And then there were two.
With the Stanley Cup Finals all but set, the annual tradition begins. The NHL is a copycat league and teams will inevitably compare their own roster to those united in Florida and Las Vegas. Some of the nitpicking will make sense, for example, Florida acquired several undervalued players who now help them. Others aren’t, because it’s hard to replicate what the Florida Panthers did by signing Sergei Bobrovsky to the worst contract of the salary cap era, only to have him suddenly look like Dominik Hasek on the Internet.
The same goes for Florida’s blockbuster trade for superstar Matthew Tkachuk last summer. There are only two Tkachuks in the NHL and only one Matthew. Even if there were more, who would trade one now?
Or maybe Minnesota Wild fans will look to their Western Conference foes in Sin City for inspiration. Their propensity to do whatever they can to hoard high-end talent at the expense of their own fan favorites can be hard to replicate. From Mark Stone to Alex Pietrangelo, to Jack Eichel, the Vegas Golden Knights have built their roster outside of NHL standards.
This is where we need to pause and reflect, because the Wild had every chance to think outside the box by acquiring one of these superstars before Vegas could.
It’s not often that young #1 centers become available on the open market. However, in the summer of 2021, Eichel finds himself there. Perhaps more precisely, forced himself to. The former second overall pick was in a protracted dispute with the Buffalo Sabers over the management of his neck injury. After months of stalemate, Eichel grew frustrated and demanded a trade.
The Wild had a path to finally acquiring a No. 1 center. A top center had always eluded their roster for the duration of their existence. And reports that Bill Guerin was interested were everywhere. Apparently GM for the first time was negotiating with Buffalo on a potential trade. Eichel’s $10 million cap was a big deal, especially in Minnesota’s case. Eventually, Guerin backed off, partly because of the capping move, but also because of the assets the Sabers were asking the Wild to step away from.
Then came the bombshell just months into 2021. Buffalo had traded Eichel to Vegas. What? How?! Of course, the Knights had a few players in reserve for long-term injuries and could fit Eichel into their cap space. Yet these players would eventually return. How the hell was Vegas going to make this work?
Maybe that’s where Minnesota can learn from a team that’s on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup. Vegas basically did two things the Wild didn’t want to do by acquiring the game-changing center.
Acquiring star players and dealing with salary cap implications later
Minnesota opted to bypass a potential Eichel trade primarily because of the constraints it would place on their salary cap situation. While they would have had to move key roster items for such a move to work, they could have pulled the trigger.
That summer, they chose to sign actors to complete their roster. Alex Goligoski ($5 million) and Dmitry Kulikov ($2.25 million) signed as free agents to round out the defense. In turn, neither player was a key roster contributor the following spring. The Wild traded Kulikov the following summer.
Part of the reason Minnesota dropped the Eichel contest was its propensity to maintain roster margins.
On the other hand, Vegas decided that Eichel’s star power outweighed the depth they would lose by getting his contract. And it pays them dividends.
Valuing proven star-level talent over the unknown
The other part of this trade is the assets going the other way to Buffalo, of course. Vegas left with fan favorite Alex Tuch, former first-round pick Peyton Krebs, a first-round pick and a second-round pick for Eichel and a third-round pick. It’s a lot. But they were betting on Eichel successfully recovering from his neck injury and getting back into shape. For them, the trumps were worth the player.
The Wild could have matched or even surpassed this trade. Tuch was a key target for the Sabers because they wanted an NHL-level player who could help their team compete. But Minnesota happened to have a player Buffalo wanted in Jordan Greenway, as evidenced by their trade for the power forward last season.
Greenway may not be of the same caliber as Tuch, but the Wild could have made up for that disparity with a more valued prospect in Marco Rossi compared to how Krebs was perceived at the time. Rossi was a year younger than Krebs and was drafted into the top 10. Without a doubt, Krebs was the least valued prospect.
Let me ask you, from now on, would you have traded Greenway, Rossi, a first and second round pick for the services of Eichel? I imagine almost everyone in the state of hockey would jump at the chance, knowing what we know now with Rossi’s developmental issues.
Yes, this is all just revisionist history. But that’s the point. The lesson learned from not executing the potential trade is that the Wild should continue with the Golden Knights mentality. The chances of even your most highly touted prospects ever reaching similar heights to Eichel’s caliber are miniscule.
This is not a call for someone in the hockey state to sprint to their garage and convert their Honda Civic to a modern DeLorean so we can go back in the summer of 2021 and beg Guerin to run the exchange. This is a call for the Minnesota Wild to learn from their Eichel trade fallout mistakes and to glean some wisdom from their rivals.
The next time a Star Center becomes available for trade, deal with the implications of the cap down the road. Sacrifice your replaceable depth for a star talent. You may have affection for your best prospects, but they’re not a sure thing.
Vegas knew that before the Wild, and we see them drive their superstar center to the Stanley Cup Finals.