Bill Guerin didn’t have much time to retool the Wild after he was named general manager last August, joining the organization less than a month before training camp opened.
But now he has a wider window to maneuver, albeit during abnormal circumstances, and that could put the Wild on the cusp of an overhaul since Guerin expects to be busy after the team was quickly bounced from the Stanley Cup qualifiers.
“We’re a good team, but there definitely have to be changes,” Guerin said Monday on a video conference call. “There are always changes. We haven’t had success here. Things need to get better. That’s just the way it is.”
Although the sample size is small, Guerin has already proven he isn’t afraid to shuffle the deck.
His first major trade shipped fan favorite Jason Zucker to Pittsburgh, and he also fired coach Bruce Boudreau in mid-February before permanently promoting Dean Evason last month following Evason’s 8-4 run in the regular season as an interim.
Still, the result was the same — another early exit from the postseason, this time a 3-1 bust to Vancouver in a best-of-five as part of the NHL’s return to play tournament after the season was paused in March due to the pandemic.
How aggressively Guerin reacts to this latest letdown will shape realistic expectations for next season, and he has targets in mind.
Not only does he feel the Wild needs to get faster, but the team also could use a skill upgrade with its forwards. The addition of Kirill Kaprizov should help with that, but Kaprizov isn’t a center and that’s the area the Wild has to bolster.
“Teams don’t trade No. 1 centers,” Guerin said. “They just don’t. Usually it’s got to be done in the free-agent market or through the draft. It’s a position that I think this organization has needed for quite some time, and we’re going to try to address it.
“A No. 1 center is very tough to come by. I don’t see one, to be honest with you, in the pipeline. It’s something that we’re hoping somebody can turn into. But you don’t know.”
And although Guerin felt Alex Stalock gave the team a chance to win in every playoff game, goaltending is on the hot seat.
Both Stalock and normal No. 1 Devan Dubnyk are under contract for next season, but the hierarchy isn’t set.
“Whoever’s playing well is going to play,” Guerin said. “I was disappointed in the goaltending this year. Al had a tremendous year and Devan had an off year, and it needs to be better. That’s just the way it is. And if I told you anything different, I’d be lying to you. It was not a strong point for us.”
At .897, the Wild had the third-worst save percentage in the NHL in the regular season and a bottom-10 goals-against average (3.14), a drop-off that prompted Guerin to cut ties with longtime goaltending coach Bob Mason on Monday. In addition to hiring a new goalie coach, the Wild will also bring on another assistant coach. Assistants Bob Woods and Darby Hendrickson will return.
“He had an incredible run here,” Guerin said of Mason’s 18-year tenure with the organization after the International Falls native’s 18-season stint in the NHL. “I have nothing negative to say about him. Sometimes you just need change, and at that position we needed a change.”
The team has Kaapo Kahkonen to consider, the reigning American Hockey League goalie of the year who Guerin pegged as an option, and Guerin didn’t commit to giving the Dubnyk-Stalock tandem a chance to redeem itself next season.
“No, I can’t say that,” Guerin said. “If I have an opportunity to make it better, I will. But I’m also confident if those guys come back that they’re gonna be battling for a spot. And, we’ve got Kaapo Kahkonen pushing. It just has to be better flat out. So, I can’t promise anybody a spot.
“Al did himself a lot of good. He played hard. The guys played for him. But, still, next year is next year, and we’re going to be better.”
Guerin can start making adjustments now, but this isn’t a typical offseason.
The salary cap will stay flat at $81.5 million, which certainly affects teams’ flexibility, and there’s uncertainty about whether next season will actually start on Dec. 1 like the NHL hopes.
Wild brass would like to begin tackling contracts, but Guerin acknowledged that process could get delayed since it’s tricky not knowing what the market will look like.
Captain Mikko Koivu, Alex Galchenyuk and Carson Soucy are the team’s unrestricted free agents, while Luke Kunin and Jordan Greenway are restricted free agents. The likes of Kevin Fiala, Marcus Foligno and Jonas Brodin are also eligible for extensions. The Wild has approximately $16 million in cap space for next season, according to capfriendly.com.
But, unlike a year ago, Guerin has time to explore the possibilities — an opportunity that could lead to a new version of the franchise.
“I’m always listening and always willing to listen to another team’s ideas,” Guerin said, “and we have some ideas of our own.”
Escape while you can!