The Wild provided Niklas Backstrom with security and stability, and he didn’t want to leave the team.
In return, the Wild’s No. 1 goaltender of the past seven years agreed to what General Manager Chuck Fletcher called a “very workable” salary-cap number.
Backstrom, coming off a four-year contract that paid him $6 million a season, accepted a nearly 50 percent pay cut to stay in Minnesota by signing a backloaded, three-year, $10.25 million contract Monday.
The salary cap hit of roughly $3.42 million leaves the Wild with about $2.8 million with which to work this summer — not a lot of room to re-sign restricted free agents Cal Clutterbuck and Jared Spurgeon, keep veteran Matt Cullen or improve by adding free agents.
The Wild will create more cap space via trades and possibly buyouts.
“We have some work ahead of us,” said Fletcher as Sunday’s NHL draft in Newark, N.J., approaches.
The Wild would like to re-sign Cullen, but the 36-year-old might command a multiyear deal worth $3.5 million-plus as a free agent.
“I’ve been upfront with Cully and his agent: It’s challenging, but not impossible, to bring him back,” Fletcher said. “But there’s work to do to make it happen, and he recognizes that. We have a lot of balls in the air right now.”
Clutterbuck might be willing to sign a cap-friendly one-year deal, but he also has value on the trade market. One team hot after him is Edmonton; the Wild has talked to the Oilers about a deal that would include Minnesotan Tyler Pitlick.
Three other players on the block are defensemen Tom Gilbert and Justin Falk, and center Zenon Konopka.
If Fletcher can’t create flexibility with trades, he might be forced to go the compliance buyout route. Since Dany Heatley and his $7.5 million cap hit can’t be bought out because he is deemed an injured player, Gilbert could be a casualty. His cap hit is $4 million, although Fletcher said: “That’s certainly not my first choice. I haven’t notified anybody we’d be buying them out. Like I said, we have … a lot of moving parts right now.”
Backstrom, 35, understood that he needed to make his cap hit as painless as possible. He will earn $2.5 million next season, $3.75 million in 2014-15 and $4 million in 2015-16.
He said Minnesota “feels like home. Happiness is something that you can’t buy with money. It’s something in your heart and in your mind, so that’s the most important thing for me — to be happy.”
Backstrom tied for the league lead last season with 24 victories before sustaining a sports hernia minutes before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. On Monday, he took to the ice for an hour for the first time since surgery.
“He’s been a model of consistency during his career,” Fletcher said. “It just made too much sense not to re-sign him.”
Backstrom finished 23rd in goals-against average and 28th in save percentage among NHL starters. Fletcher surmised that Backstrom might have been fighting injury and fatigue after playing extensively due to Josh Harding’s two-month absence because of multiple sclerosis. Fletcher said Harding is mentally and physically prepared to push Backstrom. Re-signing Backstrom bides time for Darcy Kuemper, who has played only 57 games as a pro, and Johan Gustafsson to develop at Iowa of the American Hockey League.
The Backstrom signing came one day after Toronto acquired goalie Jonathan Bernier from Los Angeles. The Wild had shown interest. The free-agent market was going to be thin; the Wild can’t afford the lone big potential name, Phoenix’s Mike Smith. The trade market was hard to navigate as well.
“There really never was another option [besides Backstrom],” Fletcher said. “You have to say there is, so you have some leverage. But clearly he was our first choice.”