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Minnesota Wild’s Parise, Suter Buyouts A Cautionary Tale For NHL

Bill Guerin won the Stanley Cup twice during his playing career, but his pursuit of winning a championship as an executive seemingly knows no bounds.

The general manager of the Minnesota Wild took a risk Tuesday that not many people in his position would be allowed to attempt, never mind execute, by ownership.

But Guerin had the guts and pulled the trigger on a real reset of the Wild organization when he bought out the last four years of the contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. That duo signed identical 13-year, $98 million contracts on July 4, 2012, a day that ironically made the Wild dependent on both Parise and Suter playing up to their superstar levels and also attracting talent around them willing to play in St. Paul for less than the market could offer because the forward and defensemen were hogging so much of the Wild’s salary-cap space. (24 percent of the cap space when the deals were signed, according to CapFriendly.com.)

“Zach and Ryan have been an integral part of the Wild’s success over the past nine years and we’ll always be grateful for their many contributions,” Wild general manager Bill Guerin said Tuesday. “There were numerous factors that entered into the difficult decision to buy out their contracts, but primarily these moves are a continuation of the transformation of our roster aimed at the eventual goal of winning a Stanley Cup.”

To say the NBA-like experiment failed would be an understatement. And it’ll always be a case study for NHL executives figuring out what not to do in a league with a hard salary cap.

Ultimately the two mega-contracts were going to be judged on how the Wild fared as a team. Well they qualified for the playoffs six straight times after bringing Suter and Parise aboard, but reached the second round just twice and never advanced beyond that point. They missed the playoffs two years prior to this season before getting eliminated by Vegas in the first round of the 2021 postseason.

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The Parise/Suter experiment should serve as a cautionary tale for any NHL GM who has the cap space to import a couple superstars and thinks that devoting a quarter of the team’s total salary cap to a duo might be the key to Cup glory. Minnesota got production out of both players — Parise had five seasons of 25 goals or more, while Suter was perennially their leader in ice time and finished top 10 in Norris Trophy voting five times — but time and again management’s hands were tied by the two contracts, especially when the players who were 28 at the time of the signings entered their mid-30s.

While the Toronto Maple Leafs’ core players are much younger now than Suter and Parise were when they went to Minnesota, the Leafs are facing a similar dilemma these days with 30 percent of their salary cap devoted to three forwards (Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner). The Maple Leafs haven’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs in the Matthews era.

The Wild will continue to serve as a teaching tool for the rest of the league. Guerin will save some cap space this season with the buyouts, but 31 other GMs will get to see how he goes about building a championship roster with $12 million in dead cap space on the Wild’s ledger for 2022-23, and $14 million counting against the cap in the two seasons after that. The Wild will in essence be charged for having Connor McDavid’s salary count against their cap without having anyone nearly as talented as McDavid on their club.

That’s not to say that the Wild don’t have star players. The problem now will be similar to what it was with Parise and Suter around: the Wild have to pay their top players, starting with restricted free agent Calder Trophy winner Kirill Kaprizov this summer, and then put a supporting cast around the core of Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin. And, oh yeah, the expansion Seattle Kraken are likely to take a talented veteran like defenseman Matt Dumba in next week’s expansion draft.

Winning the Cup as an executive is going to be a lot more difficult for Guerin than it was in his days on the ice, as he goes down the road of juggling an unprecedented amount of dead money under a flat cap while the rest of the league watches and takes notes.

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