Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Game: Bottoming Out

By Nick

"With the first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Minnesota Wild is proud to select..."

If Wild fans are going to be able to hear Chuck Fletcher say those words, a lot will have to go either right or wrong - depending on what side of the "blow it up" argument you come down on - over the next couple years.  The only reason I'm even entertaining this idea is that I'm tired of the status quo.  I feel like the output over the past five seasons is enough of a sample size to indicate there is some kind of fatal flaw in this particular roster.  And therefore "they had a record regular season, give them another chance" is just unacceptably flaccid to me.

The rationale behind blowing it up is simple: the way to get the kind of high-end impact player that the Wild lacks is by drafting at the top of the first round. Think of the Penguins and Blackhawks.  The Wild, when it has been fortunate enough to have a pick in the first round, has been just competitive enough during the regular season to pick outside the money picks most of the time.  The one time it had a top-three pick, it used it on the franchise's all-time goals leader: Marian Gaborik.  That, by the way, was in the team's first-ever NHL entry draft.  This year's draft, in Chicago, will be the team's eighteenth.  Those Gaby memories are sweet, though, eh?

The Wild is a nice team of low-first-tier/high-second-tier (and lower) offensive talents.  Every team needs the kind of players the Wild has.  It's just that most contending teams also need some kind of game breaker - which the Wild does not have.  Even a plumbing company needs someone to go out and close business.

The downside in blowing it up is that it doesn't guarantee you that game-breaker.  Think of Colorado.  And that's assuming you hit with your pick - which is not a guarantee, given the Wild's draft history.  So, you could endure all the pain of sucking for a protracted period of time - measured in seasons, even - and then walk away with Nail Yakupov as your consolation prize.  Or, worse, AJ Thelen.

There is also the risk that you sacrifice revenue from fans if you lead them into the blow-it-up desert.

I'm of two minds about that when it comes to Wild fans.  On one hand, there is no shortage of good hockey to consume in Minnesota - even if not at the NHL level.  If the Wild tanks, one could easily see all those fans just go back to supporting their local college and high school hockey, eschewing the big league prices (to watch an uncompetitive product) at the X.

On the other hand, I want to say Minnesotans are so hockey-savvy that they would see the potential benefit of a blow it up campaign, and stick with the team throughout.  Or perhaps that they'll remember the cost they ultimately paid the last time they didn't support the local NHL team - regardless of extenuating circumstances.  Those feel like the less-likely scenarios, but who knows?

So, how would a blow it up even work?  And there's where it gets tricky.  There are no compliance buyouts anymore.  Contracts are guaranteed in the NHL.  And then there are no move and no trade clauses, not to mention contracts that are just so ugly that no one else would take them.

Trade The Vets?

One way teams bottom out is to shed high-priced veterans, garnering draft picks, while also performing poorly enough to maximize your odds of using those draft picks at the beginning of each round of the draft.  Especially those high-priced veterans who project to be past their prime contributing years by the time the re-build bears fruit.  The Wild, though, doesn't really have the luxury of that option.

Up front, there's one more season of Mikko ($6.75M cap hit).  Two more seasons of Staal ($3.5M cap hit).  Two more seasons of Pominville ($5.6M cap hit).  Parise's under contract for roughly 73 more seasons ($7.538M cap hit).  Mikko and Parise both have no moves.  Staal has a no trade.  Pominville, bless Chuck's heart, has both a no move and a no trade.  Isn't that like a Pope making Jesus Christ a saint?  St. Jesus, patron saint of....all the saints?

Defensively, for Suter see Parise.  Three more years of Spurgeon ($5.187M cap hit), with a no trade.

In goal, four more seasons of Duby ($4.333M cap hit), with a no trade.

Six of those players are both veterans and carry either a no move, a no trade, or both.  And they total  $40.446M worth of cap hit.  The other of those players, Spurgeon, is expensive and has a no trade, but is only 27.  And, as the greatest of the scant few hits of the Fletcher tenure, I think Chuck would move his own mother before he moved Spurge.  You're right, that's ridiculous.  His mother and a 2nd round pick.

But Who Wants To Eat Their Young?

The problem with being locked in on the vets is that it leaves the youth as the stockpile from which to select assets to move.  And, while none of the Wild's non-rookie youths is really distinguishing himself on a consistent basis, it's still galling to think of having to move them because you can't move the veterans on the team - who also aren't doing a hell of a lot to distinguish themselves.  And then you have to consider that any GM with whom Chuck tries to deal has to wonder what it is about [insert Wild kid name here] that Chuck knows that he doesn't know, that is making Chuck be willing to trade him in the first place.  Is it just that he forgot to give that particular kid a no move/no trade?  And, if it keeps the return value down, that's all that really matters to this discussion.

Conclusion One

I just don't see how you implement an actual blow-it-up strategy right now if you're the Wild.  In the first place, if a plan doesn't involve jettisoning a material representation of the veterans, can it be called a blow it up plan?  I'm going to go with "no."

Now, pro sports GMs have a penchant for believing that an underperforming player on another team is only a change of scenery away from ascending to the very height of their potential under the warm embrace of their organization.  So maybe you can get some other sap audacious GM to take that chance on our crusts.  And there's always the chance some other rebuilding GM will need to get to the cap floor which would put him in the market for one of our crusts.  And, maybe that's as close to a blow-it-up/re-build as we're going to come.  But, if it is, is it worth it?

How Would It Even Work?

Okay, let's sand table this exercise to see how it could even go down.  Obviously lots of wild cards and unknowns, far more than knowns, but what else are we going to argue over right now?

Summer, 2017

Try to trade Pominville.  Ideally not taking back any salary.  When you're ultimately forced to take back some salary, try to do so in the form of an ELC, preferably with waiver exemption remaining. And a unicorn.  And dinner with Jennifer Lawrence. When that ends up not happening, just try not to get fleeced.   Outcome: Pommer still on the team next October.

Don't re-sign Mikko.  If you want to bring him back beyond his current deal, he may not want to play anywhere else, even if you disrespect him a little bit by waiting to talk to him.  And he's 34.  As well as he played the first half of this season, he definitely cooled off down the stretch.  Once he's just a faceoff/defensive play guy, he's effectively a 3rd liner.  So okay, only re-sign him if he's willing to take a pay cut.  But even then, I wouldn't go longer than 2 years. Three, tops.  That may be a non-starter for him.  But, as far as risking him feeling disrespected, what's the bigger risk between waiting until January 1, 2018 to start talking to him, or low-balling him now?  Look, if he's reduced to a 3rd line role, he's more replaceable/less critical to us anyway.  Outcome: Mikko still on the team next October.

Think about leaving Staal unprotected.  His concussion in game 5 and the second year remaining on his contract may off-set the attractiveness of his strong regular season and relatively-cheap cap hit in George McPhee's mind.  You'd have to decide if leaving Staal unprotected or asking Pommer to waive all of his coats of armor is worse, optics-wise, as far as a signal to other potential UFAs of how we treat them here in Minnesota.  Outcome: Staal still on the team next October.

Plan to take at least one of Granlund or Niederreiter to arbitration.  This likely saves you in the short term of a couple extra years in term, and possibly some cap hit.  Outcome: Nino and Granlund both still on the team next October.

I trust you see the pattern here.

When it comes to the expansion draft, who knows?  Let's proceed with the premise that our young, unprotectable D are most-attractive to Vegas.  So, we're losing one.  As far as losing two young D this summer, if losing one in the expansion draft is going to happen, and losing another one (e.g. in a trade) frees up cap space to address another problem, then fine.  The whole point of a blow-it-up exercise is that the status quo is unacceptable.  So you're either willing to make changes or you're not.
But then you're still down two of your top 6 D from last season.  You need bodies.  Is Mike Reilly ready to stay with the big club?  What do we have in Olofsson - and does it even matter if he can't figure out how to stay out of the trainer's room?  But, if #Oneofus and Mr. Band-Aid aren't the answer on D, then you have to acquire some (free agency or trade).  That does fulfill the blow-it-up mandate, at least on D.

"With the first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Minnesota Wild is proud to select..."

Frankly, the most-likely route to an actual re-build would be to take both Nino and Granlund to arbitration this summer - assuming the team can get 2-year deals for both.  If the only option is a 1-year deal in arb this summer, it becomes less of a solution - even of the short-term variety.  (I'm not 100% sure of how the 1-year or 2-year elections work in arb.)  Do not re-sign Mikko, and plan to move on from him after next season (or trade him at next season's deadline when he's in the last year of his deal).  And plan to shop Staal and Pominville leading up to the trade deadline in 2019 - when they're in the last year of their respective deals.  In other words, target the 2019 entry draft as the one you're going to try to pick at the top of.

Conclusion Two

While that's the most-likely route and timeline to an actual re-build, once you start thinking that far out it becomes less-evident that you'll need to try to execute a re-build at that time in the first place.  Think about it.  If you're willing to wait two more seasons to start the damn thing, by that time Mikko's gone, and it's not like you're really accelerating the time frame by waiting until the trade deadline before both Staal's and Pommer's walk years anyway.  All you have to do is roll with the current lineup without making major changes between then and now.  That's highly unsatisfying against my "the status quo feels terrible" position way back in the first paragraph.  But I really don't see a faster route to an actual blow-it-up.

But, hey, Chuck says teams don't have windows.  So theoretically ours is still wide open.  Maybe Vegas will do us a solid and take a bad contract off our hands just because.  And maybe we'll find a back up who can give Duby some rest down the stretch next season.  And maybe Coyle, and Nino, and Zucker, and Granlund can find some consistency in their A-game.  And maybe Dumba will either find enough defense to be acceptable, or find enough offense to make his defensive shortcomings worth enduring.  And maybe Santa will bring Parise a new spine for Christmas.  And maybe Pominville....well, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

*All contract information from the good people at Cap Friendly.