Minnesota Wild: Sam Steel In Dmitry Kulikov out

Oct 19, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Anaheim Ducks forward Sam Steel (23) celebrates a second period goal against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 19, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Anaheim Ducks forward Sam Steel (23) celebrates a second period goal against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports /

On August 30th, the Minnesota Wild announced the signing of free agent center Sam Steel. One day later at about the same time, the Wild moved 31-year-old defender Dmitry Kulikov to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for future considerations.

So what does this mean?

Steel has played 197 games across four years in the NHL all with the Ducks. In 2018-2019 Steel became the youngest Ducks player to record a hat trick, scoring three goals against the Canucks on March 26, 2019, as a 21-year-old. He finished the year with six goals. In fact, the former first-round pick has scored exactly six goals in each of his four seasons.

The native of Alberta was a former junior star but has yet to tap into that potential in the NHL. Steel was drafted 30th overall by the Ducks in 2016 and spent two more years in the WHL after. His D+1, which means draft year plus one or the year after he was drafted, Steel recorded 50 goals and 131 points in 66 games. In his D+2, Steel notched 33 goals and 83 points in 54 games as the captain of the Regina Pats.

While also playing in the World Juniors for Team Canada, Steel recorded four goals and nine points in seven games.

The five-foot-11 center started his D+3 season in the AHL with the San Diego Gulls. Off to a quick start, Steel notched 20 goals and 21 assists in 53 games for the Gulls before being called up.

Despite his good 2015-2016 season and his outstanding 2016-2017 WHL season with the Pats, Steel was never viewed as a future NHL star, scouting reports and websites have always knocked his ability to produce offensive stats at the NHL level, and so far they are right.

This year with the Ducks, Steel was used high up in the lineup, playing 464 shifts with Troy Terry and Ryan Getzlaf to start the year. Terry, who scored 37 goals for the Ducks was moved off the line and replaced with Adam Henrique.

Steel finished the year playing with non-offensive threats like Max Comtois and Vinni Lettieri. But also got some shifts with veterans like Buddy Robinson, who had one goal in 32 games with the ducks, Sam Carrick, and Derek Grant.

What This Means For The Wild

Steel’s offensive production has been what you would expect out of a bottom-six center with little power play time. But there is a chance Steel could find his way playing higher up with the likes of Matt Boldy, Freddy Gaudreau, and maybe even Marco Rossi. You could also see Steel play with the speedy and defensively sound Connor Dewar, which would likely be a nice fit for Steel.

In his four years with the Ducks, Steel’s analytics have been hard to understand. He was drafted and thought of as an offensive center but hasn’t reached that yet. Last year Steel’s -.088 GF/60 ranked 14th amongst Ducks’ forwards who played in 15 or more games. Steel also finished behind Nicolas Deslauriers for second to last in xGF/60.

The chart above is a projection ARindex for Sam Steel with the Wild. Steel has put up some average defensive analytics throughout his career with the Ducks and was used on the penalty kill by Ducks’ coach Dallas Eakins. Steel finished sixth on the team in GAR and seventh in WAR, so he doesn’t hurt you when he is on the ice.

The lack of offense could be the result of constantly changing linemates or even no real offense threats playing with him. No knock on Buddy Robinson, but  Connor Dewar is much more skilled and would help Steel drive offense, especially with Dewar’s speed.

If Steel got to play a full season with Gaudreau or Boldy I would expect more than six goals and 20 points out of him.

Dmitry Kulikov Traded to the Anaheim Ducks For Future Considerations

As hard as it may seem to some Wild fans, Kulikov actually had a great regular season. His postseason play didn’t help his cause. Going into the playoffs Kulikov had 27 career playoff games, so he was no stranger to playoff hockey.

Most Wild fans’ anger towards Kulikov was from his defensive blunder in Game One against the Blues in Minnesota. Or in game six with even more blunders. First caught looking on Nick Leddy’s goal, then caught following Mats Zuccarello and standing by the goal on Alexei Toropchenko’s goal to make it 3-0. It was obviously not only Kulikov who made mistakes but no one stood out that bad.

But enough ripping on the bad defensive showings in the only two playoff games he played in. Kulikov had a great regular season that is worth noting.

Kulikov ranked third amongst Wild defenders in GAR (goals above replacement), second in EVD, and third in EVO. Evolving Hockey defines EVD as Even-Strength Defense Goals Above Average/Replacement (inverted, per position), and EVO as Even-Strength Offense Goals Above Average/Replacement (per position).

The 31-year-old defender ranked 11th in the NHL amongst defenders in GA/60. Wild captain and defensive stud Jared Spurgeon, ranked seventh in the NHL in GA/60. Jonas Brodin, who has made himself known in his ten-year career as one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL, ranked second in xGA/60.

But Kulikov’s regular season may of went unnoticed with another elite defensive season by Spurgeon and Brodin. To Wild fans Kulikov is a bottom pairing defender or even the sixth or seventh defender but, he is anything but that.

This trade is likely a cap dump, it provides the Wild with an extra $2,250,000 in cap space and an extra roster spot for guys like Calen Addison and Andrej Sustr to fight for. With the addition of $2.25M in cap, the Wild now have $5,738,079 in total cap space available, according to CapFriendly.

Who Steps Up And Replaces Kulikov?

Calen Addison, the 22-year-old defender, is going to get a really good chance this year especially with Jon Merrill likely sidelined to start the year. Addison will have to prove to management during camp and preseason that he is worth starting in the Wild home opener against the New York Rangers.

In February of 2020, Wild general manager Bill Guerin acquired Addison, a 2020 first-round pick, and Alex Galchenyuk from the Penguins for Jason Zucker. Addison was 19 years old at the time of the trade, now he’s 22 and has skated in 18 career games for the Wild. Coming off a career-high of 15 games played, the native of Canada notched two goals and two assists.

Much of the games Addison played in came when the Wild were down two or three defenders. If the Wild needed an extra defender it was 35-year-old veteran, Jordie Benn. Two years ago Benn skated in 39 games with the Canucks, last season Benn skated in 39 games with the Wild. Notching one goal and seven assists, Benn is thought of as a rough-playing defensive defenseman. Although, Benn only racked up 51 hits in 39 games for an average of 1.3 hits a game.

Almost every defensive metric there is suggests Addison provided the Wild with better defense than Benn. The knock on Addison is he’s small and not as aggressive as the six-foot-two Jordie Benn.

In 15 games for the Wild, Addison did not commit one defensive turnover. In 39 games for the Wild Benn committed 13, according to Moneypuck. Addison led the Wild with a 58% on-ice shot attempt Corsi percentage, Benn held a 44%, and Spurgeon held a 56%.

Addison’s spot out of preseason isn’t guaranteed but in our opinion, it should be. Andrej Sustr, signed by the Wild at one-year $750,000, has a chance to beat out Addison holding the sixth defenseman spot until Merrill returns.

Sustr is a six-foot-eight hard-nosed defender who also shoots right. The native of Czechia was an analytical darling from 2014 to 2017 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. From 2017-2019 Sustr skated in 49 games between the Lightning and Ducks. After finishing the 2018-2019 season in the AHL, Sustr decided to go play in the KHL.

With 99 games across two years in the KHL, Sustr landed himself another job in the NHL back with the Lightning. After 15 games with Tampa and 25 with Tampa’s AHL affiliate, Sustr was claimed off waivers by the Ducks where he finished the year playing in 23 games in Anaheim.

If Sustr beats out Addison to start the year, he could be given a great opportunity to try and regain the defensive success that he displayed earlier in his career. If not, the 31-year-old will provide the Wild with some good depth in the minors and maybe give Addison the chance he’s been waiting for.

Stats and analytics from Evolving Hockey and Moneypuck. Contracts from CapFriendly