Craig Leipold has been an NHL team owner for 26 years now, and in that time he’s developed a great affinity for his fellow owners. For years, he’d watch every precious moment of every Stanley Cup celebration and beam with pride when he saw one of his brethren hoist the silver trophy, dreaming of the day he’d get to do the same.
But, the Wild owner told The Athletic, “I’m at the point now I turn off the TV. Now, it gets to that point in the celebration and I’m like, ‘I’m done with it. I’m not watching any more.’”
After bringing hockey to Nashville in 1998, Leipold bought the Wild in 2008. And after 15 years in Minnesota, it’s safe to say his desire for a title has never been greater.
And with the announcement Tuesday that Bill Guerin has added president of hockey operations to his general manager title and longtime executive Matt Majka has been elevated from president to CEO, Leipold gave further evidence that he plans for those two to be the ones leading the organization toward that ultimate objective.
#mnwild now have a president of hockey operations. His name is … Bill Guerin.
The Wild’s soon-to-be 5th year GM was one of four executive promotions, including longtime prez Matt Majka to CEO.
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) July 25, 2023
Leipold expects the Wild to contend the next two years, but like Guerin — and every Wild fan — he’s counting down the days until July 1, 2025, when the $14.7 million dead cap hit for the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts evaporates. That’s when Leipold expects the Wild to pounce and complement star Kirill Kaprizov, up-and-coming star Matt Boldy and other youngsters who should be arriving on the scene with possible big-name players via free agency or trade.
“We know that the next two years will be a little tough,” Leipold said. “We think that there are still very good opportunities for us. We’re still a young team. We’re going to be growing in that period of time, but we need to have a long-term plan in place so when we’re freed up with all of the cash and the cap goes up substantially from where it is right now, we’re going to have a big opportunity to go out and make some noise in free agency.
“We need somebody planning strategically three, four, five years from now, more than we ever have in the past. And so this is an indication that Billy will be that person to be making those plans.”
In the middle of last season, as previously reported by The Athletic, Guerin signed a multiyear extension, which kicked in July 1. We now know that with the new deal came the additional title of president of hockey ops for Guerin, who is entering his fifth season as GM.
“Around the league, more and more, teams are using the title of president of hockey ops and that enticement as a way to go out and attract general managers from other teams and kind of be able to poach,” Leipold said. “Billy has done a great job, and I certainly want to keep Billy on our team for a long time and thought this would just be a good time to discuss the issue of being president of hockey ops. And he agreed that it would be a good move for him and he would appreciate it.”
Guerin keeps the GM title, a sign that he will still hold the traditional role. Leipold doesn’t want anybody else taking on his GM responsibilities.
The reality is Guerin has been the man in charge since he arrived anyway and already has his fingerprints on every facet of the day-to-day hockey operations. He’s a willing team spokesman who does meet and greets, calls season-ticket holders, pops into suites and jumps on the radio and podcasts.
So he’s essentially been the president of hockey operations all along. Now he just adds the fancy title and bigger paycheck.
Same with Majka, who has been with the organization since Day 1 and was one of a number of promotions announced on the business side.
“It’s a role that he’s kind of been handling as it is right now, so we just made it official,” Leipold said. “Going from president to CEO is a big deal, and internally, everybody in our organization is happy with that move.”
Longtime executive Mitch Helgerson has also been promoted, to chief revenue office, and Kelly McGrath promoted to GM and executive director of Xcel Energy Center.
The goal now for Guerin is to turn a Wild team that has been successful in the regular season during his reign into a true and consistent Cup contender. With Guerin as GM since 2019-20, the Wild have the ninth-most wins (169) and eighth-best points percentage (.637) in the NHL. In the past two years, they rank sixth in both categories (99 and .659). But they have yet to get past the first round of the playoffs under Guerin.
The fact that Leipold has made this commitment to him, Guerin said, “means everything.” They have a fantastic relationship and friendship, as anybody who has ever been around their ribbing of each other knows.
But that support comes with the belief from Leipold that Guerin is sticking to a plan that will bring success when it matters most.
“I want nothing more than to see Craig lift that Stanley Cup,” Guerin said. “Not only do I want to build a contender for the fans; this man deserves it. He has invested so much into this organization, and he has a lot to be proud of. He’s done everything to give this organization all the resources it’s needed for 15 years, and he deserves a winner. That’s why I never lose sight of seeing what I’m doing through, and we just have to stay focused — because I want nothing more than to deliver Craig a Cup.”
Around midseason in 2020-21, when Guerin first approached Leipold with the notion to move on from Parise and Suter that summer, the fiscal pain of what would be coming was discussed. Still, Guerin felt it was time to cut the cord and move on, and after much debate, Leipold signed off.
They knew the buyout charges would be substantial. But it would be more tenable to have cost certainty and know what the cap numbers would be the next handful of seasons rather than always fretting over potential out-of-the-blue cap-recapture charges the team would have been hit with had it had traded either player and then he retired before the 13-year contract ended. For example, Parise has yet to re-sign with the Islanders. If the Wild had traded him to the Islanders in 2020 and then he retired this offseason, they would have had to immediately shed $9.685 million worth of players before opening night. If he played one more year then retired next summer, that penalty would have jumped to a whopping $19.37 million.
Now, neither Leipold nor Guerin envisioned that the salary cap would basically be at a standstill during the buyout pain, and that fact has made this pain and lack of flexibility a heck of a lot tougher.
It stings Guerin that during the days leading up to the draft and the first days of free agency, his phone was barely ringing. Other teams know the Wild have no cap flexibility, so the Wild are often bypassed as an option when a significant player is on the trade market or an agent is trying to place a high-priced free agent. This month, as others dabbled in free agency, the Wild could only afford to sign speedy, skilled forward Vinni Lettieri to a two-way contract and trade for 35-year-old Pat Maroon.
“Listen, I’m really competitive,” Guerin said. “I want to win. This is hard now. I’ll do whatever it takes, but we just have to make sure that we’re still doing the right things so we can deliver. I know it’s frustrating for many. But we just have to be more patient.”
Still, the expectations won’t change in the next two seasons.
“The expectation is to win,” Guerin said. “And some people might think I’m crazy, but that has to be your expectation. We’re not in a full rebuild. We’re not. No, we’re not punting and just waiting for two years from now. We are remaining not just competitive, but we want to win.”
But asked if he’s counting down the days to July 1, 2025, Guerin said, “Every day.”
“I’m aggressive, by nature, in this job,” he said. “But I also have to take a step back and make sure that we’re moving methodically and not just being irrational or irresponsible. When we do come out of this, when we have more cap space, let’s see how much cap space we actually have, right?”
In other words, if the Wild’s prospects develop the way he envisions, he has to make sure the team can afford them, then count the dollars and cents left to spend externally. By then, the hope is the cap rises substantially to compensate for the internal expenditures.
“We’ve got to save money for the younger guys who are going to be coming out of their entry-level deals. Kirill’s going to need a new contract,” Guerin said. “So we want to move the same way we’ve been moving and not just getting the sexy new toy out there. You’ve got to get the right person or right people. They’ve got to be the right fit.”
Guerin’s not thumbing through the potential list of free agents for two years from now, though.
“I don’t even look at it because it changes constantly,” Guerin said, smiling sheepishly, a sign that he does have an idea of some players who could be free.
Guerin just wants fans to rest assured that there is a plan. There will come a time when he is willing to part ways with first-round picks or prospects at the deadline for rentals and when he will be willing to go after a big fish — be aggressive toward being a consistent contender.
“That’s our hope. That’s our plan,” he said. “We love the passion of our fans, and that motivates me to want to do an even better job every single day. I love it here, and if this is the only job I’ll ever have for the rest of my life, I’d be completely satisfied with that.”
Guerin knows it’s not just Wild history he’s contending with. It’s the whole Minnesota sports “thing,” as the lack of championship seasons for the Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves and Wild has reached 31 years and 117 combined seasons since the Twins won the 1991 World Series.
Fans are naturally frustrated and impatient. Guerin sees the memes on social media: “It’s been zero days since I haven’t been disappointed by a Minnesota sports team.”
“It’s funny stuff, and people just want a championship. I get that,” Guerin said. “Trust me, I understand it. I grew up a Red Sox fan. We went for a hundred years.
“But it strengthens my desire to stick with the plan to get us to where we want to go. I think this is going to give us a better chance to win than just breaking away from a plan or just throwing s— against the wall to see if it sticks. I understand the frustration, but I can’t always listen to it if you know what I mean. Like, I know it’s there. I understand it. The whole thing with us not getting out of the first round, I understand it. I understand it. But I’m not a fan. This is my job. I don’t want to say, ‘Ignore that stuff,’ but we can’t let it affect what we do.
“I know it’s there, but I think what we’re doing will give us a better chance to deliver Minnesota a championship.”
The late Tom Kurvers, Guerin’s former assistant GM, used to kiddingly tell Guerin, “Us Minnesotans, we don’t like nice things.”
“He said it kind of tongue in cheek,” Guerin said. “But boy, it really seems like our fans do want something really nice. It’s coming.”
At least that’s Guerin’s plan.
(Photo of Craig Leipold and Bill Guerin: Bruce Kluckhohn / NHLI via Getty Images)
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