Three weeks have passed since the Wild’s season came to an end in Chicago. Since then, barely a peep has been uttered from the offices on Washington and Kellogg in St. Paul.
But after taking time to let emotions subside, the front office, coaching staff and scouting staff will assemble next week for organizational meetings that will determine the direction the club takes this offseason.
The salary cap decreases from $70.2 million to $64.3 million. If one assumes Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker make next year’s roster, the Wild already has roughly $56.6 million committed to 18 players.
That’s before locking up a No. 1 goaltender (Niklas Backstrom?), a No. 2 center (Matt Cullen?) and re-signing key restricted free agents Cal Clutterbuck, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella. And examining free agency.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher will have to be creative, which means potential trades and buyouts to free cap space and roster spots.
“All the pieces have to fit,” Fletcher said. “That’s why you haven’t seen us re-sign anybody. We’ve purposely waited to do everything at the same time so we don’t diminish whatever space we have or make any decisions that may impact other decisions.”
The first priority, Fletcher says, is securing a No. 1 goaltender. Fletcher met last week with Backstrom, the Wild’s career victories leader. The 35-year-old tied for the league lead with 24 victories this season but ranked 23rd in goals-against average and 28th in save percentage before missing the playoffs because of a sports hernia.
Backstrom will become an unrestricted free agent on July 5.
“He’s going to be the first priority as to who we speak to,” Fletcher said. “He’s clearly our No. 1 goalie, the best goalie we have and a big part of what we’ve done here.”
The goalie question
Backstrom says “there’s no secret I want to come back.” He is coming off a four-year, $24 million contract and understands he would have to sign for less money at a shorter term.
“I just want to be where I feel comfortable and enjoy playing,” Backstrom said Monday before returning home to Helsinki. “If they want to have me back, I can’t see a reason why we couldn’t work something out.”
The goalie free-agent market is thin and the Wild can’t afford the biggest potential name, Phoenix’s Mike Smith. The trade market is unclear, so re-signing Backstrom is the easiest and likeliest route.
The Wild is pursuing free agent goalie Antti Raanta, 24, the Finnish Elite League’s MVP. With Josh Harding’s health uncertain and Matt Hackett now property of Buffalo, the Wild wants to add depth to a stable that includes young goalies Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson.
Like Backstrom (a European free agent in 2006), Raanta was a late bloomer. He backstopped his team, Assat Pori, to the SM-liiga title with a 1.45 goals-against average and .955 save percentage, winning playoff MVP.
Raanta can sign as early as Saturday and the Wild would bring him to training camp to see if he can earn a spot. If not, he could play at AHL Iowa or return to Finland, where he would play for IFK, which is partly owned by Backstrom.
Cullen, 38, can become an unrestricted free agent July 5. He had a quality season, and when he went down with a knee injury April 1, the Wild lost five of six. Cullen can play center or wing, is strong on special teams, is a shootout specialist and routinely is stellar in the faceoff circle.
Since Mikael Granlund still doesn’t appear ready to take on these roles, it would be hard for the Wild to externally replace all that Cullen brings, especially with limited funds.
Cullen, who had no exit meeting with Fletcher or coach Mike Yeo, is eager to hear from the bosses.
“I’ll just be very open-minded about what’s going to happen,” Cullen said.
Fletcher expects bounce-back years from players who struggled and youngsters to take the next step in their careers. He doesn’t foresee problems “making changes.”
“I look at where we were 12 months ago, we were a team that lacked NHL-caliber talent, a team coming off a really poor season and a team that needed to improve in so many different ways,” Fletcher said. “We’ve come a long way. Now our challenge is how do we continue to improve in a situation where the salary cap is coming down.
“Every year presents different challenges, but I much prefer the challenges we have this summer compared to last summer.”