The Wild has begun organizational meetings this morning. This is where General Manager Chuck Fletcher, the rest of the brass, the pro scouts, the analytics folks and the coaching staff gather to dissect the season, the playoff series against Chicago and look ahead at which players may be available leaguewide via trade or free agency and which of their players could be expendable via trade or free agency.
I reported in today’s newspaper that Niklas Backstrom underwent elbow surgery soon after the season and that Thomas Vanek was bothered by a sports hernia in the second half and underwent surgery by acclaimed Dr. William Meyers last week in Philadelphia. You can read that story here.
This is the second year in a row the Wild didn’t announce a Backstrom surgery. Last year, we all knew he was shut down in January for eventual season-ending abdominal surgery for the second year in a row. But we then found out through the grapevine soon after the season Backstrom went to Vail for subsequent hip surgery, which he had in previous years in Vail.
This year, the Wild didn’t announce the elbow issue or procedure. I found out recently, finally was able to confirm it to my comfort level and talked with Fletcher late Sunday.
The surgery complicates matters in terms of a potential buyout later this month because you can’t buy out an injured player not cleared to play by doctors. The NHL’s first summer buyout period begins the later of June 15 or 48 hours after the Final until June 30.
I have gathered the questions I have been asked the most since the story posted and I will attempt to answer them here (some of this is opinion):
Q: A former player texted me this morning asking if the Wild could buy more time for Backstrom to heal by using the second buyout period late next month?
A: I actually had this in the story and trimmed it out due to space because as you’re about to see it’s so complex and thus wordy. There is a second buyout period if a player files for arbitration even if you eventually settle on a contract with that player prior to arbitration. The Wild has no arbitration-eligible restricted free agents in the NHL (Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula and Christian Folin), but I believe restricted free agent Jon Blum is arbitration eligible. The interesting thing is everything I’ve heard is the Wild didn’t plan to tender Blum a qualifying offer, thus making him an unrestricted free agent (that’s how he got here from Nashville). Theoretically, the Wild could QO Blum if it felt he’d file for arbitration, which would open that second buyout window. This only makes sense IF the Wild knew Backstrom would be cleared by that second buyout period in late July. The issue is if Blum files for arb, the exchange with the Wild would probably be a low one-way contract, which I’m not sure the team would want to commit to.
Q: Can an injured player consent to a buyout?
A: Yes. It’s rare, but the one time I remember is Chris Drury in 2011. The question is whether Backstrom would be willing to leave $1.33 million on the table.
Q: What happens if Backstrom retires?
A: The Wild would get out of the $4 million salary but not the $3.417 million cap hit because the Wild signed him after he turned 35. It’s the same reason the Wild won’t get out of any of the cap hit if it buys him out. It’s hard to imagine Backstrom leaving $4 million on the table, especially since he believes he can still play in the NHL. As I reported, I do think his no-trade clause is a non-factor. I believe he’d be willing to waive it in order to continue his NHL career elsewhere.
Q: Can the Wild put him on LTIR (Long-Term Injury Relief)?
A: No, not if he’ll be cleared by the season, and all Fletcher would say about a prognosis is it’s not a long-term thing. Plus, LTIR is only used when a team needs to go over the upper-limit of the salary cap (that’s not a factor right now) and LTIR only affects players who will miss at least 24 days or 10 games and LTIR still means that when Backstrom was “healthy,” the Wild would have to get back down below the cap ceiling.
Q: Can the Wild restructure his contract, can the Wild release him, can he “opt-out” to become a free agent?
A: No. None of that is allowed in the NHL.
Q: Can Backstrom be sent to Iowa?
A: He has a no-move clause. That’s why he wasn’t sent to Iowa in the second half.
Q: Why the heck didn’t the Wild shut him down in January or February if he hurt himself early in the year?
A: I don’t know. Fletcher wouldn’t get into it.
Q: Is it possible the Wild has three goalies again next year?
A: To quote Fletcher, who said this tongue firmly in cheek, “Why not? We’ve had three the last two years. There’s a chance of anything.” The truth is I cannot see how the Wild will be willing to go with three goalies on a 23-man roster for a full season. That creates major inflexibility having only two roster spots for position players. Just think of it this way: What if the Wild only had two spots open when it was ravaged with the mumps and the norovirus in the first half last season? There was never a time during that plague where the Wild was certain a player would need to miss a week, which is the minimum a player has to miss if placed on injured reserve.
Q: Does this affect the Devan Dubnyk negotiations?
A: Better not. It’s not like the Wild’s not going to sign Dubnyk because it may be stuck with Backstrom. Backstrom’s play and Darcy Kuemper’s health/play in January is the reason the Wild had to acquire Dubnyk in the first place.
Q: Does being stuck with Backstrom mean Kuemper could be traded?
A: This is a good question, but I’d think re-signing Dubnyk or trading for another No. 1 this month could be the bigger reason why Kuemper could be traded. Kuemper is 25 and a potential future No. 1. If you’re re-signing Dubnyk for multiple years and basically saying Kuemper is no longer the “goalie of the future” here, do you want to try to maximize Kuemper’s trade value this summer rather than having a 25-year-old caddying Dubnyk and playing sporadically? How does that hamper his development? So if the Wild gets Dubnyk done or acquires another No. 1, it would not shock me at all if Kuemper is dealt or at least dangled. Here’s the thing on Backstrom though: Regardless of the No. 1, will the Wild be comfortable with Backstrom as the No. 2? He may be the Wild’s all-time leader with 194 wins and 28 shutouts, but this is no longer the goalie that shared the Jennings Trophy in 2007, backstopped the Wild to a division title in 2008 and was a Vezina finalist in 2009. He’s 37 and has had six or seven surgeries now between his hips, abdominal core, foot and elbow. It’s imperative to have a backup that can go in there and win routinely and Backstrom allowed 36 goals in his last 10 starts.
As for Dubnyk, the first talk was apparently only a preliminary discussion. Fletcher wouldn’t categorize how it went, but there is no doubt Dubnyk is seeking significant money on a long-term contract.
The Wild has to decide whether it’s willing to commit to that or wants to. My guess is Fletcher will multi-task and is having and will have trade discussions on goalies so he has a plan B if things go awry here with Dubnyk. Some potential goalies on the block include Ottawa’s Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson, Chicago’s Antti Raanta, Vancouver’s Eddie Lack, Toronto’s James Reimer and Anaheim’s John Gibson. Some goalies maybe available in free agency include Antti Niemi, Kari Ramo, Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth.
With the organizational meetings going on, I’d assume negotiations get down to business afterward once Fletcher has a plan and an idea how he’ll proceed in terms of potential trades heading into draft week.
Dubnyk is still Priority No. 1. The Wild needs to know how much he’ll cost in order to know how to make all the other pieces fit this offseason. It’ll be pretty awkward if he’s in Vegas representing the Wild for the Vezina and Masterton with Fletcher in attendance and a Wild PR guy accompanying if he’s unsigned and prepping to potentially meet with other teams in the free-agent interview period.
So the Wild would love to avoid all that and get him done at a mutually comfortable term and price.
Former Gophers defenseman and free-agent-to-be Mike Reilly met with Chicago, the Wild, Columbus, Detroit, Edmonton, L.A., Montreal, the Rangers and Pittsburgh at the combine in Buffalo.
He’s working through the list and hopes to have it cut down to a handful of teams by the end of the week. As I wrote in my Reilly blog last week, I still firmly believe the Hawks are the frontrunners. In fact, GM Stan Bowman left the Stanley Cup Finals between Games 1 and 2 to fly from Tampa to Buffalo to meet with him. I believe the Wild’s second as of now. The Pens have publicly said they hope to fly Reilly in to visit the city and arena. As I wrote in that Reilly blog, I know the Oilers, Kings and Rangers all have significant interest.
Jim Souhan and I have started a new Podcast where we talk sports (of course lots of hockey and Wild) and pop culture. The first episode can be heard here.
I will be in studio at KFAN on Tuesday at 9:55 a.m. talking Wild.