The search for a top center in an already busy offseason isn’t over for the Wild, but the team might end up relying on depth up the middle.
That’s because the Wild made a surprising trade Wednesday, sending first-line center and six-time All-Star Eric Staal to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Johansson, a center/wing hybrid who will help the by-committee approach up the middle for which the Wild seems headed.
“It’s very hard to acquire true No. 1 centers, and we might have to do it with all hands on deck,” said General Manager Bill Guerin, who acquired center Nick Bjugstad from Pittsburgh on Friday. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t work. I wouldn’t be making these moves just to make them. These are guys I have confidence in, and I like what they bring to our team.”
Staal and Johansson aren’t exactly equivalents.
Johansson, 29, didn’t make a splash at center with Buffalo, finishing last season with nine goals and 21 assists in 60 games and winning just 40% of faceoffs.
Only twice in his 10-season NHL career, which has also included stops in Washington, New Jersey and Boston, has he reached the 20-goal plateau after getting drafted 24th overall in 2009 by the Capitals.
But Guerin is confident the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Swedish Olympian can handle the position, and he’s keen on Johansson’s playmaking ability and power play skills.
The Wild also gets younger and adds speed, and coach Dean Evason is familiar with Johansson from when Evason was an assistant with the Capitals.
“They’ve got a pretty good No. 1 centerman there,” Guerin said, referring to Sabres superstar Jack Eichel, “and sometimes it’s just not a great fit. 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.”
Like Staal, Johansson has only one season remaining on his contract before becoming a free agent, but Johansson carries a steeper cap hit at $4.5 million compared with Staal’s $3.25 million.
Staal’s track record is also much longer than Johansson’s, an elite and rare career that included a meaningful chapter in Minnesota.
When the Wild signed Staal in 2016, the team brought in a member of the Triple Gold Club who won the 2006 Stanley Cup and gold medals with Canada at the 2007 IIHF World Championship and 2010 Olympics. Staal has played in two All-Star Games for the Wild and last season recorded his 1,000th point and exceeded 1,200 games.
His 436 goals rank fifth among active NHLers in goals, and he’s closing in on 600 assists. The 35-year-old tied the franchise record for goals in a season with 42 in 2017-18.
Staal was also a leader on the Wild, and his boisterous goal celebrations were a hit with fans.
“Sometimes we need to mix things up,” said Guerin, who said trade talks with the Sabres had been going on for some time. “We need to find a different pathway to success, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to build a better team, and sometimes you have to take some drastic measures.”
Aside from Johansson, the Wild has Joel Eriksson Ek at center along with Bjugstad, Victor Rask and Nico Sturm, once he’s re-signed.
Although Rask spent most of last season as an extra, Guerin called him a “very capable center” who needs to get more ice time.
Guerin did not mention Mikko Koivu’s name when sizing up his depth chart up the middle and again declined to comment on the captain’s future. He also said it’s unlikely impending free agent Alex Galchenyuk returns.
The Wild did open itself up to trade speculation after Jonas Brodin received a seven-year, $42 million extension Tuesday.
Matt Dumba is at the heart of those whispers because he’s the only defenseman in the top four without a no-move clause, but Guerin described the chatter among GMs as normal.
“If I were to move Matt, I don’t have to rush,” said Guerin, who explained he hasn’t spoken to Dumba. “We can play all year with him. We like Matt Dumba. He’s a heck of a player. He’s a great kid. We’re very happy with him, and we think our top four will go up against anybody. I’m confident in that. But I don’t promise anybody anything.
“I know the business well enough from a player side, and I wouldn’t want to make an empty promise. We’ll try to improve our team as much as we can when we can.”
That could certainly mean more moves are on the horizon after the Wild’s early postseason exit.
“If I don’t make moves, nothing will happen,” Guerin said. “We’ll just stay the same, and that’s not the idea.”