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Jack Dawkins The Hockey Writers

Published on Friday, March 27, 2020





Wild’s Prospect Problem & Guerin’s Plan to Fix It

The Minnesota Wild have a prospect problem. It’s on the verge of being fixed, but it’s up to current general manager, Bill Guerin, to continue fixing it.

Bill Guerin
Bill Guerin (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

In order to keep the franchise moving forward towards becoming a contender in the Western Conference, Guerin will have to be smart, shrewd and downright devious. He’s also going to have to do it while rebuilding the major departments he will rely on for his information and mitigating the damage of his predecessors.

Where Did the Trouble Start?

The problem began in 2013. Coming off a 4-year playoff drought, then-GM Chuck Fletcher decided to add to his team at the trade deadline. The Wild were riding high. They had inked the gargantuan Zach Parise and Ryan Suter deals in free agency during the offseason and both players had arrived as advertised. The playoff-bound Wild wanted to gear up and make a real run. To that end, they traded a 2013 first-round pick, a 2014 second-round pick, Johan Larsson and Matt Hacket to the Buffalo Sabres for Jason Pominville and a 2014 fourth-round pick.

Then it Snowballed

This trade is the first ripple of trouble. After the Wild acquired Pominville, they re-signed him. He had two productive seasons in Minnesota, but this acquisition coupled with the Suter and Parise contracts pigeonholed the Wild into a place where they had to maintain their level of competition.

Chuck Fletcher
May 10, 2016, former Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher speaks at a news conference in St. Paul, Minn. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP /Jim Mone, File)

This jived with owner Craig Leipold’s perpetual “win now” mindset. The downside was that they were trying to do this in an era of really strong Western Conference teams. As each trade deadline passed, the Wild traded out draft picks and prospects for rental players.

Trade Deadline YearThe Wild Traded AwayThe Wild Received
2013To Buffalo: Matt Hackett, Johan Larsson, 2013 1st RD Pick, 2014 2nd RD PickJason Pominville, 2014 4th RD Pick
2014To Buffalo: Torrey Mitchell, 2014 2nd RD Pick, 2016 2nd RD PickMatt Moulson, Cody McCormick
2015To Buffalo: 2017 2nd RD PickChris Stewart
2016no deadline deals made
2017To Arizona: Grayson Downing, 2017 1st RD Pick, 2018 2nd RD Pick, 2019 Conditional 4th RD PickMartin Hanzal, Ryan White, 2017 4th RD Pick

From 2013 to 2018, Fletcher traded away 6 of 12 first- and second- round picks. Without their top picks, the Wild had a gaping hole in their talent pool. The Pominville trade was not as bad as some of the subsequent ones. At least Fletcher signed Pominville and got some value out of the picks he traded away. Stewart, Moulson and Hanzal were all rental players who left once the season was over.

Related: Wild Go All-In with Hanzal

To his credit, Fletcher’s strategy to keep the Wild in the playoffs kind of worked. They were in the postseason every year from 2013 to 2018, but they exited in the first round four times and the second round twice. The team’s playoff success was disproportionate to the assets Fletcher sold to keep them there.

Martin Hanzal
Martin Hanzal (photo: Amy Irvin)

Because they continued to make the playoffs, the first-round picks that they didn’t trade were not lottery picks, so the Wild missed out on opportunities to draft talent from the upper echelon of the first round. As a result, they were reliant on their scouting department to find talent in the later rounds and scout potentially viable undrafted free agents to continue supplementing the roster with fresh young talent. That did not happen often enough.

Related: Changes Needed For The Wild

Roster attrition is inevitable in the NHL. Young players become more expensive as they mature and improve, just as older players lose their effectiveness over time. The only way to keep a team competitive is with a steady flow of talent from the prospect system. Trying to find a Wild draft pick who was selected outside the top two rounds and worked out for the organization during the Fletcher years, requires some digging.

Jason Pominville
Jason Pominville (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

You have to go back to 2009 when they drafted Erik Haula in the seventh round. This season, a fifth-rounder from 2013, Carson Soucy, made an impact on the back end. His role going forward remains to be seen. Kirill Kaprizov is expected to be a star and he was a fifth rounder in 2015. However, in March 2020, the Wild have not had any other players selected by Fletcher outside the first two rounds, cycle in and become a mainstay on their roster.

Enter Paul Fenton

That cycle seems to be changing. Kaprizov and Soucy were mentioned, and they should have a role on the team going forward. The 2018 and 2019 Draft classes are full of prospects who project to be contributors to the Wild down the line. Paul Fenton, who took over as GM in 2018, did not trade away picks. He didn’t have a second-round pick in 2018 because Fletcher had traded it the season before. To his credit, Fenton understood the value of the draft and began restocking a decimated prospect pool, and he appears to have been successful.

Minnesota Wild Paul Fenton
Former Minnesota Wild general manager Paul Fenton (Shari L. Gross/Star Tribune via AP, file)

However, he also made mistakes that compounded other problems and he lasted only 14 months in Minnesota. His departure had as much to do with decisions he made regarding off-ice personnel as it did players, (from ‘The downfall of Paul Fenton: Inside the GM’s turbulent 14 months with the Wild,’ The Athletic, 08/02/2019). The deals that shipped out Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter didn’t receive enough value in return, but some of his smaller personnel moves were just as questionable. His acquisition of Pontus Aberg went poorly and claiming Anthony Bitetto off waivers also didn’t pan out.

Related: Analyzing Fenton’s Brief Tenure as the Wild’s GM

Worse than that, Fenton’s paranoia about media leaks and demoting key personnel had deteriorated the culture of the front office. The Wild lost important members of their management, scouting, coaching and analytics departments. A huge part of Guerin’s job will be to rebuild trust within the organization and replace the quality personnel who left or were fired under Fenton.

Don’t Call It a Rebuild

To his credit, Guerin seems to have a plan. Trading (homegrown talent) Jason Zucker is the only deal Guerin has made in his tenure with the Wild, and the return was excellent. Defender Calen Addison immediately became the organization’s best defensive prospect, and the conditional first-round pick guarantees Minnesota another top-40 prospect in either the 2020 or 2021 Drafts. Whether or not Guerin decides to extend Alex Galchenyuk is effectively a bonus round for him. The pick and the prospect were a good enough return.

Calen Addison
Calen Addison (courtesy Lethbridge Hurricanes)

The Wild have also moved ahead with getting some of their 2018 and 2019 picks under contract in anticipation of the offseason ahead. Forward Damien Giroux and goaltender Hunter Jones should be AHL eligible. Adam Beckman’s breakout 107-point season in Spokane moved him up the depth chart and put him in position to take a shot at making the big club out of training camp.

Related: Wild Prospects – Matthew Boldy’s Strong February Saves Freshman Season

The Wild have also been busy scouting the undrafted free agent NCAA market. Guerin inked UMass (Amherst) forward, Mitchell Chaffee to a 2-year, entry-level deal. Chaffee was the captain of the Minutemen this season and has been a consistent points contributor for three years with the team. The Rockford Michigan native was considered one of the top college free agents available and the Wild got him.

Adding a top NCAA free agent is like “found money” because they are further along in their development. Chaffee’s NHL draft year would have been 2016 so, in a way, signing Chaffee is like gaining back a lost pick from the 2016 Draft.

The Swedish Elephant in the Room

The next big question for Guerin is regarding the future of 2018 first-round pick, Filip Johansson. It’s hard to imagine the Wild are elated with the 20-year-old’s development since they drafted him two seasons ago. Although Johansson became a full-time SHL defender with Leksands, he only averaged 13:26 of ice time per game. He’s slated to play for Frolunda next season.

Filip Johansson Minnesota Wild Draft
Filip Johansson, Minnesota Wild, 2018 NHL Draft, Dallas, TX, June 22, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

His skating and defensive play are still his strong suits, but he is not developing the kind of offensive upside that teams would like to see from a first-round pick. Frolunda is hoping he can develop that part of his game and they have him signed through 2022. If the Wild are unwilling to wait until then to see if he can cut it in North America, they may look for a trading partner who is.

It’s hard to guess what kind of a return Guerin could get for him, and it would depend on what other scouting departments thought of him. It was surprising when Fenton selected him in the first round (from ‘Wild takes Swedish defenseman Filip Johansson with 24th pick,’ Star Tribune, 06/23/2018). If Guerin can get a piece he likes, it might be worth making the move.

Related: Revisiting the Brent Burns Trade

To be successful, Guerin is going to have to make more trades like the Zucker trade, more signings like the Chaffee signing. and rebuild the management culture of the Wild. The draft picks that Fletcher gambled away did not bring the Wild any closer to a Stanley Cup Final; and in 14 months, Fenton decimated the culture of the organization. So far, the team seems to be back on track and this general manager has shown that he’s the man with the plan to keep it going in that direction.

The post Wild’s Prospect Problem & Guerin’s Plan to Fix It appeared first on The Hockey Writers.


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