Hours after Brian Rolston said he intended to become a free agent when the market opens Tuesday, the Wild traded the veteran forward's rights to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday night for a conditional draft pick.
A half-hour later, Rolston, who hit the 30-goal mark three consecutive seasons for the Wild, said nothing has changed.
"Whether we get something done with Tampa or not, we haven't talked to Tampa yet. We have 24 hours," Rolston said in a phone interview. "But as far as I'm concerned, it's no different today than it was yesterday. I'm a free agent July 1. I wanted to go to July 1 and see where I'm at in the NHL market. This is the last time I might become a free agent."
While there are several conditions to the trade, the Wild is expected to pick up the Lightning's 2009 fourth-round pick. It becomes a third-round pick if Rolston signs in Tampa Bay.
Rolston had said via text message earlier Sunday, "At this point, I'm going to the first of July."
Later Sunday night, he explained further, saying: "All along the Wild has given me offers, and all along we've listened to them carefully. But we just decided, 'Let's go to July 1 and see where our value is.'
"It's nothing against the Wild. I love playing in Minnesota, I love the fans, our family loves it there.
"But we're so close to July 1, let's see where we're at on the open market just so I feel good and don't look back and say, 'I wish I would have done this, I wish I would have done that.' "
In the meantime, the suddenly bold Lightning will go after Rolston hard to try to beat the free-agency deadline of midnight tonight.
The Lightning, which in the past week has introduced new owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie, new coach Barry Melrose and new front-office chief Brian Lawton, will announce today that it signed Pittsburgh's Ryan Malone to a seven-year, $31.5 million deal, and signed Gary Roberts to a one-year, $2 million deal.
"We've identified Brian as one of the elite free agents available, one his ability and two his character," Lawton said. "We're excited to have his rights, and we'll get into it [today] and see where it takes us. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and a deep appreciation for him as a player and person."
If Rolston can't get a deal done, he said: "I feel the Wild are still in it July 1. I can't say it's over with the Wild."
But realistically, the chances of Rolston re-signing with Minnesota are slim.
Besides that the two sides haven't spoken in two weeks and Tampa Bay now owns his rights, at least a dozen teams are expected to line up at Rolston's door if the Lightning can't sign him. And even Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough, who declined to comment Sunday, said recently, "Historically, I have always believed that if you can't get it done before July 1, you're not going to get it done afterward. And I would say that is probably the case here also with Brian."
Rolston long has been considered one of the NHL's most attractive free agents and should become even more coveted now that Malone's off the market. Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Atlanta, Florida and Montreal are expected to be in hot pursuit if Tampa Bay can't get a deal done.
Rolston's rights were traded for Tampa Bay's 2010 third-round pick, but that's only because Tampa Bay traded its 2009 fourth-round pick to Pittsburgh for Malone's rights. If the NHL approves Malone's contract as expected, the Wild will get that fourth pick instead of the third.
However, if Rolston signs in Tampa Bay, that pick turns back into a third-rounder -- either San Jose's 2009 third that Tampa Bay owns or Tampa Bay's 2010 third at the Wild's option.
While Risebrough said last week that the Wild would look for "alternatives" if it was unable to retain Rolston, it will be difficult to find a replacement in this subpar free-agent class.
No Wild forward has seen more ice time the past three years (more than 20 minutes a game). Rolston supplied a big shot from the power-play point, was a tremendous penalty killer, a respected leader and is one of the NHL's best defensive forwards.
In the Wild's history book, Rolston's 96 goals rank second, 106 assists fourth, 202 points third, 40 power-play goals second, seven short-handed goals second, 21 game-winning goals second, 887 shots second and 47 multi-point games second.