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Defenseman Matt Niskanen, who had a career year for the Penguins in 2013-14, is one of the top free agents available.

AP file,

Wild is front and center as NHL draft and free agency collide

  • Article by: Michael Russo
  • Star Tribune
  • June 25, 2014 - 9:30 AM

#VanekWatch and #NiskanenWatch, kinda, sorta, begins Wednesday.

The free-agent interview period in advance of the July 1 opening bell of NHL free agency officially has started, meaning teams can contact pending free agents. Agents, though, still were trying to figure out the right approach with the interview period falling right in the middle of draft week in Philadelphia.

“I would assume that it would be a logical move for a couple of the free agents to cruise over to Philly since the entire league will be there,” Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said.

That could create a media circus if players such as Thomas Vanek and Matt Niskanen, two of the top candidates when free agency begins Tuesday at 11 a.m., were spotted going into meeting after meeting.

Last year, when bought-out Tampa Bay Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier was seen in a New York hotel, reporters and TV stations camped out in the lobby. That’s why the agents of Vanek and Niskanen both say neither client will come to Philadelphia.

“The whole [interview period] isn’t working, at least from the player side, the way it was intended,” said agent Steve Bartlett, whose top two free agents this cycle are Vanek and Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan. “It handcuffs everybody when everybody’s sitting in Philly.

“The way this was envisioned was players could go into cities and see the schools, the neighborhoods, look at the facilities, go out to dinner. When someone has to make what often they feel is a pressure decision on July 1 or 2, they want to have a sense more than just what they might know from playing on a visiting team.”

Staying home

Bartlett won’t bring any of his pending free agents to Philadelphia. Agent Don Meehan, whose agency, Newport Sports, represents pending free agents such as Jarome Iginla, Brad Richards, David Legwand and the Wild’s Matt Moulson, said he won’t either.

However, one agent who asked not to be named because he doesn’t want to create a distraction, said he might bring a “few of my lesser free agents.”

The good part of the free-agent period is players can learn what role they would have on interested teams and hear directly from a GM his objectives. It should create less of a July 1 frenzy.

“In the past on July 1, it was all about getting the deal done,” Fletcher said. “You didn’t have time to get to know the player, have a conversation about fit, give him a sense of how quickly you envision winning. If you waited too long, somebody else would just sign that player.”

Also, in a revision to the interview period, teams and agents can now talk “general parameters” of a contract without making any binding offers or promises.

Two big catches

That general parameters rule could help the Wild. Even with the amount of youngsters the Wild must re-sign this summer and next, Fletcher still feels there’s room to add a veteran or two.

A scoring forward is the biggest need, and Vanek, 30, the former Gophers winger and current Stillwater resident, fits that mold (277 goals in 663 games). However, the Wild might try to persuade Vanek to sign a one- to three-year deal so the team also can pursue a top defenseman — perhaps Niskanen, the Virginia, Minn., native who had a career year with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Asked if Vanek would agree to such a contract after turning down long-term, lucrative offers last season from Buffalo and the New York Islanders, Bartlett said, “I don’t think we’re absolutely entrenched on anything. Vanek is a very confident guy, somebody that is, I think, going to look at everything — the financial side, the family side, the team side.

“I don’t think we have anything cast in stone come Wednesday or July 1.”

Rough finish

Vanek scored five goals and 10 points in 17 games for Montreal in the playoffs. His ice time was limited at times and he was under tremendous media scrutiny, particularly in the conference finals against the Rangers.

“I find it very hard to believe the body of work he brings to the table is going to get erased over one so-so series,” Bartlett said. “He still had a very solid season last year[27 goals, 68 points] despite all the baggage that goes with bouncing around like a yo-yo between three teams and living out of a hotel.”

All year long, most have assumed Vanek is destined for the Wild. At the very least, Bartlett and Vanek will learn during this week’s free-agent interview period which teams are in the mix.

“I don’t know what [the Wild’s] level of interest is. I’ll be curious to see,” Bartlett said. “There’s a lot of teams out there that need what Vanek brings. He’s interested to see what’s out there and he’s confident he can help a team.”

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