30 IN 30 - MINNESOTA WILD (5th place)
After absolutely thumping teams in the regular season, the Minnesota Wild finally looked ready to make some noise in the post-season. But for the fifth consecutive season, the Wild had their playoff hopes cut short by a central division rival. Not a great sign for a team destined to face one of the Blackhawks, Blues or Predators in the playoffs every single year. Toss in the dynamic groups being put together in Dallas and Winnipeg, and management will have to take full advantage of the Cup contender window they've opened up for themselves before it slams shut. Those dedicated to the cause likely won't believe this, but late season moves to grab Martin Hanzal and Ryan White show us Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher sees the clock ticking on his current group. A combination of aging veterans and young restricted free agents will keep Fletcher busy this summer as he tries to evaluate which players give his team the best shot to win next year, as well as keep his team competitive for years to come. Not an easy task for a manager already staring down the barrel of the expansion gun. Does he have anything up his sleeve to prevent Vegas from pulling the trigger?
PROTECTION LIST STRUCTURE
- Parise (*NMC)
- Koivu (*NMC)
- Pominville (*NMC)/Zucker?
- Suter (*NMC)
The Minnesota Wild, much like the Ducks before them, will have a difficult decision made even harder by a less-than-desirable 'no movement clause' in their lineup; this time in the form of aging winger Jason Pominville. The result of his automatic inclusion within Minny's protection is the forced exclusion of a higher-ranking forward contributor. Beyond the two other (less contentious) NMCs in their forward group, Charlie Coyle provides enough of a bargain at $3.20M, over the course of his prime years, that his protection should not be in doubt. The remaining group of Granlund, Niedereitter, Staal, and Zucker have either been linked to Vegas or linked to trade rumours over the course of the team's offseason.
On standard offensive stats alone, Mikael Granlund will be sheltered by the Wild. No way does this team give up on a 25 year-old Lady Bing finalist coming off his best year. Nino Niederreiter also falls within the scope of our protection. The former 5th overall pick in 2010 has done nothing but improve since joining the Wild. Career highs across the board bode well for his continued development. Whether or not his recent contract negotiations put the team in a difficult cap position, Niedereitter cannot and will not be given away for free.
An interesting argument can be made for both Staal and Zucker. Eric Staal quickly rebounded from his Hurricane depression and posted his highest production mark since 2011-12. The move to Minnesota has clearly rejuvenated his career, which includes experience as a Stanley Cup champion, an Olympic gold medallist, and a 6 time 30 goal scorer. His age could be used as a disincentive for a team like Vegas, along with his inability to carry the load of a franchise on his own, but offence is offence, whatever form it comes in. The Golden Knights would not likely pass on Staal if left available. With this all-but-certain conclusion, along with the crazy discount he offers the Wild at only $3.50M per year, it would be sheer lunacy to let him go now, even if he does only have two more years in the twin city. Milk him for what he's worth.
Jason Zucker unfortunately drops to the bottom of our group, but potentially to the benefit of the Wild. The former Las Vegas native saw his point totals double this year, showcasing the long-awaited offensive potential in his game. At a $2.0M hit for another year, he does provide cap relief for a team trying to compete and win now. The incentive he provides to the Golden Knights also goes beyond his on-ice abilities. This franchise would have a hay-day marketing with Zucker, utilizing the Vegas native to grow the game in an area deficient in minor development opportunities. Although he won't be the best player available, as that will likely come in defence, the Wild could sell the idea of Zucker to the Golden Knights and walk away from expansion with their defensive group intact. Whether or not they bite, it's worth a try.
SUTER + 2
The Wild are already locked in to their commitment with Ryan Suter for the next 8 years. What's left to decide is which two defenders will be joining him.... at least in the short term. The three main candidates are Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, and Jared Spurgeon.
Jared Spurgeon is coming off a career year. Not only did he post 38 points in 76 games for the Wild this season, he reeled in national attention after scoring one of the top NHL goals of the year. The small but heady defender has found a place opposite Ryan Suter on the team's top pairing. Together, these two post fairly outrageous numbers with consideration given to the hard minutes they play. Both also experience a subsequent drop when playing apart, noting the chemistry these two have developed together over the course of the last two seasons. Frankly, separating these two is unnecessary, and Spurgeon's numbers have sat well above average for too long to consider getting rid of him. He nabs one of our protection list spots.
Former 7th overall pick, Matt Dumba, joins the large group of Minnesota skaters coming off career statistical seasons. Much like Spurgeon before him, Dumba saw his point totals swell into the 30's, which coincided with a jump in his goal differential. The defender has quickly made himself into a fan favourite with his physical, albeit reckless, style of play on the open ice, and instinctive ability to jump into a high quality offensive rush. Settling in on the team's second defence pair, Dumba has progressed nicely as a player over his three seasons with the big club. Protecting him will likely keep the Dumba and Scandella pair intact for another season, causing little to no disturbance to the lineup. At just 22 and with team-controlled rights, Dumba takes our last and final protection slot.
Jonas Brodin becomes the odd man out in our expansion list version of musical chairs. This in no way categorizes him as the usual expendable defender, but Brodin appears to be buried on a stacked depth chart. His inability to overtake a defender like Marco Scandella is a concern for his development as a top-four defender, and gives us a clear indication which way the Minny coaching staff lean in their defensive rankings. Whether it be his aversion to offensive play (despite the skill set to contribute) or just a lack of opportunity, Brodin's point production and all-round statistical output appear to ebb and flow with the success of the team rather than of his own making. Risk or not, his potential as a top four defender and manageable cap hit make him the ideal pick for an expansion team looking to lock up young talent, long-term.
VEGAS AVOIDS TEMPTATION
George McPhee should address his Minnesota pick with logic as opposed to organizational pressure. The ownership would undoubtedly favour local kid Jason Zucker, but selecting him is a mistake. Jonas Brodin is a foundational block of this team's defence. Few protection lists will leave former top 10 picks exposed, especially one that has seen success at the professional level. Unless a pre-draft deal can be struck, Brodin is the runaway choice for the Golden Knights expansion selection.
With the likes of Alex Tuch, Joel Eriksson-Ek, Jordan Greenway, Kiril Kaprizov, and Mike Reilly all in the prospect pipeline, it would come as no surprise to see an offseason deal for an immediate NHL contributor in exchange for one of these young men. Very few prospects actually perform at the level of their hyped-up status. While they may establish themselves as stable NHL players, their potential as scoring line contributors pushes their market value up above their likely professional performance. Dealing one now, before his growth is stunted by the team's congested forward depth, could ensure proper return on the asset and push this team over their current playoff hump.
Next up: Columbus Blue Jackets