Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek set the tone for the Wild all year long, and that won't change now that the season is over.
The team's top three goal scorers are up for new contracts, negotiations that will headline a unique offseason for the Wild that includes a likely flat salary cap, expansion draft and opportunity to stoke the momentum from a promising performance by a roster on the rise.
"We're not done yet," General Manager Bill Guerin said Thursday during a news conference alongside coach Dean Evason at the Wild's headquarters in St. Paul. "We still have a lot of work to do this summer, and a short summer that it'll be, but we have a lot of things that we need to accomplish."
Already, the Wild has mapped out projections for re-signing Kaprizov, Fiala and Eriksson Ek but has yet to start talks with the agents for Fiala and Eriksson Ek. Guerin has chatted with Kaprizov's camp. The outcome the Wild is seeking is the same for all three players.
"We see those guys being here long term," Guerin said. "They're part of the foundation of this organization and our team. You could see it on the ice that they're — whether they like it or not, I know they're young players — but they're leaders on our team and they provided us with a lot on both sides of the puck.
"So, yeah, they're a priority."
Fiala and Eriksson Ek will be restricted free agents eligible for arbitration, and both are coming off two-year deals — Fiala at $6 million and Eriksson Ek at $2.975 million. Kaprizov is finishing his entry-level contract and doesn't meet any free agency requirements; he's only allowed to sign with the Wild, can't accept an offer sheet from another team and doesn't qualify for arbitration.
Still, he's poised to command the heftiest raise after an impressive debut in which he led the team in scoring (51 points), ranked eighth overall in the NHL in goals (27) and earned a nomination on Thursday for the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie. Fiala was second on the team in goals (20) and points (40), while Eriksson Ek's career-high 19 goals were third.
"These things, they take time," Guerin said. "It's a process. But I'm confident that I've got good relationships with all their agents, and they're all levelheaded people that want to make fair deals. So, we're excited to get the process going."
Locking up those three players could eat up most of the team's spending money.
The Wild has just shy of $18 million in cap space for next season, according to capfriendly.com, and the salary cap is expected to stay at $81.5 million because of the financial hit the NHL took from the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Guerin said Kaprizov, Fiala and Eriksson Ek won't be the team's only signings. The Wild will check in on its unrestricted free agents, including defenseman Ian Cole and forward Nick Bonino. Guerin felt their pedigree as Stanley Cup champions improved the Wild's culture.
"They also understand the business side of it and that we have these younger guys that we have to prioritize," Guerin said. "They've been through it before. There's no real rush."
Another option for the Wild is the trade market, and Buffalo's Jack Eichel will probably dominate talks around the league after the center's disconnect with the Sabres became public.
That position has long been a work in progress for the Wild, and Guerin would like more depth at center. But the Wild was competitive last season with a by-committee approach and the emergence of Eriksson Ek, and Guerin isn't going to force an acquisition.
"You make a lot of phone calls and see what's available, who's available, and if you're willing to go down certain paths," he said. "Do we have to do anything? No, we don't have to do anything. I think we proved this year that if you play as a team and you have people on each line driving offense, that you don't need that No. 1 guy.
"We're not going to overextend ourselves just to satisfy a public perception that we need a No. 1 center. We're not going to do that."
Expansion draft looms
What Guerin said he also won't do is sacrifice draft picks, prospects and the team's future for a short-term fix.
"If the right deal comes across the table and it makes sense for our team where we are right now, we'll do it," he said. "If I feel it doesn't make sense, I don't feel it's going to make us better now — or more importantly in the future to make us a good team for a long time — then we won't do it."
But subtraction is in the forecast because of the expansion draft next month when Seattle will pluck a player from the Wild.
The team can protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie or eight skaters and a goalie. Players with no-movement clauses must be protected unless they waive them, but Guerin isn't convinced he'll have to ask any of the five Wild players with clauses to do that. He said side deals are a reality and there is plenty of strategizing.
"We're going to lose somebody that we like because we like everybody," Guerin said. "We're going to do the things that we need to do to preserve what we have here and to make our team better for next year and for the future."
Guerin wants to keep the Wild intact as much as possible, which makes sense after it advanced to the playoffs before getting eliminated in Game 7 by Vegas.
Although the team could have been stalled by growing pains after the previous core was dissolved, the Wild assembled a new nucleus around its young players and the shift was successful.
Add in the support from the veterans, and the Wild established a template that seems to align with its vision for the future.
"The steps that our players took as individuals, the steps that we took as a team, were big," Guerin said. "For the overall picture, the process that we're going through to try to build a championship team, the projection is good. I really do feel that we took steps in the regular season and in the playoffs.
"It was disappointing to go out in the first round. But the signs that I see in my seat as a general manager were positive."