Other than re-signing coach Mike Yeo for three years, it’s been a quiet month since the Wild’s season ended in the second round of the playoffs.
But things will ramp up as the June 27-28 NHL draft in Philadelphia and July 1 opening-bell of free agency approaches.
This past week, the front office, pro scouts and coaches gathered to evaluate every iota of this past season in order to determine which pending free agents the Wild should try to re-sign and which players it should pursue via trade or free agency.
One of its own the Wild will try to re-sign is defenseman Clayton Stoner. General Manager Chuck Fletcher contacted Stoner’s agent, Kevin Epp, on Thursday. Stoner, 29, drafted by the Wild 10 years ago in the third round, is the team’s most physical defensemen and led Wild blue-liners with 99 hits in 63 games.
But a larger part of the meetings was trying to project how much offense young forwards Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula, Jason Zucker and others, and defensemen Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon and even Matt Dumba, Christian Folin and Gustav Olofsson will produce next season and especially beyond.
“All those young players are at the age where they should continue to increase their production and their role and their performance, but you also can’t get carried away,” Fletcher said. “You have to make sure you’re being realistic in your projections.”
The Wild scored 199 non-shootouts goals (tied for 24th) last season. “If we can add more offensive production, it would make our life a lot easier some nights,” Fletcher said. “We have good young players both on defense and at forward, but I still think there’s room to add a player. If we can add a veteran player that can make us better, we’ll look at it.”
Fletcher will investigate the trade market, but he doesn’t want to trade this year’s first-round pick or “kids we worked so hard to accumulate.” If he delves into free agency, there are two methods to add more offense — a scoring forward or an offensive defenseman.
Maybe that means former Gopher and current Stillwater resident Thomas Vanek, Paul Stastny or Ryan Callahan or maybe that means defenseman Matt Niskanen, a Minnesotan who is only 27 and had a career-best 10 goals, 46 points and plus-33 with Pittsburgh this past season.
But Fletcher says the Wild’s at a stage where it doesn’t have to chase players. There is a specific price point and term the Wild’s willing to reach.
“While this year we have a lot of cap space, things could tighten up over the next two to three years,” said Fletcher, referring to the fact some youngsters could be looking at big paydays. “It’s easy this year to just go out and add a guy, but unless it’s a one-year contract, you have to be pretty mindful. If one of our young guys is going to be better than maybe we’re projecting and he’s going to fill that same role next year or in the future, then we’re just wasting money and we’re going to be short somewhere else.”
In terms of the Wild’s unrestricted free agents beyond Stoner, Dany Heatley and Mike Rupp won’t be back. Defenseman Nate Prosser is expected to test free agency in an attempt to land a spot as an NHL regular. If that doesn’t happen, the Wild may be willing to re-sign him next month.
The Wild is interested in re-signing rugged forward Cody McCormick, who had a strong postseason, but Matt Moulson is expected to become a free agent. Moulson helped the Wild get into the playoffs with 13 points in 20 games, but he scored once in the playoffs and missed the final three games because of an oblique injury.
As of now, the Wild can’t re-sign Ilya Bryzgalov because pending restricted free agent Darcy Kuemper, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are all under contract.
“We’re returning a lot of players that have pretty well-defined and good roles on our team,” Fletcher said. “There’s not nearly as many question marks. There have been some years where we had to go out and do something at a certain position. This year we can look at ways to upgrade the team, and if we do so, great. But if we need to be more patient and wait to the end of the summer or into the season or even next summer, we have that flexibility.”