Wild GM Chuck Fletcher held his end-of-the-year availability today, and I got him alone after on a few other subjects. We also got a smattering of players.
Here are the Fletcher highlights:
-- Fletcher made it abundantly clear that Mike Yeo is the coach of this team. Fletcher and Yeo will meet in the next couple days to iron out his contract.
-- Besides the entire coaching staff, the entire medical training staff, equipment staff, members of the scouting staff and front office also are in the last year of their deals. Fletcher explained that since this was his fifth year, he kept everybody in the last year of their deals for consistency so after the year he could evaluate everybody and everything. He did say that after he re-signs Yeo, the two will have a conversation about everybody and there could be some “tweaks.” One person who is staying? Brent Flahr, the Wild’s assistant GM, who ran the draft table the past four drafts. He has agreed to a new multi-year extension.
-- Fletcher told me as of now, he is not planning to use his last amnesty buyout. As I’ve told you before, I don’t even really see a candidate. Some have said Kyle Brodziak, who has a year left on his contract at $2.83 million. Unless there’s some major cap issue, amnestying Brodziak is unlikely because he can simply be traded around the draft or after July 1 if Fletcher so determines. Remember, even last year, nobody was interested in Devin Setoguchi at the draft. Suddenly, after teams missed out on some players after free agency began, Fletcher started to get calls for Setoguchi and ended up trading him to Winnipeg for a second. And, the Wild’s not using its compliance buyout on Mikko Koivu.
-- Speaking of Koivu and the fact he has four years left on his contract at $6.75 million cap hits per, I asked Fletcher about him today. He had one goal and six assists in the playoffs after being so good down the stretch of the regular season.
“Contracts are contracts, and that creates expectations. I get that,” Fletcher said. “He’s not a prolific goal scorer, so he’s never going to make everybody happy, but he can still make plays, was outstanding defensively, played hard minutes and won big draws.
“You look at Granlund and Haula, they’re a couple small guys who can scoot, but we need a big guy that can shut down Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf, Jamie Benn. Mikko, Granny, Haulzy, that’s pretty good balance with two smaller guys who can scoot and a big guy.”
I asked Fletcher if Koivu’s role needs to change then and he said, “It’s an open book. Mike [Yeo] did a good job this year establishing that things are fluid and that he’ll adjust and react by matchups or situations or who’s going well. We want to get three lines that can all contribute with a versatile fourth line. We want to be a two power-play unit, three-penalty kill unit team. Mikko is a big part of that.”
-- On June 9, the Wild will hold its organizational meetings where the staff really starts to tackle next year’s roster. The restricted free agents that need to be re-signed this summer are Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine, Darcy Kuemper and Jason Zucker. He has told all his unrestricted free agents (Ilya Bryzgalov, Matt Moulson, Cody McCormick, Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser, Dany Heatley, etc.) that he’ll be in touch after these meetings. My guess said the Wild would be interested in re-signing Stoner and maybe McCormick and Prosser, who are valuable in their roles. I do see Christian Folin taking over Prosser’s role though. McCormick was real good down the stretch for the Wild and personally I think Stoner is a no-brainer, but Fletcher said there’s no rush and he wants to evaluate everything and especially cap space. Because Jonas Brodin, Erik Haula and Niederreiter hit some bonuses, the Wild will hit an overage penalty again next season, so the Wild’s cap ceiling will actually be less than most other teams. The ceiling is projected at $69-70 million.
-- After the staff, the next priority is tackling the goalie situation. Basically, Fletcher said, “Stay tuned.” As I’ve said often, until the Wild figures out the situations to Niklas Backstrom (he not only had abdominal surgery, but he also had hip surgery recently) and Josh Harding (MS), it can’t just re-sign Bryzgalov (helped get 17 of 20 points in a 10-start stretch late) or another goalie.
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 said he has no reason to believe Backstrom won’t 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 and we’ll go from there.
“Josh is a young guy and he showed this year that despite what he’s battling, he can play at a high level. We’ll go through this summer. We’ll see how things progress and training camp will be training camp.”
-- 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 may 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? It could affect going after Thomas Vanek or others. Plus, some of these kids look like they’ll develop into top-6 forwards.
“A lot of young players stepped up and showed they can handle the big stage,” Fletcher said.
Plus, the Wild has so many kids not even here yet, like Zucker, Matt Dumba, Gustov Olofsson, Tyler Graovac, Kurtis Gabriel, etc.
If the Wild doesn’t acquire a so-called finisher externally, Fletcher said, “We think we have some kids that can finish that area already here.” Fletcher noted that these kids are 21 or 22 and typically there’s a statistical upswing when until you’re 24 or 25, so for instance, the ceiling for guys like Niederreiter should be more than 14 goals and Coyle more than 12.
All the kids, from Niederreiter to Coyle to Mikael Granlund, said their goal is to get better this offseason.
-- Not shockingly, Coyle downplayed the fact he played with two separated shoulders. One happened in Game 4 in the first round, one happened in Game 3 this round. He said all players played banged-up and would do what he did.
Fletcher said guys like Koivu were banged up and Moulson had an oblique and groin injury that hampered him all postseason, but he didn’t want to make any excuses.
Similarly, I talked to Jason Pominville. He had two goals and was second on the team with nine points. He didn’t want to use the excuse that he was banged up.
“Everyone’s banged up,” Pominville said. “If I’m playing, I’m fine to go, I’m not going to use any of those excuses. But it’s always tough. If you lose a game and you miss a chance or two, you always wonder, ‘Could I have been the difference tonight?’ I would have liked to have had one or two more goals here or there.”
Pominville is very excited about the prospects of this team because of the major strides the youngsters made this season.
--Fletcher is excited by the step the Wild took this year and the culture created.
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.”
But Fletcher said the Wild’s in the toughest division in the league and it’s such a fine line between not only making the playoffs but advancing through.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re just going to show up and make the playoffs and pick up where we left off,” he said. In other words, it’ll take a lot of hard work again next season just to get in, and then once in, anything can happen.
Obviously, it's the offseason. Other than the eventual re-signing of Yeo and staff news, there won't be a ton of news until the middle of next month. So don't be surprised if things quiet down, meaning I'll be taking some time to decompress, too.
As always, follow me on Twitter at @russostrib. I'll also be filling in for Paul Allen on KFAN Tuesday and Wednesday, so I'm sure I'll have some hockey guests on there.
Like I said the other day, I hope you enjoyed the Star Tribune coverage of the Wild this season. Talk to you in September (kidding).