A couple of important Wild veterans are headed toward free-agency next summer. Wise spending is the goal.
Brian Rolston or Pavol Demitra? Demitra or Rolston? Both? Or neither?
In just a few months, the Wild will have this complicated decision to make.
In the salary cap world, all teams must be excellent forecasters, looking ahead by two, three, four, even five years.
So when General Manager Doug Risebrough says "luckily I don't have to make that decision now" when asked about the long-term futures of Rolston and Demitra, who can become two highly coveted unrestricted free agents next summer, and Marian Gaborik, who can become a 28-year-old unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2009, don't buy it.
After all, Risebrough is already admittedly planning for rookie James Sheppard's third contract, and he's barely a month into his first. So undoubtedly, Risebrough has been chewing over how -- or whether-- to approach Rolston or Demitra on new contracts.
Here's the problem: It's a fixed market, one in which restricted free agent Pierre-Marc Bouchard could be looking at a similar long-term deal (or larger) than Mikko Koivu's four-year, $13 million contract and Brent Burns' four-year, $14.2 million extension.
The Wild's cap hit for 11 players next season is already $30.283 million (the current cap ceiling is $50.3 million).
What if Rolston and Demitra, two of the top potential free agents next summer, want $4 million or $5 million or $6 million apiece on long-term deals? There's only so much pie, and when Bouchard, Koivu and Burns are getting large pieces of the pie, somebody's got to go hungry.
Between Rolston and Demitra, there's a good chance the Wild can afford only one.
Rolston, underpaid dramatically during his Wild contract at $2.432 million a season (the two-time Wild leading goal scorer is the eighth-highest-paid player), will be 35. That means he falls under the 35-or-older rule; if he gets a career-ending injury or retires under a long-term deal, the Wild is on the hook for his cap hit regardless.
Demitra, making $4.5 million a season, will be 33, so there's no such risk.
Or is there? Of the 347 games the past four-plus seasons, Rolston has played 343 (missed one to injury, three to illness, one to rest). Over 347 games, Demitra has played 285 (missed nine this season, 11 last season, 24 in 2005-06, 14 in 2003-04, four in 2002-03 with a variety of injuries). Before that, Demitra missed 38 games in 2000-01, 11 in 1999-00, 21 in 1997-98.
So even though the Wild is terrified of the 35-or-older rule, it should be irrelevant. Their histories say Rolston will miss a handful of games over his next contract while the brittle Demitra will miss a boatload. And Rolston's still a great skater, plays a strong all-around game and keeps himself in extraordinary shape.
Still, picking Rolston over Demitra isn't easy. The Wild's recent funk began Oct. 24 when the dynamic Demitra started missing games because of a groin injury. So the Wild clearly isn't good enough without him.
The other worry is losing Demitra possibly ticks off tag-team partner Gaborik, who more than any other player makes the Wild go.
One would hope Gaborik is more mature than that. If he's not, well, it's to the point where the Wild must reassess whether Gaborik, who has recurring groin problems, is the right player to continue to get the biggest piece of the pie.
Gaborik makes $7.5 million next season. Can the Wild afford to continue paying him such a large chunk for thoroughbred legs that can't stay healthy?
Its a question that must be asked. If the answer is no, next summer is the time the Wild might investigate Gaboriks trade value since you wouldnt want a player of Gaboriks talent on the last year of his contract if hes got no future with the team.
As you can see, the Wild has several long-term decisions to make -- none of them easy.
Michael Russo firstname.lastname@example.org
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