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Russo: Wild's offseason officially begins ... now

  • Blog Post by: Michael Russo
  • June 14, 2014 - 11:57 AM

The Stanley Cup Finals are over. The Los Angeles Kings are champions again. Marian Gaborik and Willie Mitchell have hoisted the Stanley Cup, and now it’s time for the league to really ramp up – not close shop – as the June 27-28 NHL draft in Philly and the July 1 opening bell of free agency looms.

The Wild completed its organizational meetings Wednesday, so I got GM Chuck Fletcher on the horn late Thursday to talk a bit about the official start to the offseason. Here's the article from Saturday's paper, but to expand on that, please read below:

1) Of the pending unrestricted free agents, the Wild likes the ruggedness defenseman Clayton Stoner and center/winger Cody McCormick brings and is interested in trying to re-sign both. Fletcher didn’t confirm this, but this is what I’m hearing via sources. Stoner, amazingly drafted 10 years ago by the Wild (I’m getting old), had a quality season and led all blue-liners in hits. McCormick had a solid postseason. Obviously, it’s a two-way street. In the case of Stoner, perhaps he can really cash in if he becomes a free agent, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next few weeks. If the Wild loses Stoner, it could change the team’s offseason path because it would need to find physicality to a blue line that doesn’t have a lot of it. GM Chuck Fletcher reached out to Stoner’s agent for the first time Thursday.

“Players have to decide whether they want to come back and then if they want to come back, usually the market is somewhat transparent,” Fletcher said.

Dany Heatley and Mike Rupp will move on. So likely will Matt Moulson. He helped the Wild get into the playoffs with some huge goals down the stretch, but he was largely unproductive and hurt in the playoffs. The good thing is the Wild’s at a juncture where it has so many kids here locked and more coming and so many guys on long-term deals that it can afford to take draft-pick swings like it did at this past trade deadline in future years, too. With Darcy Kuemper, Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom all under contract, there’s just no room currently for Ilya Bryzgalov (I’ll write more about the goaltending situation later this month, but as of now, there’s not a lot of flexibility and Kuemper, Harding and Backstrom are the guys and the Wild may just have to bank again on two of them always being healthy). The Wild likes Nate Prosser, but if you look at the depth chart, the role Prosser will continue to play here is an in and out defenseman. So Prosser is expected to test free agency in an attempt to become a regular elsewhere. If there’s not a job to his liking, the Wild may be interested in re-signing him next month (barring jobs being full).

2) Of the Wild’s restricted free agents, Kuemper, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine, Jason Zucker and Jon Blum will soon be tendered qualifying offers to retain their rights. Kuemper, Fontaine and Blum have arbitration rights. As I’ve mentioned before, some of the RFA’s in Iowa won’t be retained. My guess is the most well-known name cut loose will be 2008 first-round pick Tyler Cuma. Fletcher said, “If a kid doesn’t have a chance with us, I don’t want to bury him. Let him go somewhere else for a shot.” Let’s be honest: That’s Cuma. With the guys on the big club and Matt Dumba, Christian Folin, Gustav Olofsson and others developing, he has just got no shot.

3) The Wild spent much of the meetings trying to project what production will come from Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and others up front and Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon and even Folin, Dumba, Olofsson, etc. on the back end in future years. The Wild tied for 24th in the NHL this past season in goals for (199 non-shootout). That’s 33 more than a few years ago, but even Fletcher called that season “horrific” and said it’s imperative the Wild improves offensively in a conference where there are so many good teams. So the determination last week is while the kids will continue to grow offensively and be a big part of the building of this franchise, for the short-term at a minimum, the Wild feels there’s still room to add a veteran to help improve the offense.

But if these kids will be better and score more in two or three or four years than a player the Wild’s signing to big money, then a long-term deal for a 30-something may make less sense.

Fletcher says the Wild’s at a stage in its growth because of its improved depth and youngsters that it doesn’t have to chase players. It can afford to be patient, he says, if the right move doesn’t present itself.

Via trade, there’s a certain acquisition price the Wild is willing to pay. After trading his first-round pick last year in the Jason Pominville swap, Fletcher would prefer not to do so again. The Wild chooses 18th in the June 27 first-round and doesn’t currently own a second on June 28. Any trade for a proven scorer may necessitate a first-round pick being dealt, so if Fletcher stands firm on not trading his, it could take Minnesota out of the running for any of the big names via trade.

Fletcher also wants to avoid trading the “kids we worked so hard to accumulate.” In other words, he would prefer not to trade the Granlunds, Coyles, Ninos, Haulas, Dumbas, Olofssons, etc.

Via free agency, the Wild has to make sure it can afford to re-sign all of its kids. While it has a ton of cap space this year, Granlund, Coyle, Haula, Brodin, Scandella and Folin all have expiring contracts next summer. So, as Fletcher said, “We want to be a little bit careful. It’s easy this year to just go out and add a guy, but unless it’s a one-year contract, you have to be pretty mindful.”

You will hear this term a lot leading into free agency: There is a “price point” the Wild is willing to reach for certain players. Thomas Vanek is no longer a given. Four or five months ago, I think it was a given. But the bright future that many of the kids provide the Wild coupled with Vanek’s tough postseason with Montreal has changed things.

The Wild has a lot of players 28 and older, a lot of players 24 and younger. You don’t want to get too many players north of 30 on long-term deals, so there’s a specific price point I think the Wild’s willing to reach with Vanek. I don’t get the impression the Wild’s willing to sign him to a long-term deal anymore. Vanek will have good options in free agency, so is he really going to sign in Minnesota for two or three years? Hard to believe, especially after reportedly turning down a seven-year, $49 million deal with the Islanders. While that contract probably won’t be on the table with any team anymore, he certainly should still be able to get decent term of four or five years with some teams.

Some fans who email me or tweet me are clamoring for Paul Stastny. He was outstanding against the Wild in the playoffs and his competitiveness and work ethic would be a perfect fit in my opinion on a Wild team who’s M.O. at a minimum in the playoffs was hard work. BUT, he will command bigtime money and term AND I still believe he’ll re-sign in Colorado once the Avs figure out a way to move some money in the next few weeks.

Gaborik likely will re-sign with L.A., so stop asking.

On defense, the most intriguing name is Matt Niskanen. He’s a good Minnesota boy, and if he doesn’t re-sign with Pittsburgh, the Wild would have a terrific chance to sign him. But he is coming off a career year and is only 27, so he will be looking to cash in on a long-term deal.

There’s two ways to improve offensively if you’re Fletcher: Getting a scoring forward or an offensive blue-liner. “We’ll look at both,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher sounds more comfortable with his top-four (Ryan Suter, Brodin, Scandella and Spurgeon) than last summer when the group was more of an unproven commodity, especially Scandella … and Brodin going into his sophomore year. Now Fletcher knows what to expect from this group: “If we go with those four guys as our top four, there’s more certainty from my standpoint in terms of knowing what they’re able to do versus last year, and last year worked out OK.”

And with Folin maybe on next year’s team (big right-shot D who can hammer the puck) and Dumba (right-shot D in the future who can hammer the puck) and Olofsson coming down the pike, maybe it makes more sense to try to sign an offensive defenseman on a one-year deal or a two-year deal (Dan Boyle, whom Fletcher knows from his days in Florida and I don’t think will be signing with the Islanders) than Niskanen on a long-term deal.

If you get a defenseman on a short-term deal (Boyle or somebody else), by the time his term is up, Dumba and Olofsson should be ready to step right into the Wild lineup. In other words, signing a veteran to a short-term deal gives the Wild a stopgap to develop the kids.

That may be the way they’re leaning. If you sign Niskanen to a long-term deal, it changes the Wild’s path a good chunk. Eventually the Wild would likely have to trade one of the kids it so believes in because after all, there’s only six defensemen that play on a nightly basis.

In fact, this could be the same philosophy at forward. Sign a veteran forward that can help offensively for two or three years and by the time that player’s contract is up, the kids are starting to hit that mid-20s age range that the Wild has almost nobody at currently.

“This is the first time really in a few years we’re returning a lot of players that have pretty well-defined and good roles on our team,” Fletcher said. “There’s not nearly as many question marks. There have been some years where we had to go out and do something at a certain position. This year I think we can look at ways to upgrade the team, and if we do so, great. But if we need to be more patient and wait to the end of the summer or into the season or even next summer, we have that flexibility.

“Clearly, our young guys are going to have to be a big part of this, but whether it’s this summer or sometime in the future, we certainly anticipate getting into the trade market or free-agent market.”

I’ve used a lot of words above to try to convey what Fletcher says succinctly below:

“In previous years, we had to do something because there were positions we had to address. This year, it’s all about getting better and if something doesn’t make sense, we can wait and save our cap space for whatever – August, November, trade deadline or next year. There’s risk in doing that, but there may be less risk in doing that than making a bad deal just to make a deal.”

4) It’ll be interesting how Fletcher conducts himself at the draft. As you know, Fletcher has a history of small (acquiring Kyle Brodziak) or gigantic (Brent Burns for Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle and a first) trades at the draft.

The Wild’s in a different position this year though than in recent drafts.

Last year, the Wild had a highly tradable commodity in Cal Clutterbuck. As you know if you read the coverage leading up to last year’s draft, it was all but certain Clutterbuck was being traded last June. The Wild could have traded him for years but waited until his RFA year where it needed to decide whether to commit to him long-term. Clutterbuck got the Wild Niederreiter. Also last year, the Wild was looking to unload cap space to become cap compliant thanks to the sinking cap because of the lockout. So it was working to trade Tom Gilbert (eventually used a compliance buyout on him) and was working to change the personality of its team by dealing Setoguchi. The Wild wasn’t able to do so at the draft, but when certain teams missed out on free agents, Fletcher was able to trade Setoguchi to Winnipeg last July and in turn sign Matt Cooke.

“I’m not sure we have that player [to trade] this year,” Fletcher said.

This year, the tradable commodities are mostly guys the Wild has no desire to trade. It’s not moving the veterans on long-term deals (including Mikko Koivu, Fletcher says), it’s not trading its budding youngsters (the kids mentioned above). Now, all the kids in the organization can’t all play here. Just like Johan Larsson being thrown into the Pominville deal, there are kids – maybe the Jason Zuckers or some of its kids in the minors or in juniors – that could potentially be on the move if Fletcher chooses to go the trade route.

If the Wild can trade a rehabbing Backstrom and unload the final two years of his contract by retaining salary and cap space, it would almost certainly do so. There’s a reason the Wild ad nauseum lately has been saying publicly that Backstrom is feeling better than he has in years. Brodziak has one year left on his deal and almost certainly will start next season as the Wild’s fourth-line center, so he is on the trading block.

But as of now, I wouldn’t expect a splash via trade (although Fletcher has surprised us before). We’ll see. I know Fletcher said he’s looking forward to seeing which players – expected and unexpected – hit the market in the next two weeks. There will be some big names on the move at the draft this year (Jason Spezza, maybe Mike Richards, maybe Joe Thornton, maybe Ryan Kesler; Wild’s reportedly not on his trade list, maybe, dare we say, Nick Leddy!).

“I don’t know what we’ll end up doing,” Fletcher said. “There’s teams really actively looking to do things. If that happens where there’s a trade and then another trade, that just gets the ball rolling and gets the market juiced up and suddenly there’s players available you didn’t even know would be available. I’m looking forward to the next two weeks to see what’s out there.”

5) The NHL schedule is expected to be released June 22. As of now, that Dallas-Wild outdoors came at Target Field may not come into fruition for this season. I hear the Wild, by the way, has a pretty difficult October with a lot of road games.

6) I’d suspect the Wild heads to Duluth to end camp like the previous two seasons.

7) The assistant coaches are expected to get their new contracts wrapped up the week of June 22 because Fletcher is traveling this upcoming week.

8) Fletcher said as of now, he’s not planning to use his second compliance buyout. That buyout window begins in a few days.

9) Draft and free agency coverage will begin to ramp up the week of June 22.  The draft should be fun this year. It’s so late, the new free agency interview period in the NHL will be draft week, meaning theoretically, with the entire league in Philly, agents could line up free-agent meetings with teams in Philly.

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