LAS VEGAS – A year in the making, Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher skated out of the NHL’s first expansion in 17 years by devising a way not to lose any of his defensemen.
Passing up the enticement of selecting top-four defensemen Matt Dumba or Marco Scandella and either keeping the player or trading him for other assets, the Vegas Golden Knights signed Wild center Erik Haula as one of their first free agents in history.
Haula, a restricted free agent one year from unrestricted free agency, signed a three-year, $8.25 million contract. In return for Vegas agreeing to sign Haula and essentially steer clear of Dumba, Scandella, Gustav Olofsson and the Wild’s leading goal scorer of last season, Eric Staal, the Wild traded the Golden Knights 2014 first-round pick Alex Tuch.
The Wild also acquired a third-round pick from the Golden Knights. Right now, it’s a 2018 third, but there are conditions where Vegas can make it a third-round pick in Saturday’s draft.
By hanging onto all its defensemen, the Wild can now make a trade under its terms if it so chooses after the trade freeze is lifted at 7 a.m. Thursday or even at this weekend’s entry draft in Chicago.
“The beauty of this is that we kept all our D, and we’ve got great D, so if there is an opportunity to do something, Chuck’s got the green light to go do what he needs to do,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said. “Who knows what happens now? We finally have finality to what’s happening with Vegas, and so now we can look at the bigger picture and not worry about a what if or ‘who are they going to take?’ Now Chuck can proceed and do whatever it takes to make our team better.”
It’ll be interesting what Fletcher has cooking. He said Wednesday night the Wild could “absolutely” trade a defenseman before next week.
Fletcher first began setting the stage for Haula-to-Vegas during a meeting with his agent, Jay Grossman, at the combine in Buffalo because he knew he had expansion protection issues and did not want to lose a defenseman.
But suddenly, in the past week, the Wild has traded center Tyler Graovac and let Haula, another center, go.
Staal and Mikko Koivu are the Wild’s other two centers. As the team stands now, Charlie Coyle likely would start next season at center and Joel Eriksson Ek, if he makes the opening night roster, at wing. So the Wild likely needs to acquire at least one more center via trade or free agency.
But even more pressing, with only a shade more than $13 million in salary cap space and only 14 NHL regulars under contract, the Wild likely needs to trade a sizable contract if it wants to afford to re-sign restricted free agents Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter as well as conduct other business.
Fletcher said the Wild fully intends and can re-sign the two players, but Jonas Brodin and Scandella are each above the $4 million mark, and winger Jason Pominville, who can be traded to 20 teams as of July 1, has a $5.6 million cap hit.
Teams looking for a top-four blue-liner include Tampa Bay, Toronto, Montreal, Buffalo, Calgary and Dallas. Fletcher said he’s open to making a trade for an immediate player or picks and prospects that allow him the flexibility to pursue free agents.
“We’re looking to improve our team if we can,” he said. “We’re speaking to a lot of teams. We’re getting a lot of calls. We have been for a while. With this process now completed, I think it’ll clear things up and probably simplify the process.”
Haula was vacationing in Italy on Wednesday but was pumped to be heading to Vegas. Because the trade wasn’t announced until the wee hours of the morning there, Haula opted to reserve comment until Thursday.
The former two-time University of Minnesota leading scorer, who will be reunited in Vegas with former Gophers teammate Nate Schmidt and other players like Marc-Andre Fleury, Marc Methot, James Neal and Shea Theodore, scored a career-high 15 goals last season despite averaging 13 minutes, 48 seconds a game.
He scored 42 goals and 89 points in 266 career games for the Wild.
Tuch, 21, a right wing power forward drafted 18th overall three years ago out of Boston College, scored 18 goals and 37 points in 57 games for Iowa during his first pro season. He skated in six games for the Wild, not registering a point.
“It looked like he was ready to break through and play on our club next year,” Fletcher said.
With Eriksson Ek, Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway and Kirill Kaprizov in the hopper, the Wild felt it could afford to make the move.
It is believed the Wild also at least discussed Greenway and Kaprizov with Vegas.
“We did what we had to do to keep our defense corps together and also protect a couple of our key forwards,” Fletcher said. “It’s an exciting opportunity for both [Haula and Tuch]. Two guys we drafted and developed. Big losses for our franchise.”