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2021-22 Minnesota Wild Preview: Will it come down to Kaprizov?

A lack of froward depth and stalled contract talks with Kaprizov set the stage for an uncertain future for the Wild’s 2021-22 success.

Kirill Kaprizov #97 of the Minnesota Wild takes a break during a stop in play in the second period of a game against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game Five of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena on May 24, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Wild defeated the Golden Knights 4-2. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Despite a first-round exit last spring, the Minnesota Wild are poised for a Stanley Cup run soon. Unfortunately, this off-season has been less than ideal for the team, with contract talks between the Wild and phenom Kirill Kaprizov stalling and an overall lack of improvement down the center.

The 2021-22 season is a make-or-break for the team; the Wild have flirted with being an exciting team to watch, but their lack of resolution to their glaring problems as the preseason approaches isn’t an inspiring start.

Where they left off

Like other teams searching for a break-out postseason performance, the Wild have had a middling record for the past three seasons. In 2018-19 the team finished with a record of 37-36-9, and missed the playoffs, although their 2019-20 record of 35-37-7 was enough for the play-in round, which they lost in qualifiers to the Vancouver Canucks. Last season was the closest the Wild have come to sustained success in recent years, with the explosion otherwise named Kirill Kaprizov, a record of 35-16-5 and a too-close first round series against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Wild showed flashes of a dynamic, cohesive team that produced offensively and excelled in the neutral-zone trap and shut-down defense. Minnesota put up an incredible fight against the heavily favored Vegas Golden Knights, but the Wild’s lack of center depth proved to be their downfall — Kirill Kaprizov can’t score every goal that the team needs to win.

2021 Entry Draft

Despite defense being the Wild’s strong suit, general manager Bill Guerin overwhelmingly selected defenseman in the 2021 Entry Draft, with four of their seven picks going toward the blue line.

The Wild used their first pick of the draft (20th) to snag goaltender Jesper Wallstedt. It’s not often a team chooses to pursue a goaltender with their first selection, so it’s clear that Guerin and the Wild are invested in Wallstedt’s potential for the team. Wallstedt is calm and collected in high-pressure situations, and is able to match the energy of the game by challenging outside the net, along with impressive mobility and dexterity in net while standing at 6-foot-3. Wallstedt spent the majority of the 2020-21 season with Lulea HF of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), where he played 22 games, posting a 2.23 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

Not long after the Wild selected Wallstedt did they take Carson Lambos at 26th overall. Lambos has offensive instincts when it comes to his defensive play, and occupies a play-maker role on the blue line. He’s a great pickup for the Wild, who want to play to their defensive strength, but also improve their overall offensive production. Lambos spent the majority of his 2020-21 season in Finland, with the brunt of his games being played for the JYP U20 in the U20 SM-sarja league. There, he played 13 games for a total of 2 goals, 9 assists, 8 penalty minutes and a +8 rating.

Overall, it’s unclear how many prospects, either from the 2021 Draft or even the 2020 Draft, will make it into the beginning line-up, especially since the Wild need a superstar center — or, at the very least, a crew of adaptable, consistent centers — in order to take the next step.

Roster

The Wild began the off-season by off-loading expensive contracts and ... some forwards, which seems a little counter-intuitive.

Zach Parise, a stalwart winger who signed a landmark (and much maligned) 13-year contract with a $7.54 million cap hit was bought out of the final four years by the Wild on July 13. The move was a long time coming, and is an obvious signal to both fans and the team that the Wild are moving on from their past and are trying to revamp their image. Parise is listed as third in the Minnesota Wild franchise in goals (199) and points (400), seventh in games (558 regular season games) and eighth in assists (201). He has since signed with the New York Islanders to an undisclosed term.

Another unsurprising move was the departure of UFA Ryan Suter, who was signed by the Dallas Stars to a four-year, $3.65 million average annual value (AAV) contract after the Wild bought out the remainder of his contract, as well. His contract mirrored Parise’s and while buying out their contracts leaves the Wild around $10 million in cap space wiggle room (presumably to help leverage a Kaprizov deal), the end of the nine-year tenure of Suter and Parise leave the Wild with the pressure to demonstrate that they’ve made significant strides toward the Cup with the move.

Nick Bonino was signed by the San Jose Sharks on the first day of free agency to a two-year, $2.05 million AAV contract. Bonino is a reliable forward who can slot nearly anywhere he’s needed. While he may not have been a high-scorer for the Wild, he was dependable behind the scenes. He’ll be a tough forward to replace.

In response to the Wild’s growing forward problem, Bill Guerin’s biggest signings were two defensemen. The first is Alex Goligoski (who I was secretly hoping the Sharks would sign in free agency). Goligoski will fit right into the Wild’s blue line, and while his point totals show that he’s a playmaker, he’s a far cry from an offensive defenseman. Goligoski was signed to a one-year, $5 million contract complete with a full no-movement clause. With the Arizona Coyotes in 2021, Goligoski played 56 games, totaling 3 goals, 19 assists, 14 PIMs and a +2.

Dmitri Kulikov was also added to the lineup from the New Jersey Devils. In times past Kulikov has shown great offensive ability, but the last few seasons have seen more of an emphasis on physicality than goal-scoring. Kulikov was signed to a two-year, $2.5 million AAV deal on July 28. Kulikov spent the majority of the season with the New Jersey Devils (before heading over to the Edmonton Oilers), where he played 38 games, notching 2 assists, 26 PIMs and a -4.

I can’t help but wonder if pursuing players who fill gaps (such as offense) rather than play to their strengths (suffocating defense) would have been a better idea, especially since the most recent word on the Kaprizov contract talks is that, once again, the conversation has frozen over.

Bill Guerin was praised with his ability to bring Kirill Kaprizov over to Minnesota, where he revitalized the team the moment his blades hit the ice. He’s been a game-changer, and if he’s not signed to the Wild, the team will suffer immensely. It’s no secret that this past season was tough for everyone, with COVID protocols making it more difficult to assimilate and get to know new teammates, and that’s without the cultural and language barrier Kaprizov was facing. Contract talks have gone back and forth, with rumors being that the Wild were looking for a long term deal and Kaprizov’s camp wanting something shorter-term.

Here’s where the contract talks are right now — the Wild are content with their proposed deal (rumored to be in the ballpark of five years at $9 million AAV), and Kaprizov’s team negotiating over small details. The problem is that the clock is ticking and Kaprizov will run into work visa and quarantine issues the longer he waits. The Wild’s training camp opens on September 23.

What can we expect in 2021-22?

The Wild’s trajectory depends entirely on the Kaprizov deal. The team has bolstered their already successful blue line, but hasn’t done much in the way of their forward lines. Clearly Guerin wants to play to the Wild’s strengths, and expects his pre-existing forward group to step up this season with increased responsibility. Kaprizov changes the whole dynamic of the team, and if he’s on the ice for the 2021-22 season in a Wild sweater, then the team has a real chance at breaking out of the first round of playoffs. If Kaprizov isn’t signed, well, then the future is a little more bleak for our friends in Minnesota.

The Sharks will play the Wild three times during the regular season, with the first game on November 16 at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota at 5 p.m. PT. They will next meet at SAP Center on December 9 and again on April 17 in Minnesota.