Wild meets with Niskanen, is expected to be active in free agency

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Defenseman Matt Niskanen

 

– The Wild didn’t make a trade Friday night, which could be an indicator that General Manager Chuck Fletcher will look to upgrade his team in the free-agent market that begins Tuesday.

“Right now it’s quiet. We don’t have a lot going,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher met with defenseman Matt Niskanen’s agent, Neil Sheehy, on Friday and is expected to chat with him again Saturday. Niskanen has received a lot of interest during the NHL’s free-agent interview period, and while the Virginia, Minn., native and former Minnesota Duluth star might consider a hometown discount to play in his home state, the reality is some teams are bound to offer him the max seven years at money in the $6 million range annually.

So for the Wild to land the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 27-year-old coming off a 46-point season, one would assume it would have to pony up at least five years at significant money.

Niskanen is getting married Saturday, so Sheehy is expected to meet with Niskanen on Sunday to discuss the opportunities he may have Tuesday. Niskanen is delaying his honeymoon until choosing a team.

But Fletcher has identified his biggest need this offseason above all else as a scoring forward.

Agent Steve Bartlett, who represents free agent Thomas Vanek, said he had a “good, frank” conversation with Fletcher to see if the Wild’s idea of fit and contract term aligns with Vanek. At least eight teams have contacted Vanek, of which four or five are considered serious.

Barring a trade, the Wild is expected to offer Vanek a one- to three-year deal, although it sounds like the Wild would have to offer at least three years. The Wild appears accepting of that. Vanek surely could get more money and term elsewhere, but the lure of playing in Minnesota may be enough for the former Gopher and Stillwater resident to stay at home. He is also close friends with former Buffalo Sabres teammate Jason Pominville, the Wild’s leading goal scorer last season.

Vanek, 30, has 277 goals in 663 career games. The Wild finished 24th offensively last season (199 non-shootout goals).

Vanek ranks eighth in the NHL in goals scored since the start of 2005-06 and his 0.42 goals per game average is tied for 11th.

Next season’s NHL salary cap has been set at $69 million, although the Wild’s cap will be about $700,000 less because of a bonus overage of $850,000 from last season for Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and Jonas Brodin. The Wild has $47.7 million committed to 16 players before re-signing restricted free agents Niederreiter, Darcy Kuemper, Justin Fontaine and Jason Zucker.

“The cap ceiling is probably a little lower than most of us would have believed a week ago, so it might take some teams out of adding money unless they can move money,” Fletcher said. “I think it’s going to tighten up the market a little more.”

Pumping the tires

With Dany Heatley set to become a free agent Tuesday and maybe his NHL career in peril, Fletcher gave the veteran goal scorer a nice endorsement.

“He scored some big goals for our franchise, but even as his role decreased, the job he did mentoring our young players,” Fletcher said. “The time he spent with Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle almost on a daily basis after practice working with them on positioning and shooting pucks, meanwhile these are the guys that are taking some of his ice time away, yet he’s out there helping them get better? The way he treated our staff, the way he treated the trainers, he’s a tremendous human being.

“I really believe he can help a team and I believe he will get another opportunity.”

 

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