S. junior national team.
Through parts of three seasons with the team, Kunin had 23 goals and 29 assists in 131 games as a versatile, special-teams option.
“Pretty crazy day so far,” Kunin told the Nashville media. “Obviously just heading home from working out and got the call. Just very excited to be going to Nashville.”
But the Wild is facing a logjam on the wings and decided to move on from someone to create opportunity for others.
“Luke just happened to be that guy,” Guerin said.
As soon as Bonino’s phone rang and he saw it was Predators GM David Poile, he knew what was happening. Still, the 32-year-old Bonino didn’t expect the move after settling in nicely with Nashville. He recorded 35 points in each of the past two seasons there, scoring 18 goals in 2019-20 and 17 the season before that.
“I love playing in all situations, end of games, whether we’re down or we’re up, penalty kill, power play,” said Bonino, who has logged more than 600 games with four NHL teams. “I’ve done it all in my career, and I think I can still do it.”
Bonino fills a position of need, most recently skating as the Predators’ third-line center, but he also has a pedigree Guerin knows well. Both were with Pittsburgh when the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and ’17, with Bonino on the ice and Guerin in the front office.
“When we won the Cup in Nashville in ’17, he couldn’t play in the last game because he broke his leg blocking a shot,” Guerin recalled. “Those are the type of things that we need to move forward, and he brings all those intangibles along with offensive capability.”
While Guerin didn’t rule out staying on the lookout for a true No. 1 center, he is comfortable with the current setup. The Wild has also brought in Marcus Johansson to play up the middle, and Nick Bjugstad — another trade acquisition — can line up at center or wing. Nico Sturm, who can also handle both positions, re-signed. Gone are captain Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal.
“Right now I think we look a lot better than we have at center,” Guerin said.
Marco Rossi, who was drafted Tuesday night at No. 9, is another center and could compete for a roster spot at age 19. Taking Marat Khusnutdinov at No. 37 and Pavel Novak at No. 146 on Wednesday added two more centers. The other Wednesday draft picks, Ryan O’Rourke at 39th and Daemon Hunt at 65, are defensemen.
All five players have leadership experience, and Guerin wants to bring in players with character. Competitiveness was another common theme among the newest additions.
“Every time we step on the ice, I expect us to win and I expect us to compete for a championship,” Guerin said. “We’re trying to do a little bit of both, a little bit for now and a little bit for the future. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. With the picks we’ve made over the last day and a half, I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
The free-agent signing period begins Friday, and the Wild needs a goalie after trading Devan Dubnyk earlier in the week.
Jordan Greenway also requires a new contract; he and his fellow restricted free agents — goalie Kaapo Kahkonen and defensemen Louie Belpedio and Brennan Menell — were issued qualifying offers ahead of Wednesday’s deadline for the Wild to retain their rights.
Goalie Mat Robson and defensemen Hunter Warner and Stepan Falkovsky did not receive offers, making them unrestricted free agents, although Warner signed an American Hockey League contract with Iowa on Tuesday.
Based on what’s transpired so far, more lineup tinkering could be on the way.
“There have been some really good hockey players that have been here for a while, guys that I have a ton of respect for and I like,” Guerin said. “But if we want to move forward, then in my opinion we needed to change some of those guys. We brought in some guys that will help us do that and keep moving forward.”