To close the gap on a playoff spot, the Wild felt it had to patch a different hole this offseason: the one on the right side of its lineup.
And that’s exactly what the team did Monday when NHL free agency opened, signing Mats Zuccarello to a five-year, $30 million contract and Ryan Hartman to a two-year, $3.8 million deal. They are acquisitions the Wild believes restores the team’s competitiveness after it missed out on the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
“We have a really good team that has a chance to win,” General Manager Paul Fenton said.
Targeting right wing wasn’t a surprising approach by the Wild.
Before these additions, the team had only two right-shot forwards under contract for next season. Zuccarello is a left shot, but the Wild coveted him because he plays on the right as a skilled, competitive playmaker. And with the Wild offense ranking 27th in the league last season, averaging 2.56 goals per game and getting shut out 11 times, those are welcome attributes.
“He’s a natural right wing,” Fenton said of Zuccarello. “He attacks from that spot. He has the ability to cut in, make plays, cut through the seams, get opportunities. For me it was the right fit.”
The Wild also expressed interest in Joe Pavelski, having multiple conversations with the 34-year-old winger despite not meeting in person, a source said. Pavelski ultimately signed with the Dallas Stars for three years at $21 million, but Zuccarello felt the Wild was one of the teams that pursued him the most seriously. His contract includes a no-movement clause with a modified no-trade clause in the final two years.
“I had a good vibe from Day 1 I talked to them, and I really felt like they were pushing and really wanted me,” the 31-year-old Zuccarello said via telephone from his native Norway. “I think every human being responds well to when people really feel like they’re wanted. So that was special for me, for sure.”
Despite missing time due to injury, Zuccarello described last season as perhaps the best in his nine-year NHL career, which he had spent exclusively with the Rangers until February.
After getting traded to the Stars, he broke his arm in his first game with Dallas. But once he returned to action, he was solid — chipping in four goals and 11 points in 13 playoff games. In all, he recorded 12 goals and 40 points in 48 regular-season games and boasts 114 goals and 355 points in 511 career games.
Zuccarello is the all-time leading Norwegian-born scorer in the NHL. His most productive season came in 2015-16, when he scored 26 goals and reached 61 points.
“He’s not the tallest in stature [5-8],” Fenton said. “But he uses an incredibly long stick. … Most of the time, guys would be awkward with a stick that is as long as he uses. But he’s so natural, fluid [and] smooth.”
Not only was the Wild focusing on right wing, but Fenton also wanted to enhance the team’s energy and passion. Hartman is a gritty, bottom-six checker.
“He has a competitiveness, to me, that I love,” Fenton said. “I want our team to play with more competitiveness, and for me he will make us harder to play against.”
While trade chatter is likely to continue this summer, the Wild’s roster is “probably” set and Fenton is comfortable with that look.
On defense, he sees stable goaltending and a top-four that’s elite. Although captain Mikko Koivu is recovering from a torn knee ligament and meniscus, and Eric Staal’s production dipped last season, Fenton believes the Wild has balance up the middle.
Add in the newest faces, and the Wild is sure it has taken the necessary steps to get back to the playoffs.
“Hopefully with the pieces we got this summer we can be a contender,” Zuccarello said. “Our goal is to get to the playoffs and then go from there, and anything can happen. I’m really excited.”