Wild Insider: Two for the money

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 18, 2007 - 11:46 PM

A couple of important Wild veterans are headed toward free-agency next summer. Wise spending is the goal.

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BRUCE BISPING ¥ bbisping@startribune.comSt. Paul, MN., Thursday, 10/30/2007. Wild vs Penguins. (left to right) Wild's Pierre-Marc Bouchard celebrated with Brian Rolston after Rolston tied the score with the Penguins in the 3rd period.

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?

It’s a question that must be asked. If the answer is no, next summer is the time the Wild might investigate Gaborik’s trade value since you wouldn’t want a player of Gaborik’s talent on the last year of his contract if he’s 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 • mrusso@startribune.com

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  • WILD WEEK IN REVIEW Record: 1-3 • Good thing Edmonton always pops up on the schedule. After dropping the first two games of its four-game trip to each division rival, the Wild waltzed into Edmonton and scored two power-play goals in a 4-2 victory. This came one game after Kristian Huselius scored the winning goal in the final minute in Calgary. Friday, the Wild gave up four first-period goals in a 6-2 loss at Vancouver. STAR TRIBUNE'S STAR OF THE WEEK: Mark Parrish, left wing The sniper was on a four-game point streak (three goals, six points) before leaving Friday's game at Vancouver because of a strained back. He had been the Wild's most consistent player recently, especially at taking hits to make plays. In fact, when he got bowled over by physical defenseman Dion Phaneuf while assisting on one of Mikko Koivu's goals in Calgary, it was the definition of the hockey cliché "taking a hit to make a play." THIS WEEK: Four games Today: vs. Colorado, 5 p.m.; Wednesday: vs. Vancouver, 7 p.m.; Friday: vs. Columbus, 1 p.m.; Saturday: at Nashville, 7 p.m. Finally back home, the Wild opens a three-game homestand with consecutive games against division rivals to wrap up its eight straight games against divisional opponents. It then hosts a post-Thanksgiving matinee with the much-improved Blue Jackets, who are always a difficult opponent. THE QUOTE "Nik [Backstrom], who’s been so strong for us, probably lets the worst goal I’ve seen in since he’s been with the Wild. Do I expect that to happen again?" — Wild GM Doug Risebrough, on Calgary’s winner Tuesday MICHAEL RUSSO
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