The Minnesota Wild had plenty of problems last season. Their penalty kill was awful, ranking 27th in the league with a 77.9 percent conversion rate. They had a six-week run where they completely forgot how to score. The young defensemen they counted on experienced growing pains. And they never did figure out how to use Thomas Vanek in their system.
But the most glaring flaw for Minnesota was their lack of depth. Minnesota generally had quality (if not spectacular) players on their top three lines, but struggled to fill out the bottom of their lineup. Chris Porter, Ryan Carter, and Jarret Stoll played in a combined 172 games for Minnesota. The three of them combined for a meager 25 points, and they were all in the bottom-10 of NHL players in Corsi For percentage (minimum 400 minutes). On a nightly basis, their fourth line was incapable of making a positive impact.
Minnesota also had a depth problem at the center position. Beyond Mikko Koivu and Erik Haula, the Wild didn’t have any good options at center. Sure, Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle can play center somewhat, but they both suffer when forced into the role. They’re more dynamic playing as wingers, with Coyle able to win board battles and Granlund free to focus on offense.
General manager Chuck Fletcher has taken some steps to resolve this issue. He bolstered the center depth by picking up Eric Staal on a reasonable deal, then added Chris Stewart to help round out the bottom of their roster. Both ought to help the team, with Staal freeing Granlund and Coyle from center duties, and Stewart bringing more scoring to the table than the likes of Porter/Carter/Stoll.
But there are still holes to fill. The Wild still need to fill two forward spots in their lineup.
One person many thought would be a great fit in Minnesota was Matt Cullen. Cullen will turn 40 in November, but his play hasn’t dropped off at all throughout his late-30s. As a center who can put up some points, be an ace in the face-off dot, and perform well on the penalty kill, his game matches up with a lot of things Minnesota needs.
But despite his interest in Minnesota this summer, the Wild missed out on him, allowing Cullen to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So what are Minnesota’s options?
At this point in August, there usually aren’t a ton of palatable free agents left. This has changed a bit in recent years. Since the salary cap hasn’t gone up significantly in the past few seasons, more teams are opting to promote prospects on entry-level deals into depth roles than sign a free agent veteran. This means that some players who would normally be under contract by now are looking for jobs, which can create value for smart teams.
The big prize in this batch is Jiri Hudler.
Among players with 1000+ minutes, Hudler ranked ninth over the last two seasons in 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes (2.34). While it’s true that he spent a lot of that time skating alongside Johnny Gaudreau, Hudler managed to be slightly more productive per-minute in his 750 minutes away from “Johnny Hockey”.
In short, he’s good.
If Hudler’s asking price comes down to the point where he can be had with Minnesota’s ~$2 million in cap space, he’d be a fantastic get. Granlund is the Wild’s only pure playmaker, so an assist machine like Hudler would be a great addition.
But if Hudler’s price goes that low, he may want to join a more sure-fire Cup contender than Minnesota. A more realistic target would be Brandon Pirri. Pirri is a bit of a one-trick pony, but that one trick — scoring goals — is a good one to have. He was traded to Bruce Boudreau’s Ducks last season, but injuries limited him to nine games in Anaheim. At just 25, he would be a cheap option to center a scoring fourth line.
Cody Hodgson would also be an interesting add. Hodgson looked to be a solid offensive contributor in Buffalo, scoring 44 points in the 2013-14 season. Since then, he has just 21 points in 117 games. Yikes.
When you look at Hodgson, you see a center who’s only 26, was a former 10th overall pick, and has been successful before. He fits the profile of an ideal player to take a flier on.
The Nashville Predators thought so, too. Though Hodgson was a decent possession player for Nashville, Peter Laviolette wasn’t able to fix his scoring woes. Could Boudreau solve Hodgson’s problems? It wouldn’t be expensive to find out.
The Wild could also opt to fill those two forward spots internally.
Tyler Graovac is a favorite after winning a job out of training camp last year. Graovac’s a hulking 6-foot-6 center who had decent production in a terrible situation in Minnesota’s AHL club. An Opening Night injury derailed his season, but his two-way game and size should allow him to hit the reset button. Speedy Jordan Schroeder has also been up-and-down with the Wild over the last two years, so don’t discount his chances, either.
Along the wing, there are three major contenders to break into the roster: Sam Anas, Mario Lucia, and Alex Tuch. They’re all goal scorers, but they do it in different ways. Anas uses his speed and stick-handling to beat opposing defenders and goaltenders. Lucia is finesse for a 6-foot-3 player, relying on his accurate shot to create chances rather than his frame. And Tuch is a bulldozer, powering his way to the net for chances.
But the most intriguing internal candidate is 2015 first-rounder Joel Eriksson Ek. Eriksson Ek is a true two-way player — one who is an asset on both sides of the ice. He’s responsible defensively, and a tenacious shooter who boasts a great shot. And as a natural center, Eriksson Ek would help the Wild’s depth down the middle.
Eriksson Ek was good last year, holding his own as an 18-year-old in the Swedish Elite League and finishing in the top 10 in shots on goal in the World Junior Championship. Now he’s making a push for an NHL job, gaining muscle and impressing in both the Wild’s development camp and at the National Junior Evaluation Camp earlier this month.
Should Minnesota look to fill out their roster through free agency, or do it internally? It’s a tough question. If a player like Graovac, Tuch, or Eriksson Ek are absolutely ready, then the Wild would be justified in letting them grow into a role rather than getting a stopgap to block them from a roster spot.
At the same time, the Wild’s experience with Graovac last year is a cautionary tale about letting prospects be your Plan A. When Graovac got injured, Minnesota suddenly didn’t have a backup plan as a fourth line center. How did they fill that role? By acquiring Jarret Stoll.
Landing a free agent like Pirri or Hodgson to round out the bottom of the roster may not be an exciting idea. But it’s a safe route with more upside than risk. If they don’t work out, the Wild can default to their prospects. For a team that had as many issues icing a competitive fourth line, the Wild should err on the side of having more depth, not less.