Chuck Fletcher saw a team that grew “leaps and bounds” since New Year’s Day and is “proud of the step we took” by advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the second time in history.
But the Wild general manager is now looking ahead.
“We’re working toward next year,” Fletcher said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Priority No. 1, Fletcher said, is signing coach Mike Yeo to a new contract. Yeo and Fletcher will sit down in the “very near future.”
“Mike’s the coach of our team,” Fletcher said. “He’s a very good coach.”
Fletcher, who recently signed an unannounced contract extension of his own, said there are two dozen others, from coaches to trainers to scouts to front-office members, whose contracts expire June 30. There will be tweaks, Fletcher said, but ironing out the staff the next few weeks is his first objective.
That began Friday when assistant GM Brent Flahr, the Wild’s chief talent evaluator, agreed to a multiyear extension.
Priority No. 2 will be tackling the goaltending conundrum.
Niklas Backstrom, who has two years left on his contract and can’t be bought out because he’s deemed an injured player, has had two recent surgeries — one to repair his core abdominal muscle, one to repair a hip. For the second consecutive season, Josh Harding, who has one year left on his contract, had to take a leave of absence because of multiple sclerosis. Darcy Kuemper is a restricted free agent who might command a one-way contract. And Ilya Bryzgalov is an unrestricted free agent.
Asked his plan, Fletcher said, “I wish I could sit here and tell you we had the answer right now. The doctors will play a part in this, the salary cap will play a part in this and we’ll try to make the best decisions we can.
“There’s a realistic chance we need to have three goaltenders next year.”
Fletcher believes Backstrom will be healthy by training camp. As for Harding, who didn’t play since Dec. 31, Fletcher said, “As difficult as it is for us, it’s more difficult for him. He’s got a real battle ahead of him, and he’s handled it the best he can. I’ve been told that there’s a very reasonable chance that he’ll be healthy and be able to play next year. You never know. It’s a vicious illness. We’ll deal with it day to day.”
Cap issues coming?
The Wild will hold organizational meetings starting June 9 to look at next year’s roster and the projected rosters for the next several years. It’s there where the staff decides who should and shouldn’t be re-signed, who should be shopped on the trade market and which free agents the team should pursue. The Wild just completed amateur scouting meetings in preparation for the NHL draft on June 27-28 in Philadelphia.
Fletcher isn’t planning on using his last amnesty buyout on any player.
“Compared to last offseason, this offseason we have a lot more holes filled,” Fletcher said.
The Wild will have to re-sign restricted free agents Kuemper, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine and Jason Zucker. Next summer, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Erik Haula and Marco Scandella are set to become restricted free agents.
Later this summer, after the Wild tackles the unrestricted free-agent market, Fletcher might look to extend some of next summer’s restricted free agents in advance. He would love to stagger the terms so their contracts no longer expire at the same time.
“You better have an eye on three to five years down the road,” Fletcher said. “Cap space is not malleable. Once you use it, it’s gone. We have to make sure we preserve enough of it to keep the kids we want to keep, and I think that’ll have a major impact in what we do this summer.”
What’s that mean? For instance, many fans hope the Wild will try to sign former Gophers star Thomas Vanek, who is in the Eastern Conference Finals with Montreal, on July 1. But many Wild youngsters need to be re-signed in the next two years, and some look as if they’ll develop into top-six forwards.
“A lot of young players stepped up and showed they can handle the big stage,” Fletcher said.
The Wild also has to decide if it wants to re-sign any of its unrestricted free agents, including Matt Moulson, Clayton Stoner, Cody McCormick, Nate Prosser, Dany Heatley and Bryzgalov.
“I explained to all of them, we’ll get back to them after our organizational meetings,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher is excited about the culture created and future of the Wild.
In his five years, “We’ve been able to bring in certain types of players. Talent’s very important, but we put an emphasis on character. We have a group of players that play hard. Our best players, our highest-paid players have a top-end work ethic. They want to win. They are not selfish, and that set the tone for our group.”