Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Wild GM Chuck Fletcher on standing pat, Ballard, Spurgeon, replacing Cullen

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: July 5, 2013 - 2:23 PM

I had a phone conversation this afternoon with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher.

With the Wild about $1 million under the cap and the need to keep room for injuries, the Wild will take a step back and let the dust settle. As of now, the depth chart below is the team. If there happens to be bargains at No. 2 center in the next few days (some guys have to be nervous, although there aren't many guys left that whet the appetite at No. 2 center), maybe Fletcher pounces. Or, maybe eventually Fletcher will make a trade. But right now, a lot will depend on kids like Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund next year replacing Matt Cullen, who signed a two-year, $7 million deal with Nashville.

As has been reported often, the Wild was going to have to be quieter this summer than last. It just didn't have the cap space. Next year, it'll have about $25 million, and that's before the cap ceiling increases (although, that's before an eventual Jason Pominville extension this summer, the Wild hopes).

Like I said, if there's a bargain, it wouldn't shock me if Fletcher makes a deal once jobless players start to freak. Otherwise, the next bunch of signings will be two-way guys for Iowa and to provide depth in Minnesota.

(Hey, before I forget, I've gotten a lot of questions as to why Matt Dumba can't play in Iowa. He is 18 years old. Canadian Hockey League players can't play in the minors if they're under 20. So Dumba makes the Wild or gets returned to Red Deer).

Here's Fletcher on a number of topics. Give it a read please:
 
At this point, the prudent thing to do is wait and let things sort out. We’ll see what happens as the summer goes on and into the fall even. There will be a lot of teams tighter to the cap this year and there may be teams looking to make player trades. We’ll see if we can make something down the road, but for right now, we’re happy with the group we have. We have a pretty good mix of young players and veteran players. I think the Ballard signing solidifies our defense position. With re-signing Backstrom and the emergence of Kuemper last year, our depth in goal is arguably as strong as its been since I’ve been here. There’s always areas where you’d love to improve if you could like every team in the league, but I think there’s a lot of positives about our team. If we can make our team better over the next few months, we’ll certainly look to do that. But I’m happy with the place we’re at right now.
 
Second-line center. Intent on Coyle or Granlund? Are they ready? “We’ll see if they’re ready for it. Granlund’s a talented, young player and we feel he’ll be a good NHL player in time. Whether that happens right away or not will be up to him. Charlie Coyle’s a player that proved to all of us that he can play in the NHL last year. He played center most of his career. Those are two options. What I like about our group right now is we have good depth at forward. How the lines shake out, we’ll see. That’ll be up to the coaches, we’ll see what works and what doesn’t and we’ll be open-minded about it. We’re still coming back with a pretty good veteran group with Parise and Koivu, Pominville, Heatley, Setoguchi, Brodziak and even Mitchell. You look at our top-10 forwards, we have seven returning veteran forwards that are all good people and good players. And then we have a lot of young guys. The good thing for us is not every young guy has to make our team. That’s always the risk with young players, are they ready to play or not. Certainly there’s going to be competition there. They’re all on two-ways. Whoever can make it can make it. If a guy isn’t ready, we can get him down. So I really like the mix of veteran players and young players we have up front, and I like our depth up front. How it all works out will be the question mark for training camp. But since Ive been here, this is the deepest our group has been. There’s a lot of talent up front. We’ll have to sort it out and reserve the right to make an adjustment later in if we need to. I think there’s some danger in overreacting right now to what we perceive might be an area that isn’t as strong as other areas (i.e. second-line center). … It’s a solid team right now. I’m excited for training camp to see what we have with our young players in particular.
 
Too much depending on the kids? We’ve all seen it, not every young kid hits their high side, but we’ve got enough of them now we’re some of them are going to hit their high side, and that’s the exciting part to see where they’re at.
 
Now in a few days or so, if some guys don’t have jobs and you could get on a bargain, could you do it? Yeah, we could. We could. I think after this day gets through, there’s going to be not nearly as much dollars that teams can spend and there are still going to be some players left over. There may be some value type of signings that we can look at as the summer goes on. … I think the summer will be a relatively active one. I think teams will be looking to make adjustments and I think there will be players looking for deals. We’ll see how it all plays out. I’m certainly comfortable starting the season where we are and we’ll see how things play out.
 
Ballard you pounced on real quick. Did you target him? Absolutely. It’s no secret we don’t have a lot of cap space and what we wanted to do was to try to find a player that we could sign to a favorable cap number that had a reasonable opportunity to exceed the value of his contract, if that makes sense. We knew there were a lot of No. 6 and 7 type of defensemen that we could sign for the dollars that we had available, but we wanted to maximize the upside potential of the signing. And when you look at Keith, he’s played 550 games in his career, our defense is relatively young and to have an experienced guy that has played that many games in the league was attractive. He’s a mobile guy that can also complete, and often times you have to make a choice between mobility and competitiveness, and this is a guy that brings both dimensions to the team. He can play left side or right side, he can move the puck and he’s had some very good seasons in this league and he’s coming off a couple seasons in Vancouver that didn’t go the way he wanted them to. We obviously believe he’s better, that he can play at a higher level than he did the last few years, and I think he feels that way. I really think Rick Wilson will help him get back to his game, and if he does, I think we got terrific value in that signing. It just made too much sense, and I give Keith credit, we presented our scenario, and told him what we had. He didn’t want to shop. He wanted to come. I think he likes the opportunity to play here and come back home, but he also looked at our depth chart and felt that he had a chance to play some meaningful minutes. We’re excited about it. It wouldn’t have worked without Keith buying into what we presented.
 
On Spurgeon’s 2.66M per contract: I think it’s a steal. Young guy, 21, 22 minutes a game, plus-player. I think Spurgeon’s battle his whole career, but even when he achieves and plays really well, people still question him because of his size. 2.66 number, I don’t know how we ever get in trouble with that. He’s a guy that can play power play, penalty kill, he moves the puck, he produces, he defends well. I think as we’re seeing today, the prices on 4, 5, 6 defensemen have far surpassed the dollars that we committed to Jared, so I feel very comfortable with it. He’s a good player. If you just look at his statistics by themselves and how he’s played, I think we could argue we got pretty good value. But I hope people keep questioning him. He’s a highly motivated player to begin with, but my guess is his next contract will even be more than this one.
 
On letting Cullen go: It was really tough. I spoke to him again today and a few times the last few weeks. He was well aware of our situation. First of all, he’s a great person. You look at all the work that he and his wife have done, not only in the Twin Cities, but Moorhead, and they’re tireless workers for charitable causes. He’s been a good teammate, he’s a hard-working guy, he’s a good hockey player and he’s a pro. It’s hard to replace guys like that. I have a lot of respect for him on and off the ice, but it is what it is. Fortunately, we have good depth up front. That’s not to say you easily replace Matt Cullen. I’m not implying that. But I do think we have enough depth up front to have a good lineup next year, and we’ll have to see how we fill that center spot and how that plays out. It is what it is. The cap decreased by a lot and we spent to the cap that year and we had to come back a long way to get cap compliant. Next year we should have a lot of cap space again. This is sort of a one-year pullback for a lot of teams, not just us. We’re not the only team. Next year we’ll have the opportunity to be more aggressive than we were this year, but fortunately we have a lot of good young players. Hopefully a couple of them step up and take advantage of the increased opportunity. That will be what training camp will be about. I’m excited to see what we have. ... I'm exciting for Bouchard too. That's a good price for the Islanders, and I wouldn't want to face that power play.
 
UPDATED WILD DEPTH CHART

Forwards

Left wing Center Right wing

Zach Parise ($7.5+M) Mikko Koivu (6.75M) **Jason Pominville (4.505M)

*Jason Zucker ($833,333) *Charlie Coyle (975K) Devin Setoguchi (3M)

*Nino Niederreiter (2.795M) Kyle Brodziak (2.83+M) Dany Heatley (7.5M)

Mike Rupp (1.5M) Zenon Konopka (925K) Torrey Mitchell (1.9M)

Extra: Jake Dowell (700K)

Unrestricted free agents: Matt Cullen (won’t be back) and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (won’t be back).
Some vying for spots: *Mikael Granlund, Justin Fontaine (RFA), Stephane Veilleux, *Erik Haula, *Brett Bulmer, *Zack Phillips.
* Two-way contract; can be sent to the minors without waivers.
**Buffalo picking up roughing $795,000

Defensemen

Left Defense Right Defense

Ryan Suter (7.5+M) Jonas Brodin (1.4+M)

Marco Scandella (1.025M) Keith Ballard (1.5M

Clayton Stoner (1.05M) Jared Spurgeon (2.66M)

Extra: Nate Prosser (825,000)

Vying for spots: Matt Dumba (can’t play in Iowa), Steve Kampfer, Kyle Medvec (RFA)
Unrestricted free agent: Brett Clark (won’t be back)

Goalies

Niklas Backstrom (3.42M)
Josh Harding (1.9M)

Buyout charge

Mark Parrish ($927,778)

Total cap hit roughly: $63,253,868(includes Buffalo picking up Pominville’s portion)
Wild’s approximate cap ceiling next year (roughly $400,000 less than NHL): $63.9M
***Available space roughly: $646,132. This doesn't include others making the team. For instance, if Granlund makes it, his cap hit is $2.1 million. Remember also, the Wild needs to save at least $1 million of space for in-season injury callups.
***Cap hits for all Minnesota’s entry-level players inflated for potential bonuses (for example, Niederreiter’s salary is actually $810,000); teams can exceed the cap by 7.5% on potential performance bonuses, so Wild actually has more cap space than listed.

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