Going into the 2012 NHL free agency period, the Minnesota Wild hadn’t made the playoffs in four seasons. They only managed a 35-36-11 record during 2011-2012, and finished 12th in the Western Conference — 14 points out of a playoff spot.
The prospect cupboard had a number of decent players, such as Mikael Granlund, but overall, wasn’t going to be providing a boost to the roster anytime soon.
So general manager Chuck Fletcher reached into his pockets and signed two of the biggest free agents on the market that year in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Parise would be 28-years-old at the start of the season, and had put up 410 points in 502 games (while providing solid two-way play) with the New Jersey Devils. Suter would also be 28 at the start of 2012-2013 and had put up 396 points while playing in 542 games with the Nashville Predators. Suter had formed one of the NHL’s best defensive pairings alongside Shea Weber, and was known around the league for providing dominant two-way play from the back end.
The two moves turned the Wild into a playoff team, and they’ve made the postseason in the three years following the signings.
Unfortunately, the Wild haven’t been able to advance far in the playoffs, bowing out of the first round in 2012-2013, and in the second round in the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons. The team was one of the two lowest playoff seeds in all three seasons, as the roster was good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to win the Stanley Cup.
The reason for this was that the Wild used up cap space on players who weren’t quite as good as what they were being paid. Sure, Parise and Suter are talented, but both are now on the wrong side of 30. They aren’t going to be getting better. The team also had Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, who were added before the 2011-2012 season. Heatley and Setoguchi had been good with their previous teams, but were older players that didn’t perform to the same level, and carried considerable cap hits.
After signing Parise and Suter, Minnesota also traded for then 30-year-old Jason Pominville in 2013, and then signed him to a five year, $5.6 million AAV contract, added Matt Moulson at the 2014 NHL trade deadline and signed Thomas Vanek to a three year, $6.5 million AAV contract in 2014. The team consistently went after veteran players who were no longer playing their best hockey, and as a result, were able to make the playoffs, but not really challenge for the Stanley Cup.
The 2015-2016 season has been different. Instead of relying on veterans who may not be in their prime, the Wild have a combination of skilled young players, effective veterans, and solid depth players to help the team win hockey games.
Players such as Jared Spurgeon and Justin Fontaine were added via free agency, but weren’t high profile names and came cheap. Their initial contracts with Minnesota both carried cap hits less than $1 million per year, and even now, their combined cap hit is $3.6 million per year. Both players have value, especially Spurgeon, who is arguably a top pairing defenseman at the NHL level.
Fontaine may not be as skilled as Spurgeon, but the 28-year-old is a solid defensive forward who fits in well on a shutdown line.
Then there are players who were drafted by the Wild, and are now stepping up to contribute on the NHL team. These players carry immense value against the cap, as their contributions to the team are usually not equivalent with their cap hits.
Players such as Matt Dumba, Jason Zucker, Erik Haula, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Mikael Granlund are all playing significant roles with the Wild this season, and are doing it for a combined cap hit of less than $14 million this season — an average of $2.33 million per player.
Any team is bound to be better (and have less cap issues) when Zucker is contributing at the level of a first line forward and Dumba is contributing close to the level of a top pairing defenseman, while both sit on entry level contracts.
Zucker has been one of the best goal scorers in the NHL over the past couple of seasons, especially when accounting for ice time. His goals per 60 minutes of 5 on 5 ice time is near the top of the league.
Dumba’s G/60 is also among the league leaders. Both players provide immense value when compared to their contracts, and are an example of how the Wild have moved on from just getting contributions from older, overpaid veterans.
The final two players that need to be mentioned are Nino Niederreiter and Devan Dubnyk. Niederreiter is a talented young forward who was acquired in June of 2013, for Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round draft pick. Niederreiter had been originally selected fifth overall by the New York Islanders at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, but his value within the organization fell and he was traded away for a fourth liner and a third round draft pick.
The Wild picked up the skilled Swiss forward, and he’s developed into a strong two-way player. Though the production isn’t there this season, Niederreiter’s effect on puck possession has been impressive, and is yet another example of the Wild finding underrated talent, and getting great value from it.
Devan Dubnyk, on the other hand, is a 30-year-old net minder who had trouble while playing in Edmonton early during his career. He was eventually bounced around from team to team before ending up with the Arizona Coyotes last season.
Desperate for a goaltender, the Wild traded a third round draft pick for Dubnyk halfway through the 2014-2015 season. That trade would pay off big time, as Dubnyk posted a .928% save percentage and finished the season with a 37-13-4 record for Minnesota. He continues to provide the team with solid goaltending, posting a .907% SV% and a 10-4-2 record this season.
2015-2016 is going well for the Wild, who currently sit in eight overall in the league, in terms of points percentage. They’re playing good hockey this season, and aren’t necessarily doing it on the backs of their big-name acquisitions.
Minnesota has built a strong team this season by relying not only on the addition of big name free agents, but also on smart free agent signings, smart trades, and good drafting/development of players. As a result, they look like they’re finally ready to take the next step, though only time will tell if they can make it out of the Central Division bracket come playoff time.