The Wild made the playoffs for the first time in five years last season.
Gone from that team are forwards Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck, Devin Setoguchi and Pierre-Marc Bouchard and defensemen Tom Gilbert and Justin Falk.
If the Wild’s going to avoid taking a step back next season, recently acquired 20-year-old winger Nino Niederreiter and second-year forwards Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund will need to contribute significantly.
“The kids are a huge part of our upside and potential, and with that we have to give them a chance to grow,” coach Mike Yeo said Saturday — one day after the Wild lost Cullen and Bouchard to free agency, traded Setoguchi and signed veterans Matt Cooke and Keith Ballard.
“With that also comes mistakes, and certainly there’s pressure to win and we’re going to be expecting to win, but on top of that, we have to understand that the kids can’t be perfect and we have to have some patience to try to help them next year. It’s our job as coaches to develop them.”
Yeo reminded that the Wild has a solid base of veterans returning, from captain Mikko Koivu to leading scorer Zach Parise to last year’s trade-deadline pickup, Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville, to goal scorer Dany Heatley to, of course, Norris Trophy finalist and first-team All-Star Ryan Suter.
Yeo will be expecting a bounceback year from Kyle Brodziak and vows Wild fans will grow to appreciate all the areas the 34-year-old Cooke can contribute.
Many fans freaked Friday night when General Manager Chuck Fletcher signed Cooke, controversial for his long list of questionable hits, to a three-year, $7.5 million deal.
“I’ve got firsthand knowledge of the person and the teammate and the player he is, so we’re real confident that he’s going to come in and be a great fit,” said Yeo, who coached Cooke as an assistant in Pittsburgh.
Yeo continued with a laugh: “I don’t want to say he’s misunderstood, but he’s evolved. He’s a smart guy and as he’s gotten older and the game’s changed, his game has changed with it. He plays a hard but honest game.”
Cooke is a terrific penalty killer. The Wild’s penalty kill ranked 18th last year. Pittsburgh’s ranked 25th, but it was in the top 10 (and top three twice) in Cooke’s first four years there.
“He was a huge key for us when we won the Stanley Cup [in 2009],” Yeo said.
With the Wild leaving just enough cap space for injury call-ups, there’s not a lot left Fletcher can do in free agency.
As of now, the answer to replace the 36-year-old Cullen (1,073 NHL games) as second-line center will be 21-year-olds Coyle or Granlund (combined 64 games).
“We’ll see if they’re ready for it,” Fletcher said. “Granlund’s a talented, young player and we feel he’ll be a good NHL player in time. Whether that happens right away or not will be up to him. Charlie Coyle’s a player that proved to all of us that he can play in the NHL last year.”
A center for much of his career, Coyle played right wing on the Wild last season. But in exit meetings in May, Coyle was told to prepare for a potential position change. He says he’s ready for it.
Fletcher says he is confident with the Wild’s forward depth, loving the mix of veterans and kids. Talking about all his prospects, Fletcher said, “I’ll put our young players up against anybody,” adding, “I’m just telling you, the calls I’m getting, I could trade every one of those kids today.”
With Fletcher, you always feel he’s got a splash in the works. If so, it’s probably next summer — not this one.
The Wild has more than $20 million of cap space next summer, plus the cap’s expected to increase. That’s before a Pominville extension that is likely on the horizon.
Unless he’s going to dip into his prospect pool, Fletcher doesn’t have a ton of trading options. Some speculate Heatley and his $7.5 million cap hit are on the block, but Heatley has an annual provision in his contract where he supplies a list of 10 teams to which he won’t accept a trade.
One player the Wild may be interested in is former Gophers star Thomas Vanek. The Buffalo Sabres are shopping him because he is one year from unrestricted free agency. But the Wild can’t currently take on next season’s $7.14 million cap hit. Plus, after already trading Buffalo four assets for Pominville in April, the Wild may as well wait and try to sign Vanek as a free agent next summer.
The Wild likely has the inside shot anyway. He lives here, went to the U and was linemates and buddies in Buffalo with Pominville. Vanek isn’t worrying about his future, his agent, Steve Bartlett, said.
“Despite the rumors that Thomas may be traded, at this point, he’s just taking it day to day,” Bartlett said. “If he’s back with the Sabres, fine, and a year from now he’ll get to decide his ultimate destination.”