While the NHL owners and players are locked in ongoing discussions about a fair and equitable resolution to the financial aspects of a February 1 return to play, some clubs are having to deal with roster insecurity. One such team is the Minnesota Wild which was dealt bad news Friday that will have an impact on their offense when the 2021 finally begins.
Wild veteran forward Mats Zuccarello recently underwent a surgery to repair a torn ligament injury on his right arm. Michael Russo from The Athletic reported Friday that the Zuccarello absence may be a later-than-sooner scenario, which will leave a huge divot in Dean Evason's top nine forward group.
When the NHL finally dies return to play, it will be to a 52-56 game compressed schedule. Suffice it to say that Zuccarello will miss the majority of games the Wild will play in 2021.
In 576 career NHL games, Zuccarello has scored 129 goals and 263 assists. The Norwegian forward had broken his right arm during the 2018-19 season. According to Russo, the bone had healed, however, the ligament in Zuccarello's arm has been a chronic problem. Last season was Zuccarello's first in a Minnesota sweater. Zuccarello signed a five year, $30 million contract with the Wild on July 1, 2019. While with the NY Rangers, Zuccarello could be counted on to score 50-60 points per season. In 2013-14 he scored 59 points followed by 49 points in 2014-15. In 2015-16, the diminutive forward scored 61 points and followed that up with 59 points in 2017-18. Then, the injury bug bit. Zuccarello scored 11 goals and 26 assists before breaking his arm in 2018-19. Last season, Zuccarello didn't live up to the high expectations that accompany a $30 million contract when he potted just 15 goals and 22 assists in 65 games in his first season in Minnesota.
Wild GM Bill Guerin didn't start the fire. Guerin inherited Zuccarello's hideous five year, $6 million annual average value contract. Guerin's predecessor Paul Fenton's fingerprints are all over that bad decision. Guerin is now tasked with having to find a veteran forward that can replace the 50-60 points that a healthy Zuccarello would have been accountable to.
Money is so tight that the NHL is squeaking right now. The $81.5 million salary cap handcuffed many an NHL GM. Money will be continue to be a huge bone of contention for the owners and players moving forward in the COVID19 world. The NHL isn't bursting at the seams with billions of dollars in TV revenues. The National League is a gate-driven league that can only survive when their are fannies in the seats in all 31 buildings on a regular basis. The sobering reality is that until further notice, there will be no fans in the buildings until a COVID19 vaccine is made available to the general public in the United States and in Canada. Hopefully, the Pfizer, Moderna, Oxford-Astra Zeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines will be available to the public in February and March. Until then, NHL players, manager, owners and fans must wait patiently on pins and needles.
Before the news of the Zuccarello surgery was made public, Guerin and the Wild confirmed that Russian whiz kid Kirill Kaprizov would finally be making his Wild debut this season. Kaprizov has already made the club in 2021, therefore, he is not a replacement for Zuccarello. The 23 year old sniper popped 33 goals and 29 assists in 57 games for CSKA Moscow of the KHL. In 2018-19, Kaprizov scored 30 goals and 21 assists in 57 games.
With the ninth overall pick at the 2020 NHL Draft, Guerin selected scoring forward Marco Rossi from the Ottawa 67s. Personally, I like Rossi's game. However, the kid is not ready for the rigors of a compressed NHL schedule. In October, the Wild loaned Rossi to the ZSC Lions in Switzerland. Were I Guerin, I would leave Rossi alone to develop. It's far too soon to be pushing the undersized forward into the pressure cooker
The Wild won't find a scoring solution in the current NHL free agent market.
Mike Hoffman can score you 30-40 goals a season, however, Guerin does not want to negotiate a new deal for a veteran scorer who just potted 29 goals and was paid $5,187,500 AAV last season
Guerin could take the path of least resistance and buy a scratch-off ticket on former Wild players and current UFAs Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, or Thomas Vanek. I don't see Guerin going back to the future to try to squeeze a huge ROI out of a low dough UFA investment.
In his short time in the GM chair, Guerin has proven that he is afraid to make a trade. Veteran center Eric Staal thought he was going to retire from the Wild after his contract expired at the end of the 2021 season. In mid-September, Guerin re-wrote the Staal narrative when without notice he traded the three-time 40-goal scorer and Stanley Cup champion to the Buffalo Sabres for forward Marcus Johansson. Guerin the GM has the same elite level hand-eye coordination he had as a proficient NHL sniper. Guerin never met a shot he didn't like. He is not afraid to pull the trigger because he has the confidence in his own abilities.
Another option for Guerin is to slide Zuccarello's $6M AAV to the long-term injured reserve. Park him on LTIR and allow his injury to fully heal. This will allow Guerin some financial freedom to wheel and deal, be creative.
For the past few months, I have heard the name of power forward Jordan Greenway in trade talks. Greenway is an intriguing prospect that has not lived up to the lofty expectations expected of him at the NHL level. It would not surprise me if Guerin is actively marketing Greenway for trade for a scoring forward and a defenseman. Greenway, 23, has struggled to carve out his niche with the Wild. The 2015 second round pick out of Boston University has scored just 20 goals and 33 assists, 83 PIMs in his 154 games. Greenway is a 6'6" 225 lb. power source So, why hasn't he matured into the dominating power forward we all expected him to be? Could it be that the constant flux and changes in the Minnesota coaching staff and management team have stunted Greenway's growth plan? Greenway was drafted by Chuck Fletcher and Bruce Boudreau. Now, he is finding his way under Bill Guerin and Dean Evason. Perhaps he isn't a great fit for the Wild. Maybe its best to trade him for an asset that can help Minnesota's offense now.
Casey Mittelstadt was drafted eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres at the 2017 NHL Draft. Then GM Jason Botterill and head coach Phil Housley envisioned Mittelstadt to be the second line center that would make Sabres Nation forget about the awkward and awful trade of Ryan O'Reilly to the St. Louis Blues. On July 1, 2018, Botterill traded ROR to the Blues in exchange for forwards Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson, along with a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick. Needless to say, the ROR trade blew up in Botterill's face after Mittelstadt failed when pressed prematurely into the 2C role for the Sabres. Mittelstadt is not to blame for his lackluster body of work that he has created in Buffalo. He should have been developed in the American League for two seasons rather than being given a roster spot in Buffalo. The clock is ticking on his opportunity to play for the Sabres.
Mittelstadt is a dynamic scorer and play maker on an NHL 2C, however, he has lacked the strength and confidence to fight and compete with the elite centers of the elite in Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Brayden Point, Patrice Bergeron, Sean Couturier, Ryan O'Reilly, etc. Perhaps in time Mittelstadt will develop the strength and confidence to play 2C but not today. He is best suited to play the wing which is where Ralph Krueger slotted him in 2019-20.
In an attempt to re-invigorate Mittelstadt and give him a needed re-boot, Botterill sent Mittelstadt to AHL Rochester last season where he scored 9 goals and 16 assists in 36 games. Decent production but not outstanding.
In his 114 games in Buffalo, Mittelstadt has scored just 17 goals and 22 assists. Mittelstadt's road to Buffalo was not paved in gold. The former Mr. Hockey of Minnesota starred at the University of Minnesota. Mittelstadt also created a lot of value for himself when the then 19-year-old forward from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, earned tournament MVP at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships hosted by the city of Buffalo in 2018. Mittelstadt fueled Team USA to a WJC bronze medal in Buffalo. His fast track from high school hockey to the University of Minnesota to the NHL has proven to be too much too soon for Mittelstadt. He's 22 years old now and has fallen down the Buffalo depth chart.
Will Mittelstadt play in Buffalo this season? It's not likely unless he has himself a monster of a training camp. Honestly, I don't see Mittestadt sticking and staying in Buffalo this season now that Botterill has been fired. New GM Kevyn Adams has re-designed Buffalo's top six forward group by importing top UFA Taylor Hall and adding Staal to anchor he second line. Adams also added UFA forwards Cody Eakin and Toby Reider while re-signing RFA Zemgus Girgensons and Curtis Lazar. Adams and Krueger are high on starting power winger Dylan Cozens (2019 first rounder) in Buffalo. Adams also has plans for his forward prospects in Tage Thompson, Rasmus Asplund, Finnish flash Artuu Ruotsalainen, and Matej Pekar who will battle for NHL jobs at training camp. Kevyn Adams invested heavily in high end offensive players with his first ever NHL draft choices. With the eighth overall pick at his first NHL Draft, Adams selected slick forward Jack Quinn from the Ottawa 67s. Quinn, a sniping winger, scored 52 goals and 37 assists in 62 games last season. Quinn's NHL level scoring touch will earn him a roster a=spot in Buffalo sooner rather than later. Adams invested his 2020 second rounder in German marksman J.J. Peterka, who currently is playing for Salzburg EC in the Austria pro league where he has scored 7 goals and 9 assists in 12 games. Both Quinn and Peterka will play for Canada and Germany at the upcoming IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in Edmonton/Red Deer. Don't be surprised when you see Quinn and Peterka playing in the NHL in the near future.
So, now you know why Mittelstadt's future is unclear in Buffalo. Nothing has been promised to Mittelstadt. He must earn his Sabres sweater or risk being moved on to another NHL club.
Mittelstadt does not play well enough on the defensive side of the puck to play in Krueger's bottom six forward group. Mittelstadt's calling card is his high end speed and skill.
One wonders how Mittelstadt will earn a roster spot on a dramatically improved Sabres roster in 2021 when he was simply middle of the road on a less competitive roster last season.
Perhaps Guerin and Adams can each catch lightning in a bottle by trading Jordan Greenway and a second rounder to Buffalo in exchange for Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson.