It’s been a dreadful 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs for Minnesota Wild fans. The Wild’s magical season ended embarrassingly, bowing out to the St. Louis Blues in six games. To add insult to injury, the division-rival Colorado Avalanche are on the cusp of one of the most impressive Stanley Cup runs of all time. Finally, on top of that, the Wild are staring down the barrel of three seasons with only 85% of the NHL salary cap at its disposal.
Perhaps it’s the lifeless performances in must-win games against St. Louis. Maybe it’s that Colorado is 14-3 during these playoffs. Regardless, it feels like Minnesota is no closer to winning the Cup than it was before its record-breaking regular season. The answer is likely a bit of both. Colorado and the Tampa Bay Lightning have set the bar inconceivably high, while the Wild’s roster still lacks some critical Cup-winning ingredients.
After two seasons of Tampa Bay playing deserving but flukey finalists in the Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens, it feels like this year’s Final features the two best teams in hockey over the last three seasons. Both rosters are among the most talented and well constructed of the last decade.
Tampa Bay’s resume speaks for itself. They’ve won 11 straight playoff series, have four unquestionable Hall-of-Famers, and are chasing their third consecutive Stanley Cup. Former GM Steve Yzerman did a fantastic job building and developing their core, and Julien BriseBois masterfully made the finishing touches that put them over the edge. It’s the gold standard for team building and player development in the salary cap era.
The Avalanche are the prime example of how bottoming out and suffering a few ugly seasons pay off in the long run. They drafted Nathan MacKinnon, remained patient with his development through a few rough seasons, and surrounded him with elite talent and solid depth. Cale Makar‘s meteoric rise has undoubtedly sped up their success. Still, Joe Sakic deserves a ton of credit for masterfully crafting this roster poised to dominate the Western Conference for at least the next few seasons.
The Lightning and Avalanche have set the bar so high, making you wonder if that shifts the Wild’s approach to the next three seasons?
With 15-17% of the salary cap in dead money the next three seasons, forming a competitive roster will be difficult — let alone forming a Cup-contending roster. Obviously, the intention is and will remain to be as competitive as possible in the next three years. After all, Kirill Kaprizov is an unrestricted free agent in four years. You’d like to maximize that contract to the best of your ability.
But again, is truly contending a realistic expectation? The Pacific Division is only improving, and the Central Division will be just as competitive next season. Not to mention that every other team has significantly more available cap space to work with.
Bill Guerin finds himself in quite a bind. Obviously, you’d love for the Wild to remain competitive through the next three seasons. But is doing so worth it? Doesn’t that seem like throwing assets at a lost cause?
If the 2022 playoffs taught us one thing about Minnesota, it’s that the team is much farther away from being the bona fide contender many of us thought they were, and Colorado and Tampa Bay’s success has only reinforced that.
So now, does the focus shift away from being immediately competitive and towards building a roster that can come out of the dead cap years with a reloaded squad primed for a championship run?
At some point, the Wild have to go backward to go forward. Why not take that step back now? It worked for Colorado, who went from having the worst record in the league to playing in the Cup Final in just five years. Would three years of pain be worth it if it paid off similarly for Minnesota?
Guerin and Judd Brackett have had some impressive drafts the past few seasons. Why not give them an arsenal of picks to work with the next few years? When the dead money is off the books, those prospects are graduating and joining a team with an abundance of cap space.
Consider Guerin’s situation. If the Wild struggle the next few seasons, he could lose the trust of ownership and the locker room. This also runs the risk of running Kaprizov out of town with non-competitive teams. But if Guerin keeps investing heavily into this group, he risks continuing the endless cycle of mediocrity that has the Wild in this predicament, to begin with. It’s a tough call, and worse yet, there might not even be a correct answer.