Bill Guerin sat along a railing overlooking the ice at the Wild's practice rink Friday morning on the second day of training camp. It was mentioned to the team's general manager and president of hockey operations that, when assessing the Wild's outlook this season, it's impossible to ignore something that is missing.
Namely, nearly $15 million.
That slice of the salary cap was unavailable to Guerin to bolster his roster. The money is tied up on two players who are long gone: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
"Nobody is ever hanging their head and saying, 'Oh, if we only had this, if we only had that,'" Guerin told me in a conversation as the Wild practiced below. "No, this is what we have. Let's work with it and figure things out."
He paused for a second.
"It's not the worst thing in the world," he said. "We're OK. We're fine with it."
Guerin finds himself in a tough spot that — this bears repeating — he purposely chose. Dead money from the Parise/Suter buyouts accounts for 18% of the salary cap this season. That's a humongous deficit when constructing a roster.
Look at it as a pie chart. Almost one-fifth is gone before Guerin conducts any other business.
Or think of it this way: Joel Eriksson Ek's cap hit is $5.25 million. Imagine if Guerin had space available to sign two players of that pedigree.
Would you feel differently about the Wild's potential? Obviously.
"There are no excuses," Guerin said. "We did what we did for a reason. We expect to win."
This is where I struggle with how to evaluate the Wild. In sports, a thin line separates an excuse from an explanation. Excuses are a loser's lament. Nobody wants to hear them. But forfeiting almost a fifth of salary cap allocations cannot be easily dismissed as irrelevant.
"Everything we did was a choice," Guerin said. "All the moves that we made back then were a choice. It wasn't just the buyouts. We didn't re-sign Mikko [Koivu]. That wasn't easy either. We moved some very popular players, some guys that had played really well for this organization. We needed to change."
If Kirill Kaprizov is the face of the organization, Guerin is the voice. And its backbone.
He knew the buyouts would cause short-term pain by hamstringing his financial flexibility. He made that decision while refusing to lower expectations.
He does concede, however, that he has less wiggle room than his counterparts on other teams. GMs with cap space can plug holes or buy their way out of problems by being aggressive in free agency. Guerin doesn't have that luxury.
He offers a different spin on that, noting that "July 1 can be a day of mistakes too."
"If I'm looking at it from a management perspective and a personal development perspective, it's probably making me a better GM," he said. "And it's making all of us together a better hockey operations group. We can't afford too many mistakes."
The temptation is to look outward to 2025 when the buyout penalties will be negligible and the Wild will be positioned better to make a leap. Their young core will be veterans. Guerin will have more money to spend. The vision makes sense.
"We want to win now," Guerin said.
His messaging is critical on this topic, both internally and for the public. Even if he believes a big payoff for his gamble will come in the future, Guerin knows he can't dwell on it and risk setting the wrong tone for the present. Two years in professional sports is a long time.
The Wild essentially return the same core group minus Matt Dumba from a playoff team that suffered yet another hasty exit. The first-round failures have become a thing, a frustrating narrative that hovers over the organization and will stay there until the team changes it.
Guerin has invested a lot of thought in this area. He's studied other teams' playoff success and what went wrong in his team's series.
"If you make the playoffs," he said, "you have the ability to win the Stanley Cup. Why not?"
Outside observers point to one big obstacle. Guerin wants no part of that discussion.
"Our organization has done really well through this," Guerin said. "We don't even talk about it really. We owe these players and these coaches that. If we're just sitting here dreaming about the future, that's not fair. I can't do that."