On a day Bruce Boudreau would have preferred fielding questions about exorcising his demons during a decisive Game 7 Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues, the Wild coach instead sat next to his general manager and listened to Chuck Fletcher talk glowingly about a record 49-win, 106-point regular season that was a 19-point improvement over the previous year and only had one rough patch.
Chuck Fletcher didn’t follow Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman’s cue and call the Wild’s abrupt end “unacceptable” and a “complete failure.”
Instead, the eighth-year Wild GM only went as far as to say it was “very disappointing to lose after a tremendous regular season.” He mostly deflected critical questions about a team that has bowed out in the first round two years in a row and has yet to get past the second round since 2003.
Fletcher reminded that a year ago, he sat in the same room after a first-round exit to Dallas and got questions about whether Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker ever would become go-to players, about the need for another legitimate center, about the team’s lack of depth.
He noted that Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Jared Spurgeon all had career years, that captain Mikko Koivu had his best season in five, that Eric Staal was an impactful addition, that Ryan Suter had “another tremendous season,” that Jason Pominville “was in the top 25 in the league in points per minutes played at even-strength,” and that Zach Parise finished strong after an injury/illness-riddled season.
“People don’t want to hear about the regular season, but it’s still an 82-game picture,” Fletcher said. “That’s six months of hockey where we were in the top ten in goals against, goals for, power play, penalty kill, home record, road record. Again, four months without consecutive regulation losses. We were a remarkably consistent team.
“You look over 82 games, and we took big strides and were one of the more competitive teams in the league. There’s no reason we won’t continue to be that way.”
Fletcher said there will “absolutely not” be wholesale changes.
There will be other changes when one considers the $73 million salary cap ceiling may only increase minimally and one player will be lost to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights on June 21.
Fletcher has begun preliminary discussions with Golden Knights GM George McPhee about trying to dictate which player McPhee selects from the Wild — Minnesota will protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. But Fletcher won’t get down to the nitty-gritty with McPhee until he knows for certain if he can make any trades with the other 29 teams beforehand.
Fletcher told the Star Tribune: “I’ve had so many calls on a lot of our guys the last year. We held on to everybody because we wanted to make a run. But if someone’s going to offer me a good deal right now, I’m all ears.”
Chalking up another postseason loss to the Wild’s inability to execute around the net and a .034 shooting percentage against Blues goalie Jake Allen, the Wild surely would trade for a net-front forward.
Boudreau would love a solidified top four on defense, particularly a physical defenseman.
“As a coach you want everything,” Boudreau said. “You want to get bigger, faster, stronger, younger. Definitely, the salary cap comes into play.”
Granlund, the Wild’s top scorer, and Niederreiter are the two biggest pending restricted free agents. Others include Erik Haula, Gustav Olofsson, Mike Reilly, Christian Folin and Jordan Schroeder.
The unrestricted free agents include Martin Hanzal, Nate Prosser, Ryan White and Darcy Kuemper.
The Wild didn’t trust Kuemper down the stretch, and that specifically impacted Devan Dubnyk’s heavy workload.
Fletcher said it’s “critical” the Wild has a backup next season that can “win games and play games,” whether that’s Alex Stalock or another goalie the Wild plans to acquire to compete with Stalock.
“Alex had a tremendous year,” Fletcher said. “When we signed Alex last summer … he was adamant that he had to go down to Iowa [of the AHL]. He wanted to be a No. 1 guy. He wanted to get games. He wanted to give himself a chance to be a competitive No. 2 goalie again.”
Excluding trades and the lost player to expansion, the Wild has only $12 million of space if the cap stays flat.
Hanzal would love to stay but will seek a long-term deal via free agency. Between the dollars it would cost to re-sign Hanzal and the fact a long-term deal could block the development of Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin, it’s unlikely Hanzal returns.
For the record, Fletcher said “it’s too early to say.”
Pominville, 34, is another player with an uncertain future. Fletcher has not decided if he will ask Pominville to waive his no-move clause for the ability to protect an extra forward in the expansion draft. The reason, Fletcher says, is because he might not need to ask if he makes trades beforehand or has other arrangements cemented with Vegas.
Regardless, Pominville has a $5.6 million cap hit next season and scored only 24 goals the past two seasons, so it’s very likely the Wild will try to trade him. Pominville is owed $2.5 million of next season’s $5 million salary on Oct. 1. He also has a 20-team no-trade list that decreases to 10 on July 1, so Fletcher theoretically would have double the teams with which to work.
“This is a team that has three lines that can score, five quality ‘D’, a real good goaltender, so I don’t think we need wholesale changes,” Fletcher said. “We can look at ways to improve the team, and that’s what we’ll do. There will be significant challenges for a lot of teams this summer, and we’re one of them.”