There are two things we have learned about Chuck Fletcher since he became the Wild’s general manager four years ago: 1, He is not afraid to make bold moves; and 2, He has no problem dealing fan favorites.
If Fletcher didn’t fret about trading Brent Burns in front of thousands of Wild fans at the NHL draft the team was host to in 2011, and if Fletcher didn’t balk at sending a former Minnesota Mr. Hockey and hometown kid named Nick Leddy to Chicago the year prior, dishing Cal Clutterbuck to the Islanders was nothing.
Now the Wild hopes Nino Niederreiter, who didn’t thrive on Long Island after being the fifth pick in the 2010 draft, actually flourishes with the change of scenery.
In the opinion of Ray Ferraro, a former NHL goal scorer who works as an analyst for Canada’s TSN, the Clutterbuck-for-“El Nino” swap was a no-brainer because Niederreiter’s upside is so large.
“They traded Cal Clutterbuck for a first-round pick,” Ferraro said. “Think of it this way: They got the fifth overall pick, a potential goal scorer, for a bowling ball. I don’t mean that as disrespect to Cal. But [the Islanders] traded a goal scorer for a guy that hits.”
The question now is what Fletcher does the rest of the summer to improve a team that got off to a slow start last season, caught fire in March, but then fell in April to the point it needed to take a must-win game just to win a tiebreaker to make the playoffs and face the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The Wild didn’t have a lot of salary cap space heading into the weekend. Acquiring Niederreiter tightened things up even further, meaning re-signing Matt Cullen still is a long shot and it’s hard to see a clear picture as to which players the Wild can pursue this summer.
Even Fletcher couldn’t provide Sunday night an exact number of the Wild’s available cap space.
The NHL’s salary cap next year is $64.3 million. The Wild is being hit with a bonus overage of roughly $400,000 for exceeding the cap last year.
That means the Wild’s cap ceiling is about $63.9 million, probably less. Buffalo is picking up roughly $800,000 of Jason Pominville’s salary, but the Wild still has a $927,778 buyout charge for Mark Parrish. The Wild picked up Niederreiter, who makes $810,000 but technically has a cap hit of $2.795 million because of potential performance bonuses.
Teams can exceed the cap ceiling by 7.5 percent for all hypothetical entry-level bonuses. Oh, and remember, all teams can exceed the cap ceiling during the offseason by 10 percent until opening-night rosters must be submitted.
So if you add A plus B, subtract X from Y, multiply by 2 and divide by 5, well, you might come up with the Wild’s confusing cap flexibility.
It’s not a lot.
“I honestly have to go have [Director of Hockey Administration] Shep [Harder] add it all up for me again,” Fletcher said. “We’re still looking for ways to improve our team, so we’ll see what we can do the next few days.”
It’s clear Fletcher still is working the trade market. It wouldn’t be shocking if Devin Setoguchi, who is entering the last year of his contract, became expendable by Niederreiter’s acquisition. He has a $3 million cap hit. Could there be some way to trade Dany Heatley and his $7.5 million cap hit this summer? Seems doubtful, but his real money is $5 million. The Wild also still is trying to trade fourth-line center Zenon Konopka ($925,000).
And, defenseman Tom Gilbert might be a buyout casualty by Thursday. It would cost the Wild only $1 million the next two years in real dollars but would clear $4 million off the cap next season.
The problem, though, is the Wild then would be in the market for a defenseman or two after also trading Justin Falk to the Rangers on Sunday.
With lots of players available and not enough money in the market because of the cap dropping $5.9 million next year, Fletcher believes there will be a number of NHLers who lose the game of musical chairs in free agency, which begins Friday.
If that’s the case, Fletcher will be looking for bargains later this month — veteran players, likely defensemen, who would be willing to sign two-way contracts or attend training camp on pro tryouts.
“We’ll see when the dust settles what may be there,” Fletcher said.
There are a lot of different ideas and avenues the Wild can go this summer. But until some more cap space is created, it’s difficult to see exactly what path the Wild may take.
For instance, asked about Cullen mere days from perhaps having to watch the veteran walk, Fletcher said, “We’ll see what we can make happen. [Sunday] was one day. We made a couple things happen. We’ll see what [this week] brings, too.”
Michael Russo firstname.lastname@example.org