Glamorous free-agent fare fails to tempt Wild

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 2, 2011 - 12:31 AM

The re-signing of goalie Josh Harding was the team's biggest move as the signing period opened with league-wide action.

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Wild goalie Josh Harding is back with the team after missing all of 2010-11 due to a devastating knee injury suffered in the preseason.

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Cameras were stationed outside the office of Brad Richards' agents all day Friday. They captured team executives lining up like they were taking a number at a deli.

Chuck Fletcher was not one of them.

The Wild general manager also didn't get in on Ville Leino when Buffalo was signing the forward, who has 30 career goals, for $27 million over six years.

He watched from the sidelines as Chicago signed a bunch of veterans, including Andrew Brunette for $2 million, and as Columbus signed power-play specialist James Wisniewski for an exorbitant $5.5 million a year. He watched the Florida Panthers spend money like their arena's actually the Federal Reserve, signing, get this, Jose Theodore, Scottie Upshall, Ed Jovanovski, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Fleischmann and Marcel Goc and trading for Kris Versteeg days after acquiring Brian Campbell.

More than 50 players changed teams on the opening bell of free agency with almost $300 million being committed.

The Wild didn't enter the fray.

Staying consistent with its recent draft-and-develop mantra, the Wild -- other than re-signing goalie Josh Harding to a one-year, $750,000 deal and signing former University of Vermont defenseman Kyle Medvec to an entry-level deal -- didn't sign any players on Day 1 of free agency for the first time in Fletcher's tenure.

"My expectations weren't that we'd be trendsetters," Fletcher said. "We weren't very active in the bidding and the contract battles going on. We've had lots of conversations with both agents and teams, and we'll continue that over the next little while to see if we can find something that makes sense."

While not signing somebody Friday doesn't mean the Wild won't sign or trade for players the rest of the summer, Fletcher reiterated his intention to fill holes internally next season.

"We feel some of our young players deserve a chance to make the team," Fletcher said.

After being a salary-cap ceiling team the past two years, the Wild will be closer to the midpoint next season.

The reasons: 1) It's getting younger. 2) Next summer's free-agent crop looks more appetizing. 3) The Wild wants to save cap space to pay its own top prospects soon coming. 4) The collective bargaining agreement expires after next season, meaning uncertainty on the horizon.

"Having flexibility through this season and going into next summer is potentially a very, very good thing," Fletcher said. "Many times you sign players in the free-agent market, you're not signing players to one-year deals. It's got ramifications on your cap into future years.

"So my gut's telling me that having flexibility this year going into next summer is the right thing to do."

The Wild still has interest in some players. It made calls to several defensemen Friday, including Apple Valley's Mike Lundin. It might eventually look for a veteran like Cloquet's Jamie Langenbrunner, although the sides talked Friday and there didn't seem much of a fit.

For now, the Wild plans to let the dust settle on a crazy day in the NHL.

Besides Brunette and Theodore, Wild free agents Cam Barker and Chuck Kobasew found new homes in Edmonton and Colorado, respectively. Barker's contract is for one year at $2.25 million, plus he gets his $1.0833 million buyout from the Wild. Kobasew's deal was two years at $1.25 million a season.

"Toughest year of my life, no question," Barker said of his last year in Minnesota. "Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. I had a couple of injuries. It was extremely frustrating. I'm glad to move on, I'm really motivated and I want to prove people wrong. That's going to drive me to training camp and into next season."

Harding, 27, was overjoyed to return to Minnesota. The Wild's 2002 second-round pick didn't play a game last season after tearing his right ACL and MCL in his exhibition debut.

But on Thursday, the Wild flew Harding to Minnesota from his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan, to have his knee examined by orthopedic surgeon Joel Boyd.

He received a clean bill of health.

"The injury situation, I think that was the biggest concern to a lot of people," Harding said. "To sign back with the Wild, they know me best. They knew the injury, they knew what I did to overcome the injury. They know how I feel right now.

"They made sure my knee was 100 percent. The tests went very good. Now I'm just excited be part of the team I started with."

So the Wild jumped on Harding before free agency began, and Theodore became the first Wild free agent to sign elsewhere. Theodore, who plans to retire in Boca Raton, Fla., signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the Panthers -- a team he had been eyeing since January.

He was ecstatic for Harding, saying: "Hards had probably the worst injury a goalie could get at the worst timing. I feel he would have played, this year he probably would be a No. 1 somewhere. Now he'll come back strong. It's a great signing for Minnesota, especially at that money. It's a great bargain."

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