The Minnesota Wild, the playoff bubble, and the importance of homegrown talent

Andrew Fielding-USA TODAY Sports

Because of the way they were constructed, have the Minnesota Wild already hit their ceiling?

SB Nation 2014 NHL Playoff Bracket

Even though the Minnesota Wild are on their way to the playoffs for a second straight year, they do not seem to be any closer to winning the Stanley Cup than they were a season ago.

Despite being a team that has spent to the salary cap, has a nice collection of young players, and has attempted to correct its shortcomings offensively by trying to be more aggressive when it comes to gaining the zone, there is still something lacking here when it comes to the on-ice performance.

The Wild score fewer goals per game than they did a season ago (going from 2.46, which was 22nd in the league, to 2.39, which is 27th in the league), they generate fewer shots (28.4 per game last year to 26.7 this season), all while their possession numbers have remained nearly identical (48.8 percent shot differential, measured by Fenwick Close, last year to 48.7 this year).

Stanley Cup teams are typically well over the 50 percent mark, and usually closer to 52 or 53 percent.

And just like last year, the Wild are destined to be one of the bottom two playoff teams in the Western Conference.

Is that what Minnesota ownership had in mind when it went hog wild in free agency last year and decided it was going to spend to the salary cap? Probably not. The team's shortcomings on the ice may have a lot to do with how the team has been assembled, with an emphasis on free agency and trading for established veterans.

Just look at some of the high-profile moves the team has made over the past few seasons.

  • Acquired Dany Heatley from the San Jose Sharks for Martin Havlat prior to the 2011-12 season.
  • Acquired Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first-round draft pick from the San Jose Sharks for Brent Burns in the same offseason.
  • Signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $96 million contracts in free agency prior to the 2012-13 season.
  • Acquired Jason Pominville from the Buffalo Sabres for Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett, and a first-and second-round draft pick at the 2013 trade deadline. They then signed Pominville to a five-year, $28 million contract to prevent him from hitting the unrestricted free agent market.
  • Acquired Matt Moulson from the Buffalo Sabres for Torrey Mitchell and two draft picks at the 2014 trade deadline.

That is a lot of movement, and those are some big names. Whatever problems the Wild have, it is certainly not from a lack of effort in the front office. The problem is that effort has been focussed in an area that isn't necessarily the most efficient way to construct a contending team in the salary cap era.

The thing that stands out about almost all of those players (Setoguchi and Coyle being the exceptions) is that when they were acquired they were either on the wrong side of 30, or getting very close to being at that age.

You're paying top dollar for a player that has probably already played his best hockey for somebody else.

This is the problem teams run into when they get into bidding wars for free agents and trying to trade for already established players. You're paying top dollar for a player that has probably already played his best hockey for somebody else.

Historically, most NHL players hit their peak point production sometime between the ages of 24 and 26. By the time they hit free agency, they are already beyond that age and probably starting on the downward trend on their career arc. That doesn't necessarily mean they are going to fall off a cliff and cease to be productive (though, some might), just that you probably shouldn't expect them to be the player they were when they were 24 or 25 and still playing for the team that drafted them.

Just look at the players Minnesota has acquired over the past couple of years and how much they are costing them. Heatley, Parise, Suter and Pominville combine to take up more than $26 million of Minnesota's cap space this season.

When the Wild acquired Heatley, he was already 31, had three years and $22 million still remaining on his contract, and was well into a sharp decline that saw his goal totals drop from 50, to 41, to 39, and then down to 26. That decline has only continued to get worse in Minnesota this season, and reached the point where he has actually been a healthy scratch. Fortunately for the Wild this albatross is off the books after this season.

Parise, the gem of the 2012 free agency class, signed with the Wild when he was 28 and is still a top-line scorer. He is never going to be the 40-goal, 80-point producer that he was in New Jersey in his mid-20s. He will be 30 next season and still have a decade left on his contract. He is still a very good player right now and should be for at least a couple of more years, but it's only going to be downhill from here. And again, New Jersey already saw the best Parise has to offer from an offensive standpoint while Minnesota pays him for it.

Parise_medium

Photo credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

It's going to be a similar story for Pominville, Minnesota's leading scorer this season, as he turns 32 early next year and will be in the first year of a brand new five-year, $28 million contract.

Add in the contract for homegrown product Mikko Koivu, which still has four years remaining on it, and the Wild are going to have $28 million in cap space going to four players all over the age of 30 (Parise, Suter, Pominville, Koivu) for at least the next four seasons.

Given the way most of their their careers seem to be trending, that probably isn't the best situation to be in.

Chart_1__8__medium

This year alone their top-five salaries combine for more than $32 million, which is essentially half of their allotted salary cap space. When compared to the rest of the league, and especially Stanley Cup contenders, this is not an uncommon thing. Any team that is considered a top contender has a similar salary structure at the top of its roster with nearly half of its cap space going to just five players. But one of the differences between Minnesota and the contenders, aside from the obvious gap in talent in other areas on the roster, is Minnesota's core group is older than the others by at least a couple of years.

Where a team like Chicago is devoting most of its cap resources to guys like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, or a team like Pittsburgh is paying Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, or a team like Los Angeles is led by Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, the Wild are mostly paying for past performances that they did not benefit from.

This isn't to say that teams should avoid free agency or trading for established players that are already under big contracts. Not all players age the same way, and if you already have core players like Kane, Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as your foundation, adding a Marian Hossa in free agency can put you over the top.

But if you're a team that doesn't already have those core players you're probably not going to be able to piece it together via free agency as the Wild have tried to do. It's too expensive, it takes up too much cap space, and you're not getting the guys in the prime of their careers.

For this team, as currently constructed to take the next step, it's going to need major contributions from youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter in the coming years.

Otherwise, they have probably already hit their ceiling as a No. 7 or 8 seed that sees its playoff run end in less than seven games.

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