Wild Insider: Don't count on major shakeup at the top

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2013 - 12:20 AM

Chuck Fletcher and Mike Yeo are expected to return, but the team faces other big decisions while dealing with limited cap space.

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Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher (left), Wild coach Mike Yeo

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune file

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With the wound still fresh after a quick, painful exit from the postseason, the Wild’s internal evaluation commenced Friday.

The organization began the process of trying to ascertain how things went so south once the calendar turned to April. And it began looking ahead to pertinent offseason questions.

The biggest seems to have been affirmed.

Indications from inside the organization even less than an hour after the Chicago Blackhawks eliminated the Wild on Thursday night were that both General Manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo were safe.

Wild officials met Friday, and following that sitdown, the team sent word to the local media that Fletcher and Yeo would together be available for end-of-the-season interviews Saturday.

That’s a sign both will be back.

Fifteen minutes after the Wild was tossed from the playoffs, captain Mikko Koivu, who had no points for a team that scored seven goals in five games, said he didn’t believe Yeo should take the brunt of the blame for the team’s playoff exit.

“This series is about us not scoring goals,” Koivu said. “That’s the difference. That’s not coaching. It’s the players on the ice.”

Fletcher’s offseason to-do list is extensive.

The questions include: Who’s next season’s No. 1 goalie? Can the Wild add proven finishers, bigger bodies and more speed to a lineup with limited salary-cap flexibility? Is there a way to improve the blue line? And which players end up moving on this summer?

“There’s always changes,” Zach Parise said as he stared dejectedly into the floor of the United Center visitors’ locker room Thursday night. “You don’t know. That’s the way this thing works.”

With the salary cap decreasing almost $7 million, the Wild has only $9 million to play with. As much as this season proved yet again that the Wild still lacks natural scorers, Priority No. 1 will be to determine next year’s No. 1 goalie.

Injuries hit Backstrom

Niklas Backstrom’s contract expires June 30. Josh Harding’s unpredictable health situation — he was diagnosed this season with multiple sclerosis — makes it impossible to enter next season assuming he will be No. 1. Similarly, the Wild’s not about to appoint young Darcy Kuemper No. 1.

Backstrom is the Wild’s all-time leader in victories (184), shutouts (28) and games (369) and ranks second with a 2.43 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.

The problem is he is 35 and injuries the past few years have hit his groin, hips and one of his ankles. He was unable to play this postseason because of a sports hernia.

Backstrom, who tied for the league lead with 24 victories, struggled down the stretch, although he might have been playing hurt. Sports hernias typically occur over time, not because of one harmless-looking reach in warmups.

With the goalie market foggy, Fletcher plans to talk to Backstrom to see what type of term and money the veteran wants.

Phoenix’s Mike Smith is the lone legit No. 1 goalie set to become a free agent, but he expects a large payday. Roberto Luongo might be bought out by Vancouver, but it’s hard to imagine the Wild would be interested in a goalie who has struggled so mightily at Xcel Energy Center (3.56 GAA, .873 save percentage) that he hasn’t played there since October 2010.

In the trade market, Buffalo’s Ryan Miller has one year left on a deal that pays him $6.25 million. That could be too expensive. St. Louis might look to move either Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott, while Anaheim might look to trade Jonas Hiller or Viktor Fasth. There’s also Jonathan Bernier, the Los Angeles Kings backup who has eternally been considered another team’s future No. 1.

One of the best moves by the old Doug Risebrough-Tom Lynn-Tommy Thompson regime was landing Backstrom. In 2006, he was the first European free-agent signee.

Perhaps the Wild would consider that route again. There’s a 23-year-old named Antti Raanta who had a season for the ages in Finland. He backstopped his team, Assat Port, to the SM-liiga title with a 1.45 goals against average and .955 save percentage, which was good for the Jari Kurri Trophy — Finland’s equivalent to the Conn Smythe.

Maybe Raanta is the next Backstrom … or maybe he’s the next Dennis Endras.

Needed: goal scorers

From there, the Wild has to decide whether to re-sign veterans Matt Cullen or Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Bouchard, a 2002 first-round pick, likely played his last game with Minnesota, finishing with the second-most games in franchise history (565) and third-most points (347).

Cullen, 36, would love to come back, but at his age, it will depend solely on money and years.

“For sure, I know that could have been my last game as a Wild player,” Cullen said.

The Wild needs to get bigger and faster. It needs to improve offensively. The question is whether Fletcher will have the cap space to accomplish it.

Teams get two compliance buyouts over the next two offseasons. The Wild might try to use one on Dany Heatley. That would free $7.5 million in cap space. But he had season-ending shoulder surgery and teams can’t buy out injured players.

So that could be an issue. Fletcher might also dive into the trade market. That could include shopping players such as Devin Setoguchi, Cal Clutterbuck, Tom Gilbert, Zenon Konopka and seldom-used Nate Prosser.

There are no easy answers, especially until cap space is freed. The reality is goals still don’t come easy to the Wild, and the Wild is going nowhere until that changes.

“We’ll never stop trying to improve our team from a personnel standpoint,” Yeo said after Thursday’s loss. “You always try to address your weaknesses. But we did improve [offensively]. We have to get better, there’s no question.”

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  • After starting 41 of 48 games in the Wild’s abbreviated, accelerated regular season, goalie Niklas Backstrom couldn’t play in the playoffs because of an injury, and the 35-year-old will be a free agent this summer.

  • Matt Cullen would love to return to the Wild, but the 36-year-old native Minnesotan acknowledged he might be playing elsewhere in 2013-14.

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