On Tuesday, I touched base with Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher via phone for an update as to what he’s been up to since the season ended April 22 and how he’s preparing for what is bound to be a busy June.
He made clear to me a few weeks ago that he’s open for business, saying at the time, “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.”
During Tuesday’s conversation, Fletcher reiterated that this offseason is not just about becoming compliant by losing their one mandatory player to Vegas in expansion June 21 and re-signing their restricted free agents (especially Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund) within the confines of their salary cap challenges.
He wants to get better.
Do the math, the one potential real route to “get better” when you add up the cap arithmetic (the Wild has about $11 million in cap space if the cap remains flat) is a trade or two. If Fletcher and his staff indeed believe it’s time to rearrange the deck chairs after its disappointing first-round exit to St. Louis, the Wild will almost surely have to move a contract or two via trade and/or expansion.
In Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts (a consistent must-read) Tuesday, the distinguished Sportsnet Insider wrote, “An unusual name started circulating in trade circles the last few days: Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter. The 24-year-old winger had a career-high 25 goals in 2016–17, and, after making a few calls, it sounds like teams are looking at the Wild’s expansion/cap situation, wondering if he could be available. Two years away from unrestricted free agency, Niederreiter is arbitration eligible and will get a nice raise from the $2.7 million he just earned. The Wild also need to re-sign Mikael Granlund. As an exec from another team put it, “It may not be their first choice, but if you make it worth their while, it’s possible.” All GM Chuck Fletcher would say is, “We are actively listening... on everything.”
I had heard the exact same thing from multiple sources in the past week that teams are calling about Niederreiter, which is why I said to Paul Allen on KFAN on Tuesday morning that I felt the Wild was indeed at least listening to ideas from others regarding Niederreiter and Matt Dumba.
Friedman reported the same thing regarding Dumba, and as I said on Allen’s show, I think the Wild has gotten to the point that since it’ll have to expose a handful of quality defensemen in expansion (see below for actual names), it would be willing to trade one and Dumba made the most sense because he’s arguably an asset that can draw the best package back.
Back to Niederreiter. Remember, Fletcher does have a bit of history trading players at the draft that are set for lucrative contracts. He did that with restricted free agent-to-be Cal Clutterbuck (ironically getting Niederreiter in that deal) and dealt Brent Burns the summer of 2011 – a year before free agency and the summer the Wild would surely have to sign him to an extension (which San Jose did that August).
Before you freak on Niederreiter, who has topped 20 goals three straight years and is a possession monster, Fletcher said he’s “actively listening” on everything and that the Niederreiter/Dumba name circulation is “a little overstated” because “I’ve spoken to a lot of teams in the league. People are inquiring about a lot of our players, not just necessarily those two. If teams calls and ask about a player, I’m listening, but there’s a big difference between listening and shopping. We’re going to have to make a change or two here, so if somebody has an idea, I’m willing to listen and I’m willing to work with people if something makes sense.”
Niederreiter and Granlund are both arbitration eligible, so the Wild could always go that route and let them get a one- or two-year award (two years would take them to UFA, so that would not be good potentially).
I asked Fletcher if he’s comfortable he can “improve” the team the way he wants to if he re-signs both Granlund and Niederreiter long-term. Fletcher said, “That’ll be the challenge. And at this point we still don’t know exactly what the cap ceiling will be next season. That will play a part in what we’re able to do. That’s our goal. We’re going to work with the player and their agents and try to do the best we can to keep them here. We’ll do our part and hopefully they’ll work hard with us to make it work. I can tell you with confidence that we’re going to try to make it work, but I certainly can’t tell you that it will work. That’ll be our goal. We’ll just go through the process with them. Hopefully they want to stay here as much as we want them to stay here. But that’ll ultimately be determined by our conversations over the next few weeks.”
Fletcher has not entered into “serious negotiations” and has not discussed comparables or numbers with either agent.
Fletcher has met with coach Bruce Boudreau a couple times since the season. He met last week with the pro scouts, is currently meeting with the amateur scouts. This weekend (I believe), he’ll meet with the VP’s, owner Craig Leipold and assistant GM Brent Flahr in the Bahamas to discuss the budget and offseason plans. Next week, he’ll meet with the pro scouts again in concert with the entire coaching staff and entire front office to discuss offseason plans, ideas and strategies.
I was not extended an invite, sadly.
Fletcher said he wanted to get through all of these meetings before beginning meaningful conversations with the agents of Granlund and Niederreiter (“there’s plenty of time,” Fletcher says).
Even though he doesn’t have a first or second-round pick (as of now), Fletcher plans to attend the scouting combine in Buffalo June 2-3, so you know that’s when Fletcher will also meet with specific agents and general managers.
“We’re going to try to find a way to keep them both here,” Fletcher said of Granlund and Niederreiter. “Certainly there are ways to do it, but you can’t control everything. We need the cap ceiling, we need to know what will happen with expansion, there are other opportunities out there to improve our team. [Granlund and Niederreiter] are two more decisions we have to make within the context of a lot of other decisions that we’ll have to make. It’s challenging. There’s obstacles. But it’s actually exciting. There will be opportunities here to consider things that maybe we normally haven’t considered the last couple summers. It’s energizing.”
Fletcher said the finish to the season after being the second-best team in the West during the regular season is “still incredibly disappointing. It still stings, let’s put it that way. It’s a big summer. We’re making calls and I’ve been getting a lot of calls and having a lot of meetings. We’re just trying to prepare. May’s typically the month where you do the bulk of your preparations for the amateur draft, for free agency, for potential trade talks. This year with the expansion draft is another wrinkle. The most important thing this month is just to get prepared and study the other teams and make decisions on our own team. But in the meantime you’re always taking calls and making calls and I would say I’m probably receiving more calls than I’m making, but I’ll speak to every team in the league at least once and some teams several times between now and July 1.”
Expansion is tricky.
I talked to a few agents and GM’s last week that said every team in the league is going to Golden Knights GM George McPhee and hoping he can solve all their problems.
Fletcher is clearly one of them.
Fletcher can make a deal to try to dictate which exposed player Vegas selects, he can try to get Vegas to take an exposed player from another team and flip him to Minnesota, he can even try to get Vegas to sign a free agent and flip him to Minnesota afterward.
But just imagine, McPhee’s having those conversations with 30 teams, so there’s a ton of uncertainty. Plus, expansion lists aren’t submitted until June 17, so teams and Vegas, in large part, are flying blind.
So Fletcher has no clarity about the next month, which is why he’s absorbing ideas from other teams and trying to stay organized and keep his head from spinning due to all the balls he has in the air.
Fletcher could potentially make trades before the expansion draft, but as the GM said, “If you make trades, you may trade a player that you have to protect but you may pick up a player you’d have to protect, so you may not necessarily be in any easier of a spot with respect to your protected or available list. I’m listening, I’m open-minded. We do like our team. We certainly would like to find a way to improve our club as much as simply just dealing with the cap or expansion. We’d love to find a way to improve our club, whether that’s a trade or even allowing some young players an opportunity to take on bigger roles. We owe it to the organization to listen to everything. It’s certainly possible to make a trade before expansion draft, but clearly it doesn’t necessarily make the expansion protected and available lists any simpler to put together. We’ve analyzed all the teams in the league, but our opinion of what they may do may be dramatically different than what they want to do, so you have to take the time to do your research. We’re actively listening. That’s the important thing to do and just see how things come together over the next few weeks. I like a lot of our players, but the reality is we can’t bring our same team back. There is going to be a change or two and that’s just the reality of it. So we have to try to find a way to make the best of the situation.”
On how he’s keeping track of all this uncertainty, Fletcher said, “I’m telling you, it’s hard. I said to one manager today, it’s as clear as mud because there’s still too many variables that we don’t know or we can’t predict at this point. But over the next few weeks, things will fall into place. Some conversations will go well, some won’t. That’s just the reality of it. I don’t know if I can ever recall a summer where everything broke our way. There’s always going to be some disappointments or things we simply can’t come to agreement on with players or teams or what have you. We’ll just work through it and keep the conversations going, and at some point I think the right path will be evident. At this point there’s a lot of balls in the air, a lot of different scenarios, a lot of different things that could happen. That’s why this month – we call it the hot air month – a lot of talking and thinking and deliberating, but it’s a necessary step and I think in a few weeks everything will start to make more sense.”
Fletcher said as of right now, it’s logical to assume the Wild will choose to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie as opposed to the eight skater/one goalie option.
He noted that could change depending on if the Wild makes a transaction or two preceding the June 17 expansion list submission.
“I think about this stuff 24 hours a day and the great thing is next week we’ll have some meetings, and I’m really looking forward to getting input from our coaching staff,” Fletcher said. “I’ve had a few meetings with Bruce, but I think it’ll be great to get the whole staff together and bring our pro scouts back in and front office staff and take a look at it from different angles and making sure we’re looking at it the right way and being as comprehensive as we can. But even after that meeting, things can change depending on what may happen in the marketplace. So you have to be flexible.”
Asked if he knows in his heart of hearts who’s getting protected, Fletcher said, “It’s premature. I’ve thought about it a lot. Yeah, if I had to turn in a list right now at 5 o’clock Eastern today, I would be able to do that, but there’s some things in there that could change depending on opportunities that may come up in the next few weeks. Ultimately, I just don’t want this to be how we deal with our cap challenges and how to deal with our expansion challenges. That’s certainly a focus this summer, but I’d like the bigger focus to be, ‘How do we get better?’ That’s the purpose of the meetings next week is just to remind our group it’s not just about getting rid of players to become compliant with everything. We need to get better and see what opportunities may be there, whether that’s internally, trade market, free agency, how do we get better and fill the holes we need to fill.”
Players with no-move clauses must be protected unless they waive for the sole purpose of Vegas.
That means, as of now, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville must be protected.
That means on the blue line, Suter and obviously Jared Spurgeon will be protected. That means the Wild can only protect ONE of guys like Dumba, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Gustav Olofsson, Christian Folin, etc.
Up front, assuming nobody waives his no-move, the Wild can only protect FOUR of players like Granlund (RFA), Niederreiter (RFA), Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Eric Staal, Erik Haula (RFA), Chris Stewart, Martin Hanzal (UFA), etc.
If the Wild could get somebody like Pominville to waive his no-move, the Wild would be able to protect another forward.
It sounds like Fletcher hasn’t approached Pominville yet because it’s premature whether he’ll even have to yet depending on possible trades before June 17. (On an aside, remember also, Pominville’s no-trade clause list expands to 20 teams he can be dealt to … from 10 on July 1; there is little doubt the Wild will try to trade Pominville this offseason if nothing happens via expansion this month).
Regarding Pominville and whether he has talked to him about his no-move yet, Fletcher said, “I’ve had a lot of thoughts on all these things. I’m not going to share the specifics of who I’m going to protect and what I’m going to ask players to do. At this point, there’s just lots of ideas and I think the important thing is just to go into the meetings next week with the coaches and the scouts and just build a consensus within our own group.”
Obviously, a ton of stuff here for you to digest (tweet me with questions or you’re more than welcome to tweet @souhanstrib and he’ll ask me on tonight’s podcast; see below for info).
Also, come back to startribune.com/wild Wednesday night because I’m sitting down with Leipold this afternoon for the first time since the season ended.
Other news items:
-- Veteran Eric Staal, concussed in the final game of the season after frighteningly crashing head-first into the end boards, is feeling much better, Fletcher says, and has been medically cleared for awhile.
"He’s been cleared to play [if there was a game tomorrow]," Fletcher said. "He feels better and has passed all the tests. Physically, he'd be able to play an NHL game right now. So the feeling is he's in a good spot. We all feel a bit fortunate. It was a bad injury. He'll have a summer where he'll be healthy and be able to prepare, so that’s a positive in view of how ugly that incident could have been."
I saw Jason Zucker yesterday and he looks and feels great after his bilateral core surgery. Fletcher said he actually told Zucker to slow it down because he can't believe how hard he's rehabbing so soon after surgery.
"It's amazing a surgery like that can get you back in four weeks now."
Fletcher also said Marco Scandella (hip surgery) and Christian Folin (shoulder surgery) are busy rehabbing. Fletcher also said in addition to the broken right hand Mikael Granlund played with during the playoffs, Matt Dumba also broke a bone in one of his hands in the final playoff game. If you remember, Dumba left that game at one point after blocking a shot.
-- Fletcher said there have been no changes to the coaching or scouting staffs to date.
-- I found this interesting because in the playoffs, I wrote a Scott Stevens story where I broached whether or not he had head-coaching aspirations. Fletcher wouldn't comment when I asked if anybody called to seek permission to speak with him. Fletcher would only say that none of the staff is currently interviewing elsewhere "right now."
-- For the Jake Guentzel feature I wrote the other day, I talked to Matt Cullen.
Remember, last summer, Cullen was very willing to return to Minnesota and finish his career on a one-year deal. He waited and waited, but he finally signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh. The Wild, cap strapped as it were and especially worried about handing him a 35-year-old bonus-laden contract where it could be charged an overage potentially next season, didn't want to block out Joel Eriksson Ek, Zac Dalpe and Tyler Graovac.
It's safe to say it worked out for Cullen, who's three wins from a chance at repeating as a Stanley Cup champion.
"It's exciting to be back here," Cullen said. "This was the while purpose that I came back. I had a great experience last year, and to be able to get back here and have another shot at it, that's what I was hoping for. I'm thrilled that it has worked out the way that it has. It's been a fun year. I've enjoyed the challenge of being part of a team trying to do it again. It's not easy. It was a long season last year and there's a lot of new challenges that come with trying to repeat. So I've enjoyed it. It's been fun. It's been a good year. After you come off a Cup win, you don't know exactly what to expect the next year. But the guys have done a good job of handling it, and it's been a really fun season and here we are finding ourselves with another opportunity. That's what it's all about. So I'm glad it worked out the way that it did."
Cullen won 11 of 13 faceoffs, including two big ones in the waning minutes, in Pittsburgh's Game 2 win.
-- The Russo-Souhan Show will be at Hell's Kitchen tonight at 6. Please join in, watch live on Facebook (Hell's Kitchen page) or listen back when I tweet the link Thursday.