For the first time since his season-ending press conference, Wild coach Dean Evason checked in Tuesday morning about his thoughts on his club's offseason so far.
The overarching theme was opportunity.
Opportunity for a host of defensemen looking to earn jobs and ice time. Opportunity for young players like Marco Rossi and Matt Boldy come training camp. And opportunity for a guy like Freddy Gaudreau, a forward the Wild signed last week to a two-year contract and someone who has played for Evason in the past.
When training camp commences next month at TRIA Rink in St. Paul, there will be a bunch of guys with opportunities to earn jobs and take jobs ... and that's exactly what Evason wants.
"We've got a committee on our on our back end, right? I mean, we've got guys that we feel that we have lots of options, clearly, to play and guys that have played in the league or even guys that we think that possibly haven't been given an opportunity to play that we're excited about," Evason said. "It's nice to have fresh, exciting people coming into your organization and we expect them to fit in well. We clearly do the research as far as not only good players, but, you want to get good people and team people. And, hopefully we've got both."
That committee on the blue line includes veterans Dmitry Kulikov and Jon Merrill as well as rookie Calen Addison fighting it out for spots on the team's bottom pair. Alex Goligoski was also added, but he's expected to slot into the Wild's top pair next to captain Jared Spurgeon.
Addison earned three games of NHL experience last season and also skated in one Stanley Cup Playoff game. There's no question the Wild believes it has something special in Addison, but the main question that remains is when?
Wild GM Bill Guerin would prefer a patient approach with his young players, and in signing vets like Kulikov and Merrill, there's no need to rush a guy like Addison to the NHL, unless he comes to camp and blows the doors off the coaching staff.
In Kulikov and Merrill, the Wild has experienced, steady, defensive-minded blueliners who add badly needed size and grit to the group.
Video: Dean Evason summer update
"Yeah, they're gritty guys, obviously, play hard. [But] the game has changed," Evason said. "It's not the days of having kind of one skilled guy and one real gritty, tough guy, in a pair. I think everybody that plays in the National Hockey League now has bite to them and plays hard, and has different skill sets.
"The people that we've signed for our back end, we think all of them have bite and have grit. But it's no different than everybody else on our hockey club. We ask everybody to play that style of game and we feel that'll give us a chance to have success."
In Gaudreau, the Wild is getting a forward who can play both center and wing and someone who can slot up and down the lineup.
Gaudreau played for Evason for three seasons with the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals when each was in the Nashville Predators organization.
Gaudreau's longest stint in the NHL came in 2018-19 when he played 55 games for the Predators, scoring three goals. Otherwise, he's split time between the AHL and NHL every other year, including last season, when he played in 19 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins and six more for the club's AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Gaudreau was very efficient in his time with the Pens, however, tallying 10 points in 19 games.
"I joke that I was the guy that or the coach at the time that sent them to the East Coast League," Evason said. "But he's just a competitive guy. He just seemed to get better each and every year and played extremely well in Pittsburgh, the games that we've watched. So we're looking forward to having him, and I can attest to him being obviously a great, a real, real, real good player, but a real good teammate as well."
While it'd be easy to pencil Gaudreau into a fourth-line role, either at center or left wing, don't discount the possibility that he could slide up and center a line with Kevin Fiala, with whom he skated with in both Milwaukee and with Nashville early in their careers.
Gaudreau played well in an elevated role last season in Pittsburgh and could earn a similar opportunity with a strong camp.
"It's fun now for coaches, like we had a zoom meeting last week, and it's fun to get your depth chart and start putting lines together and fits together," Evason said. "[Gaudreau has] played with Fiala. That's an exciting thing for me. I mean, they know each other. So that could be an option. But again, we talked about this last year at training camp. We're gonna see who's gonna fit where. We've got a lot of options again at center ice."
Kulikov adds much-needed defensive heft to Wild's blueline