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Wild offseason off to an ominous start: The latest on the Kaprizov situation, Talbot drama and more
MONTREAL — Make no mistake: As excited as the Wild were with their eight selections in the 2022 NHL draft, including four picks in the top 56, and the re-signing of Marc-Andre Fleury, this has been an ominous start to the offseason for the Wild.
Kirill Kaprizov is caught up in a chilling political situation regarding his military requirements, is still in Russia and, according to league sources, was turned away from returning to the United States — something that is privately sending shivers down the spines of everybody in the Wild organization even if they’re publicly saying otherwise.
Fleury is locked and loaded for two more years, but even though Cam Talbot maintained after the season he’d be fine being in a tandem with Fleury and doesn’t want to be traded, he clearly feels burned — to the extent that Friday there needed to be a meeting between Wild general manager Bill Guerin and Talbot’s agent, George Bazos, who was seen unhappily talking to Guerin after Fleury’s signing was announced the day before.
Bazos texted The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun after meeting with Guerin during the third round Friday, saying, “We both stated our positions. Billy has a lot to think about.”
“I don’t have shit to do,” he said Friday. “Cam Talbot’s under contract. George can say whatever the hell he wants. My team’s set right now, and that’s the way it goes. So we can have all the discussions we want. Cam’s a member of our team. We really like Cam. All we’re trying to do is win. All we’re trying to do is have good, strong goaltending, and I think we have that.”
Some are interpreting Bazos’ comment as meaning Talbot wants to be traded, something that wouldn’t be a surprise since it bothered him that Fleury started the first five games of the playoffs despite Talbot finishing the regular season on a 13-0-3 run. But team sources say Talbot actually wants a raise by way of a contract extension. He has a $3.67 million cap hit and will make $3 million in the last year of his contract next season. Fleury’s contract pays him $500,000 more.
Oh, and one other thing: Kevin Fiala, who had the second-best offensive season in Wild history in 2021-22, was traded to the Los Angeles Kings for futures. The trade for the No. 19 pick and University of Minnesota defenseman Brock Faber has been lauded by scouts throughout the NHL, but that doesn’t help the Wild next season, when 33 goals and 85 points need to be replaced by a team that barely has enough cap space to afford a house in Edina.
Still, Guerin feels there’s no reason the Wild can’t be as good as last year’s 113-point team with the returning roster, an extra bottom-six forward they’ll pursue in free agency and young talents Marco Rossi and Calen Addison vying for roster spots.
“We can always get better. We had a pretty good team last year,” Guerin said. “Maybe we don’t need to rely as much on our theatrics as we did with pulling the goalie and stuff, which is a great tool that we have. We’re very good at it. Maybe protecting leads, things like that. But I think the biggest thing is when we get into the playoffs is being able to handle it.”
Guerin is looking for the team to be better defensively and for the porous special teams to improve drastically. It is abundantly clear that he has instructed the coaching staff this summer to find solutions to fix the power play and penalty kill.
But Guerin doesn’t want to sacrifice the Wild’s offense (they ranked fifth in the NHL at 3.72 goals per game) despite the loss of Fiala.
“I love the style we play. It’s fun,” he said. “And we won a lot of games this year, a lot of points.”
Guerin casually shrugged an affirmative Friday when asked if he’s confident Kaprizov will be able to get back to North America later this summer, but he declined to talk about Kaprizov.
It’s an extremely serious and delicate situation, and the team saying the wrong thing could potentially make it worse. Guerin could be seen meeting with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly on Thursday night in an attempt to seek guidance. The Wild are working behind the scenes trying to get things sorted out.
To summarize: The Wild superstar has been accused of buying a fraudulent military ID in 2017, something his father has denied publicly. Oleg Kaprizov says his son has been a student, which has allowed him to defer his military obligations. But that apparently expired June 30.
But this is the daunting thing: Kaprizov is suddenly entrenched in major political drama amid a Russia-Ukraine war and escalated tensions between the United States and Russia. And even though the Wild are publicly portraying this as no big deal, they won’t breathe a sigh of relief until he’s safely back in the U.S.
According to league sources, Kaprizov left Russia recently for Dubai and tried to return to the U.S. He couldn’t clear into the U.S., though, perhaps because he doesn’t currently have a work visa despite signing a five-year contract last September. As The Athletic reported July 1, several Europeans — not just Russians — were given exceptions to play last season without visas because U.S. consulates were inundated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kaprizov, sources say, tried to cross the ocean by way of Caribbean Islands after not succeeding in the Dubai route. Again, he wasn’t permitted. Kaprizov then returned to Russia, where he remains.
“It’s scary. It’s scary for all of us,” coach Dean Evason said. “It’s a scary situation in our world. To see somebody as close as we know Kirill, yeah, it’s a scary situation. And we hope that it all gets sorted out correctly.”
As for Talbot, when Guerin traded for Fleury in March, Guerin said there was no time for “petty bullshit” if the addition would bother Talbot, who had begun to catch fire after a major rough patch in his season.
Then, after the season, when Talbot said he wasn’t happy about the Wild’s decision to have him play caddy to Fleury in the playoffs, and when his wife, Kelly, sounded off on Twitter, Talbot said it was overblown and Guerin said there would be “no controversy, no drama” if he were to return with Fleury and Talbot.
Now, there’s controversy and drama even though the Fleury signing couldn’t have blindsided Talbot. Guerin has been openly talking about wanting Fleury back for two months.
In Fleury’s mind, everything is hunky-dory between him and Talbot. He said he exchanged messages with Talbot and thinks a tagteam would be good for both goalies, who are 37 and 35, respectively.
Fleury expects an almost 50-50 split of starts, similar to what happened after his arrival last season from Chicago.
“Both of us will play, and I think that’s something that will make us good, too,” Fleury said. “Because every night we’ll have a fresh goalie in net, and a guy that can win games. And we’ll help each other, push each other. I think it will be good for the team.
“I get along great with Cam. He’s a good goalie and a good person. Sometimes it’s a little easier on the body, too. I’m getting older, so those rests in the season help me stay healthy and stay fresh when you’re playing.”
Guerin didn’t have a chance to connect with Talbot other than text messages Friday because of a Rogers outage in Montreal that was disrupting cell calls.
“But, you know, bottom line, these guys are under contract,” Guerin said. “They’re our players. And I have faith in Cam that he’s going to be OK. I’m not going to make a big deal out of this.”
I tried to ask Guerin one more question about Talbot, but he was in no mood and shut it down. The question I was going to ask is why not trade Talbot, sign a more inexpensive backup for $1 million or something and use that extra $2.67 million cap hit on a quality forward in free agency.
Right now, the Wild have only $1.4 million in space, and they’re indicating that Rossi and Addison have great chances to make the team and that they plan to sign another bottom-six forward. That means we should fully expect a trade at some point to clear cap space, because right now the Wild can’t afford two forwards, a defenseman and have the ability to conduct business next season with internal callups.
But Guerin was done talking about Talbot: “We’ve got kids that got drafted today. This is the biggest day of their life. I want to talk about these guys.”
Evason said he’s still “bitter” about not getting past the first round and “I hope it’s fresh for the players, because that’s what we’re going to take to training camp.”
Evason has had a complicated relationship with Fiala since their days together in Milwaukee but wished him well with the Kings.
“He’s developed in part because of what we did as an organization with the Minnesota Wild,” Evason said. “He’s developed to be an $8 million player. Great. Good for him. I’m very happy to see where he’s come from when I’d seen him as an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old. He’s made such a great strides.”
Evason added that the Wild will need to replace Fiala by committee. Several players will get looks in training camp, but it sure feels Evason is penciling in Rossi, a 2020 first-round pick, on a line with Matt Boldy and Freddy Gaudreau or Tyson Jost to start camp.
“We’re going to try different people in those spots,” Evason said. “And obviously, Rossi is going to get a clear, very good opportunity. I could name probably six guys that we’re thinking about, talking about. … We will go through that process in training camp. We’ve got lots of games, so we’ll get a good opportunity to see people play with different people, and hopefully we can do it by committee.”
First, Rossi, who was at almost a point per game in his first year with Iowa last season, must earn a roster spot. But if he does, Evason cautioned there could be some growing pains, “which is part of the development process.”
But he expects Boldy to take a big step after scoring 15 goals and 39 points in 47 games during his rookie season, a 26-goal, 68-point pace over a full season for a guy who didn’t turn 21 until April 5. Evason reminded that Addison ran Iowa’s power play from the point, with Rossi on the half wall. If they make the team, Evason expects both to be integral parts of a Wild power play that he vows will undergo systematic tweaks next season after failing miserably during both the regular season and playoffs.
As for Rossi, Guerin said, “(The job’s) up for grabs, yeah, but you’ve got to take it. … I expect him to rise to that occasion. He’s a character kid. I expect him to come in in great shape and ready to go.”
As for Addison, even with Jon Merrill maybe not ready for the start of the season, Guerin said, “Addy’s still going to have to push for a spot. He’s definitely capable of doing it. It’s a matter of just making our decisions hard, and he’s just gotta push. He’s got all the tools to do it. I’m sure he’ll be ready for the challenge.”
Guerin quipped Thursday that maybe he’s a “fool” for thinking the Wild will be just as good or better than last season. There’s no doubt this is still a good hockey team, even without Fiala.
But between the Kaprizov situation, Fiala’s departure, Talbot’s drama and the cap squeeze, it feels like this offseason has gotten off to a worrying start.
Or, maybe I’m the fool.