In announcing that he wouldn’t retain General Manager Chuck Fletcher, Wild owner Craig Leipold said he didn’t expect the next GM to “rebuild” the team. In Leipold’s mind, the Wild is not far from the Stanley Cup, but a fresh set of eyes is necessary.
There’s a perception around the Wild that the expensive Zach Parise and Ryan Suter’s contracts, which last through the 2024-25 season, are going to hamstring the organization to make any significant moves.
Looking at the reality of the team’s contracts and the future of the salary cap, the Wild might have not have a ton of room to make moves, but the circumstances may not be as dire as fans think, especially if the new general manager gets creative with the roster and is eager to trade.
Cap space is there
The Wild isn’t going to have a lot of cap space to work with, but it will have some. The salary cap this year was $75 million. The Wild came in just under the cap at the end of the season. But it will get some relief. The contract of Thomas Vanek finally comes off the books just as Fletcher is headed out of town. The Wild bought out Vanek’s contract following the 2015-16 season, and he had a salary-cap hit of $2.5 million.
Mikko Koivu’s new two-year contract begins next season, and it contains a lower cap hit than the one he completed. Koivu’s cap hit goes down from $6.75 million to $5.5 million, a savings of $1.25 million.
Between Vanek and Koivu, that’s nearly $4 million in cap savings. And the Wild could create cap space of about $2.4 million if it opts to buy out Tyler Ennis’ contract.
But the Wild likely will pick up a significant amount of cap space simply from the cap going up.
In December, Commissioner Gary Bettman said the cap likely will rise to between $78 million and $82 million. The uncertainty of the range involves a few factors, but even if the cap jumps only to the lower end of Bettman’s projections, it will represent the league’s biggest cap increase in four years. A jump to $82 million would be the biggest since 2008.
Who might be traded?
Koivu, Parise and Suter each have full “no-movement” clauses in their contracts, meaning unless they agree to waive them, they’re not going anywhere. Players such as goaltender Devan Dubnyk, Eric Staal and Jared Spurgeon have partial no-movement clauses. Everyone else is free to be dealt without restriction.
Charlie Coyle represents a potential trade target with two years remaining on a contract that carries a cap hit of $3.2 million. Coyle, 26, declined in production this season, leading to some frustration among fans. The concern would be the return the Wild would get for Coyle. It’s never ideal to trade a player when his value is low. Not a lot of successful GMs operate that way, even if fans want him to ship a struggling player out of town. But if the Wild clears his salary, it could alleviate pressure to make other changes to the roster.
This following move likely would be unpopular, but perhaps the most intriguing player on the roster from a trade perspective is Staal.
The veteran is coming off one of his best seasons in which he scored 42 goals, but a GM who has an eye for the future could consider a trade. Staal is 33 and his value might never be higher, considering his age. He has a reasonable cap hit of $3.5 million as he enters the final year of his contract, and he could bring a hefty return.
In his contract, Staal’s no-movement clause only requires that he provide the Wild with a list of 10 teams he would not like to be traded to, according to Capfriendly.com. That means the market would still be a large one.
The catch is, if Leipold thinks the Wild isn’t far away, he might not like the idea of a GM trading a popular and productive player such as Staal.
Lingering roster questions
The next GM will decide what to do with two restricted free agents, Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker. Dumba, 23, posted career highs in goals and assists with a cap hit of $2.55 million this past season, while Zucker, 26, scored 33 goals and made only $2 million. Both are in line for raises.
But the Wild is not without leverage considering both are restricted free agents as opposed to unrestricted. The Wild can match any offer sheet either signs with another club. It would receive draft pick compensation if either Dumba or Zucker sign an offer sheet from another team and the Wild declines to match. This causes many teams to shy away from attempting to sign restricted free agents. It doesn’t happen often in the NHL.
If the Wild can’t come to an agreement with either, it could also trade the rights and likely return a healthy haul for either in draft picks or highly touted prospects considering their production. When Chicago failed to reach an agreement with restricted free agent Andrew Shaw in 2016, it traded Shaw’s rights to the Canadiens for a pair of second-round picks. That year Shaw didn’t score even half the goals Zucker did nor was he a skilled young defenseman like Dumba.
The Wild could use a lot of its cap space just to re-sign Dumba or Zucker, or maybe it will decide to trade one or the other and bring some fresh faces into the locker room.
The new GM will inherit a roster that has made the playoffs regularly while still underperforming. The Wild doesn’t have the most flexible roster in the NHL when it comes to the salary cap, but if the GM wants to make significant changes, he should be able to make them.