To say the Minnesota Wild have had a luxury on defense the last eight seasons would not quite do it justice. Minnesota’s head coaches have written out the defensemen on the lineup card in pen for that long. That is until this upcoming season when the Wild will sport three new defensemen. Ryan Suter‘s buyout and the Seattle Kraken’s selection of Carson Soucy in the expansion draft forced this change on the team, a long-overdue change.
If you were a young defenseman in the Wild organization, the consistency at the position had to be discouraging. Suter was signed to a 13-year contract. Jonas Brodin earned a lengthy contract extension after showing how advanced he was for his age, entering the league at 19. Jared Spurgeon was a top-four staple and well on his way to becoming a future captain of the franchise. Finally, Matt Dumba was the one defenseman who could demand the attention of opposing defenses with a shot that brought fans out of their seats. After that top four, the Wild needed mostly defensive fill-ins who could hold their own — and they had to be cheap. So if you were a defenseman in the Wild organization with skill, breaking into the NHL in a role more suited to your skillset was unlikely.
Not to mention, the Wild were not drafting high-ceiling defensemen once Dumba emerged as the final piece to a dynamic top four. In fact, until Filip Johansson was infamously selected by Paul Fenton in the 2018 draft, Minnesota hadn’t selected a defenseman in Rounds 1-3 since Louie Belpedio was picked at No. 80 in the 2014 draft. Chuck Fletcher didn’t feel the need to address the position because he must’ve liked what he already had in the NHL. Fenton’s mantra was building from the back end out but then reached for Johansson in the draft. The only other blueliners taken by Fenton were Simon Johansson and Marshall Warren.
Back to this upcoming season, if you are a young defenseman in the Wild organization, you’re probably licking your chops with all the new vacancies at the NHL level. Even when Bill Guerin sought out Alex Goligoski on the first day of free agency, you could understand what he was doing. Signing Dmitry Kulikov? Okay, that makes some sense. But suddenly, the spots available to fight over in training camp are down to one.
Calen Addison looked to be in a position to squeak into the lineup in that last open spot. He’s certainly on the cusp after playing well in juniors and having a strong start and finish with the Iowa Wild last season. Brennan Menell was another candidate to take that spot before Guerin traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs after not agreeing on a one-way, $900k contract. Even Belpedio might’ve been considered to fill a void.
If the Wild are going with a youth movement up front with the forward lines, they are doing the opposite on defense. At least, that’s what the signing of Jon Merrill and Jordie Benn is signaling. There’s not enough room in the lineup to play both of those guys, which means the two NHL veteran defensemen will split time in the press box. Addison could turn heads in training camp, but the numbers game — the number of one-way contracts to older, more veteran players — means the youth movement on defense is on hold.
There are no free passes on Guerin’s Wild. He’s insistent on not just giving any player a roster spot. We saw it when the Wild refused to call up Matt Boldy after they clinched a playoff berth even though he showed an ability to dominate in college and successfully jumped to the AHL. Addison was also good in the AHL and got a couple of games in the NHL filling in for players stuck in COVID protocol. He took about two shifts to get to his game and was a positive force on the ice.
There are only a few ways young players can earn their way onto the roster. Be a potential superstar like Kirill Kaprizov, or play well in the lower levels of hockey. Addison has done that much since being acquired in the Jason Zucker trade. Why is Guerin making the road that much more difficult on the kid by signing Benn, a less dynamic defender with no offensive upside? It’s a move that he didn’t need to make. And if Guerin was concerned about the depth of NHL-ready players in the system, then squabbling over a one-way contract worth $900k with Menell only to turn around and pay that contract to Benn seems less than ideal.
There are no bad one-way contracts in the NHL. Instead, teams get into trouble when they make any commitment to players over 30 for multiple seasons. However, when measuring what a player can and can’t do, Menell makes far more sense than Kulikov, Merrill, or Benn. Those three defensemen won’t provide much, if anything, on offense. Conversely, Menell could offer that and provide comparable defense.
However, hoping for a Menell return is fools-gold. He’s no longer a part of the future of this franchise, which makes freezing out players like Addison this season all the more confusing. Could Addison show without a doubt that he isn’t ready? Sure, but that’s when the Wild sign one or two of those vets to a contract during the season or swing an Ian Cole-style trade to shore that up. The point here is to get Addison the games to prove it. Let’s see what the kids can do before making a decision.
The youth is coming to this team. And they’ll need to be counted on to provide big minutes and production as the Wild’s spending power diminishes the next four seasons. Why not get a look now before that’s all you have to work with?